Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | asian american
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Pekin Chinks -- the high school school mascot name of Pekin, Ohio until 1980 In the midst of the media hullabaloo over ESPN's "Chink in the armor" headline about Jeremy Lin, I had a conversation with a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, where I work as staff adviser to the CU Independent, the student-run news website for the Boulder campus. What the media need, we decided, is remedial lessons in racist imagery and epithets. Both the editor and anchor who were disciplined by "the Worldwide leader in sports" claimed they didn't mean anything racial by the use of the phrase with the "c-word." OK, granted, the phrase is an old one used to describe a weakness in armor, but who would use the word today and NOT feel a twinge of conscience, a mental red flag, about its century of use as a racist slur? Why wouldn't you use any number of other words? Apparently, some people -- especially young people -- today don't know or don't remember that the "c-word" is the equivalent of the "n-word" to Asian Americans. That's a good thing, because it means the word is seldom used as a slur these days. But that doesn't mean we can start using it willy-nilly again. I grew up having the word hurled in my direction as kids yelled at me to "go home." I've been called every one of those words: "Jap," "Nip," "Gook," "Slope," "Chinaman," "Ching-Chong," Slant-Eye"... an entire dictionary of racist words. Some of them as you can see, have non-racial meanings, like slope or nip. But call me over-sensitive, when I see the words "chink in the armor" or "nip in the air" in print my stomach clenches. And the same goes for an awful lot of other Asian Americans, although yes, not every Asian American agrees (you can call Michelle Malkin anything you want, I guess and it won't bother her). The Asian American Journalists Association released a Media Advsiory on covering Jeremy Lin last week, and hopefully that will help curb some of the national media's dumber inclinations and make writers and editors think at least a moment before they blurt out something they'll regret later. But what can you do if some journalists (and people in general) don't know that certain words or phrases have a racial connotation, perhaps a forgotten one from the past? I've met a few people who honestly didn't know that "chink" is an offensive reference to Asians. The fact is, words and their meanings evolve. The Pekin, Illinois high school team for many decades was called the "Chinks" even though their mascot was a dragon (see the graphic above). In 1980, after years of controversy and over the objection of the students, the team was changed to the Dragons. I'm sure they didn't think the word was so bad because they didn't mean it as a racial epithet. Even the seemingly benign word "Oriental" has evolved. It originally referred to the Orient, or the Far East. Some Asians today still use the term to describe their grocery stores, and it's still commonly used to describe rugs (from the Middle East). But it was used so often as a word to refer to negative stereotypes that today, the acceptable word in common usage is "Asian." "Oriental" is for rugs, "Asian" is for people. The Asian American civil rights organization JACL has a series of pamphlets including this one, "Word can kill the spirit... 'Jap' is a derogatory term!" that lists some of the slurs that target Asians. The JACL's various pamphlets are available digitally on their website but they're hard to find. The AAJA also is revising its APA Handbook for covering Asian Americans, with this addendum currently available (they'll be combined in the new revised edition being published this summer). Other than these, there aren't a resource that I know of besides a few websites including this Wikipedia entry on ethnic slurs where people can go and learn about or check whether certain words are slurs or not. Maybe I should write a quick ebook. But here's one more example just this week of an innocent use of a word that made me feel uncomfortable, and I'm glad I acted on my instincts to reach out and educate a friend:

Jeremy Lin I'm about Lin-ed out -- hopefully when the Knicks get back on the court after the All-Star break they'll win some, they'll lose some and Lin will settle into being a team leader without all the crazy hype swirling around him. But one of the coolest side-effects of his sudden rise to fame -- let's call it the Jeremy Lin effect -- has been a very public discussion of complex racial issues, the type of conversations in the media and in bars and livingrooms and offices and classrooms across the country that haven't been uttered since... Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Only this time, there's the added element of racial issues involving Asians and Asian Americans. It's been fantastic, although at times it's been frustrating too, because when seemingly benign slights are pointed out, the anti-P.C. police strike out and tell us to stop being so sensitive and get a sense of humor. Yes, it's true that one reason these stupid missteps are made is because of the novelty of having an Asian American in the NBA spotlight. But seriously, would Ben & Jerry's come out with a custom-flavored ice cream based on an ethnic stereotype for a sudden star who's African American, or Latino? Watermelon? Taco-flavor? I hope one message that has been made clear in the past few weeks is that it's not OK to treat Asians with different standards. Racism is racism. And there's no such thing as a "good" stereotype, either -- stereotypes limit people, even if they're what would be considered commendable values such as hard-working, or smart. One sports anchor on an Asian American media email list pointed out that unconsciously or not, a majority of reports he tracked just happened to point out Lin's "smart" basketball skills. And Lin himself asked in an interview what it means when the media describe him as "deceptively quick" or "deceptively athletic." He knows the unspoken part of the comments is "...for an Asian." So when I was asked at the last minute to give a tribute to Gordon Hirabayashi, a pioneering Japanese American civil rights leader who passed away recently, I used it as an opportunity to extend the dialogue about race and opened my tribute with Lin. The occasion was Day of Remembrance, when Japanese Americans commemorate the Feb. 19, 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which led to the incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent in American concentration camps during World War II. The Mile Hi chapter of the JACL holds an annual event to mark the date, with speakers and a presentation about the history of Japanese American internment. This year's like the last several, was held at the University of Denver's law school. Hirabayashi was one of four Japanese Americans who fought the order to the Supreme Court (and lost, although they were cleared decades later). He died on Jan. 2 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. I knew about Gordon but not his full biography. So when I learned I had to pull together a speech in a few minutes, I pulled out my smartphone and did some quick research online and jotted down notes. While I was at it, I checked the NBA scores to see how the Knicks were doing against the Dallas Mavericks.

I've been adding updates to the bottom of my previous post on Jeremy Lin, but there's simply too much still flying across the Internet radar, and that post is already too long. So I thought I'd comment separately about the issue of Asian American identity and our embrace of the Jeremy Lin phenomenon. As I write this, the New York Knicks...

Comcast and NBCU will promote AAPIs in programming JACL sent out an announcement this morning about an agreement that's been reached between NBC Universal, Comcast (which is trying to get regulators' blessings to buy NBCU) and a handful of Asian American Pacific Islander organizations: the Asian American Justice Center, East West Players, Japanese American Citizens League, OCA and Media Action Network for Asian Americans. Although the past couple of years have led to a marked increase in the number of Asian faces on TV and in movies, it's nice to see some high-level muscle put on both Comcast and NBCU to be more inclusive within their programming. The agreement's been in the works for a while; Comcast last month announced its new on-demand channel, "Cinema Asian America," which is great. I hope to see progress from other media companies and Hollywood giants too, until AAPIs are no longer invisible and are represented accurately as just another part of the quilt that makes up American society. This probably seems like a trivial deal to some people, but as an Asian American who grew seeing very few people like me on TV and in movie, it's a big deal. It's slowly getting better, but I've written about this issue as early as 1998 in a column titled "Why Can't I Be on TV?" and I've I've given speeches about the topic over the years. When I no longer do a double-take or other take notice of an "Asian sighting" on a reality show, or in a commercial, or as a lead character on a TV series or Hollywood film, I'll know we've finally arrived. Here's the full text of the JACL press release:

I'm passing this text along from an email sent out, trying to reach Asian Americans, Native Hawai'ians and Other Pacific Islanders: Did you know that 20% of Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders (NHOPIs), and 17% of Asian Americans (AAs), are uninsured? That’s higher than the national uninsurance rate of 16%. Did you know that 30-31% of Korean-Americans are uninsured? That’s as high as the national uninsurance rate for Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans. Did you know that 24% of Native Hawaiians, 21% of Vietnamese and 20% of South Asians are uninsured? That’s higher than the national uninsurance rate for African-Americans. Did you know that 1 out of every 3 AA NHOPIs is Limited English Proficient? That's 20 times the rate for non-Hispanic Whites. Did you know that 1 out of every 8 AA NHOPIs lives in Poverty? That's higher than the non-Hispanic White poverty rate. America’s 2.4 Million uninsured, and 14.2 Million insured AA NHOPIs, have a vested stake in the Affordable Care Act. Wellness Matters. Informed Choice Matters. In fact, if you were to ask America’s 2.4 Million uninsured and AA NHOPIs “What does the Affordable Care Act Mean for You?” the answer would be:

HapaVoice.com celebrates mixed-race Asians Erica Johnson is a woman on a mission. Earlier this year, she launched a blog called Hapa Voice where she posts submissions from hapas -- mixed-race Asians -- with photos and short autobiographies that explain a little about themselves. The titles of each post are a simple rundown of the submitter's ethnic mix. This elegant, straightforward approach to stating one's own identity is both powerful and moving, especially for hapas because their identities have been a central focus all their lives, even more so than other people of color. Being mixed adds a layer of richness for themselves, and too often a lare of confusion for others. So it's really cool to read entry after entry on "Hapa Voices" and see so many people who are finding their voice... and their identity. HapaVoice.com founder Erica Johnson Johnson has been inspired by the work of hapa writer, filmmaker, artist, activist, standup comic and lifeguard (really) Kip Fulbeck. His "Hapa Project" and books such as "Part Asian, 100% Hapa" are clear antecedents for "Hapa Voice." In the book, Fulbeck traveled the country shooting portraits of mixed-race Asians accompanied by statements of identity by the people posing. He recently published a new book of adorable portraits of little hapa kids, "Mixed." But as an ongoing website project, "Hapa Voice" takes Fulbeck's inspiration and breathes it more life. Johnson explains the origins of the "Hapa Voice" blog on its "About" page:

AAPI Heritage Month poster from East Tennessee State UniversityWith Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month about to end, I thought I'd write a bit about the terms we choose to describe our identity. Like other ethnic groups, the labels we use for ourselves seems to be always evolving. Hispanic evolves into Latino; Negro to Black to African American; Native American to American Indian. Asian Americans are sometimes called Asian Pacific Americans, sometimes Asian Pacific islander American, and sometimes Asian American Pacific islander. These labels lead to a crazy bowl of alphabet soup acronyms: AA, APA, APIA, AAPI. I choose to say (and write) "Asian American" most of the time, but say "Asian American Pacific Islander" and use the acronym AAPI for formal references. Although organizations such as APIA Vote and APAs for Progress helped get Asian Americans involved in the political process, President Obama and the White House prefers AAPI, as in "Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month." (Note that the poster shown here, from East Tennessee State University, calls it "Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.") Earlier this month at an AAPI Heritage Month event sponsored by the Colorado Asian Roundtable, our friend emcee Kim Nguyen stumbled on "Asian American Pacific Islander" and I had to snicker. It's a mouthful, all right, especially when you say it over and over into a microphone. And even just saying "AAPI" repeatedly gets to feeling odd, as if the letters lose all meaning upon repetition. As it happens, we may be on the cusp of a change in how we identify ourselves anyway. The Sacramento Bee the other day ran an interesting story that proposes that "Asian American" is fading off like the term "Oriental" before it. "As Sacramento's growing Asian immigrant communities celebrated Sunday's Pacific Rim Street Fest, a growing number note that Asian American isn't a race and said they choose to identify by their ethnicity," the article stated. The excellent (required reading) group blog 8Asians picked up on the SacBee's story and expanded upon its theme of ethnic Balkanization. Asian Americans are increasingly identifying more by their specific culture and ethnicity, and not so much as a larger, racially-linked group. Like a lot of social change, this may be a generational swing.

With a week before BANANA, the first-ever gathering of Asian American bloggers, I've been thinking about Nikkei View's role, or how I see my voice as part of the AAPI blogosphere. The beauty of the Internet and of blogging as an avenue for self-expression, is that we can develop not just one mighty chorus of an Asian American voice, but that we can cultivate many, many disparate voices, all with different tones and characters. It's like jazz -- not everyone will play the melody; many prefer to play harmonies, or like the beboppers of old, turn the melody inside out. Some will come up with atonal free jazz; some will play safe and mainstream instrumental soft rock; some are suited for taking fiery, flying solos while others will be content keeping up the steady rhythm that allows the soloists to take off. Man, I didn't think I'd stretch the metaphor quite so far.... but it kinda works. My point is, I think of myself as a bridge in that I will write about very mainstream topics like a traditional dance concert, and then get all up in arms about racism or internment or whatever.