Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Modest Proposal

Twitter is powerful.

It can get you called out by Margaret Cho. I still love Twitter; in just a couple of months, I've learned so much from the amazing people I follow. My previous blog entry was partly inspired by a Twitter conversation with Emil Guillermo, an esteemed Filipino American journalist whose writing on behalf of the AAPI community I'd read for a long time. Guillermo had blogged on why Cho's performance at the Golden Globes was fine satire and not racist. You can read it here, a good idea before going any further. Later that day, one of Guillermo's colleagues tweeted that she didn't feel the same way that he did about Cho's performance. That's when this overeager educator jumped in, trying to explain why I believed that the performance was racist. I included a link to my recent blog article titled, surprisingly, "How to Tell If Something Is Racist." Guillermo courteously replied (this doesn't always happen on Twitter), and each of us stated his case. Because he references this conversation in a subsequent article, I've included it below. We were working off two different threads, so I tried to assemble the tweets in a coherent order that may not be chronological at a couple points, sometimes repeating what Twitter calls a "parent" tweet for the sake of clarity. In any event, these are all public tweets that anyone can find and read.

Well, Oregon lost. I have an MFA from Oregon and would have loved to see a national championship team quarterbacked by an AAPI. But I quickly got over it (sorry, Ducks) because my next blog post, "How to Win Friends of Color," was taking shape in my mind. In it, I argue that the best way to be a friend to people of color is to believe them when they tell you that something is racist and hurtful or offensive to them. You don't deny their experience, you don't minimize it, and you don't try to intellectualize it away for them. Just believe them, and you will be on your way to having new friends. (Strangely, this isn't as easy as it sounds, even for those who have no idea what racism feels like.) To this end, my argument challenges Guillermo's position that we need to understand Cho's performance only as satire and not as racism, although my blog entry is not really a critique of the performance. I thought it was only fair to tweet to Guillermo because I had linked to his blog.

The next day, Guillermo posts an article on his blog that includes his interview with Margaret Cho. You can read it here, and you should. Although I am not mentioned by name--I've been called worse than "Asian American English professor in Wisconsin"--Guillermo mentions the details of our tweets and some points from "How to Win Friends of Color." You can read the tweets and the blog for yourself. He gets some of things I say wrong, but I'm positive that he didn't mean to misrepresent my position. He does say that I "over-intellectualize" the debate. [What you are reading is responding to what I believe is an earlier, unrevised version of his post and not the one that is now on the blog, which softens the original criticism of "over-intellectualizing."]

As a professor, I'm not crazy about legitimizing the concept of "over-intellectualizing," but I do know what Guillermo means when he uses the word. Academic discourse can be alienating for those with no desire to do what I do for a living. (In retrospect, I would have found another way to say "Power saturates," but I'm pretty comfortable with everything else.) I started this blog on racism because I deeply believe in the need for an accessible, public intellectual resource for those wanting to learn more about the basic nature and dynamics of racism. So it matters a lot to me when I am told that I obfuscate what the dominant society obfuscates so well to its advantage--the meaning of racism. My rhetorical style for my blog is much more informal than what you'll find in my academic writing. As I said in "How to Tell If Something is Racist," antiracism is not an academic enterprise. The stakes are simply too high for anyone to be left out. So, yes, personal reasons first motivated me to write this response because the image and message of this blog mean a lot to me. Because racism means a lot to me. I wouldn't want those reading Guillermo's blog to think that I'm making racism worse, at least not without hearing more of the story.

I was also motivated to respond to extend the conversation about racism. Guillermo and I disagree about the nature of racism and its relationship to free speech. I believe that satire can hit its mark and make those in the "West" that much more contemptuous of North Korean leadership, yes, but I also believe that it matters that it can and will impact other relationships too (please read this powerful commentary on Cho's performance from my friend and award-winning Hmong American writer Kao Kalia Yang). I don't know how successful I was communicating that in 140-character chunks. In the end, readers will have to decide for themselves whether the performance made white supremacy stronger or whether it had no relationship to white supremacy at all. I am not talking about censoring anybody but contending that it is possible for the Golden Globes to troll North Korean officials and give the Korean American kid in Nashville a funny feeling about going to school the next day. The two outcomes aren't mutually exclusive (what I meant by my egghead "Power saturates" comment). Satire is a grenade, not a laser.

As for free speech, I'm not going to blame that Korean American kid in Nashville for "self-censoring" when she doesn't tell her peers to go screw themselves after they ask her if she eats dog. Or blame her when she buries her face in a book as soon as her history teacher asks the class to share what they know about North Korea. Live to fight another day, little sister. I wish everyone had the same access to free speech that Guillermo believes we do, but marginalized groups just don't. And I'll have to wag a finger at all my book smarts for making me think that. Or maybe just living my life made me think that. At the risk of sounding too academic, allow me to quote from Richard Delgado's and Jean Stefancic's Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, a text I sometimes use with my undergraduates:
[R]ights are almost always cut back when they conflict with the interests of the powerful. For example, hate speech, which targets mainly minorities, gays, lesbians, and other outsiders, is almost always tolerated, while speech that offends the interests of empowered groups finds a ready exception in First Amendment law. Think, for example, of speech that insults a judge or other authority figure, that defames a wealthy and well-regarded person, that disseminates a government secret, or deceptively advertises products, thus cheating a large class of middle-income consumers.
Speaking up for what you believe in can be noble and courageous, no doubt, but doing so is easier for some of us--say, with bylines or tenure--than others. When those without power hold their tongues on an issue, I don't blame them for not being more like me. I blame whatever made them so scared, because whatever that thing is, it just isn't as frightening to the others in the room.

Margaret Cho is hilarious. I admit that I'm sad that she thinks poorly of me because I've always respected how she publicly advocates for those whose voices just aren't heard in our society. For a long time, I showed the first minute of the clip above (from I'm the One that I Want) in my survey of Asian American literature. My students laughed their asses off. It's a great way to introduce the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype to them. (Keep reading, there's only a little bit left. Cho can steal the scene in a minute.) Her bit about being interviewed by a racist TV host is priceless. Because that's how you have to begin teaching about racism to college freshmen--most of my wonderful students are white--who have never really learned about it before in a class setting: you get them to laugh at someone else being racist to drive home the point that the only reason that a perpetual foreigner joke is funny to them is because that stereotype dwells in our consciousness too, like a virus. Like bloody shingles, rising to the surface when you're stressed, to revolt those around you.

But what puts me on the floor are Margaret Cho's impressions of her mother. Because I have an Asian mother too. And my Asian mother is going to worry when she reads this blog because Asian mothers worry about their kids in sweet and funny ways like that. (Sorry, Mom.) She's going to worry that Emil Guillermo disagrees with me and that Margaret Cho does too, at least vicariously. There's nothing I can say or do to get her to stop worrying about the things that I say and write. Believe me, I've tried. In the beginning, I tried to convince her that she's being too sensitive, that whatever she thinks is worrisome is not a big deal. When that didn't work, I reminded her that her situation is not unique. Parents have worried about their kids forever, you see, and they always will. Didn't she know that mothers in ancient Greece worried about their kids too? To pull out all the stops, I turned the tables and said that I was the real victim of worrying: "Do you ever stop to think how I worry about you?" But none of my intellectualizing worked.

So I'm going to make her a deal.

When she tells me that she's worried about me or my family, I will believe her. I don't want to win anymore, I guess because I realize that we aren't competing for the same thing. I'm going to do what I do, and she's going to be worried. And I'll learn to be okay with that reality because, well, we're family, aren't we?

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