Do I Belong Here? (Reflections of a Third Generation Asian American)

Years, from now, for many, this summer will be remembered as “The Summer of Ferguson.” I write and consult about the issues of race, and so I’ve paid close attention to the news and what’s been written about Ferguson. Partly, I’m trying to see what Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown and the furor around it tells me about the current state of race relations in America.

Beyond that, my own awakening to my ethnic and racial identity as an Asian American in part came about due to my reading of black and African American writers and thinkers. And so, reading the commentary on Ferguson by African American writers, I find myself trying to understand not just their perspective as African Americans, but also what their perspective tells me about my identity as an Asian American.

A few weeks ago, I came across this passage in Jelani Cobb’s article on the New Yorker website, “Between the World & Ferguson”:

“Linda Chavez wondered on Fox News whether “the ‘unarmed teen’ mantra” really fit Brown, who was six feet four and nearly three hundred pounds and had been caught on video shoplifting—and, it perhaps bears repeating, was a teen, and was unarmed. Chavez was roundly criticized, but she was really only guilty of saying aloud what many others have thought. Whatever happened or did not happen between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson on a winding side street, in the middle of the afternoon, in a non-descript outpost on the edge of a midsized city, whatever we imagine we know of the teen-ager, the salient fact is that he did not live long enough to cultivate his own answers.

I spent eight days in Ferguson, and in that time I developed a kind of between-the-world-and-Ferguson view of the events surrounding Brown’s death. I was once a linebacker-sized eighteen-year-old, too. What I knew then, what black people have been required to know, is that there are few things more dangerous than the perception that one is a danger. I’m embarrassed to recall that my adolescent love of words doubled as a strategy to assuage those fears; it was both a pitiable desire for acceptance and a practical necessity for survival.  I know, to this day, the element of inadvertent intimidation that colors the most innocuous interactions, particularly with white people. There are protocols for this. I sometimes let slip that I’m a professor or that I’m scarcely even familiar with the rules of football, minor biographical facts that stand in for a broader, unspoken statement of reassurance: there is no danger here. And the result is civil small talk and feeble smiles and a sense of having compromised. Other times, in an elevator or crossing a darkened parking lot, when I am six feet away but the world remains between us, I remain silent and simply let whatever miasma of stereotype or fear might be there fill the void.

Fuck you, I think. If I don’t get to feel safe here, why should you?”

What Jelani Cobb explores are the various situations where he as a black man has to maneuver through the racial stereotypes and prejudices of America. In so many ways, he’s far more consciously aware of those stereotypes and prejudices than the whites whose fears and terrors he must try to disarm in order to go about his day-to-day existence in this society. Cobb is aware that if he moves the wrong way or says the wrong thing—or even if he does nothing—there is a chance that alarms might sound, and when those alarms sound, they may take the form of a white person looking away or stepping aside or they may take more dangerous, even life threatening, forms–as this summer of Ferguson has made so readily apparent.

Many Asian Americans who grow up working class and in urban areas have experienced treatment by the police similar to the experiences of African Americans. They know what it’s like to be racially profiled, whether on the streets or in shopping malls or clubs, to be seen as criminals or thugs, threatening, dangerous. In certain neighborhoods in the Twin Cities where I live, that is the experience of many young Asian Americans, including my son.

Still racial profiling by the police is not something I grew up with. I am a third generation Japanese American from the Chicago suburbs. Growing up, I was constantly trying to fit into the white Jewish suburban world around me, and the messages I received there can be summed up in a single phrase–“You don’t belong here.”

That phrase is something I share with all Asian Americans, no matter where we grow up or what our class background is.

For me, this phrase has been expressed many different ways: “You’re not an American.” “You’re not white or Jewish.” “You’re not part of our community.” “You’re strange, foreign.” “You look funny.” “You look like the enemy in films about World War II, the Korean War, the war in Vietnam.” “You’re not a potential romantic or sexual partner, not someone I would ever think of dating, much less marrying.” “You speak English well—for an immigrant, for someone who wasn’t born here.” “You’re not athletic.” “You must eat funny food at home, things real Americans don’t eat.” “You don’t know anything about American culture.” “You know kung-fu.” “You know about samurai and the yakuza.” “You know all about ancient Asian culture.” “Your sister must be hot.” “You’re sexist.” “You’re not a leader.” “You’re a nerd, quiet, socially awkward, bumbling.” “You’re a joke, easy to make fun of.” “You’re stealing our auto industry, you’re stealing our country.” “You’re sneaky, inscrutable, you can’t be trusted.” “You are some other Asian I know.” “You all look alike.” “How can you see out of your eyes?” “You can never be President, a lead actor, a rock and roll singer, a country western singer, an R&B singer, head of an American corporation, a real American writer, a Minnesota writer, and any other number of other occupations.” “You’re a cook or an engineer or scientist.” “You can’t be from Minnesota.”

All of which could be summed up in the response, “What the hell are you doing here?”

In Jelani Cobb’s depiction of what it is like to live in America as a black man who is constantly perceived as a danger and a threat, he goes over the various ways he tries to defuse or counter that image. And he describes how, as he makes his way through this impossible disarming of suspicion, he feels humiliated, compromised, as if he is giving up something of himself, even perhaps something of his soul.

My situation is not that of a large black man who is perceived as a danger, a threat. Instead, the hurdle I face is that I am a perpetual outsider. I may or may not be perceived as dangerous, but over and over, daily, I am told: “You don’t belong here.”

To choose one of many examples: I golf, and on the golf course I am constantly meeting strangers. Almost immediately I will be constantly asked by white strangers where am I from, or, as one middle-aged white man from South Minneapolis, put it last week, “What nationality are you?”

“What nationality are you?” I asked.

He looked surprised. “Well, I’m Irish-German. But you know what I mean.”

Of course I knew what he meant.

And so here I went into my prepared statement, “My grandparents came from Japan in 1905.”

Why do I say this particular phrase? Although I doubt this gentlemen perceived all I intended in this phrase, here’s what it means: It was my grandparents who came from Japan and thus, are Japanese. My parents were born in America, so they were American citizens.

Of course my parents were imprisoned at the ages of 11 and 15 in World War II because all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were perceived as a military threat. My parents’ being American citizens did not prevent them from having the writ of habeus corpus suspended and their right to a trial denied. But I don’t necessarily expect my white interlocutors to be aware of this.

At any rate, I also usually add to inquiries about where I’m from, “I didn’t grow up speaking any Japanese or knowing much about Japanese culture.” Meaning: “I am two generations removed from Japan. I was born here. I’m an American. That’s my nationality.”

When I was younger I wore my ignorance of Japanese and Japanese culture as a badge; I thought it made me an American.

I don’t feel that way now. Now I regret not having learned Japanese or about Japanese culture.

At the same time, though, I do realize that any evidence of my speaking Japanese or knowing Japanese culture makes me not an American; instead it becomes further evidence that I’m not from here. And I know, in many ways, I will never be from here, even though my family has lived here in America for over a century. My face tells a different story, and nothing I can do can stop that narrative and all that comes with it.

But I try, I try. Consciously, unconsciously. On the golf course, I’ll start talking about the merits of the Vikings quarterbacks, the veteran Matt Cassell, Teddy Bridgewater the rookie, the disaster of Christian Ponder. Because if I can show I know the intricate details of the Viking quarterback controversies, I’ll prove that I really do know something about American culture, that I’m not a recent immigrant. That will prove I’m an okay guy.

In doing this, I don’t consciously question the logic behind my actions. That is, why would my status be worse if I were a recent immigrant? Is that devaluation in the head of the white people I meet? Or is it my head? Or both?

But in defense of myself, part of me just wants to convey who I am, who exactly I am. Because I actually like football and do know about the Vikings quarterbacks. Because I am a third generation American. But of course there’s more to it than that. I want to be seen for whom I am, who I actually am. I want to be seen without the scrim of stereotypes and prejudices that keep white Americans and even other Americans of color from seeing who I am, seeing my particularity, my individual history. Indeed, that’s why I’ve written and published two memoirs, one novel, four books of poetry and one book of literary criticism, four plays and dozens of essays. I want to articulate who I am, who my family is, who Japanese Americans are, our history, our community.

And like Jelani Cobb, my relationship to language is also connected to the stereotypes and prejudices around me. When I was younger, my mother often complained that I talked like a jock, and cited the way I sprinkled the phrase “you know” over and over in my speech. For me, as a teenager, talking like a jock was a way of throwing off the role of foreigner, immigrant, someone who wasn’t born here and didn’t belong.

And yet, now that I no longer speak like a jock, I also know that resorting to the talk of a jock is a way to put white people I meet at ease. And at times, what I’m trying to make safe is not just my body, but also my intelligence and the way it is associated with my body and the stereotypes it invokes.

For in certain situations, I know the more articulate and learned I appear—that if I actually let loose at full throttle my intellect and learning—the more I run the risk of being perceived as a threat because of my Asian-looking face and body. I have to pick and choose when I let my intelligence and learning show and to what degree. Because in certain situations where a white writer or intellectual would be met with respect and admiration for their intellect and learning, my intellect and learning can, in an instance, become perceived as uppity, arrogant, showing off. And if that happens, the foreignness that is my face, my body, can then be turned into that of the outsider, the inscrutable threat, the one who wants to take something from white America. Just as, whenever America’s relationship to countries in Asia takes a turn for the worse, Asian Americans can feel the shadow of that worsening falling inevitably upon us.

If our situation as Asian Americans is, in various ways, different from that African Americans, we are both dealing with the stereotypes and prejudices that surround us and affect our interactions with American society. We want to belong, to have our place at the table. But we move, as Jelani Cobb and other Africans, between masks and scrims that are placed upon us, that keep others from seeing who we actually are. And we know we must, in order to succeed in this society, maneuver and navigate around and through these masks and scrims which, no matter how hard we work, how talented we are, never quite leave us.

This is not to say that we as Asian Americans cannot succeed. We do. We work hard. We try to get along. We try to bring our talents to the table. But we also know that our hard work and our talents in some instances will not be easily recognized. And we know in other instances our hard work and talents may be perceived as threats.

How we as Asian Americans deal with all this is individual and various. There are many strategies, many ways of owning who we are, of recognizing the racism that exists in the society around us.

So what exactly am I saying here? First, I’m saying that the experiences and culture of African Americans can be useful for us as Asian Americans in our understanding of who we are and our place in America. This runs against a certain tendency in the Asian American community to distance ourselves from the African American community. It runs against the ways many whites picture us as the “model minority” who are quiet, study hard, and don’t make waves, so that we become a tool with which to bludgeon and chastise those black people who, in the white gaze, are perceived as angry and dangerous and uneducated.

Second, I’m saying that we Asian Americans do face racism, do face stereotypes and prejudices, and that this has an effect on our psyches, on the ways we articulate our identities, and on the ways we make our way through American society. And I’m suggesting that it’s better to be consciously aware of both racism and its effects upon us than to go around in denial.

Third, I’m suggesting that the effects of race upon Asian Americans involves the subtle and sometimes almost imperceptible ways we adjust to the way we’re perceived by the white mainstream. Yes, there are large historical and political issues such as the internment camps or the Asian Exclusion laws or events like Vincent Chin or the Minneapolis police shooting of the unarmed Fong Lee or the Hmong hunter Chai Vang who got into a confrontation with white hunters in Wisconsin and shot and killed several people.   Such events and issues galvanize the perceptions of and reactions to our communities. Then too there are the even more systemic issues such as the achievement gaps or poverty that certain portions of our community suffer from. But there are also the ways we as individuals are constantly dealing with and battling with a portion of the American society and psyche that still says, “You don’t belong here. You’re not wanted. You are perpetually foreign. This country will never be your home.”

Finally, I’m not saying we cannot overcome these forces raised against us. But our ability to overcome these forces will be severely hampered if we don’t recognize them. As James Baldwin, the great African American writer, wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

On the Response to Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC”

On The New Yorker web page, fiction writer Junot Diaz recently published a critique of the “whiteness” of MFA programs:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/mfa-vs-poc.html   This is a shortened version of his intro to the VONA anthology, Dismantle: An Anthology of Writings from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

Some of the responses to Diaz’s intro in the comment section are reprehensible, and I’ve written this post in response to those comments:

 

“The number of ad hominem attacks here certainly give weight to Diaz’s arguments. When the person of color brings up a critique, the response is often to critique the so-called character or personality faults of the person of color–or to critique the language in which the critique is expressed (too angry, uses too many swear words, the person doesn’t have the right to make this critique because he or she is in some other way privileged, etc.). These critiques are all ways the dominant culture uses to dismiss concrete and systemic issues.

One key issue: Are the faculty in MFA programs well versed in a variety of literary traditions and thought? When I was in an English Ph.D. program I read a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka and that was it. In my MFA program I was not taught anything about the tradition of African American letters (much less about Asian American, Native American or Latino American, much less the traditions of global writing or post-colonial theory). Many of my students at VONA and other writers of color I’ve encountered also express a similar absence in their MFA training and thus, in the faculty that teach in these programs.

A second issue about the “whiteness” of MFA workshops is addressed not to individual white people, but to the literary practices and ways of thinking which are deemed standard in a white dominated society and literary world. For example, the default literary practice in American writing is that white writers do not have to identify their white characters as being white. Is this practice politically and racially neutral or is it a practice which can be examined in light of a literary and political critique? In most current MFA workshops, what would happen if such a critique were expressed? Would it be acknowledged that there are actually at least two sides–if not many more–that are addressing this practice? Or would such a critique be dismissed as too political, as “PC” and therefore not literary? And what would the response be to the student who offered up such a critique?

One exercise of power is to keep critiques of the dominant power from ever being voiced. Ad hominem attacks are one way, ignoring the existence of the critiques are another (i.e., not knowing the literary traditions and thought of people of color), and standard practices of how workshops are run are another. The motive is to keep actual debate of the issues outside the classroom or from occurring in the literary world.”

 

I know, as so many suggest, I shouldn’t be looking at comment sections. I can certainly understand the argument that it’s useless to respond to “trolls.”

Still one comment about Junot’s piece on the New Yorker blog seemed to me to voice a valid concern. Here’s the comment:

 

“This is my perspective as a white guy in the academic world….My concern is, if I try to talk about race, people’s reaction is likely to be: nice try guy, but you can’t understand the experiences of people of color. On the other hand, based on Junot Diaz’s remarks, it seems like if I choose to keep silent about matters of race the reaction is: you’re afraid to confront these issues, so you’re part of the problem. I have no doubt that it’s hard for people of color, especially when it seems like their concerns are widely ignored. But it’s hard for me too — I honestly don’t think anyone, person of color or otherwise, wants to hear my perspective on race. I’ve never felt encouraged to join that conversation.”

 

Here’s what I wrote back:

 

“I can understand how you, as “a white guy in the academic world,” might feel you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Many whites don’t think race is a pressing issue so they don’t feel the dilemma in the way you seem to. But your dilemma isn’t the same as POC in the academic world who, when they do voice their critiques about institutional practices concerning race, are met with disbelief or ad hominem attacks or derision (as shown in this commentary section).

I recall talking recently with a young white male writer who said while he knew race was an important subject, he was afraid to write about it because he was afraid of being called a “racist.” So I’m sure there are other whites–writers and academics–who feel like you, that perhaps they’re better off not engaging, remaining silent.

Conversations are, of course, two way streets. But when individuals of different races converse, that conversation doesn’t take place in a neutral, ahistorical realm. Richard Wright has indicated that white and black American are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. But one key difference is that that white description has prevailed and dominated our society and culture.

As a Japanese American, I grew up thinking I wanted to be a white person and thought it a compliment when white people told me they thought of me as a white person. I went through twenty-six years of education without really being presented anything like the black description of our social reality and history (much less a Japanese American description). I only got that education after I left English grad school. On my own.

So the thing is, when you as a white person enter a conversation about race, most likely there are many things you don’t know–about the cultures and histories of people of color, about the arguments and theories we have of our mutual history and how this society functions, about the lives of people of color. But people of color, if we have gone through your school systems, know we have to know how whites tell their histories to themselves, how they regard themselves and their racial identity (which is often–“whites don’t have a racial identity”). We have heard the white side and view of things; we can’t avoid it. We have read books about white people by white people, seen movies and television shows about white people by white people. We have listened a lot to white people. It is really hard, if not impossible, for us to be successful in this society without listening to white people–and often, listening while holding or biting our tongues.

If you are really interested in having a true conversation about race with people of color, then you should realize that historically this has been a mainly one-sided conversation. Since whites have been dominating the conversation so long, perhaps the role for you as an individual white person is, at first, simply to listen, to find out what you don’t know. As Donald Rumsfeld has infamously observed, there are things we don’t know we don’t know. That is often the case when whites enter conversations with people of color about race. Whites don’t actually know how much they do not know about the lives of people of color. The only antidote to this is to be curious and listen. Listening too is part of the art of conversation.

Unfortunately, as so many of the negative responses here to Diaz’s article indicate, there’s a sizable number of whites who simply cannot hear people of color describe their experiences. That simple description of one’s life as a person of color so challenges white assumptions about our social reality that the white person cannot even entertain that the person of color may actually be telling the truth about his or her experience–as in sjdmccarthy’s comments below.

In Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, there’s a great quotation about identity. In it, Baldwin pictures a stranger walking into a village. Encountering that stranger, says Baldwin, should cause one to question one’s identity because the stranger looks at the world and herself and you differently than you, and your identity must now shift to include not just the strange, but the perspective of the stranger in your consciousness of yourself. But for that to happen, you have to listen to the stranger, you have to learn from the stranger. And that requires you, said Baldwin, to change your robes, to reconstruct your identity. Listening then is dangerous, threatening. But as Baldwin implies, necessary and life affirming.”

 

At the Stonecoast MFA program, I and Alexs Pate teach a workshop, “Writing About Race.” In it, writers examine literary and other issues that arise from writing about race. The workshop is an attempt to create a safe space for white writers and writers of color to discuss race.

I also teach at the VONA Voices Writers’ Workshop, a writers’ conference for writers of color taught by writers of color. VONA is there for writers of color to examine and discuss their work and the issues that arise from that work. It provides a space where writers of color don’t have to spend a majority of the workshop explaining their work or their lives to white writers or arguing with white writers about our right to tell our truths and lives in our own voices.

We need more of both of these spaces.