Tag Archives: race

performance research

The Sound of Racial Melancholia: Listening to and Performing Indie Rock in Asian America

[I presented this paper at the Inter-Asia Pop Music Studies Conference, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-Asia) chapter meeting, at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei on July 15, 2012.]

Early in my explorations of Asian American experiences of rock music, I encountered a peculiar song. “Oriental American” is a hidden track on the 1998 album Two Cents Plus Tax, by indie rock band Versus. Unlike the other hidden tracks of this era, the song only surfaces when the listener manually rewinds from the beginning position of track one on the CD for 4 minutes and 36 seconds. This song’s physical position on the album makes it almost impossible to listen to it. It’s like a ghost that hovers between the front edge of the plastic Compact Disc and its programmed tracks. It lives behind the digital codes that store sounds. I kept it as a secret, until I confronted with “racial melancholia”—both as an intellectual concept and a lived experience—a few years later.

I read an article co-written by David Eng, a Chinese-American literary scholar, and Shinhee Han, a Korean-American clinical psychoanalyst. In this article, Eng and Han offer a productive reading of their clinical observations of the patterns of depression among significant and growing number of Asian American college students. The authors deploy the logic of “melancholia,” first defined by Freud, and apply it to understand the racial dynamics in the United States from the minority perspective [slide: concept]. They posit that “racial melancholia” occurs when a racial minority individual, while holding on to the democratic ideal of equality, experiences an interminable grief over the loss of being and feeling fully integrated into the society. These feelings, in the case of Asian Americans, are rooted in a perpetual loss of the sense of “social comfort and familiarity, national belonging, language, family, social connections” (Eng and Han 2003: 349)[1]. These feelings can be both experienced broadly in their social lives, and more specifically inherited from their immigrant parents, in the case of the second- or 1.5-generation Asian Americans [slide: concept]. To put it simply, we can’t seem to ever “get over” the conflicts, ambivalences, and other feelings of loss associated the difficulties of immigration and assimilation (Eng and Han 2003:345).

Following from Eng and Han’s activist scholarship, in this paper, I intend to make audible the sound of racial melancholia—projecting the under-heard voices of Asian American minority individuals who withstand societal pressures of conformity and self-erasure. This paper stems from my personal empathy and struggle with the social state of melancholia. Today, I will animate the sounds of racial melancholia from two distinct angles. First, I will offer an extended close reading of the song “Oriental American.” I argue that this song articulates the ghostly presence of the Asian American melancholic subject position in the U.S.-based indie rock music canon. In the second part of the paper, I will move into a reflexive rhetorical position to explore the psychosocial processes of the performing agent. I ask: How I, as an Asian and Taiwanese American artist, have engaged with the personal and social condition of melancholia through performing vintage Taiwanese pop music.

Unleashing the Ghost in the Machine

The indie rock band Versus formed in New York City in 1990. The ethnic membership of Versus has been predominately Filipino-American. The Wikipedia entry on the band describes it as a “prominent example of American indie bands emerging in the 1990s which featured Asian American members.”[2] Despite their visibly Asian American identity, members of the band rarely mention their Asian or Filipino heritage in their songs, with the exception of their song “Oriental American.”

In the studio version of the song, guest vocalist Asako Fujimoto (of Japanese descent) repeatedly speaks the line “I am Oriental-American.” She notably swallows while obscuring the word “American.” Her vocal delivery sounds like a stutter. A looped tape-delayed sample foreshadows Fujimoto’s stuttering vocalization, sandwiched between a guitar riff in the foreground and a programmed drum beat in the background. With an addition of reverb, Fujimoto’s vocals carry an ethereal quality as they drift in and out of the sonic texture.

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The song ends with these lines spoken by Fujimoto: “Did they tell you what kind of thing just this is / Just say the word what kind of you wanted anything / Something that’s funny / Cute / Something dark / Something serious.” Now placed in the foreground of the mix, these lines are delivered with even more reverberation than previously. Further obscured by the effect of tape delay, the first line of this section ends with an audio overlay of two words “just” and “this is,” resulting in the stuttering of a word that sounds like “justice.” Similarly, the delay effect obscures the words “you wanted” resulting in a synthesized voice stammering “nuance.”

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I refuse to read the studio effect of stuttering as a literal reflection of the loss of language that immigrants experience after arriving in a new country. Instead, I’m interested in reading the stuttering a cultural product of racial melancholia. This opaque utterance resonates with the ghostly subject position as occupied by Asian Americans in rock music discourse. New York Times writer Neil Strauss comments in a 1995 review of The Ear of the Dragon tour, a series of performances that feature bands with Asian American members, including Versus. Strauss commends the bands for reclaiming their ethnic identity within the hegemonic mainstream rock music scenes. He notes, “It’s a brave move for groups that want their music to be considered on its own terms within the broader context of rock instead of as outsider rock made from an Asian-American perspective” (1995: 17).

Strauss’s remark not only points to the risk of race-based ghettoization in labeling oneself as “Asian American.” It also indirectly brings into relief a double standard within the ostensibly liberal colorblindness that is embedded in the ways in which people act and talk about rock music in the U.S.. Within this ideological structure of colorblind liberalism, Asian Americans, as well as other minority artists, are made to feel included, in spite of the unspoken norms within the scenes that rule out or stigmatize their experiences. I argue that this covert, racially determined double standard manifests as an instance of “American exceptionalism and democratic myths of liberty, individualism, and inclusion” (Eng and Han 2003: 347). Dominant discourses “force(s) a misremembering of these exclusions, an enforced psychic amnesia that can return only as a type of repetitive national haunting—a type of negative or absent presence” (Eng and Han 2003: 347; my emphasis). Rock music discourse in the United States can be repressive of minority voices. But these voices can return ghosts.

I let the uncanny stuttering ring in my head and infuse this writing. I work while insisting on hearing the ghostly and distorted utterance by Asian American music-making individuals, in spite of the erasure of these voices. Inspired by the song, I work throughout my dissertation research while insisting on hearing the ghostly and distorted utterance by Asian American music-making individuals. I became interested in unearthing the marginal voices of Asian American artists working on the fringes of American rock music. I began digging through CD bins, music blogs, mp3 download sites, and online social media hubs while looking for friendly ghosts of my kind. A few years of research on this topic inspired me to begin to engage with this sonic haunting in personal and performative ways.

A Performance Engagement: Dzian!

Near the end of my fieldwork, I started a band (if you saw our performance at the Underworld on Friday, then you got a taste of the full band, a six-piece band). I consider my band a post-fieldwork project of public scholarship: a playground to experiment critically with concepts of race, ethnicity, and postcolonialism formulated in my research. The band is my performative response to the persistent questioning regarding my research by academic and non-academic outsiders: “Is there rock music in Asia?” “Who are the rock musicians of Asian descent?” “Which bands are you talking about?” Alongside my band-mates, I perform to inscribe Asia and Asian America into rock music discourses. And our performance, as a form of cultural work, is aimed to resolve the feelings of loss of a sense of heritage and social comfort for Asian American individuals.

We call ourselves “Dzian!” – borrowing the Taiwanese idiom of “supercool” to evoke our solidarity with Taiwan. The band officially got together for a benefit concert in the wake of Typhoon Morakot (88水災). I was moved by this surge of support for Taiwan generated by the Taiwanese American community. Using D.I.Y. social media and event organizing, these Taiwanese American artists reached their audiences across the U.S. and in Taiwan spreading their support for Taiwan. I decided to organize a similar event to join the efforts of many in the community across the U.S.. To bring the Charlottesville and the University of Virginia (UVa) communities together for Taiwan, I envisioned a live enactment of “Nakashi”, sometimes spelled as “Naaski” (那卡西) , an iconic itinerant music performance style that emerged in Taiwan in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation era. I gathered a number of musician friends from the UVa music department to learn a hand-picked selection of some of my grandparents’ favorite Taiwanese enka songs, as well as surf and garage rock songs from 1960s and 1970s Taiwan and its neighboring countries such as Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Cambodia . I also enlisted a number of dancer-friends who choreographed specifically for the performance to complete the theatrical aspects of the Nakashi performance. Joining efforts with the Taiwanese Student Association at UVa and a local Taiwanese café, we raised almost $1000 from the evening’s festivities.

Dzian! has imprinted itself in heritage communities locally and regionally in the Unite States. The band has performed at several heritage celebration events organized by various Taiwanese and Chinese American organizations in Los Angeles, New York, and Virginia. After performing at the Passport to Taiwan Festival, we were invited to perform at the Hello! Taiwan Rocks concert at the Taiwan Center.

“We don’t care if it’s uncool to be F.O.B., “fresh off the boat.” We have unleashed all of our foreignness, defying the social norms of assimilating. We are back on the boat! No shame, no ambivalence!”

At a more personal level, my performances with Dzian! have mediated my own struggle with racial melancholia. In particular, these performances have offered a fruitful ground to ameliorate a fraught relationship with my mother. Eng and Han note that immigrants themselves experience grief over the “losses of cultural comfort and familiarity, national belonging, language, family, social connections” in the process of immigration and over time. And these feelings of unresolved feelings of loss can be inherited by the children of these immigrants (2003: 352). My mother, for a while, held onto the notion of having a physician daughter, long after I confronted her with my desire to pursue a degree as not as a medical doctor, but as a musicological doctor. During my fieldwork, I discovered that this particular parental expectation is, in fact, is a recurring trope among many of my musician-colleagues. We have commiserated over how we have struggled with the inter-generational melancholic manifestation in the sense of guilt, usually articulated as the following in their parents’ voices: “We’ve lost everything to come here to start afresh just so that you will have a better future.” Choosing a career path (in the arts) against a stable profession would seem like an act of denial and could sometimes cause relationship severance.

With my new interest in songs from 1960s and 1970s Taiwan, I began to approach my mom as a source of knowledge regarding the music of “her era.” We have had a number of exchanges about the lyrical content of the songs, while sharing Youtube performances to discuss our stylistic preferences. Since the very first performance of Dzian!, my mom has been a frequent guest performer in the band. In particular, I have asked my mom to perform a Taiwanese A-Go-Go song entitled “Mama Give Me A Guitar” (媽媽送我一個吉他) with me. During the performance of this song, my mom and I exchange lines in a call and response, enacting the story depicted in the song lyrics about a young girl pleading her mother to buy her a guitar. The song describes the girl’s desire to sing and dance alongside her mother. In performance, we enact our aspiration for keeping each other company. I put a boa feather around her and we sing arm in arm. Through the power of musical performance, we convince not only the audience but also ourselves of our close relationship. The crowd cheers on. We hug each other, both feather boa-clad , forging a musical harmony that seeps into our relationship offstage. And I know, to an extent, I have fulfilled the rock star dream that my mother probably has always had.

Conclusion: A Post-Fieldwork Cultural Work

My goal in this paper was to address, perhaps ambitiously, the practice of public scholarship as a scholar-performer, and to add to the theoretical conversation about critical positionality in ethnography (Kisliuk 1998; Wong 2008). I have offered a set of narratives that illustrate my involvement as a scholar-performer in rock music performance. I have explained how my music analysis and performance can act as a kind of post-fieldwork cultural work.

This is beginning of my effort to depathologize racial melancholia, recontexualizing its association with the personal to consider it as a collective, social phenomenon. Racial melancholia is a structure of feeling and cultural impediments that have loomed over our existence. If the cycle of performing, ethnographic writing, and then back to performing can relieve us from this matrix, let us continue to do so.


[1] For more on Eng and Han’s conception of racial melancholia, read “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning, edited by David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Berkeley and Los Angeles, C.A.: University of California Press.

[2] The most complete biography of the band Versus is found on Wikipedia. More, read: Wikipedia contributors, “Versus (band),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Versus_(band)&oldid=418761492 (accessed March 22, 2011).

 

research teaching

Passing or Covering? Social Transcendence through Music

Today in my seminar Music in Asian America, a student presented a chapter from Deborah Wong’s book Speak It Louder. The issue of passing impressed deeply upon my students. This question refers to the practical invisibility, historical and current, of Asian American artists within the music industry.

The student presenter asked her peers: Is it enough (for a formerly silenced ethnic minority) to “simply be there” in the music industry? Or should the artists address aspects of race and ethnicity in their musical output and image?

One student argued for the latter. She commented on the importance of contextualizing music with social meaning, ensuring that the right ethical messages are heard in the reception of music. Another student discussed the potential political work done by sheer visibility. She used the example of Obama: The iconicity of a minority president could empower minority individuals, especially among children.

In the chapter, Wong considers the Mountain Brothers’ (Philadelphia hip-hop group circa 1990s) methodical veiling of their names, pictures, and other indications of their Asian American ethnicity as a form of passing. The MB won a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest while concealing their ethnicity. She writes, “The Mountain Brothers passed that ultimate test, but they ‘passed’ (in at least two ways) because they knew the rules of hip-hop authenticity and were savvy enough to abide by them — on their own terms” (252).

So the MB passed and excelled within the musical standards of hip-hop. But what does this mean in terms of race and ethnicity? The word “passing” implies a hard line between betraying the minoritarian cause (of collective freedom) vs. assimilating to the majority. I think there’s a middle space between the two. Wong points out this space in her analysis, asserting that this passing is far from selling out. She gives the MB credit for creating a social space for themselves in the industry. “This social space is racialized in particular ways: as Chris Wang [of the MB] said, it’s Asian American because they are. Yet of course it is, and isn’t, that simple. This aural space is defined by Asian American voices making musical sounds that they are careful to claim as their own, through performance” (253).

Maybe because of Jim Crow segregation, “passing” is associated with upward social mobility. It implies a transcendence beyond a race-defined minority status into a majority status. I’m not interested in accessing whether the MB’s passing as a legitimate hip-hop act has earned for themselves an honorary membership within the culturally black community, in spite of their outside status.

What seems more useful in this example is perhaps the notion of musical passing – a form of aural expression that allows the sound-maker to be heard without being seen. Music allows the possibility of a colorblind reception: anyone can sound like anybody. Sound is not naturally bound to any race-related embodiment of phenotype, although artists make choices, deliberately or not, based on what they perceive as meaningful. While sound may be meaning-ful, it mediates meanings. This (moment of) semantic opacity is worthy of reflection.

I want to think deeply about this quality of opacity or mediation, allowing it develop into a theoretical apparatus that may help me articulate something that I’ve had a hard time conveying since the onset of my dissertation project: a (imagined) state of race-free liminality, or liberation, as described by many musicians that I’ve met in my field research. They often speak of their discomfort with the term “Asian American” as a designation for their music and/or ethnicity. In writing, I have interpreted it as a gesture of refusal to pigeonhole oneself. But I think there’s more to it than that.

A race-free sonority can be utopic for racial minorities. For minority artists, the cage built by racial meanings is still looming. This cage imprisons individuals of color in the reception of their image. To utilize this race-free sonority is to sell out. It is a worry-free presence in comfort. Perhaps this liminality suggests a moment of agency in face of a world where conversations about race mostly exist as a subtext – where people skirt around the topic of race, where people only talk about race in accusatory or threatening moments of outburst.

So, how progressive is this sonic race-free liminality? Is it liberatory for only the artists? How does this liberatory state translate itself in sonic reception? Is it merely a momentary state of self-indulgence considering the age-old fight for equality? Does an audio-scape create social change? I can’t answer these questions right now. But I think I will spend a long time trying to answer this question.

Rather than passing, maybe a more useful term is “covering,” as suggested by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at Yale. In the preface of his book Covering, Yoshino writes “Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Individuals cover their stigmatized traits in their daily life. “Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights.”

The notion of passing seems insufficient in capturing the complexity of how my informing musician-colleagues relate to the world. Maybe they cover more so than pass. If that’s the case, then playing music is an ongoing struggle with the covering and dis-covering of one’s traits, construed as different or stigmatizing in this imperfect world.

research

On “Asian American” Digital Identity Politics

Everyday, I receive Google Alerts about any websites, blogs, or news feeds containing the keywords “Asian / American / music” in whatever order and combination that Google search engine finds. Most of the Alerts, unsurprisingly, point to stories related to U.S. politics. Interestingly, around the time of the 2008 Presidential Election, my InBox experienced a minor Google Alert “explosion” with news stories and criticisms listing all the color-based social groups, connecting Obama’s racial politics to the now dominant American ideology of multiculturalism. To my disappointment, none of these news stories included anything substantial information with regards to the Asian American (if there is such a thing) perspective on the Obama and Biden duo.

Is “Asian American” coming to stand in for a keyword, tag (in the speak of blogosphere), or a hip buzzword in our current media environment as digitally informed and constructed? Is there “real content” beyond the textual reference of “Asian” and “American”? If so, how do we assess this content considering the methods of information retrieval, i.e. Google Alerts, and the context of presentation, i.e. hypertextual state of Internet media?

Today, my Google Alerts linked me to a couple of exciting pages of content-worthy materials related to Asian American arts and culture. One of these is a New Yorker article titled “By the Skin of Our Teeth” about “The Shipment”, the new play by Young Jean Lee. The reviewer Hilton Als comments on the Lee’s “irreverent take on racial politics.” Commenting on her 2005 play “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”, featuring the self-violence of an Asian American female character, Lee declares her attitude toward the state of identity politics in the U.S: “For this project, I decided the worst thing I could possibly do was to make an Asian-American identity-politics show, because it can be a very formulaic, very clichéd genre, and very assimilated into white American culture. It’s almost become part of the dominant white power structure to have identity-politics plays about how screwed-over minorities are. It’s such a familiar, soothing pattern. . . . It’s become the status quo.”

When I read the passage, I thought to myself, “now, here’s a kernel of wisdom” worth pursuing. What does she mean by “identity-politics show”? What consists of this ‘cliché genre’ of formulaic and assimilationist plays? A good content analyst would seek information about the playwright and this play. Before I jumped into my usual mode of performing a search on Google or Wikipedia search on Young Jean Lee, I slowed down and pondered about the path of information that allowed me to arrive at this intellectually compressed bit of information.

The New Yorker tags this article with the following keywords: “The Shipment”; Young Jean Lee; Korean-Americans; Douglas Scott Streater; Race Relations; Asian-Americans; “Pullman, WA.” Google search engines must have picked up this article because of the tag “Asian-Americans.” But search engines are not able to make a qualitative distinction between this article [or other substantive articles] from the sources that simply use “Asian American” as a stand-in for cultural multiplicity and diversity. Unfortunately, Asian America still exists, in the digital environment, mostly under a pile of diversity-bound laundry lists at best, or pornography and ads for mail-order brides or other forms of race-related sex industry, at worst.

The risk of being pigeonholed, tokenized, or even sexualized is no news to individuals of Asian descent in the United States. Playwright Young Jean Lee asserts provocative and vehement critiques for the discursive objectification of Asianness in her 2005 play which opens with a monologue by a woman with the name of “Korean-American”:

“Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status. . . . Asian people from Asia are even more brain-damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey. . . . I am so mad about all of the racist things against me in this country, which is America. Like the fact that the reason why so many white men date Asian women is that they can get better-looking Asian women than they can get white women because we . . . have lower self-esteem. It’s like going with an inferior brand so that you can afford more luxury features.”

This is intellectually dense, emotionally heavy stuff. But the fact that it’s available in a point-and-click fashion is astounding. Google Alerts prevent information from fossilization. Without Google Alerts, I would find this article somewhere down the line when I do archival search, plowing through databases for historical artifacts. The newness and immediacy of this information would be lost. Also, it would take many more steps to link this article to other articles related to the subject of “Asian / American / music” published today.

The other noteworthy piece Google Alerts linked me to is an interview of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer by RVAjazz blog entitled “Intellect Meets Creativity.” Iyer speaks reflexively about his role as an Indian American musician in the Afro-centric tradition of jazz music: “I’m just fortunate to be able to interact with the music from my perspective, and to reconsider what resonances there might be with my own experience, or with anyone’s. The point is to honor that legacy and not commodify it, but also to learn from it. I think that America was invited to reconsider a lot of this in light of the ascent and success of Obama. Those are symptoms of a larger development in our culture – it’s about who we are and where we are and what time it is!”

The juxtaposition between the New Yorker article on Young Jean Lee’s play and Vijay Iyer’s interview is intellectually curious. Iyer’s perspective on race in America is less dystopic than Lee’s. In fact, his alliance with African American culture and struggle speaks to a larger discourse about race in terms of minoritarian politics, quite contrary to the uncritical multiculturalist orientation. Iyer’s interview could tap into the historical and contemporary moments of Afro-Asian connections formed in anti-racist solidarity.

My research aims to track these moments deliberately and shamelessly, making links and disconnects among them as they occur in real time. Information as such, categorized and recategorized based on similar or dissimilar terms, is generated and circulated at high volume daily on the Internet. Digital technologies allow discourse to flow in disparate, rhizomatic directions. The hypertextual state of Internet media is overwhelming to sort through, but this quality allows information to seep into unexpected cracks and generate surprising juxtapositions. Similar to keywords and tags, identity categories, also reproduce themselves in a semi-irrational, hypertextual fashion in our time. These contradictory patterns as discovered in the digital environment may best represent the schizophrenic style of identity proliferation that would mark our post-identity-politics (or post-Race) age.

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This post was originally posted on February 4, 2009 on Yellowbuzz and the UVa Scholars’ Lab blog.

pop culture & media teaching

Race and “Air and Simple Gifts” at the Presidential Inauguration

I’m teaching a 400-level seminar called “Music in Asian America” this semester. Last Tuesday, instead of a class meeting, I created an “inauguration assignment.” The objective of the assignment is to ask the students to examine the musical representations at the inauguration ceremony in light of the current media discourse about Obama’s politics with regards to race and ethnicity. The assignment first asks the students to read SF Gate’s “Asian Pop” columnist Jeff Yang’s controversial article: “Could Obama be the first Asian American president?” and explore a slew of responses to Yang’s article. Then it asks them to post their analysis to the class blog.

The class did a marvelous job discussing the representational politics of multicuturalism exuded by the classical music performance at the ceremony. Immediately, they noticed the seemingly contrived selection of four minority musicians: Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, African American clarinetist Anthony McGill, and a U.S.-based Venezuelan national pianist named Gabriela Montero.

Introducing a Puritanesque theme, McGill plays the familiar “Simple Gifts”, 19th century Shaker hymn most notably known for American composer Aaron Copland’s citation in Appalachian Spring. Combined with the “Air”, a popular song form of the 16th and 17th century England, this arrangement by pop classical music composer John Williams presents a continuity of the American ‘folk’ culture from its European/English roots. Most explicit part of the musical message perhaps is couched in the role of “Simple Gifts” in the arrangement. In this section of the performance, the musicians, working in intimacy and collaborating with a performed (lip-synched!) vigor, displayed Obama’s politics of social unity in a literalist and sensational way. Also, the reference to Appalachian Spring is no coincidence. Similar to the effect in Copland’s ballet, the “Gifts” citation symbolizes freedom as promised by living a hardworking and simplistic life. Associated with the American ideology of meritocracy or the American Dream, the themes of freedom and hard work, also are evoked by Obama during his inauguration speech.

In his controversial article, Jeff Yang links Obama’s belief in educational achievement and work ethic to what he calls “Asian values,” the impetus to pull up by the bootstraps as perceived to be adopted by Asian immigrants. One student pointed out in class that Yang’s assumption risks reinforcing the model minority myth. Yang’s thesis is better argued in his NPR interview. In it, Yang claims “race more as a metaphor”, as a transmigratable concept away from biological and cultural essentialism, away from the binary and toward the multiplistic approach. I think he’s onto something here. Obama’s multiracial ethnicity and transcultural/transnational upbringing could embody a more fluid way of conceptualizing race and ethnicity. Yang finds these qualities in the present Asian American communities.

Present-day identity politics is not one-dimensional as once it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. Identity politics could work in such a way to allow room for identification “as” and “with.” Many individuals of social groups identify with Obama. And Obama’s unity politics seems to allow him to breach various social divides. Yang’s article should’ve been more accurately titled as “Could Obama identify with Asian America?”

I asked my students, “are there any dangers in conceiving of race as a metaphor? Is race really transmigratable?” Histories of oppression associated with race are still around us. We decided that only parts of race can be deconstructed through cultural criticism, although we hope that someday that race as an social institution and ideology will transmigrate completely and sublimate into thin air.

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This entry was originally posted on January 27, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

pop culture & media

On Race and Obama

Presidential candidate Barack Obama explicitly discusses the issue of race for the first time in his campaign speech last Tuesday (3/18/08). He does so in part responding to a speech made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama puts forth his definition of race as a color-based ideology that leads to inequalities and social divisions. Recognizing the history of black oppression – slavery, Jim Crow, Brown vs Board of Education, Obama makes clears that he is aware of the fact that minorities in the United States still experience the social, political, cultural and even psychological consequences from this racist history. Obama taps into the current discourse regarding social emotionality as he diagnoses the causes of “black anger” and “white resentment.” He then attributes the conflictual sentiments to the issue of race “that we cannot afford to ignore right now.”

Obama is quick to point out the racialized response to the presidential election campaign, i.e. the bipolarization between African American and white votes split between Obama and Clinton, the prediction of white majority’s favoring McCain. This conspicuously leverages his campaign strategy of promising a “union” across the racial and economic divide. This union is a union of “the people,” particularly for and from the children, with the central issue being education. Pitted against the “people” are implicitly the immoral corporations and political lobbyists with self-interested motivation and power to advance for profit. I like that he targets the corporations and the politicians. But I ask, who are these “people”? The American people? The citizens? I dare asking, what about the non-citizens? What about the immigrants?

The compelling effects of Obama’s speech have much to do with the colorblind discourse presently dominating the American public. He’s right to say that there is much cynicism in the current cultural and political atmosphere, and not enough serious discussions about racial equality and justice. He is even progressive-hip to censure the neo-conservative contradiction in “reverse racism” and American public’s compulsory to be politically correct. But unfortunately, this is where he stops.

A good student of American history perhaps, Obama draws the cause-and-effect relations between the historically known facts about African American oppression and the current racial inequalities in the U.S. Obama understands the “white resentment”, particularly toward pro-minority policies such as the Affirmative Action, as a reaction to white American citizens’ claim to their “immigrant story” and the American Dream. Obama criticizes the majority’s blind faith in “equal opportunity.”

The immigrant story is not just a story, it’s a reality. In the resolution portion of his campaign speech, Obama advocates for a sense of hope for change. To the African American voters, he promotes hope and stands behind their grievances for justice. He conflates the conditions of an economically disadvantaged “immigrant father” to the minority side of the divide.

It seems, the immigrant figure can flip-flop from the white majority to the African American minority side of the picture rather conveniently. Obama apparently side-steps the issue of immigration most pertinent to Latinos and Asians living in the U.S..

Race is not just only an issue related to the domestic black-white relations. Race is also central in the polemic about immigration and foreign policies. When Obama denigrates corporations for outsourcing, he ignores an important part of the story: both working Americans’ animosity toward “foreigners” working within the border of United States as migrant workers, or working for an U.S.-based company. The discourse around the War with Iraq and anti-terrorism is undeniably tainted with racializing ideologies about the people of the Middle East and the Islamic faith, both abroad and domestically. Immigrant rights as well as race-based profiling and hate crimes against American citizens and immigrants of Central Asian ethnic and religious affiliations have been downplayed in presidential debates.

Race and Racism come in various shapes and colors. Some are black; some white. And some are brown, some yellow. Whiteness (or blackness) is sometimes defined by while being pitted against brown-ness, yellow-ness, or Muslim-ness. Obama’s “new politics” fails to address an age-old problem about the interethnic and interracial tensions within the United States and abroad. Until the issue of race is addressed multi-dimensionally with nuances regarding citizenship and border, race remains a stultifying divisive force. There is conceivably no true union, if the union is based on hate and exclusion across various borders within and along the U.S., and not on the domocratizing ideals of this country.

If you haven’t watched it yet, please do:

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This entry was originally posted on March 28, 2008 on Yellowbuzz.