May 5, 2005

Prejudice against Asians is alive and well

Define "Asian": An Asian is either a pre-med or an econ major; they like to have their own clubs and communities. They are generally smart and hardworking; that's why they do well. Stereotypes are prevalent, and we frequently use them as if they conform to the people we see. As recent incidents on the airwaves indicate, racist stereotypes and labels remain a problem in the States; and, unfortunately, this is not something from which our campus is insulated.

On April 25, the "funny" hosts of the New Jersey 101.5 FM afternoon drive-time show, The Jersey Guys, discussed the upcoming Democratic primary in the township of Edison. Their commentary featured a discussion on how the Korean American candidate, Jun Choi, and Mayor George Spadoro were attempting to target the votes of the town's growing Asian American community as part of their efforts to win the election. Despite the commentators' attempt to express the concern that political leaders should not focus their campaigns on segments of a population just to earn votes, their banter and careless use of stereotypes revealed the sort of racial discrimination that persists in America today.

Craig Carton: "And if we cry about it… you know what's brought up…well you know, ching chong, ching chong [Mimics Chinese accent] you bombed us [Chinese accent] you know? The fact is…there's no voice of the average blue collar white guy anymore, cuz (sic) all these politicians are worried about the fringe groups" [Show's transcript].

Perhaps what lay beneath their blatant use of racial stereotypes were insecurities about the increasing Asian American population in New Jersey; and of course, according to their careless talk, the "average blue collar white guy" was being threatened by it.

This is not the first time that stereotypes of "Asians" have been used in such a discriminatory manner on air. Earlier this year, the "Tsunami Song" that was played by Hot 97, a New York radio station, had lyrics that used racist labels like "chinks" and "Chinamen." Stereotypes do indeed appear and re-appear in the mass media, but what about at the U of C?

A couple of terms do come to mind when one talks about "Asians" here; for example, F.O.B (Fresh off Boat) and the "Asian fetish." These terms have embedded themselves in some of our daily conversations on campus, while vaguely referring to "Asians": a large, diverse group of people who belong to different ethnicities and cultures. They also relate to various types of formulaic and simplified conceptions of Asian students. Even more disturbing is the use of negative stereotypes like the "model minority" myth; its blind assumption of an "Asian" community that is somehow more successful than other minorities creates unnecessary tension amongst already-disadvantaged minority groups.

Negative stereotypes do exist on campus, even in daily interactions between people. In a 2003 report by the PanAsia Solidarity Coalition, "Concerning the Status of Asian and Pacific Islander Students at the University of Chicago," some racist incidents were listed.

"In one Humanities class, a peer editing exercise resulted in the following comment being written on a Korean student's paper: ‘Learn English or go back to where you came from.' At the hospital, one Japanese-American student was asked repeatedly by the same staff members if she spoke English. Despite answering affirmatively each time, they continued to speak to her very slowly and loudly."

Despite being relatively minor incidents as compared to the incidents concerning 101.5 FM and Hot 97, they do confirm the presence of stereotypical notions concerning "Asians" on campus. We need to ask if such incidents still occur today, and why. Is it a product of our own ignorance and misunderstanding?

Lastly, the insensitive usage of stereotypes also obscures, to a certain extent, the diversity that is embodied, by the various cultural and political RSOs on campus. The same problems also exist when we see someone as being "black," "Latino," or "white"; what is damaging about such racial categories is our own lack of recognition that important differences do exist within these categories. This is partly why cultural and political RSOs of minority groups, like OLAS, OBS, and PanAsia, play such an important role in student life; they not only show and explain the various aspects of their individual cultures, but also highlight various problems that affect the communities they represent. If we truly value the diversity of our campus, we can and do need to pay more attention to the efforts of these RSOs on campus; failing which, diversity simply becomes nothing more than an emptycatch phrase.