Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Construction and Identification of Racist Discourse by Asian American Youth


In Cantonese, the term used to identify a black person, hakgwei, is literally translated into English as “black ghost” or “black demon.” The term has become so widely used that it can now be translated as “black foreigner,” a less racist—though still derogatory—term. By classifying black people as “ghosts,” the Cantonese term effectively refuses to recognize their humanity. Although the students in “Racist!”: Metapragmatic regimentation of racist discourse by Asian American youth probably didn’t have such cruel intentions in mind when they cried “racist!” at the mention of the word “black” in various contexts, they were contributing to the indexical, interactional, and ideological processes that construct racist discourse (Reyes 4). Reyes explains this construction by providing examples of racist discourse in American society, examining when and why Asian American youth call out racism, and drawing conclusions about the development of racial ideologies in America.

To demonstrate how the act of crying “racist!” isn’t only present in the classrooms of an Asian American cram school in New York City, Reyes offers several examples within the American political sphere and the American entertainment industry (Reyes 6):

1. Newt Gingrich, former Republican House Speaker, called Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor racist for her comments about the diversity of the federal judiciary.
2. Glenn Beck, conservative radio and television host, declared that President Barack Obama was racist for condemning the white police officers who arrested a black Harvard professor who was simply trying to enter his house after his front door jammed.
3. On the NBC comedy series 30 Rock, Tracy Morgan’s character exclaims that Tina Fey’s character is racist for confronting him about faking illiteracy and then correcting him for wrongly attributing a quote regarding racism to Bing Crosby instead of Bill Cosby.

4. On the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, Wanda Sykes asks Larry David if he trained his new dog to be racist after it attacks her and a black repairman but not a white repairman.

5. On the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari’s character asserts that a black canvas painted by Doug Jones’ character is racist.

As Reyes explains, these examples share a desire for political correctness, though the first two show how politicians of color should avoid reverse racism while the last three show how white characters should avoid subtle racism. Another real-world example of crying “racist!” is that of Betty Brown, a legislator in the Texas House of Representatives.

During his 2009 testimony to the House, Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans, described the identification problems encountered by people of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent living in the United States. As Ko explained, many Asians have both a legal, transliterated name and a common, English name, which can cause issues when voting, applying for a driver’s license, or registering for school. Brown responded, “Rather than everyone here having to learn ChineseI understand it’s a rather difficult languagedo you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Her response caused national outrage, with many news outlets declaring her racist. Brown later claimed that her statement was directed at solving the identification problem and that it was the Democrats were trying to make everything about race, though she ultimately apologized for her comment. Although this isn’t an example of a politician of color engaging in reverse racism, it is an example of how crying “racist!” reshapes the concept of political correctness, forcing Brown to apologize for her statement.

Next, Reyes identifies instances in which the term “black” is used in the classroom and how the Asian American students respond to its use:
1. While discussing the Columbine High School shootings, the boys refer to the shooters as “Men in Black,” to which one student cries “racism!”
2. While trying to quiet the students, a teacher declares that the “sword of darkness” will come to those who display bad behavior, to which the boys respond that “the blade [of the sword] is black” and cry “racist!”
3. While working on a crossword puzzle, the students relate the keys on a piano to their color and separation on the keyboard, crying “racist!”
4. While working on an assignment, one student calls another “black and nerdy” in response to an insult, to which another student cries “racist!”
5. While working on an assignment, the students discuss the black hair color of a fellow classmate, yet no student cries “racist!”
As Reyes notes, “Instead of always or randomly crying “racist” in response to any occurrence of the term “black,” Asian American youth systematically interpret only particular uses of “black” as racist: those that are recognized as indexically linked to negative racialized qualities” (Reyes 23). This explains why in the first four examples, students call out racism, while in the last example, no student makes the “racist” joke when discussing the hair color of a classmate.

Even though Asian Americans are excluded from the black-white racial paradigm of the United States, the comments of these students reinforce the racial paradigm by recirculating terms for black and white as naturalized oppositions, positioning black unfavorably within these oppositions to escalate physical violence or verbal abuse, and mapping terms for black and white objects onto persons (Reyes 24). Reyes clarifies, “Asian American youth contribute to the assertion that race and racism remain culturally significant, even if by commenting on a paradigm in which they are absent” (Reyes 24).

From Reyes’ analysis, we can conclude that “Asian American youth renegotiate their position relative to dominant racial categories” by commenting on the black-white racial paradigm of the United States, shaping “both local classroom identities and widespread racial ideologies” (Reyes 27). Yet, the humorous way in which Asian American youth and the entertainment industry use race and racism “produces uncertainty about whether [they] are partly exploiting or even mocking racist accusations for comedic or other social effects” ( Reyes 27). Nonetheless, calling out racism in classrooms, politics, and entertainment “continually reshapes the development and movement of racial ideologies, so that what it means to be politically correct is in constant flux” (Reyes 28).

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