Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Racism and the Online Petition

Racism is bad but I'm probably not going to sign your online petition. I'm probably not going to draw up a sign and stand outside protesting a person, a store, a company. Don't get me wrong. Whatever's making you upset probably makes me really upset too. I just don't think those things work.
If I were the CEO of a company and found a letter with 5,000 names attached I probably wouldn't even read the letter. How do you respond to force? If I capitulate to the demands, I end up looking weak before people I know. If I stand resolute with the people I know, I look like a jackass to strangers. I don't believe much in letter writing campaigns, petitions and protest signs.

Look at this facebook collection of responses to the Knicks' acquisition of Jeremy Lin.

Yes, we can say that nearly everyone commenting is ignorant, stupid and a whole lot of other words too, and I think that's fair. But I also think it's fair to say that Chinese people haven't proved themselves in the NBA as a statistically significant population. Forget Yao Ming and read that last clause: statistically significant population. We need something like 5 more Yao Ming's and about 20 more average players before Chinese players begin to really get respect.

Reflecting back on my life, it feels like I've lived two lives. The early portion of my life met with a lot of racism. Sing song cries of ching-chong-belly-wong (because I was fat in addition to being a minority), Chinese-Japanese eyes, fast food jokes, and a whole lot of bullying accompanied the early years. I'm thankful for my Caucasian friend Brandon who acted as a buffer for reverse racism. Everytime I wanted to type-cast my oppressors as categorically evil, I couldn't do so because his example bucked the trend.

Then there were the college and post-college years where there seemed to be a vacuum of racism. I never heard another racist joke aimed at me. What changed?

I did.

I stopped being fat. I became strong.

I dropped the accent. I became articulate, even overprolix. The only traces of New York Chinese show when I say names like "Sarah" and words like "hilarious."

I stopped dressing like a nerd until the mid 2000's where nouveau-nerd became popular.

I transformed myself and no one made fun of me anymore. But I still wasn't comfortable. I may not be the target of jokes but I know that there are still others who are getting shit for being Chinese. I don't know Danny Chen but I know Chinese-Americans in New York. I know what they sound like on the phone with d's that should be th's. I see them in gyms, undershirts unflattering to their thin chests and stick legs protruding out of too baggy shorts. I know that they get shit I don't get. For them, they're small and weak because they're Chinese. For me, I'm big and strong because of diet, genetics, exceptionalism. Others say they're held back by the same thing that I should be proud of: being Chinese.

I think back to W.E.B. DuBois' talented tenth. I hate reading that essay. I feel so alone afterwards. Even if 10% of 1 billion is 100 million, I still feel too alone, too burdened to succeed. I want to be a writer because I want to punch everyone who ever made a Chinese accent joke seriously in the teeth. I want to be an Ironman-Crossfit-kickboxing athlete so I can stand up for every Chinese, every oppressed who ever got shoved down in a group.

But it's so un-Chinese to take up the torch. I think my greatest racial struggle has been to acknowledge my exceptionalism with its perils and responsibilities. Doing so acknowledges many things. Number one, experientially, most Asians I've met are physically underdeveloped. It feels shameful to bring this subject into the light. Number two, it means people will look towards me. My failures will be magnified and my successes questioned. What must it be like for the Yao Ming's and Jeremy Lin's when they choke in the clutch? Their failures are because they're Chinese. Their successes are because they're exceptional.

I still haven't made it big yet. I'm strong but not overwhelmingly so. Deadlifting twice your bodyweight is the beginning of strength, not strength itself. Completing a marathon? Millions do it every year. Probably thousands exist that can do both at once. And I still haven't received my first publishing contract yet.

But I've made an impact. In small ways, I've made an impact. And dare I say it? I think I've made more of an impact than online petitions and boycotting. I'm "normal person strong." When people are moving apartments, I get phone calls. When I'm at parties, I'm asked to do pushups or pullups, inquired as to how much I bench and what my favorite workouts are. Do I know P90x, Crossfit, Gym Jones, HIIT? When I write, I prefer to stay away from themes of immigration. I think it's still too close, too emotional for me to put it out there in fiction form. Reality is easier than fiction.

That's the impact. Going to parties and being big and articulate. Having conversations that display me both intelligent and unawkward.

Did you know that at one point black people were thought to be weak and unathletic? The rationale for enslaving them was that they needed to be educated and brought up. Left to their own devices, they'd be helpless and small. Doesn't that sound so ridiculous in light of pro-sports today?

And I think that's the best solution to the problem of racism: time and contrary evidence. People don't make racist jokes around me but they will around others. But when they do, my spectre will remain in their mind, the uncomfortable exception to the joke that they made. What bothers them? It's not that I might be offended if I heard them. What bothers them is that their joke might not be funny. And a joke loses it's humor when it loses it's basis in reality. They can joke about Chinese people and their accents but that won't work if they know 50 people as articulate as me. They can joke about Chinese people and their toothpick arms and pencil legs, but it won't be funny if they see a profusion of Chinese athletes on t.v. in power sports.

Sign the petitions if you want but know that five hours a week in the gym will do more for you and for your people than the petition ever will. Be angry and gripe about how it's unfair but taking accent reduction classes will protect your parents more than your complaints will.

Be exceptional and be in the wider community. I think we ought to try this method instead.

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