David Mura’s Letter re: The Wake

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s