Monday, June 19, 2017

The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American

The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American

(an address to the community of Eau Claire, WI on June 19, 2017)

To begin, I want to thank Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, Berlye Middleton, Donald Rosby, Mike Huggins, Terissa Leath, and everyone else involved in organizing this event and for the invitation to speak to you today. It’s truly my honor to stand before you on such a beautiful occasion.

The title of my talk today is “The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American.” It took me over twenty years to come to think of myself in that way, as someone who identifies -- foremost -- as part of a larger community, defined on its own terms. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect upon and share my thoughts on what Juneteenth means to me. I never would have imagined doing so thirty years ago. But the fact that I’m standing here now to tell you that story is proof that your life can always change for the better.

Not knowing who you are is what can happen to you when you immigrate to this country when you are only a year old. When your parents are grown adults by the time they arrive in America, they’re not used to thinking about themselves as not white -- because they didn’t have to do that where they came from in China. Their identity came from lots of histories, just not one about the meaning of the color of their skin. But in California, you were Chinese, because the people there insisted on thinking about you that way -- usually politely but sometimes not. And so my parents learned soon enough that they were not white and all of the things that that meant.

When we moved to Texas, I’m sure that my parents were getting better at understanding what it meant not to be white, which is a necessary life skill for people of color in Texas.

But they didn’t tell me what they had learned.

They couldn’t really, for lots of reasons. Although they spoke pretty good English, they just didn’t have any practice talking about race that way. And even if they did, they would have to tell me that I shouldn’t always live up to my own conscience but one passed down by the white majority, which was comforted by it. Moreover, to give that talk would be to second guess themselves and the bravery it took to uproot a family from its home, a place where everyone looked and spoke like you.

So I grew up having to learn about the meaning of race on my own, in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, in the seventies and eighties. In 1979, I was in the fourth grade and remember getting to miss school in the morning to go somewhere with my parents. When I returned to class in the afternoon, all of my classmates broke out in applause. I had become a naturalized citizen that day, the same year that Juneteenth became an official holiday in Texas.

When I was little, I knew that I was different from my white classmates because they would give our teacher chocolates at Christmas, and I would give her these carved soapstone foo dogs from my parents’ import business. But other than special occasions like that and the day I became a citizen, it didn’t occur to me very often to think about myself as Chinese. And when I did, being Chinese just meant being different. Not worse.

But then I hit puberty.

This is when it would have been really nice to have parents who could talk to you about what it meant to be Chinese in this country. And so I continued to learn on my own. What I learned was this: that if you liked what your white friends liked, and you were the only non-white person in their friend group, some eventually told you that they didn’t see you as Chinese. They saw you as someone like themselves. And to an awkward Chinese American kid, that was exactly what I needed and wanted to hear at the time.

I want to make one thing clear. There is a world of difference between white people expecting to be treated as human beings and white people expecting to be treated as white people. Because one immoral idea that necessarily attends the latter is anti-blackness. And so I learned that too, growing up in Texas, where enslaved black people were not freed until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Anti-blackness is not just about hate, although hate is the story we are usually told about it. It is just as often about omission. And when people and institutions keep you from knowing about the lives of black people, you have fewer possibilities for how to live your own life. You have fewer models for love and for righteousness in America. This is especially true if you are the son of immigrants -- just barely an immigrant yourself -- because you will end up making many of these decisions all on your own, guided by the institutions that be.

Growing up in Texas, I learned in history classes that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, and I didn’t learn that the Texans who died at the Alamo were slaveholders fighting against a Mexican nation that had outlawed slavery over three decades before the end of the Civil War. I didn’t read a novel written by a black person until I was a junior in college. That book was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Reading Hurston was nothing short of a revelation. An epic story about a socially-mobile black woman in the early twentieth century -- who loved black men and black women -- revealed what was missing from every other book I had read. It was almost like those other books understood only a fraction of what the world was like, and I realized then the meagerness of my own world.

My students are sometimes a little puzzled when I tell them that black writers saved my life. In our segregated suburb of Dallas, where there was only one black kid in your class, books are the way that you discover the reality that institutional racism has kept from you. If you’re a middle-class Chinese American, it’s all too easy to follow the path of institutional racism. If you choose to assimilate, your teachers praise your English, your smarts, and your industry, and you love them for it, maybe even want to become a teacher yourself.

When I say that black writers saved my life, I mean that their stories saved me from the path that institutional racism had laid out for someone like me -- an attractive path but one paved with exclusion, suspicion, and fear. The fear that I am talking about is one that leads you outside the bounds of reality, if you don’t know any better.

Institutional racism teaches white people and Asian Americans like me that random chance might steal something valuable away from you. This constant fear reminds you that anything and anyone can be a threat to what you have or think you deserve. You can live your life beholden to this version of reality, which becomes more tenable with every risk you sidestep and every milestone you reach. It’s simple. You do it by changing neighborhoods or schools, reading too much about vaccines on the internet, or not hitting like on your Facebook friend’s deeply moving political post. This is a fear borne out of a middle-class assumption that a good life awaits you if only cruel fate does not intervene. This fear exists only because the idea of the American Dream does too.

Black writers taught me that what is valuable can be taken from you not only by chance but by design. They taught me that owning this reality, while difficult and painful, is itself a liberation. It is freedom from the oppressive idea that one is entitled to comfort. Such freedom is essentially humanizing. You see the world as it is, struggle for justice when you are right, and try to love in spite of it all.

In short, black writers taught me the difference between what was real and what was fantasy.

James Baldwin discussed this in his book The Fire Next Time. He said that

People who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives the effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth -- and, indeed, no church -- can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry.

James Baldwin saved me from a world of fantasy that nevertheless was ready to accept me into it, as long as my entrance was on its terms, which include subscribing to “a fear of what life can bring.” Too often, as we all know, those phantom fears can lead to suspicion, which can lead to hatred, which can lead to atrocities. Such terms, they demand too dear a price.

This fear makes authentic community impossible.

Juneteenth to me is about the need for community that rejects this fear and bears witness. The fear is not only the kind that Jeronimo Yanez felt seconds before he murdered Philando Castile. It is also the fear that a speaker feels when he utters the word murdered like this in public, and it is the fear that some must feel when they hear the word murdered in that context. These feelings mark the borderlands we inhabit between the world of fantasy and the world of reality.

To me, Juneteenth is about the authentic community that is at last possible when we know what freedom is. It is a community like this one here today. For this Asian American, Juneteenth commemorates the simultaneous struggle for freedom from oppression for not being white and also the struggle for freedom from privilege for not being black.

It is a beautiful struggle, ongoing and affirming, one I would trade for none other.

I thank you for honoring me by being a part of its story today.

Hate Speech And The Misnomer Of 'The Marketplace Of Ideas'

Please read this article at NPR's Code Switch.

A Theory To Better Understand Diversity, And Who Really Benefits

Please read this article at NPR's Code Switch.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Abigail Fisher Isn't an Asian American

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito begins his dissenting opinion to Fisher v. University of Texas by pronouncing that “Something strange has happened since our prior decision on this case.” He wonders how the University of Texas (UT) could emerge victorious from its contest with Abigail Fisher over the constitutionality of its race-conscious admissions policy without addressing “the important issues in the case” raised by the Court three years ago (Fisher II 28). Then and now, UT did not meet Justice Alito’s strict scrutiny when explaining why affirmative action is a compelling interest for the government--the only reason allowed under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause for the state to make decisions based on the race and ethnicity of an individual. This time around, however, Justice Alito has a new reason to be skeptical.

Justice Alito devotes significant attention to his point that UT invalidates its compelling interest claim by discriminating against Asian Americans. “How can a diverse student body contribute to the greater good,” he seems to ask, “when Asian American diversity doesn’t count?” This would be a fair question if not for copious evidence refuting the notion that affirmative action discriminates against Asian Americans (see the amici submitted on behalf of UT representing over one-hundred Asian American organizations, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice). In this blog I want to draw attention to another, rather obvious flaw in Justice Alito’s thinking. Abigail Fisher isn’t an Asian American.

Of course, Justice Alito never said that Abigail Fisher is an Asian American. But he also never said that she is white. The landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) references white racial identity ninety times. Similarly, the rulings from Hopwood v. Texas (1996) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) recognize white identity as well as the whiteness of their petitioners as salient information. Justice Alito mentions white people only ten times in his fifty-one page dissent, and not once does he use the word in reference to Fisher herself. Yet the words “Asian American” appear sixty-two times in his dissent. If not for the ubiquity of Abigail Fisher’s image in the media today, one might think that Justice Alito were examining the petition of a person like me--a Chinese American.

Taking his cue from anti-affirmative action groups such as The Asian American Legal Foundation and The 80-20 National Asian-American Educational Foundation, but also formulating his own unique rationale, Justice Alito wastes little time before censuring UT for failing to explain “why the underrepresentation of Asian-American students in many classes justifies its plan, which discriminates against those students” (Fisher II 26). UT discriminates against Asian Americans, he argues, despite their being more racially-isolated and lonely than “Hispanics.” He is offended even by UT’s use of the term Asian American because it collapses the “backgrounds . . . ideas and experiences” of people belonging to various Asian ethnic groups (Fisher II 50-51). In short, UT doesn’t care about Asian American people, Justice Alito implies.

This approach is strange. Why lay out the putative disadvantage of being Asian American when your petitioner is a white woman? Why not explain how UT discriminates against white people?

One reason is that opponents of affirmative action do not have to make that argument in order to win. Since Bakke, the compelling interest of affirmative action is not remediating the effects of institutional racism but cultivating a thing called diversity. Affirmative action is constitutional or unconstitutional depending on whether you can prove that diverse classrooms improve learning and therefore society--not whether you can prove that white people have a leg up on black, Latinx, or Native American people when it comes to getting a good education and making a good living. Thus the responsibility of being truly race conscious falls not on the state but on vulnerable students of color, who are expected to educate their white peers in order to justify their own place at the table. It is an unjust burden, and diversity may kill affirmative action still.

But another reason to go on about Asian Americans is to sidestep a sustained consideration of white people as a racial group. Justice Alito’s dissent deliberately avoids this conversation and, therefore, all of the reasoned debate it would engender. Whence the amici from pro-white organizations or the citation of research on white victimhood? When the social position of white people is not up for critique, the racial status quo is maintained. The most powerful white supremacy is that which improves social outcomes for white people without involving them as white people in the struggle. Justice Alito’s dissent now enters the record as an authoritative framing of the meaning of Asian American identity.

We should understand this representation of Asian Americans as indicative of how the system of racism evolves in order to maintain itself. Specifically, Asian Americans have become a proxy group for white Americans. According to Justice Alito,
The majority’s assertion that UT’s race-based policy does not discriminate against Asian-American students . . . defies the laws of mathematics. UT’s program is clearly designed to increase the number of African-American and Hispanic students by giving them an admissions boost vis-à-vis other applicants. . . . Given a “limited number of spaces,” . . . providing a boost to African-Americans and Hispanics inevitably harms students who do not receive the same boost by decreasing their odds of admission. (Fisher II 46-7)
Justice Alito stashes white racial identity behind terms such as “other applicants” and “students who do not receive the same boost.” Ironically, he later faults the majority on the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit for acting “almost as if Asian-American students do not exist,” their “willful blindness to Asian-American students” a “shameless” omission intended to maintain “the neat story the Fifth Circuit wanted to tell” (Fisher II 47-8). The “neat story” of white supremacy upheld by Justice Alito here is that white people do not have a race.

Justice Alito implies that the “limited number of spaces” at UT are fought over by students of color alone. But white students also vie for these spaces, and they capture more than their share of them. For the Class of 2008, which Abigail Fisher had applied to, white students claimed 790 of 1,208 seats (65%) through the holistic selection process that considers race (Supp. App. 157a). This share exceeds the share of white students (48%) yielded by the “race-neutral” Top Ten Percent Plan. Thus, white students are overrepresented in UT’s race-conscious yield--in every year from 2005 to 2008, post-Grutter--a fact that refutes the claim that “African-Americans and Hispanics” receive a racial “boost.” In fact, the numbers suggest that Justice Alito has it backward: there is something about white racial identity that inequitably generates the “plus factors” privileged by the holistic selection process.

Here it’s not necessary to review all of the social advantages correlated with whiteness that would light up a college application. My main point is not to make whiteness more visible; it is to show how whiteness has enlisted Asian American identity to make itself less visible. Most would agree that it is less controversial for a white jurist to defend Asian Americans against oppression than it is for him to champion the rights of white people. (Accordingly, in recent years, only the opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas have regularly and unequivocally stated that affirmative action discriminates against white people.) The oppressed Asian American college student is only this year’s version of the model minority stereotype that stands in for virtuous whiteness while standing apart from deficient blackness.

And yet I believe that the long-familiar stereotype of the Asian American as the “honorary white” is making room for something new and insidious. We are witnessing racism adapt to the present political landscape through the representation of white people as “honorary Asian Americans” when doing so suits white interests. As I have stated before, whiteness will appropriate what it finds lacking in itself. Here I’m not talking about Scarlett Johansson and the cultural appropriation of Asianness, which is an important, related issue, but the appropriation of a juridical identity. What Asian American students have that white students do not have is legal standing that does not expose whiteness to scrutiny in affirmative action challenges.

This is the thinking of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which, in 2014, brought suit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Founded by Edward Blum, who orchestrated Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit and others targeting Civil Rights gains, SFFA appears to be seeking an Asian American face for its lawsuits. Having waited for guidance from the Fisher ruling, SFFA and Harvard are now set to proceed with this new challenge to affirmative action. These lawsuits may yet find themselves before the Supreme Court because the “sui generis” nature of UT’s admissions process--a Frankenstein’s monster of race-conscious and race-neutral policies--may not offer guidance for a review of Harvard’s and UNC’s more straightforward affirmative action policies. Still, Justice Alito’s dissent--especially his newfound interest in Asian Americans--now seems to be more strategic than “passionate, scattershot, and often barely coherent.” Time will tell.

In 1987, I started my first year as an undergraduate at UT. This was before the advent of the Top Ten Percent Plan, so I don’t know how much my being Chinese American mattered to UT. But I do know that in those days I didn’t want my race to matter to anyone. It was much easier and comfortable to think about myself in a race-neutral way--as an individual. This was my mindset as I was walking through the West Mall one afternoon, when someone pushed a piece of paper into my chest. It was a flyer inviting me to an Asian American student organization meeting. I can still recall the twinge of resentment I felt toward the Asian person with the flyers. She had judged me by my race alone. I saw Asian American identity then in the same way that Justice Alito does now, as a burden to individuality. If you’re lucky, like me, you stop thinking this way, eventually learning that you don’t become an Asian American all by yourself. You don’t become any race all by yourself. I hope the next Abigail Fisher knows that.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Downton Abbey Is Over. Watch It Again Like This.

BAS SIJPKES / FLICKR
[Disclaimer: Mild spoilers ahead.]

When Gwen Harding reappears in the final season of Downton Abbey, she symbolizes how out-of-place the noble Crawley family has become. A former maid at Downton and now a respectable middle-class citizen, Gwen is immediately recognized by the servants but not by her old employers. She represents a new era where nobles must accept their diminishing influence and acknowledge the views of a group they had been accustomed to ignore. In America, white people are increasingly being called out for their racism, and a big reason why the show resonates with its white fans here is because they do not feel personally implicated by its portrayal of privilege. They can see how an unexamined belief in birthright has hurt the Crawleys, yet don’t have to question their own inherited privilege. But that’s why Downton Abbey is the ideal way to call attention to the post-racial fantasies of our own age.

I'm not saying that white people believe they are American nobility. I'm saying that nobility is a useful analogy for whiteness. The Crawleys routinely ignore the lives of their servants because they haven’t had to pay attention to them. For example, they know nothing about the ambitions of their servants, remembering Gwen only when the underbutler Thomas outs her. Thomas himself suffers greatly this season because Lord Grantham and his obsequious butler Carson turn a blind eye to his needs. The obliviousness of the Dowager Countess to working-class life is usually played for laughs, such as when she famously asks, "What is a weekend?" On the other hand, the servants cannot afford to ignore the reality of the nobles. Their lives and livelihood depend on their exacting familiarity with the Crawleys and their aristocratic culture. Like members of any other oppressed group, the servants must know the vanities of the privileged group by heart.

After six seasons of Downton Abbey, many white viewers probably know more about the lives of its fictional servants than those of actual black people. This is because most white people can succeed at their jobs while knowing nothing about black reality. Hence the antiracist #OscarsSoWhite and campus protest movements. Black Lives Matter is controversial because white people can't believe that law enforcement is as bad as black people say. Yet black parents must be experts on whiteness in order to have "The Talk" with their children about encounters with police. Some white people observe MLK Day by quoting one out-of-context sentence, then complain about the unfairness of Black History Month a couple of weeks later. The Australian actor Barry Humphries caused a stir when he suggested that Downton Abbey was popular in America because "there are no black people in it." Regardless of how white people keep black people out of their living rooms, it's hard to see oppression only when you decide to tune in.


Fans of Downton Abbey know that the more the Crawleys insist upon their nobility, the less fulfilled and humane they are. Although we might find something to envy about Lord Grantham or Lady Mary, we would also never, ever want to be the kind of human beings they turned out to be. We shake our heads at the folly of their internalized superiority. Despite her zingers, the imperious Dowager Countess is a lonely figure whose only real friend is her progressive cousin Isobel. For most of the series, we watch the younger nobles pursue inappropriate relationships of all kinds because their reputation must come before their happiness. Their servants literally and figuratively pay the price for this, such as when Anna humiliates herself buying contraceptives for the obtuse Lady Mary. Most memorably, Lord Grantham puts Lady Sybil at risk during her labor because he trusts an unknown aristocratic doctor more than the village doctor. The Crawleys are at their worst when they are nobles first, human beings second. It makes sense, then, that when the footman Molesley begins his new career as a schoolteacher, his first lesson is to debunk the divine right of kings.

If white people compared whiteness and nobility, they might observe what their privilege has cost them too. As Lady Sybil found out, privilege can be bad for your health. A New York Times study revealed that rates of drug overdose have skyrocketed among whites in part because doctors assume that white patients will be more responsible with prescription drugs. Like the servants at Downton, people of color have seen how privilege warps the perspective of otherwise decent people. In a recent article, Iris Kuo raised the issue of the inability of white people to tell Asians apart. "Yes, it rarely happens out of malice," Kuo writes. "Yes, it is often accidental. Yes, it is bumbling, careless, idiotic and unintentional. But it is absolutely not right." A profile of power agent Chris Jackson, who is black, highlights his experiences with repeatedly being mistaken for one of his most famous clients, Ta-Nehisi Coates. But these insults owe to more than a momentary slip of the mind. Their origin in segregation is ancient, inbred. The "burden of whiteness," Coates memorably tweeted, is that you "can live in the world of myth and be taken seriously."

"White Only Beck's Cabs," Albany GA (1962) / Warren Leffler
Of course, Downton Abbey tried to deal with racism in its fourth season, but the storyline of its only black character portrayed racism as the sum of individual sins only. At a time when the meaning of white identity is dangerously confused, when white people now claim to be the victims of racism because of their whiteness, we need to stop thinking about "white" as only a box to check like "married" or "single." We need to remember that "white" is an idea invented to make superiority inheritable, like nobility. "White" was never an ethnic group like the Irish or Germans, identities which can exist independently of one another. In America, "white" identity has always been premised on black inferiority, making racism our national origin story. Yet no television show does for whiteness what Downton Abbey does for nobility, so we must use our imagination. Just as nobility is at the core of England’s social history, whiteness centers our own in America, but we don’t think to compare them because racism is seen as an individual moral failure and not a national strategic plan.

In one of the final episodes of Downton Abbey, the Crawleys decide to raise money for the local hospital by opening their house to the villagers for a day. The elders despise the idea of being put on display for gawking townspeople. The servants question the family’s elitism, with the woke kitchen maid Daisy proclaiming, "What gives them the right to keep people out?" Most tellingly, Lady Cora and her daughters, serving as guides, are all stumped by the guests’ earnest questions about the artifacts in their home, completely unaware of their own privileged history. A young boy wanders off the tour and finds himself in an upstairs bedroom, aside a recuperating Lord Grantham. The boy innocently asks the Crawley patriarch why he needs such a large house, and wouldn't he be happier in a comfy place like his own? "Maybe," Lord Grantham reflects warmly. "But you know how it is. You like what you're used to."


The honor of having Downton Abbey’s last word ever belongs, of course, to the Dowager Countess. The series concludes shortly past midnight on New Year’s Day, 1926, with the Dowager remarking how much she likes that people will "drink to the future, whatever it may bring." Her confidante Isobel wonders what else to toast to since they’re not going "back into the past." Laughing, the Dowager adds, "If only we had the choice." For millions of us, Downton Abbey was compelling drama because we stood witness to the end of an epoch. Today, we are nowhere near the finale of white supremacy, despite what Hollywood leads us to believe. White people also like what they are used to. But like Isobel and Gwen, we have always had more choices for how to live our lives, if only we would act on them. White people might even commit to seeing themselves as people of color sometimes see them: as characters in the current season of a long-running period drama about racism in America.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Campus Protests and Whiteness as Property

Last fall, the Provost and Chancellor of my university approved a proposal calling for the creation of an academic program in Hmong Studies. I was a member of the committee charged with developing the proposal, and although we didn't get everything we wanted at the beginning, we did get what we desired the most: a tenure-track hire in Hmong Studies. If you've been following higher education in Wisconsin, you know that Governor Scott Walker and the GOP-led state legislature hit the UW System with unprecedented budget cuts that prompted a devastating number of layoffs, departures, and early retirements among its faculty and staff. Our committee discussed how certain core courses in popular majors were unstaffed, potentially leaving hundreds of students in the lurch. We considered whether some faculty would question the creation of a new tenure-track position at a time when their departments were not allowed to search for replacement personnel. I don't know whether any objections snaked their way through formal channels, but I always assumed that making our proposal during a time of stark austerity could be regarded as premature, imprudent, maybe even selfish. Shouldn't we wait until better times to ask for a permanent position? I trust that most educators would arrive at such a rationale out of a concern for the needs of students foremost. But such a rationale is also racist.

In this blog I return to the critical race theory tenet of whiteness as property to explain the relationship between the curriculum and the racist status quo in higher education. In the wake of antiracist student protests on campuses across the country, administrators like Oberlin College's president Martin Krislov have rationalized the slow pace of reform by pointing to a policy that takes power out of their hands: shared governance. Krislov wants student protesters to understand that administrators cannot make unilateral decisions about just any issue related to student experience on campus. The 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities from the American Association of University Professors states that
The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process. . . . Faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility; this area includes appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal.
Faculty have described their relationship to the curriculum as one of "ownership," a metaphor that sparked a little pride in me when colleagues touted shared governance at my university. Yet we in the academy know that faculty do not own the curriculum equally, and we know how parts of it can be jealously guarded. Faculty who would resist a Hmong Studies program probably don't do so because they bear any overt racist hatred toward Hmong people, however; they do so because the curriculum in its current state is a property interest that produces clear benefits for them.

As I mentioned in my blog on the whiteness of the anti-vaccine movement, the tenet of whiteness as property comes from Cheryl Harris' influential 1993 article in Harvard Law Review. Harris posits that whiteness is more than a racial identity in the US; it is actual property whose value the law recognizes and protects. Harris cites Charles Reich's 1964 article "The New Property" in The Yale Law Journal as the work that expanded the idea of property to encompass
jobs, entitlements, occupational licenses, contracts, subsidies, and indeed a whole host of intangibles that are the product of labor, time, and creativity, such as intellectual property, business goodwill, and enhanced earning potential from graduate degrees. [. . .] Reich's argument that property is not a natural right but a construction by society resonates in current theories of property that describe the allocation of property rights as a series of choices. This construction directs attention toward issues of relative power and social relations inherent in any definition of property." (1728-29)
In other words, whiteness is property like any other reified relationship commonly understood to hold value--a medical degree, for example. The law protects the value of a medical degree by punishing anyone practicing medicine without one. Similarly, for most of our nation's history, a black person could be punished for pretending to be white, and accusing a white person of being black was like accusing a physician of being a quack--grounds for defamation. Whiteness, at the very least, promised that its owner could never be enslaved. Harris cites Jeremy Bentham's claim that "property is nothing but the basis of expectation" to argue that white privilege became a protected expectation of white people. "When the law recognizes, either implicitly or explicitly, the settled expectations of whites built on the privileges and benefits produced by white supremacy," Harris states, "it acknowledges and reinforces a property interest in whiteness that reproduces Black subordination" (1731). How does the law or, in our case, institutional policy, reinforce the "settled expectations" of whites, and what does that look like in higher education?

To answer this question, we need to be familiar with the rights traditionally associated with property ownership, which include the rights of disposition, use, and enjoyment. For our discussion, the most salient is "the absolute right to exclude." To understand how whiteness is functionally like property, we can look at the idea of hypodescent. Colloquially known as the "one drop rule" in many states, laws of hypodescent excluded people from whiteness the way that trespassing laws excluded people from private property. Moreover, other forms of new property that serve to reify whiteness as an "object" can also count on legal protection against the intrusion of blackness and other non-white identities. One of these forms of new property is curriculum.

Scholars of critical race theory in education studies have focused on the exclusionary function of property to explain the persistence of racial disparities in the nation's schools. Terry Pollack and Sabrina Zirkel use the tenet of whiteness as property to explain why an antiracist policy shift at a diverse high school in California met stiff resistance from the parents of white students attending the school. Parental lobbying and media pressure forced the school to revise its policy so that white students once again retained their expected right to "use and enjoy" the curriculum as well as "exclude" others from it. As a result, white students also retained access to higher GPAs and better credentials for college application.

Yet only in extraordinary circumstances do outside agents force a curricular change at a university like mine, and this is because of the due process of faculty governance: curriculum committees, hiring committees, academic policy committees, and faculty senates. And although we appear to be living in extraordinary times in higher education, administrators can still stonewall demands for reform by insisting on the ethics of such processes. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Hank Reichman, chair of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, suggested that student demands should be heard but that student protesters cannot be expected to have the "sophisticated understanding of academic freedom" asked of faculty and administrators. The interview turns to specific demands made at Hamilton College and Emory University regarding faculty hiring and evaluation:
At the same time, he [Reichman] said, the kinds of demands being made with regard to faculty members were in many cases ill-advised.
The demand at Hamilton to discourage white faculty members from chairing certain departments "would impose a prejudicial and possibly illegal racial restriction on the hiring of faculty," he said.
And the demand at Emory about faculty evaluations would require questions that are "far too subjective" and are "prejudicial," Reichman said. He added that "a better approach would be to permit students to file complaints about specific mistreatment, backed by evidence, and to handle those through mechanisms that guarantee any faculty member so charged with fair due process protections."
In order to make any lasting antiracist reform on campus, college faculty need to acknowledge how faculty governance can and does reinforce the "settled expectations" of white faculty.

As new property, the curriculum must therefore reflect the dynamics of social relationships, bringing with it "questions of power, selection, and allocation" (Harris 1728-29). The relationship between predominantly white institutions and the history of white supremacy in the US does not always manifest as obviously as a building or statue honoring a slave trader or segregationist. For example, my institution's present classification took shape in 1951 when it became part of the Wisconsin State College system (now University of Wisconsin system); it transitioned from a teacher's college to a four-year regional comprehensive university largely because of the enrollment demand generated by the GI Bill of Rights. Put another way, our curriculum changed, quite significantly, in order to accommodate the needs of students from the region, the vast majority of them white and many hailing from racially-engineered sundown towns. Nationally, the GI Bill widened the racial education gap by underwriting the rise of institutions like mine while underserving black institutions in the South. Once we consider how indebted the model of American higher education is to Europe, the question of how the college curriculum reinforces white supremacy barely needs to be asked. Whole academic disciplines developed out of the imperial impulse, from the precursors of today's area studies, to cultural anthropology, to my own discipline of English.

How exactly, then, does the curriculum produce value for white faculty as a property interest, and how is it threatened as a property interest by student demands?

1. Competitive industry metrics such as first-year retention, student-to-teacher ratio, and four-year graduation rates factor into institutional prestige, itself a form of new property threatened by the addition of antiracist curriculum. This article on Northeastern University's strategic "gaming" of U.S. News and World Report's college rankings system reveals how much these metrics can matter to an institution's bottom line. Perhaps the most common demand among the dozens of lists of demands from student protest organizations across the country is the call for mandatory courses in antiracism or critical race theory for all students. A course of this nature usually supplements the general education curriculum, an addition that not only would extend time to degree but also would impact accreditation timetables and increase class sizes (given that there are few faculty qualified to teach such courses). In academic departments with tightly-scripted comprehensive major sequences, adding even one additional three-credit general education course risks ballooning time-to-degree rates in the aggregate.

For an example of how faculty might try to meet this demand by working within an existing system, see the website dedicated to reporting the University of Missouri's response to student demands. Rather than create a single new course required of all students, MU administrators propose that certain existing courses be retooled for "cultural competency" credit (see below). Most egregiously, this offer conflates antiracism with "cultural competency" as a learning goal, allowing courses such as "Cross-Cultural Journalism" to satisfy the requirement. Many institutions within the University of Wisconsin system have operated on this same flawed "two fer" model for decades.




2. The curriculum can produce value based on its association with and replication of white cultural capital. For example, multiple demands given to Oberlin administrators concern its famed Conservatory of Music, including the following:

In this example we see that the value of the property of the white curriculum is directly diminished by an antiracist demand: classical courses would no longer be required of all Conservatory students. Yet to many, this demand would seem outrageous because of the neutral or even virtuous value assigned to the practices of "high" white culture. At a time when the relevance of fine arts and humanities courses are pressured by the popularity of pre-professional and STEM disciplines, maintaining the current curriculum can be a matter of programmatic survival at institutions less prestigious than Oberlin. The threat of antiracist protest isn't only about the curriculum that students demand be added; it is also about the curriculum that students reject as no longer essential.

3. De facto "ownership" of individual courses or programs by individual faculty members constitutes a clear property interest when it confers prestige or research opportunities. Many faculty leverage their academic reputations as subject area experts for outside professional activities such as consulting. As a pathway to research, senior undergraduate and graduate seminars are property interests for those faculty accustomed to publishing research findings conducted in the classroom or in the field. There may be a basis of expectation for the use of institutional equipment or facilities instrumental for producing research. We can safely assume that white faculty disproportionately benefit from this arrangement, so any revision of the curriculum responding to non-disciplinary or non-departmental pressures--such as the demands at Hamilton College--threatens to upset such an arrangement. A report on STEM faculty diversity in 2007 shows that the share of underrepresented minorities is a small fraction of the overall faculty in forty of the top departments of each field. Research on faculty entrepreneurialism determined that "hard and applied science faculty also tend to generate more supplemental income for consulting activities than non-science faculty" (Lee and Rhoads 745). Ownership of discrete courses or programs increases the marketability of individual faculty members, who are expected to replicate a successful curriculum at the institutions recruiting them. The old metaphor of academic "turf" battles is quite apt once race is taken into consideration.



4. Lastly, the value of curriculum as a property interest is tied to the meaning of student evaluations of instruction (SEI). Another popular demand calls for antiracist professional development for faculty, sometimes accompanied by a demand for instruments to evaluate and assess classroom climate. For example, protesters at Yale University demand the "inclusion of a question about the racial climate of the classrooms of both teaching fellows and professors in student evaluations." A similar demand appears on the list from Wesleyan University, specifically mentioning the problem of classroom "microaggressions." AAUP's Reichman advises against such reform, recommending extant due process procedures that would require a student to initiate a complaint. Adding a question about inclusivity to the standard SEI of my home department required a vote among the members of the tenured personnel committee. This is because student evaluations are a form of new property: SEI results inform resource decisions over hiring, tenure, promotion, and prestigious teaching awards. Our old SEI did not include any question suggesting that social group identity matters to student learning. While we cannot say for sure that white faculty will score lower than faculty of color on this question, white faculty resistance to such questions may be based on the perception that they will. Indeed, it is productive to read faculty resistance to trigger warnings not as the clash between abstract concepts of "academic freedom" and "political correctness" but as a contest over valuable property. What would more challenge faculty ownership of the curriculum than a student choosing to opt out of a few weeks of class because of a racist climate?

In stable economic times, incremental progress in diversifying the curriculum and personnel can mask the existence of a white property interest. In my experience, most faculty meet the news of diverse hires or academic programs with pleasure or, at the worst, indifference. The prospect of a Hmong Studies hire at my university would have caused barely a ripple of controversy if not for the budget crisis that fueled speculation of a zero-sum situation: Hmong Studies in, something else out. Racist defenses of the curriculum and personnel decisions usually arise only when white property interests are obviously and imminently threatened. This is why our current period of antiracist student protest is so important. Student demands do obviously and imminently threaten white property interests in the curriculum, and faculty defenses of the status quo will reveal the nature of those interests. If the bluster over coddled Millennials and trigger warnings are any indication, they already have.

There are too many faculty in the academy who openly dismiss antiracist curriculum as marginal, lacking rigor, or just unimportant relative to their own concentrations. They are often the greatest beneficiaries of a curriculum that reifies whiteness as logical, cultured, or professional. Most faculty are not like this, I would like to believe, because they see the justice and the good sense in putting a Hmong Studies scholar on the tenure track. However, the actions of these faculty too, in their capacity as governors of the curriculum, regularly belie their professed values of diversity and inclusion. Antiracist students and educators may find that framing curricular conflicts as property claims will lead to productive discussions with faculty who are open to reality of institutional racism but less ready to see their investment in it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Last Day of School

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Last week, the dozens of students whom I've come to see and know since January were released from their obligation of talking about racism with me. It is hard work discussing the nature of your relationship to white supremacy, and fifteen straight weeks of it must seem like enough for anyone. So it was with some trepidation that I chose my parting words for the last day of school. "In all likelihood," I said, "you will never again be held to account for what you learned about racism in this class. At least not by any institution that has any power over you." If they are accepted, graduated, hired, promoted, invited, befriended, married, or congratulated, they are so in spite of their antiracism and not because of it. For where in the world will their grasp of the reach and power of white supremacy attest to the state of their competence? Our society just isn't built that way. Where the Potomac is Lethe, every day can be a forgetting and an absolution. Like summer vacation. Who else besides their earnest professor will so esteem such knowledge?

The answer, of course, must be ourselves. For our own sake, we must hold ourselves accountable for what we have learned. We are all that we have.

We must do this for ourselves because the alternative is oblivion. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently held a Twitter colloquy on the proper role of the political writer in America. He describes the part at the end of a talk where an audience member asks him for "a reason to hope" for the coming of racial justice. Coates cannot offer any optimism because failure is a very real possibility. The kicker, however, is that pessimism shouldn't change a thing.
Of course this leads to the obvious question--Why struggle? For me it's simple--so I can sleep at night. There's too much talk about "inevitable victory" and not enough about keeping your conscience. I could very easily imagine an America that is racist to the very end. If you showed me that future, I'd say, "Meh. And keep fighting." How I live my life has actual meaning. As much meaning--perhaps more meaning--than convincing other people.
Similarly, graduating seniors have asked me for advice on how to make a difference. Despite their evident desire to accomplish something in the world, I tell them that their goal should be to hold themselves to account. This is not an easy thing. Most will forget everything they learned about racism within a year. Given the currency of our realm, they should expect nothing else. In time, a stranger will cry colorblindness, and they will stumble reaching for an adequate response. Live your life so that there is no reaching. The measure of your virtue is the health of your conscience. To know this is not to waste your time and blood.


Toni Morrison knew this forty years ago when she delivered a lecture entitled "A Humanist View" at Portland State University. It is a remarkable jeremiad for a new age. In this part of the transcript, she cautions against forgetting who you are and who you are responsible to.
It's important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. . . . None of that is necessary. . . . And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me. To avoid the prison of reacting to racism is a problem of the very first order. Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. . . . And where the will that you allow to be eroded day by day, day by day, by consistent assaults from racists, then the will just settles into a little tiny heap of sand, and you just have a second-rate existence, jammed with second-hand ideas.
I wish that words like these would ring in every commencement from coast to coast, but of course that is impossible, which is entirely my point. Black women cannot even whisper white supremacy without a Nobel Prize. All that is beyond will sanction and measure us against their vital fictions, so we must be the ones to know better. Anything less is a puny humanity.

To be accountable to yourself is to stay awake despite how vigilance can smart, for white supremacy is nothing if not an ether. Ask the lawyers of Cleveland, who nodded in time when one said blame the child. Or ask the police of Baltimore, who will break your neck to make you nod. But you do not have to nod to be asleep; you need only say nothing despite the pricks of your conscience which, one by one, slowly dissolve into your dreamy plot.

You are your own stern lecturer or you are done.

In 1855, Herman Melville knew this when he wrote Benito Cereno, the story of Amasa Delano, a white American sea captain who encounters a Spanish slave ship, the San Dominick, floundering adrift off the coast of Chile. He boards the ship and discovers it in disarray. Its captain, Benito Cereno, behaves so erratically that the American begins to feel threatened. Over the course of the story, Delano contrives a series of possible explanations for the odd behavior: Cereno is inexperienced, poorly bred, insane, a pirate, an impostor, in league with his slaves. With each new theory, Delano is momentarily shaken, his perspective dizzied, calmed only the vision of black slaves in their customary roles on deck. Familiar stories displace the novel and the truth they bring.

Amasa Delano lacks imagination. He cannot unify the fragments of meaning before him into a true history: that the slaves had masterminded a revolt and then a charade to deceive him. The leader of the slaves, a Senegalese named Babo, is puppeteer to his hostage Cereno. Delano had authored countless biographies for Cereno but only one for the Africans: slave. Readers who fail to decipher Cereno's freaks also subscribe to an oppressive single story of the Africans. Even when Babo drives a dagger toward Cereno's heart, Delano miscalculates, believing himself to be the target. Once safe, Cereno calmly expresses his frustration:
"[Y]ou were with me all day; stood with me, sat with me, talked with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me; and yet, your last act was to clutch for a villain, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may even the best men err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted. But you were forced to it; and you were in time undeceived. Would that, in both respects, it was so ever, and with all men."
Cereno is changed by his long captivity. Delano cannot abide Cereno's enduring gloom, unsure why his counterpart cannot be more like himself: "'You are saved,' cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; 'you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?'" Exiled for weeks, lost at sea on a crippled galleon, Cereno had a singular experience: to observe the fullness of black humanity on its own terms, absent any worldly mediation. The knowledge is too much to bear for the slave trader.

We end the semester reading Benito Cereno in my early American literature course. I want it to remind my students that new stories will come to dizzy them as they did Delano, who was as real as they themselves are. They will be on the brink of something new and terrifying. That is the time to pay attention and to refuse craven innocence. At times unsteady and out-of-focus, the truth will be right in front of their faces if they will only see it. But old stories will materialize to settle and distract them, say that it is all right for now and ever. Their only reward for pulling away from these lies will be their conscience.

The classic American literary archetype was never Huckleberry Finn or Jay Gatsby; it is Amasa Delano, who in Melville's tale remains asleep to the world and yet is celebrated by it. We live in different times and on dry land. There is no Babo with a razor at your throat in the middle of the ocean. You are free to go. There is nothing to hold you to account to learn what white supremacy scorns. Do it anyway and for yourself.

For all of my students, past, present, and future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

You're the Model Minority until You're Not

As a Chinese American, I know that my racial identity occupies a space in the cultural imagination somewhere between white and black. I know that white supremacy often works in my favor to give me privilege and the benefit of the doubt. I know that the world is this way until it isn't.

Peter Liang, who is also Chinese American, must know this too. On February 10, a grand jury ruled to indict the NYPD officer for killing Akai Gurley, who is black. Liang and his partner were in the stairwell of a public housing complex when Liang discharged his weapon and hit Gurley, who had entered from the floor below. The ruling followed three controversial grand jury decisions not to indict white officers Darren Wilson, Sean Williams, and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, respectively. Because of this apparent racial double standard, the Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights plans to protest Liang's indictment later this month and has called for national rallies on that day in support of Liang. "Officer Liang is being used as a scapegoat," says Doug Lee, co-chair of the CAACR. Other Asian American organizations support the indictment, leading to some confusion over what justice looks like in this case. But there should be no confusion: Peter Liang should stand trial. Liang's supporters are asking for the same standard that exonerated Wilson, Williams, and Pantaleo. It is a racist standard.

Among other things, the story of Peter Liang and Akai Gurley is the story of contrasting stereotypes. By the mid-1960s, Chinese Americans began to be systematically associated with so-called "positive stereotypes." In 1965, President Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, better known as the Immigration Act of 1965, on Liberty Island in New York City. This act abolished the racist National Origins quota system that had favored European nations, replacing it with one that privileged immigrants with professional work skills as well as those reuniting with families. As immigration from China steadily rose, public interest predictably turned to Chinese America. In 1966, the conservative U.S. News & World Report published a profile of Chinese American communities on both coasts. "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." lavishes praise upon Chinese Americans for their commitment to improvement and success despite prejudice and other hardships. The article is an early and important blueprint of the "model minority" stereotype of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans in general.

My students sometimes aren't sure how to feel about "positive" stereotypes of Asian Americans. What's wrong with being known as educated, hard-working, and law-abiding? The problem with positive stereotypes is the same problem with negative ones: the dominant group gets to decide what they are. It decides who gets to be a part of the favored racial group and why. What this means is that you're the model minority until you're not. The history of Chinese Americans is a crash course on the social construction of race in America. Stereotypes come and go. From the beginning of significant Chinese immigration during the California gold rush to the present, Chinese Americans have been racialized as undesirable or desirable depending on circumstances at home and abroad. The Exclusion era, the World War 2 era, and the Korean War era all racialized Chinese Americans differently according to the historical needs of white supremacy. It took the Civil Rights Movement to shift the social meanings of Chinese Americans once again. Like negative stereotypes, the model minority stereotype is also a tool of white supremacy.

The model minority stereotype has always been less about praising Asian people than it has been about shaming black people. From its lede, the unsigned "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." is interested in more than the state of Chinese America; it aims to compare Chinese Americans to black Americans. The article lists off the admirable qualities of a monolithic Chinese American community: low crime rate (especially among juveniles), strong work ethic, traditional family structures, value on education, low public assistance usage, etc. However, comparisons with black communities quickly become conspicuous:
  • At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation's 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own--with no help from anyone else.
  • What you find, back of this remarkable group of Americans, is a story of adversity and prejudice that would shock those now complaining about the hardships endured by today's Negroes.
  • "The Chinese people here will work at anything. I know of some who were scholars in China and are now working as waiters in restaurants. . . . [T]hey're willing to do something--they don't sit around moaning."
  • Even though Chinese-American teen-agers in New York City . . . are a source of growing worry to their parents, statistics show that those youths still cause far less trouble for the police than others do.
  • "[I]t must be recognized that the Chinese and other Orientals in California were faced with even more prejudice than faces the Negro today. We haven't stuck Negroes in concentration camps, for instance, as we did the Japanese in World War II."
This closing point about Japanese Americans in an article ostensibly about Chinese Americans makes plain that the state of black America is the true focus of the writer. Only two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the publication of the article coincided with a turbulent period of the Civil Rights Movement, one marked by large-scale civil unrest sparked by police brutality in Watts, Harlem, and many other communities.

Chinese Americans weren't the only Asian American ethnic group to be racialized in opposition to black Americans. In 1992, Los Angeles became a flashpoint for tensions between black Americans and Korean Americans. Heightening the injustice of the acquittal of the officers who brutalized Rodney King was the trial of Soon Ja Du. Store video caught owner Du killing teenager Latasha Harlins, a black customer, in cold blood. Du was sentenced to probation. In the days to come, the violence of the LA uprising hit Korean American communities hard, with over half of Korean-owned businesses suffering damage. The spectacle of armed Korean Americans encamped on the rooftops of their stores told the story of a race war compatible with white supremacy. For some, Korean Americans became the poster children for white supremacy, defending their hard-won property from "problem" minorities lacking their work ethic and respect for the law. Although half of those arrested during the uprising were Latino, the "black-Korean" narrative framed the conflict and drew attention from the racist structures oppressing all three groups.

White supremacy spins the tale of the model minority because it is a story of American meritocracy. As late as 2014, the rags-to-riches model minority stereotype was the core talking point Bill O'Reilly used to rebut the argument that white privilege is real. O'Reilly cites Asian American rates of education and income that exceed those of all other groups, including white Americans. But the conflation of "Asian American" and "model minority" identities masks the poverty of many ethnic groups within Asian America. Coverage of the LA uprising tended to cast Korean American immigrants as successful entrepreneurs despite unique institutional barriers that produced wide economic disparity within the community. In 2010, Hmong Americans had the lowest per capita income of any racial/ethnic group, including Latinos. As the story of meritocracy, the model minority stereotype can disempower Asian Americans themselves by linking low social status to cultural deficiency. Positive stereotypes are a two-way street.

Today, model minorities can be too good to be true. Highly-skilled immigrants from India and China make possible the Asian demographic O'Reilly describes, and industry demand for them is so great that tech firms must enter a lottery for their H-1B visas. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) questions whether the perception of a perpetual shortage of tech workers is, in fact, accurate. The "Silicon Valley STEM Hoax," he claims, is a ploy of American tech firms to hire lower-paid foreign labor instead of home-grown American labor. This fear of cheap foreign labor, mostly Asian, is not new. The economic "yellow peril" stereotype that defined 19th-century Chinese immigrants conjured the problem of an endless stream of labor against which the white workingman could not compete. The devastating solution to the problem was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in effect until 1943. While Sessions' concerns are, by all accounts, marginalized, they do illustrate how readily the assets of the model minority--hard work and frugality--can be reimagined as deficits. New yellow perils. You are the model minority until you are not.


The only logic of white supremacy is to sustain itself. Every way that people of color have been racialized and will be racialized is in the support of white supremacy. This is the purpose of racial stereotypes. The CAACR claims that because Peter Liang is Chinese American, he is being treated differently from Darren Wilson, Sean Williams, and Daniel Pantaleo. But this possibility doesn't mean Liang shouldn't be tried. It just means that he does not have the privilege that the white officers have. They should have been tried too. Those supporting Liang only because he is Chinese American should know that they are not fighting racism. If the CAACR truly desires justice, it will not lobby for Liang to be treated the same as the white officers. To do so would be to ask for an ad hoc dispensation from a racist system. The model minority stereotype was also an ad hoc dispensation. Other Asian American organizations such as the CAAAV understand this and support the indictment. Akai Gurley and Peter Liang had much in common, but this is the most tragic: their lives in the balance, they were who white supremacy needed them to be. All of us would do well to remember that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Comfort Tells Us about Racism

As a kid growing up in Texas, I didn't like it when my parents spoke Cantonese in public spaces. Too loud to me, their voices made me uncomfortable. The white people around us who screwed up their faces must have felt the same way. Their discomfort probably had to do with not understanding the words, the ugliness of the sounds, or both. These strangers and I had something in common: the need for their comfort. When my parents kept on talking, seemingly oblivious to the scene they were creating, they left me wondering why they didn't care as much about the white people around us as I did. In time, I gained an awareness of what comfort says about the state of internalized white supremacy in ourselves and others.

Especially for adult, middle-class white Americans, white supremacy cultivates a sense of entitlement to comfort. Their discomfort disrupts the equilibrium of the racial status quo, manifesting as annoyance, impatience, or something more serious. Consider what happens when a white person is openly called out for making a racist remark. Even at a time when the proper feeling is shame, the need for comfort dials up different, confrontational feelings. Too often, the response is defensiveness or anger. Robin DiAngelo coined a term for this condition: "white fragility." In a recent interview, she critiques how even discussions of racism need to be as comfortable as possible:
In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, "What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?" Usually those questions alone make the point. It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, "Get off my head," and you respond, "Well, you need to tell me nicely." I’d be like, "No. Fuck you. Get off my fucking head."
White fragility is a valuable and productive way to understand how internalized white supremacy precludes critical conversations about racism and deforms relationships.


White supremacy socializes white people to expect comfort, but it also socializes people of color to give comfort to white people. We know that our safety and security may depend on the white people around us being comfortable. Thus, consciously or unconsciously, we do not do things that would discomfit white people if we can help it. Perhaps the most common method for giving comfort is simply not bringing up racism in conversation. Or remaining silent or not showing anger if the topic of racism does arise. In 2014, musician Pharrell Williams famously proclaimed himself a "new black," meaning that he "does not blame other races for our issues." Oscar-winner Common asked other black people to forget about past injustices while extending a "hand in love" to white people. Isaiah Washington advised Chris Rock to "adapt" to racial profiling by police by driving less-flashy cars. And Bill Cosby used to have enough moral authority to tell young black men to pull up their pants and speak good English. The head-scratching persistence of the thing known as "respectability" politics owes to nothing more than the racist idea that black people should not make white people uncomfortable.

Non-white comfort is a trigger for racism. Because white supremacy polices non-white comfort, people of color are not allowed to be comfortable on their own terms. Being noticed as too comfortable can be dangerous or deadly. Teenager Jordan Davis and three friends were in a parked SUV when Michael Dunn asked them to turn down their loud music. When they refused, Dunn fired ten rounds at the vehicle, killing Davis. College student Martese Johnson was beaten by ABC agents after exiting an off-campus bar during St. Patrick's Day festivities in Charlottesville. In Pine Lawn, Missouri, sagging pants can get you fined. Three weeks after he fled Iraq, Ahmed Adnan Ibrahim Al-Jumaili was shot and killed outside his Dallas home while photographing his first snowfall with his family. Craig Stephen Hicks, the man who murdered Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha in their Chapel Hill home, had once appeared with a rifle at the door of two of the victims to complain about the noise they made playing a board game. Non-white comfort does not usually inspire such violent responses, but all negative responses originate from the common wellspring of white supremacy. Why?


People of color comfortable with one another decenter whiteness from any given social situation. Nothing makes this dynamic more apparent than the absence of English. My parents rarely gave a second thought to speaking Cantonese in public because they didn't grow up in the US as I had and weren't as socialized to give comfort to white people. For many immigrants, speaking your native language is comforting. However, the mere presence of certain languages other than English can annoy or even antagonize native-born Americans of all races. Such a response is a symptom of xenophobia and internalized white supremacy. Why else should another language in our midst concern us so? Intolerant responses to other languages reveal how much comfort depends on an expectation of centrality in a diverse world. For instance, some people get upset when they suspect that they are being talked about in another language. They are probably wrong, but would it matter if they were right? What would truly change in the nature of the relationship between you and the woman trimming your toenails or you and the man serving you dim sum? There is a word for the condition of thinking that everyone around you is talking about you. Paranoia. And then, is the consciousness that wants them silenced truly your own?

Even seemingly supportive or derivative responses to non-white comfort can betray an origin in white supremacy. To illustrate this point to my students, I show them a video entitled Light in the Shadows, which features a diverse group of women discussing the forms of racism in their lives. A white woman named Penny Rosenwasser admits that she is envious of how women of color can be so comfortable together. Intended as a compliment, her remark leads to an unexpected response. "I think that white people get upset when they see us comfortable," says Intisar Shareef, a black woman. "Because I think that challenges their notion of superiority in this world." In other words, Shareef explains, white supremacy in America has taught white people that people of color should not have things that they themselves do not have. How else do we explain a white woman envying the camaraderie of black women as black women? Iggy Azalea and white belly dancers are cautionary tales reminding us that white culture will appropriate whatever it envies or finds lacking in itself.

No one is entitled to comfort. The reality is that people of color experience discomfort as people of color as a regular and predictable part of their lives. This feeling of nominal discomfort is so normalized that finding yourself comfortable in a diverse setting can be a warning signal. Intisar Shareef describes such a moment and what she makes of it.
A couple weeks ago at a staff meeting at the college that I work at, there was something going on that I disagreed with, and I spoke out. And people said, "Oh, she's just bizarre." And that's just another way of labeling me as different. At first I was offended by that, and then I said, "Hmm, I am bizarre, given the environment that I was in, and proud to be it. . . . I really begin to question myself when I go into these arenas and I'm fitting in. I have to figure out, "Why am I so comfortable?" I really do. There's a lot of work that we have to do, so if I get real comfortable then something is not going on with me.
Shareef is right that when we experience comfort in institutional spaces not committed to antiracism, we should absolutely check ourselves. It is not that people of color should never feel comfortable nor fit in. It is just that it is all too easy to assimilate to white supremacy culture. If we understand that white supremacy shapes our institutional policies and practices, why should we ever be comfortable managing our little part of the system? What have we been conditioned to overlook, and why? For all of us, regardless of race, discomfort in diverse settings is a boon companion, alerting us to the danger of white supremacy in and around us. Discomfort is the canary in a coal mine. It is what keeps us awake.