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Lately I feel like I’ve been blogging mostly when something makes me angry, but then I remember that anger can be used productively to instigate social change and then I stop feeling so bad.

Earlier today my friend and colleague Debbie Reese posted a blog entry regarding a new book in the Alvin Ho series – I’ve read the first two, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking and Other Natural Disasters and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things. I adore the  Alvin Ho series because the protagonist is an endearing Chinese American boy whose OCD tendencies are dealt with in an empathetic, charming and humorous manner. Plus, there are few children’s books directed at this age group (grades 2-4) that depict Asian American boys, so hurrah for that!

However.

I was severely disappointed when I learned that the newest book in the series, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes, devotes much of its plot to Alvin’s preparation for and participation in “playing Indian” at an upcoming birthday party. And we’re not just talking one illustration of Alvin wearing a feather headdress, we’re talking it’s a major part of the plot.  Check out Debbie’s blog post here:

http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2011/06/alvin-ho-allergic-to-birthday-parties.html

I’m trying to process this as an Asian American scholar of Asian American children’s literature. How are Asian Americans complicit in perpetuating stereotypes of cultures not our own? Why? And from where (or from whom) do we learn these stereotypes? What makes us think it’s okay?It grieves me that we participate in the denigration of already oppressed cultures, whether intentionally or not (intentionality doesn’t matter – impact matters).

I wrote this in the comments section of Debbie’s blog:

I find really interesting (and disturbing) when one non-white group performs the stereotypes of other non-white groups and cannot make the connections or commonalities of mockery, bias, oppression, etc. My fellow graduate students and I at Illinois worked hard to show the undergrads that the Chief mascot was not entirely unlike the Pekin Chinks mascot at a high school only a couple hours from town in an effort to form some pan-ethnic solidarity around the Chief issue, and I guess I should not have been surprised at how resistant some of them were to seeing the connections. How would Asian Americans feel if we saw non Asian American people playing “Japanese Interment” or “Blacks v Koreans in the 1992 LA Riots” or “Chinese miners v white miners”? This speaks first to a major failing on our education system in not educating our young people on, well, let’s just call it appropriate behavior, and second on the failure of our books in perpetuating these stereotypes in children’s literature. This is a pretty egregiously (I’ve been using this word a lot lately) horrific and inappropriate depiction. I think that it exists at all means that we haven’t been taught to think about other people, only about ourselves (if at all), and that is frightening.

I think there are many reasons why this book was approved for publication:

  • Apparently no one – NO ONE – at Random House stood up and said, “Hey, isn’t this stereotyping? Maybe we should think twice…” or if they did, no one listened, and the book went to press. This reminds me of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” song – did NO ONE on her production team have an issue with her using the word “Orient”?! Seriously??!
  • Another reason is because kids really are still playing “Cowboys and Indians” or “Settlers and Indians” or “Take-Your-Pick and Indians” – parents continue to condone this behavior, however racist and misinformed and inaccurate.
  • And finally, specifically regarding the fact that both Lenore Look and LeUyen Pham are Asian American – well, I wonder about their racial experiences, perspectives, sensibilities. And then I wonder about other Asian Americans in the publishing industry and we Asian American scholars, all of whom are working hard to create and promote the best and most realistic and accurate (give or take artistic and creative license) books for young people. But this is not the best of books for young people. This is one of the worst, most blatant and egregious instances of Native American stereotyping. It grieves me that we are guilty of creating images that are hurtful and harmful, and I think it’s largely systematic because we have not been taught that they are so. Or perhaps we have, and we didn’t or refuse to listen, because it’s not MY group, not MY issue. Which in some ways is worse.

I am angry – really, really angry – that we have not all learned how to be sympathetic and empathetic. I am angry – really, really angry – that in 2011 this kind of book can still be published. I am angry – really, really angry – that we clearly have MUCH more work to do.

As an educator, I extremely conflicted. I love the Alvin Ho books so much that I assign them in my Library Materials for Children course (and have already ordered them for 2011 Fall), but the publication of this new book casts a very dark shadow on how I now perceive the series, and whether or not I will continue to promote it. One thing I know for sure: this is NOT okay.

Not Me! by Nicola KIllen

Yesterday my friend Debbie Reese (the scholar behind American Indians in Children’s Literature) blogged about a new picture book, Not Me! written and illustrated by first-time picture book author Nicola Killen. The book was published by Egmont in the UK and is available through both the UK and US Amazon market. Especially as a professor teaching a course on Social Justice and Children’s/YA Literature, I had to see what this was about. Seeing the cover image on the left, I hope it’s clear why Debbie blogged about this, and why I also felt the need to comment. Unfortunately, for some reason Blogger keeps returning an error message when I try to comment on both Ms. Killen’s and Debbie’s blogs, so I’m posting my comments here instead.

In order to understand the context of my comments below, you’ll want to read Nicola Killen’s original post and subsequent commentators responding to that post, and also read Debbie’s post on the same topic. Only after will the following make sense:

I have been following this thread with great interest and am very much enjoying the conversations here.

As a graduate student at Illinois, I took a children’s literature course with Debbie Reese that strongly influenced the way I think about representations of Native Americans in popular culture. Now as a professor of Library Science, I invite Debbie every year to guest lecture in my classes and assign her blog as required reading, and my students are always tremendously influenced by her conversations with them. It is not just Native American mothers that might not pick up a book where a non-Native child “plays Indian” (however unintentional by the author and/or illustrator); as an educator, I might not purchase, assign or promote such a text. In fact, I’d use it as a teachable moment – I’ve already posted a link to this conversation on my course website for *Social Justice and Children’s/YA Literature.*

I think the fact that Debbie is Nambe Pueblo and an educator with a background in American Indian Studies lends great credibility to her cause. I would hope that me being Korean American and having an academic background (both a BA and MA) in Asian American Studies would lead others to trust my judgment when I comment on similar issues. This is pan-ethnic alliance and strategic essentialism and should not be dismissed as “[presuming] to represent.” Therefore I take offense to the implication that dressing up in a kimono is harmless “play” when that same child might think that likewise dressing up in a grotesquely bucktoothed, squinty-eyed karate costume on Halloween might also be “play.” It’s a slippery slope, and one where I would exercise caution over liberty. Taking liberties in the name of freedom of expression seems culturally arrogant.

The suggestion that a Native child wearing a cowboy hat has the same effect of a white child wearing a Native headdress is egregious – this dismisses the centuries of genocide and discrimination suffered by Native Americans at the hands of mostly white people, and elides the power and privilege that white people hold in this country and others. While white people doing blackface is not exactly the same, I don’t think the connection is without merit. It stems from not understanding and respecting different cultures, and reducing them to entertainment and even mockery. And at the end of the day, as Debbie notes, if Native students are not doing as well as they could in school, partly because of the ways in which they are misrepresented and their culture is so liberally used as “play,” well then, does that not give one pause? I would hope that we would extend to those groups the same respect for human dignity that we want and expect for ourselves.

And finally, suggesting that Debbie has other places where she could channel her energy is absurd; Debbie is one of the most productive, hard working, and responsive people I know. Her work is incredibly important and has been cited by countless students and professors, organizations, libraries, museums, and who knows exactly how many blogs. She is well respected in the field of children’s literature, and her work has tremendous implications for the publishing industry, libraries, schools, and of course the universities and programs that prepare students to work in those institutions. Her ongoing engagement with Ms. Killen is one example of this tireless work.

I also very much respect Ms. Killen for being willing to engage with Debbie and others on this topic. If only others would likewise listen.

Posting the full text of writer David Mura’s response to Mrs. Foucault, with his permission:
Dear Ms. Foucault–

I think your reply to Karen Lucas and its critique of the xenophobia of certain University of Minnesota students was heartfelt and very much on the mark. As a result, I do believe you had the best of intentions with the satiric article. However, clearly to some Asian Americans, it didn’t come off the way I think you wanted it to.

There is of course a long history of satire being misread. Still I think the problems here involve more than just the usual problems with the genre. To my mind, in your satire, you perhaps failed to take into account the particular ways many Asian Americans experience how they are portrayed in this culture. In other words to write a satire concerning say white male fraternities takes place within a history of portrayals of white male college students that is quite different from a satire concerning Asian American students. But that difference in portrayal simply points to an even vaster difference in the experience of those two groups, both in the present and in terms of historical context.

For the white male college students, the portrayals of such students contain many positive forms where they are depicted favorably and heroically. But that’s not the case for Asian American students. As a result, it becomes very difficult for Asian American students to presume that a given satiric portrait may be ironic rather than simply another portrayal which relies on stereotypes to make fun and denigrate Asian Americans. This is because such satire presumes the existence of and knowledge of a positive portrait of such students, whereas, other than a few exceptions, such a portrait simply doesn’t exist in this culture.

In other words, yes, of course there’s a norm in our culture that everyone should be treated fairly and equally and satire in part works from this premise. But when it comes to the actual depiction of Asian Americans, this general norm is not practiced. The particular portrayals of Asian Americans are always either rife with stereotypes and sniggling putdowns (think of any comedy where an Asian American figure appears) or as secondary minor characters (Hawaii Five-0). There doesn’t exist a norm where Asian Americans can appear in comedy and not have their ethnicity and race be the object of ridicule on some level. Nor does any positive portrayal exist where there isn’t some nod towards a hierarchy where the white person will always be in charge. If people misread your intentions with your satire, well, it’s no surprise that they would presume it came from the same place as almost every other portrayal of Asian Americans that exists in the culture (except in those rare instances where Asian Americans are the controlling agent of that product).

All this is very complicated. But in another way my point is simple: You can’t expect Asian Americans to read a satire involving Asian Americans in the same way you might. You shouldn’t necessarily presume that you as a white person have a complete understanding of the ways we experience and interpret the world or your words, even though you might be writing with the best of the intentions. When I speak on the issues of diversity and race, I always tell white middle class audiences, “I am more like you than you think I am and I am more different from you than you think I am.” It’s generally easier for them to understand what I mean by the first half of that sentence than the second half.

In the end I do want to applaud you in your fight against the small minded ethnocentricism and the racial fears of U of MN students. The fact is we’re moving towards more and more diversity and greater global connections; if students want to prepare themselves for the world they will be living and working in xenophobia is not what will be required. I want to encourage your intentions. But I do think you wrote your satire mostly thinking of how a white audience would respond. I don’t think you really thought out how an Asian American audience might respond. And in a way, that presumption simply reduplicates the hierarchy you’re intending to dismantle since it assigns a secondary status to us as an audience.
all best —

David Mura, writer, author of Turning Japanese

[Updated Monday June 6, 2011 @ 12:08 PM] Also with permission – Karen Lucas’ letter re: The Wake:

News short from The Wake Magazine: not funny?
The piece has clearly hit a raw nerve, an effective tool of satire. Whose funny bone it hits is another matter. If Alexander Wallace (the uber bimbo from UCLA library U tube video) and friends are your target audience, they are rolling on their trailer home floors wetting their thongs. Your article painfully reminds us of the glass ceiling that allows Schwarzenegger to have governed California and Nils Hasselmo to preside over a major university but points to the reality that anyone with an Asian accent is speaking something as career enhancing as Ebonics. This piece is the most effective advertising endorsement you could give Chilly Billy’s and if I were them I’d frame it and hang it on my store wall next to that first dollar bill. For something so funny, why does it feel like water boarding?

Karen Lucas

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