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1507-0For the past several years my students and I have been compiling lists of Asian American children’s and YA literature for the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALATalk Story website (specifically, the APA booklist). This year, one of my students went to town and found hundreds of titles. (Our lists may be comparable to what the CCBC compiles – we need to double check).

A quick glance at our updated lists (not yet published to Talk Story) reveal the following:

  1. We could not find a single YA text with a Taiwanese or Laotian protagonist.
  2. White people love writing about Japan.
  3. Hold the folktales – unless you’re Asian. Then keep ’em coming.
  4. Non-adopted people still love writing about adopted Asians.
  5. We get it, we get it. Asian immigrant children struggle to speak English and are fantastic ambassadors of our cultures.
  6. We need a LOT more books with Thai, Mongolian, Malaysian, Burma/Myanmar, Filipino, and Tibetan characters.
  7. We also need a LOT more books set in Asian-inspired fantasy worlds. Let’s thank our lucky stars for Ellen Oh.

This is not an invitation to merely insert an Asian character into your text (see here and here). This is a CALL TO ACTION for Asian American authors and illustrators, and for all agents and editors and publishers and librarians and teachers and parents and caregivers and readers and scholars.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks AND #WeNeedDiverseAuthors

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.

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

Article in The Wake

An Open Letter to The Wake student magazine and Campus Progress

*Do not copy or repost without my explicit permission.

Dear Student Writers at the Wake Student Magazine and Campus Progress,

My name is Sarah Park and I am an assistant professor at St. Catherine University. I have a BA in Asian American Studies and earned my MA in Asian American Studies from UCLA, where you might know that recently a white student made a racist YouTube video about Asians in the library. I spoke up against that situation and now I am compelled to speak up against this situation: a couple days ago I saw your article titled, “White Students ‘Just More Comfortable’ at Chilly Billy’s” in The Wake.

I am very offended by the implicit privilege and explicit racism depicted by this article, and The Wake’s publication of such an article, for the following reasons:

  • Student Sarah Johnson is reported to have said, “Well, at FruLaLa I don’t even know if they speak English. How am I supposed to get normal frozen yogurt if I don’t know Chinese, right?” Ms. Johnson’s statement regarding her lack of fluency in Chinese betrays her ignorance of Asian cultures by conflating Chineseness with Koreanness – FruLaLa is owned and operated by Korean Americans. Regardless of who owns or works at FruLaLA, FruLaLa employees speak English and are perfectly capable of communicating effectively with all patrons.
  • Ms. Johnson’s use of the word “normal” shows her white privilege in being able to define what is “normal” and implicitly then what is not “normal.”
  • The article posits whiteness against non-whiteness, and particularly against Asianness.This kind of binary thinking is harmful, unproductive, and does not lead to social progress, social understanding, or social healing. Rather, whether spoken in jest or in truth, articles such as this perpetuate racism, xenophobia, and misunderstandings among society.
  • Patronage at frozen yogurt shops is diverse. The Pinkberry crave, begun in Los Angeles several years ago, testifies to this. Your article suggests that prior to Chilly Billy’s, frozen yogurt was not socially accessible for whites in the midwest. Perhaps that has more to do with campus climate perpetuated by attitudes and articles such as this than it does with the ethnic and cultural background of frozen yogurt shop owners. Minnesota is still in the top 15 whitest states in the nation, and white enrollment at UMN is at 72% while Asian enrollment is 9%.
  • Given the recent uproar over KDWB’s racist song about Hmong people, the xenophobic tendencies in our national politics and immigration policies, and ongoing hate crimes against non-whites both locally and nationally, it is socially irresponsible for The Wake to publish such racist views. I would add that, further, it is financially irresponsible as small businesses continue to struggle in this economy. Publishing an article criticizing a small business with racist views can do irreparable financial damage.

The publication of this article does not align with Campus Progress’ goal “to promote progressive solutions to key political and social challenges”; in fact, it does exactly the opposite. Freedom of speech and editorial freedom are one thing, but articles should still be guided by Campus Progress’ mission is to promote progressive solutions.” I completely disagree that this is merely a “controversial or offensive opinion,” as a CP representative wrote in response to a colleague’s letter (on this same issue). In fact, this article is outright racist and has no place in a progressive media outlet.

I recommend that The Wake issue a public apology and develop a process to review articles prior to publication. I honestly don’t believe that a media outlet would not review articles for grammar, quality, and style, much less for content. If these actions are not taken, I urge Campus Progress to pull funding from The Wake since it clearly does not align with CP’s mission.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Sarah Park, Ph.D., M.S., M.A.
Assistant Professor at St. Catherine University

UPDATE 4:42PM Campus Progress’ (Unsatisfying) Response

Prof. Park,

Thanks for your feedback. Our program supports progressive media outlets, which may occasionally present controversial or dissenting opinions. We believe in the editorial freedom of our grantees and do not review any work before it is published. Feel free to email us back if you have further questions or concerns.

David

David Spett

Journalism Network Associate

Center for American Progress

1333 H St. NW, 1st Floor

Washington, DC 20005

202.481.8202 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            202.481.8202      end_of_the_skype_highlighting

dspett@americanprogress.org

Campus Progress’ Journalism Network: Supporting and training the next generation of progressive journalists.

I’m a strong believer that discriminatory, hurtful, racialized acts of violence (whether physical or psychological) demand a justifiably angry response. What I don’t believe, however, is that we have the right to act out our angry response to violence with violence. That is debasing and excessive, not restitutive, and leads to our legitimate voices being delegitimized.

Today I woke up to a Daily Bruin article stating that Ms. Wallace is receiving death threats in response to her anti-Asian tirade. While what she did was incredibly stupid, our responses should not match her level of idiocy. We should respond out of justified anger, but not out of hysteria.

I think the police should protect her and the school should let her reschedule her finals. There are likely people out there who are stupid enough to do stupid things if she shows her face on campus.

HOWEVER. I wonder if her video, as it elicited a strong response from Asian Americans, elicited a response from fellow, like-minded non-Asian students? Is it unsafe for Asian Americans to study at Powell Library? Personally, I would feel unsafe entering a space where white students can condemn Asian students, whatever their actions. I was overwhelmed by the burden of racial fatigue I suffered yesterday. I’m sure others, especially UCLA Asian American students, felt it too. Will the students who are negatively affected by this video and the ensuing discussions also get to reschedule their finals? Will I get to reschedule all the work hours I lost yesterday?

You might argue that we had a choice whether to study or work or be involved; however, this kind of racist behavior demands a response. Our silence would have condoned her behavior, perpetuated the passive Asian stereotype, and then it would have happened again. I’m actually very proud of my fellow Asian Americans – alumni, students, other concerned community members, even USC alum – for standing up in droves. We choose to speak. We choose social justice. We choose to stand up for the right for Asian Americans to study in a safe campus. And we demand that the administration listen and respond.

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