AsianWeek: A Lesson in Racism
By Sandip Roy

Something is rotten in the state of race relations in America and we are building a town-hall over it. Kenneth “Why I Hate Blacks” Eng has lost his gig ranting about why he hates different ethnic groups before he got around to Latinos and Jews. His publisher AsianWeek has apologized profusely for the “promotion of hate speech” but with the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors and even Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighing in, a mea culpa might not be enough to put this storm back in the teacup.
The tempest is at full boil. Even a cursory scroll down the comments on the AsianWeek apology website reveals that the issue is far from dead. And when it comes to racial stereotyping, Kenneth Eng has plenty of company.
“So AFTER ALL of the Asian racial stereotypes of the meek little, submissive, quiet, short, geeky, or just plain inscrutable Chinese male -- we finally have an Asian Male speak his mind… Where are the articles in Asianweek documenting the discrimination against Asians in SF public housing by certain "protected" groups?” demands DF.
“AsianWeek has fallen right into the ‘You should feel sorry for the blacks’ trap that is fueled via the media by the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson… AsianWeek should just go for the gusto and check all of themselves into rehab, HAHAHAHA,” scoffs EZ-E.
“Eng should be fired when Hot 97 fires Miss Jones. Her comments were much more racist and yet she only got a slap on the wrist,” writes Sara referring to New York’s Hot 97 WQHT-FM host Miss Jones who called Asians "chinks" and mocked tsunami victims.
In the anonymous world of the Internet, it is hard to tell if these posters really feel that way or are they just garden variety flamers, the Net’s version of agent provocateurs?
Of course there are also plenty of people raking Eng and AsianWeek over the coals for bigotry, ignorance, blanket stereotyping and plain old stupidity. But here’s what gives me pause for thought. Eng’s problem isn’t that he aired the community’s dirty laundry. It’s that he didn’t really think it was a problem at all.
I’d think he was just a freak offshoot of some Asian KKK except I remember when I first moved to the US as a graduate student in a small leafy town in the Midwest, on the first day I was there, a helpful older student from the Indian Students Alliance pulled me aside. “Suresh” gave me three “helpful” tips to survive in America – where I could find Indian spices like turmeric and garam masala, don’t walk down the streets holding hands with a male classmate like you did in India because people will think you are a “homo,” and don’t live on the east side of the town across the railway tracks (“that’s where the 'kallus' (blacks) live.”)
Mind you, this “Suresh” would have bristled if I had called him racist (and indeed, I meekly heard him out.) Like many of us from good schools in India he had probably memorized Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech for the school elocution contest. But the east side of town was dangerous and best avoided “for your own safety.”
It would be easy to ascribe it to our colonial past. My mother will routinely describe someone as “very beautiful even if she is a little dark.” Even now Indian women are using products called Fair and Lovely to bleach their skins. This year when I went back to India I found the Fair and Lovely empire had actually expanded – there was a Fair and Handsome for men!
But the unease around race is not just skin-deep. In 1992 Mira Nair made "Mississippi Masala" about the dismay (and shocked gossip) that erupts when a young Indian woman falls in love with an African American man. In 2007 Mira Nair has made "The Namesake" about the Gangulys in the suburban Northeast. An elegiac, moving saga about the quiet sacrifices of immigrants, it is all about the bonds of community, a place where we don’t need to explain ourselves.
As the Eng controversy erupted it made me uncomfortably aware that the comfortable cocoon of the Gangulys and their all-Bengali world that I was nostalgic for and the homogeneous gossipy insularity that breeds the racial prejudices of Mississippi Masala are actually sisters under the skin. They could very well be two sides of the same coin.
AsianWeek is now in sackcloth and ashes. But it’s a wake up call for all ethnic media. How do we report on our neighbors? Do we? We are media that takes pride in being advocates of our community, and that speaks out against discrimination. For that privilege we must learn to hold ourselves to a higher standard not growing in our backyard what we condemn out in the world. How can you report about the realities of race relations without fanning the flames? In the “have- rant-will-blog” world 22-year-old Kenneth Eng comes from, can media once again reflect the collective voice that has accountability?
Asianweek promises to review its process so that this does not happen again. But the bigger question it faces is how to regain the moral higher ground. When the next grad student from India is warned by the next “Suresh” to stay away from the east side of town will a publication like Asianweek be the place to reinforce Suresh’s stereotype or rebut it? - New America Media


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.