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Facing Adversity:

Racism in Popular Culture Jason U. Kim


Memorandum This e-book is a summary of my lecture on Asian/Americans in Popular Culture. It is not a substitute for or a direct copy of the live lecture, but a way for students to review the concepts and some of the examples covered in class in an interactive fashion. This document was created and provided to you as a service. No parts of this document may be hosted elsewhere, modified, distributed, or used without my written consent. I have attempted to be as accurate as possible when crediting the sources included in this e-book, and they are included in good faith and for educational use only. The diagrams were created in yEd.

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Key Questions

1

By the end of this week, we want you to be able to answer the following questions. Conceptual 1. 2. 3.

What are stereotypes and do they matter? Do cultural representations matter, or are they harmless “fluff”? What is the difference between simple and substantive representation?

Close Reading 4.

Robert Lee, Helen Zia, Richard Fung, and Song and Dombrink document some of the ways in which Asians and Asian Americans have been racialized in this country. Put these writers into conversation with each other and think about how their approach to the representation of AAs overlap and differ.

5.

What does Helen Zia mean when she writes that Asian Americans must “tear down our prisons”? Can you give examples of what this kind of cultural politics might consist of?

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Do Stereotypes Matter?

2

In the social sciences, it is understood that the following things shape each other in dynamic ways. Structures: Institutions and structures that give a society its particular shape. Ideology: Ideas or attitudes which are taken for granted in a given society. Actors: Individuals or social groups, often thought about as having agency, or the ability to act in the world. Thus, stereotypes are ideological in nature, and so shape and are shaped by social actors and institutions. In short, whether they are truthful or not, negative or positive -- stereotypes matter because they are a kind of shorthand for complex racial, gender, and class relations. The meanings people and institutions assign to stereotypes shape not only our understanding of the world and each other, but also how it actually functions.

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3

Stereotypes & Representation

The traditional definition of stereotype is as follows: the attribution of particular characteristics to an entire social group, commonly held beliefs about a social group, or a form of essentialism and reductionism, where social complexities are flattened and simplified. When it comes to Asians and Asian Americans, we can organize common stereotypes into different groupings: racial or panethnic (Asians are X, Muslims are Y), gender specific (Asian men are X, Asian women are Y), or ethnicity/nationality specific (People from India are X, Taiwanese are Y). Stereotypes are powerful and durable because what is represented seems to confirm the stereotype, and so both the representation and the stereotype seem to be true and ordinary. And so for example, the stereotype that “All Asians are good at math” is constantly confirmed when Asian American students excel in math, not by dint of their study habits, but by virtue of their race. Thus, it is considered a surprise when a person of Asian heritage is found to be not good at math, since it contradicts this “truth.” This is ideology at work! Stereotypes are particularly apparent when one group attempts to represent another as we will see next. jasonukim.com | @jasonukim


“Suzie Wong. Flower Drum Song. Dragon Lady. Madame Butterfly. China Doll. Tokyo Rose. Fu Manchu. Charlie Chan. Mr. Moto. Ming the Merciless. Little Brown Brother. Savage. Mysterious. Inscrutable. Sinister. Exotic. Submissive. Diminutive. Indolent. Insolent. Sexless. Sexy. Mail Order Bride. Model Minority. I could go on and on, listing familiar and not so familiar stereotypes, drawing from an abundant arsenal of dehumanizing images that assault us daily in America, as we sleep and dream, as we eat, work and study. What is this ghastly sickness about? The heart of darkness?�

Jessica Hagedorn, Filipina American author (Zia, 135).


Out of the turmoil that began as a protest over one role in a single play [Miss Saigon], Asian Americans brought into the open the pernicious impact that deeply imbedded stereotypes have on all aspects of Asian American life‌. Community activists point out that many more individual acts of courage and bravery would be necessary to tear down our prisons of gangsters, gooks, geishas, and geeks, (135). The evolution of new Asian American communities also complicates the notion of creating an Asian American identity with cultural imagery that can replace pernicious and simplistic stereotypes‌ There is no monolithic Asian American culture; it would be more accurate to speak of Asian American cultures. Is it possible to create cultural symbols and expressions that can convey the richness and complexity of Asian Americans? (268).

Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams


6

Representation

The readings for this week, as well as the Robert Lee article we read earlier in the course, all point to the issue of the politics of representation in American popular culture. The “ghastly sickness” and “heart of darkness” Hagedorn refers to could be thought about as mainstream representations and stereotypes of Asian Americans, the cure to which Zia suggests is the creative reinvention of Asian American culture through activism and engagement. The authors also point to the differences between simple representation vs. substantive representation. Zia on Miss Saigon At first, a debate over simple representation: a white British actor in yellowface, and the non-hiring of qualified Asian American actors to play Asian roles. Then later evolved into a debate over racial stereotyping and substantive representation: Asian women as whores, Asian women as requiring “rescue” by white men, Asian women as objects of white male desire and vice versa; Asian men as inhumane, cruel, and cunning; life as being cheap in Asian culture. Fung on Challenging Racial Stereotypes and Dominant Racial Paradigms “... I want to turn my attention to a small but important body of work that addresses issues of identity and politics beyond an axis of white and yellow… I want to focus on films and tapes that explore differences among Asians, as well as between Asians and other non-white peoples,” (165-166). jasonukim.com | @jasonukim


7

Mainstream Representations In the lecture, we examined several examples of representations of Asians in the mainstream media from the last 50 years or so.

007: You Only Live Twice (1967)

However, we also observed that increasingly there are a few examples of self-conscious representations of

“Your Love” by Nicki Minaj (2010)

We saw that there are definitely recurring themes when it comes to mainstream representations of Asians and Asian Americans, and that these racial stereotypes are also highly gendered.

“Bad Girls” by MIA (2012)

Asian/Americans in the mainstream, such as in the case of MIA, who in this video depicts the Arab world and her sexuality quite differently. jasonukim.com | @jasonukim


8

Empowering Representations Thinking Points as You Watch What exactly is Awkwafina rapping about? What do we make of her performance?

What is the context for and significance of her music? Is she “tearing down our prisons of gangsters, gooks, geishas, and geeks” as Zia puts it? In what ways does she engage in the horizontal cultural politics described by Fung (i.e. moving from a whiteAsian paradigm to a non-white-Asian paradigm)?

“Yellow Ranger” by Awkwafina. Warning: Explicit Lyrics.

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Understanding “Yellow Ranger” Nora Lum (aka Awkwafina) is a 4th gen. Asian American MC from Queens, NY. Ironically, she went to the same famous music school as Nicki Minaj, LaGuardia H.S. She worked for some time as a publicist, but recently decided to pursue her passion for rap and hip-hop. She released her first album in Feb 2014 on iTunes.

KoreAm gives this succinct appraisal of her music, “Lum has been able to capture segments of the feministminded and Asian American audience.” I would argue that “Yellow Ranger” is a multi-layered satire. The track itself is a braggadocio, which is a common kind of rap where the MC brags about his wealth, sexual prowess, street cred, etc. In this case, however, she doesn’t engage in the misogynistic boasting that is common to this kind of rap, and yet in keeping with the genre, Awkwafina boldly declares her own fierceness as an Asian female rapper.

9

You can see this in the lyrics:

Bitches liking danger Sabertooth Tiger I'm a ma'f***ing Yellow Ranger And Awkwafina just a ratchet ho Instagramming kitties, topping swag up on that froyo … Yo, And I bring that yellow to the rap game High with these little eyes, Po can't tell if I'm blazed In Race Rebels, Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us that historically black cultural practices “represented a subversive refusal to be subservient,” (166) and that “exaggerated and invented boasts of criminal acts should sometimes be regarded as part of a larger set of signifying practices... [They] connote the playful use of language itself [and how the rapper] describes his bodaciousness," (190). jasonukim.com | @jasonukim


10

Reflect 1.

Find an example where according to your analysis, an Asian/American is challenging the prevailing stereotypes and dominant racial/gender paradigms as the readings described.

2.

Analyze how your example succeeds and/or fails at challenging racial/gender stereotypes.

3.

Are you able to distinguish between matters of simple representation versus that of substantive representation? How are these two connected, and how are they different?

4.

Big Picture: A friend of yours links the latest trending story on Facebook. The story is about a frat holding a “Cherry Blossom Festival� over spring break. You see that the participants were dressed as geishas and ninjas, with some wearing those conical straw hats you can buy in SF Chinatown. You want to comment on the link, but you are having trouble controlling your anger, or fear that your friends may think you are being no fun or too sensitive. Alternatively, you may be thinking that such a thing isn’t problematic at all. Knowing what you know now, what is your intelligent response to this posting?

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References Images Photograph of MIA. Source: http://blogs.sacurrent.com/staff/m-i-a-on-her-banned-movie-and-her-terrorist-father/ Photograph of Katy Perry. Source: Katy Perry’s AMA Geisha Outfit Sparks Backlash - News. Image of Fu Manchu. Source: http://steampunkopera.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/fu-manchu/ Photograph of Awkwafina by Victor Chu. Source: September Cover Story: Awkwafina Establishing Her Presence. Photograph of Run River North by Doualy Xaykaothao. Source: Run River North Stays the Course -- And Finds Success. Photograph of Jessica Hagedorn. Source: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hagedorn/hagedorn.htm Photograph of Helen Zia. Source: http://www.speakoutnow.org/userdata_display.php?modin=50&uid=177 Photograph of Trini, the Yellow Ranger. Source. Bonus Material Interview with Nicki Minaj on her music video for “Your Love” with MTV Interview with Run River North on NPR (Podcast Available) Interview with Awkwafina with Koream jasonukim.com | @jasonukim


References Course Reader Robert Lee, “Fu Manchu Lives! Asian Pacific Americans as Permanent Aliens in American Culture.” Transforming Race Relations: The State of Asian Pacific America. 159-187. Helen Zia, “Gangsters, Gooks, Geishas and Geeks.” Asian American Dreams. 109-135. Richard Fung, “Seeing Yellow: Asian Identities in Film and Video.” The State of Asian America. 161-171. Other Academic Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class . 1st Free Press paperback ed. New York: Free Press : Distributed by Simon & Schuster, 1996.

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Racism in Pop Culture Interactive Notes