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)
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