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

Response Letter to The Wake

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.

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 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


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

Catching Up

sparky & Tommy

I said in my recent post about the word “exotic” that I would recap my thoughts from the Children’s Literature Association conference, but things have piled up since then! Apologies to my readership.

So instead, I will post links to an ongoing conversation that includes my good friend Dr. Thomas Crisp – I figure this sort of makes up for the lack of a ChLA post because we hung out at ChLA ^.^

These four conversations, among many, are really interesting to read consecutively. I hope you’ll read them in depth, but basically here’s an incredibly bare bones outline: Aronson states that creating children’s literature awards for which one criteria is that the author be a member of the community that the award reflects actually results in books being recognized for qualities outside of the book itself. Pinkney responded to Aronson, and I’ll just quote her: “Little is being taken from white writers who cannot receive a CSK or Pura Belpré Award, but denigrating these awards because of their criteria takes something significant from the members of communities who can win these prizes. Attacking these awards insults the creative talents of those who have won these prizes and the committees who work so hard to select the winners for their works.”

Mind you, Aronson and Pinkney had this conversation in 2001.

Fast forward to 2010, when Ellen Wittinger writes an article in The Horn Book Magazine that even though she is an author of both LGBTQ and straight stories, because she identifies as straight, she is no longer eligible for the Lambda award – and she’s sort of whining about it.

Arthur Levine, editor of Arthur A. Levine Books (Harry Potter! Lisa Yee! Scholastic!), commented on her article, stating:

I think it’s a good, valid, and fair thing for any group to establish an award that recognizes the contributions of people in that group. I also think that it’s a fantastic thing to encourage the production of literature that reflects the true diversity of our culture, and speaking for myself, from a multiple-minority perspective, I’m only concerned with how real, how authentic the characters (and their settings) FEEL to me, which has more to do with the writer’s skill and empathy and sensitivity than anything else. (In other words, Ellen, you’re exactly gay enough for me!)

I guess, from my perspective as an editor and a reader, I also see, in practical terms, how far we have to go before our literature even begins to reflect the complex world of TODAY, let alone the comfortably integrated, harmonious world I wish my child to see.

And then my good friend Dr. Thomas Crisp commented on Levine’s blog:

I think it is outrageous for Wittlinger to claim that “as a straight author I am at a disadvantage when it comes to announcing my books to their intended audience.”

Wittlinger claims that “I was just too darn gay for that town.” The problem was that her books were too gay. It’s clear that her sexual identity was widely known–even the head librarian states he notified the district office that she was married to a man and had two children. She was not too gay–that treatment was not about her, it was about her books. LGBT authors face this discrimination about their books and about who they are as people. Wittlinger identifies half her novels in print as having LGBT content, which means that half her books depict normative sexual identities: she can be invited to schools and libraries on the basis or recognition of those books.

Well said, Thomas, well said.

I’m really interested in following this conversation because I’ve recently stepped down from serving on the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award committee (because I’ve served 4 years and need to focus on writing, not because I don’t love the award!), which has absolutely no stipulation about an author’s background or insider/outsider anything, and have already served one year on the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association’s Literary Awards committee. APALA’s goal is “to honor and recognize individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage, based on literary and artistic merit” and our guidelines state, in contrast to the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré stipulations, that “Works must be related to Asian/Pacific Heritage, not necessarily written by or illustrated by an Asian/Pacific American. The individual must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident” (bold emphasis mine). When I realized this, I was really sad because I would like for our award to honor both a member of our community and the stories we tell. It’s not about being essentialist, but about honoring those in our community who may not be recognized by society at large – which is still mostly white.

Anyway, I’ve given you a tiny snapshot, and the conversation is still going over at Levine’s blog, (including responses by Wittinger herself) so please take the time to read through the comments. And enjoy the photo – I hardly post photos, but I couldn’t resist on this one!

“exotic,” or why editors should be careful with words

I just returned from participating in the annual Children’s Literature Association conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and while I will definitely be posting my thoughts on the conference, first, this:

One of the great things about my job (assistant professor teaching classes on children’s and young adult literature) is that publishers send me free books. This introduces me to an awful lot of great literature that I might not otherwise encounter, as well as saves me potentially hundreds of dollars per year. I’m incredibly grateful to all the publishers who have me on their lists, especially Lee & Low, Children’s Book Press, and Scholastic, and all the others who have sent me books because I’m on 2 awards committees (Jane Addams and Asian Pacific American), or just because.

Today I received a book that I think was not “just because” because there was no mention that it wanted to be considered for either award. The letter from the editor began thusly:

As a child armchair traveler, I passionately followed the exotic adventures related in books such as The Story about Ping… Exotic to me as a child (and still today), as I always have been captivated by reading about cultures and times different from my own, and places far from home.

This tells me that right off the bat that the author of this letter is white. While many of us can claim to love stories that depict cultures “different from my own,” labeling them as “exotic” immediately calls up Orientalist and fetishist sentiments. This was my first gut reaction.

As well, the fact that he cited The Story About Ping, which was illustrated by The Five Chinese Brothers illustrator Kurt Weise (see Schwartz, Albert V. “the Five Chinese Brothers: Time to Retire.” Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 8, no. 3 (1977): 3-7 and the response to it Lanes, Selma G. “A Case for the Five Chinese Brothers.” School Library Journal no. October 1977 (1977): 90-91) makes his Orientalist orientation a little more clear. The Story About Ping has been criticized for depictions of both animal cruelty and its Orientalist illustrations (slanted eyes, etc.), so a person who enjoyed that book’s “exotic” story probably does not examine illustrations or perspectives very critically. This situation reminds me of recent conversations sparked by Laura Atkins (“What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publications of Children’s Books“) and Zetta Elliott (“Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry“) as another clear example of the white-ness of children’s literature publishing; if there were more Asian Americans walking the halls of children’s publishing houses, this kind of language would not be used with such flagrant Othering.

My point in writing about this is to emphasize, in addition to how I read the white gaze through the editor’s word choice, but more so the importance of the editor’s introductory letter. I am an Asian American, and I am sensitive and react quite viscerally to the use of the word “exotic” because it is loaded with fetishistic, Orientalist fantasies of the white gaze on Asian Others; as a female, to me it signifies white males colonizing and hypersexualizing the bodies of Asian females (and yes, the editor is male). Others who are less sensitized to these words may not react the same to an introductory letter that describes an Asian culture as “exotic,” but I find it repugnant. As allies and advocates for healthy and non-fetishistic perspectives on underrepresented cultures, I hope you will not be okay with words such as “exotic.”

I have not read the enclosed book, and am not sure I will. I say that because the point here is not the book, but the editor’s letter and the impact it had on me as a potential reader, reviewer and promoter (since in my professional capacity I do review and promote books), so I don’t want you to criticize my criticisms based on not having read the book; it’s about the letter. I don’t have to read everything that comes across my desk, and a letter like that gives me a reason not to.

Transracialize! Crash Course in Transracial Adoptive Parenting

If you read anything today, read this! A crash course in transracial adoptive parenting, brought to you by Dr. John Raible, a scholar, transracial adoptee, adoptive parent and awesome coffee buddy.

Obtain a kid from overseas recently? Or still fantasizing about rescuing somebody’s orphan? Perhaps you are in the process of saving one of those less expensive kids from foster care?… The unabashed assumption and unapologetic bias behind this Crash Course is that the best teachers of adoptive parents are adult transracial adoptees who have lived through the experiment, especially those adoptees who are also adoptive parents. The second best teachers are experienced transracial adoptive parents who, even though they may not be adoptees or people of color, nevertheless have figured out how to become conscious anti-racist advocates and allies.

Allies, you ask, in what struggles? In the joint struggles against racism and on behalf of adoption reform.