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API: MUSIC ART CULTURE & RESISTANCE

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

“Yellow Lines”by Thien-bao Phi:

from “Yellow Lines”by Thien-bao Phi:

Besides white people, African Americans are the most visible race in America, and Asian Americans are the most invisible. Part of this invisibility is due to our dubious privilege, the relative ease of assimilation for us if we choose to play the white man's game. But this invisibility is also rooted in a lack of knowledge and awareness of Asian American history and issues, an ignorance that we, as well as non-Asians, carry. Consequently we, and non-Asians, fail to identify Asian Americans as people of color, or fail to understand the specific ways in which we have, and still suffer from racism. Everyone constantly talks about the black-white divide when we talk about race. Sometimes people throw in the words Latino or Hispanic for some flavor, and if they remember to mention Native Americans at all, most people will concur that they are oppressed racially. However, it is entirely possible that you can be considered by most people in this country to be a progressive or radical without knowing or mentioning a thing about Asian American history or issues. In James Loewen's National Bestseller Lies My Teacher Told Me, nowhere does he mention the complete lack of Asian American history in classrooms and education. In his introduction, he states that African American, Native American, and Latino students view history with a special dislike. No disagreement there, but he uses this pronouncement to insinuate that people of color do not like history classes because there is nothing about their history or culture reflected in their education and excludes Asian Americans from that racism. In a later chapter, he states:

Caste minority children-Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics-do worse in all subjects, compared to white or Asian American children, but the gap is largest in social studies. That is because the way American history is taught particularly alienates students of color and children from impoverished families.

Again, no argument there, but by lumping Asian Americans in with whites in the above paragraph, Loewen insinuates that Asian Americans are learning what they need in American history as opposed to other people of color, and that Asian American children do not suffer disproportionately from class oppression based on race. This is further magnified by the fact that his book does not talk about Japanese American internment, Chinese American workers on the railroad and gold mines, plantation workers in Hawaii, the extreme poverty and lack of access to education for Southeast Asians, the past (and present) exploitation of Asian Indian and Filipino workforces, or any other of the many ignored facets of Asian American history. There's a single picture and a short blurb about sweatshops in Chinatown. And although he does devote part of one of his chapters to the war in Viet Nam, it is presented as a foreign dynamic and not a domestic one: common enough, that the most visible issues regarding Asians are the ones that concern us in Asia, not America.

This is not a value judgment, a plea to make the case that one group is more oppressed than another. In terms of race, there are advantages and disadvantages to being visible and invisible. For example, there is a romanticizing of visible minority status among liberals and progressives, the same for invisible minorities amongst conservatives and assimilationists. Neither is entirely accurate or preferred, and both rely on ignoring the very real complications that permeate race. But in the case of Asian Americans, who are often incorrectly lumped in with whites, it can be challenging to even engage in dialogue or action against white supremacy: what do you people have to complain about? Aren't you better off than the others? Haven't we whites been good to you?

In this sense, hip hop mirrors mainstream and progressive culture: you don't have to know a thing about Asian American history or issues to be engaged in hip hop culture or lifestyle. At its heart, hip hop is an Afrocentric culture. You have to at least have some semblance of knowledge regarding African American history and culture in order to be truly hip hop. In order to understand and appreciate the vocab, references, and music, you must be familiar with the culture. Part of culture is knowledge and the recognition of symbols, names, and events. If you drop the names Diallo, Farrakhan, and Mumia in your rhymes, most hip hoppers will know who and what you're talking about. What if you up and try to drop Vincent Chin, David Wong, Thung Phetakoune, Thien Minh Ly, Richard Aoki, and Bill and Yuri Kochiyama up in your lyrics5? Who the hell is going to know what you're talking about? Most Asian Americans wouldn't even know, let alone anyone else. Back when Ice Cube's “Black Korea”came out, I encountered far more hip hop fans of various races, including Asians, who understood, sympathized, and defended his ignorant diatribe than ones who considered the Korean perspective or even empathized with Koreans. This is especially problematic because the larger mainstream press and academics also effectively silenced the viewpoints and dynamics of Koreans and Asians in L.A. As Ishmael Reed states in his essay An Outsider in Koreatown, “thousands of black and Asian American businesses were destroyed by a minority of blacks, whites, and Hispanics, who have been described by some talented tenth intellectuals and academics, safely ensconced on college campuses, as “warriors”participating in an “uprising.”The mainstream press was able to distract the national consciousness away from issues of white racism, police brutality, economic devastation, and institutional oppression by hyping the tensions between Blacks and Koreans.

Racial ignorance is rampant. If Asian Americans had as much access to popular culture and hip hop, sure we would be saying all kinds of ignorant racist shit about Black people and each other. We've all internalized racist stereotypes about different races and ourselves. I'm not arguing that Blacks are inherently more racist or powerful than Asians or anyone else. I'm mentioning these things to point out the way that white supremacy, as a system, both encourages and reinforces racial ignorance, hatred, and objectification.

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