Include Asian-American voices in racial discourse
Between Mainstream and Margin Western conceptions of masculinity hold Asian men back in the dating market
BSG needs to improve as student advocate
BSG Update BSG to sponsor absentee ballot distribution system
Between Mainstream and Margin A case of literary yellowface makes us reconsider how we perceive names
Between Mainstream and Margin: A case of literary yellowface makes us reconsider how we perceive names
When Joanne Rowling wrote her first book in the "Harry Potter" series, her publisher suggested she use a gender-neutral pen name (J.K. Rowling) to avoid putting off young male readers. Two decades later, when Rowling switched genres and wrote "The Cuckoo's Calling," she again opted for a pen name (Robert Galbraith), this time to avoid the hype and expectations that come with being one of the world’s best-known writers.
There is a long history of writers using pseudonyms, but where—if at all—is the line drawn between disguise and deception?
In early September, the editors of "The Best American Poetry," a prestigious anthology of contemporary American poetry, released their annual volume of best poems. Outside of literary circles, the release of a new edition typically receives little attention. But this year’s publication proved particularly controversial. The reason? One of the poems, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was revealed to be by a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson who had published under the Chinese-sounding pseudonym of Yi-Fen Chou.
The reaction was swift and mostly critical. Ken Chen, executive director of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, called the incident a blatant example of yellowface and accused Hudson of taking away one of the few literary opportunities available to Asian Americans. Chen explained that while nearly 70 percent of New York City residents are non-white, only 5 percent of writers reviewed by The New York Times are people of color.
Aside from the troubling racial disparities in the literary industry, what was most telling to me about the incident was how the editor of "The Best American Poetry 2015" responded. In a blog post, editor and noted Native American poet Sherman Alexie wrote that despite the Chinese-sounding name of the author, the poem “didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity...by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture.”
In short, Alexie was fascinated by the cross-cultural dimensions of a supposed Chinese American poet who wrote about European and Christian imagery. As The New Yorker's Hua Hsu observes, perhaps it was refreshing for Alexie to read something from a presumably Chinese writer that had nothing to do with being Chinese. It’s also possible that Hudson knew this and played into Alexie’s fascination by using a distinctly foreign-sounding name like Yi-Fen Chou, instead of a more Americanized Asian name like Ken Chen. Regardless of the intent, Hudson’s use of an “authentic” name like Yi-Fen Chou privileged him the disturbing fantasy of taking on the guise of the other.
Now, surely it would have looked bad if it appeared that Alexie backtracked and removed the poem on the sole basis of the author’s revealed identity. But we should also wonder what it means when a white person can perform literary yellowface and effectively get rewarded for it.
Alexie was in a bind, and in order to halt accusations of any editorial bias—namely, showing a preference for writers of color—he made the binary claim that he chose the poem because of the quality of its content rather than the skin color of its author. It’s a tiring and reductive argument to make, in part because we often do implicitly consider a person’s race when we make judgments on his work. But perhaps Alexie was thinking of race on a more superficial level when he says he wondered about the poem as “the life story of a Chinese American poet.” If that is true, should we think that differences between the “life story” of an Asian and white man can simply be boiled down to his name?
Hudson certainly seems to think so. In fact, even before "The Best American Poetry" incident, he claimed to experience greater publishing success for his poems using his Chinese-sounding pseudonym than when he used his actual white-sounding name. Hudson's Orientalist profiteering could potentially implant the same idea in the minds of struggling writers looking for a quick fix. (I would, however, like to stop and point out the comical image of literary publishers fighting among themselves to fill their book shelves with Asian American authors.)
Hudson is surely right about one thing: in a world far from a post-racial state, seemingly superficial differences like our names continue to affect how we are perceived and treated in meaningful ways. But these differences are built on the assumption that they are real, and when we try to manipulate or game the system to our advantage, we undermine the stories and experiences of those for whom race has been a source of marginalization.
Between Mainstream and Margin: Western conceptions of masculinity hold Asian men back in the dating market
Last Saturday night, I came across a Yik Yak post on the Bowdoin feed that read “White guys with yellow fever, this ain’t the school for you. please leave some asian girls for the poor asian guys here.” Less than 24 hours later, the post had been removed.
Aside from the troubling sentiment expressed by the user that Asian women (or any women for that matter) belong in some way to Asian men, I was interested in what the post might reveal at large about the state of Asian masculinity in America. In many ways, interracial dating (or hook ups) can provide an interesting framework for understanding how Asian men may measure their masculinity against western standards of beauty and manliness.
At center stage is the observation that Asian women have significantly higher rates of interracial marriage than Asian men. An analysis by the Pew Research Center found that among newlyweds in 2013, “37 percent of Asian women married someone who was not Asian, while 16 percent of Asian men married outside of their race.” The observation raises the question, “Why the discrepancy?” Perhaps for the Yik Yak user, a follow-up question might be ,“why are so many Asian women not choosing to be with Asian men?”
Of course, intimate relationships are highly complex and personal, and no one explanation is likely to fully encapsulate the experiences of an entire racial group. But here’s a start: In America, Asians as a group are perceived to be more feminine than whites and blacks. Research done by Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, has found that associations of racial and gender stereotypes overlap in meaningful ways. In one study, participants who were asked to assign the femininity or masculinity of certain traits to Asians, whites and blacks consistently associated Asians as the least masculine.
The idea that Asians are perceived to be the least masculine has significant implications in the dating market. Given a heterosexual dating market where men generally prefer women who are feminine and women like men who are masculine, Galinsky showed that “the more a man valued femininity the more likely he was attracted to an Asian woman.” It also worked the other way: Women who valued traditional western norms of masculinity more demonstrated lower preferences for Asian men.
Whether by racial stereotypes or personal preferences, it seems fairly clear that Asian men get short-changed in the dating market. In some cases, western conventions of beauty and masculinity become internalized by Asian men, resulting in thought pieces on how to become more masculine. In a Thought Catalog post titled “How To Survive Being an Asian Male,” the author Gavin McInnes provides tips such as growing out your facial hair or getting a tattoo. And in a feature for New York Magazine, author Wesley Yang writes about the growing popularity of boot camps on attraction for Asian men run by JT Tran, also known as The Asian Playboy.
While in principle I disagree with the approaches of McInnes and Yang to define Asian masculinity within notions of western masculinity, I can see how in practice the dating realities of being an Asian man can sometimes be difficult. In a now-retracted post, Details magazine ran a full-page feature in its anthropology section titled “Gay or Asian?” that sought to draw attention to the similarities between stereotypes of gay men and Asian men. “Whether you’re into shrimp balls or shaved balls, entering the dragon requires imperial taste. So choke up on your chopsticks, and make sure your labels are showing.... A sharp eye will always take home the plumpest eel,” the introduction of the post read.
With satire like that, it’s no surprise that Tran has been invited to speak and share his insights at campuses including Yale, University of Chicago and the Wharton School of Business. Asian men, particularly young Asian men, are living the realities of a dating market that has decidedly turned its back on them.
To be clear, in no way am I supporting using the misogynistic practices of JT Tran’s boot camp to attract women. But I also don’t think that the solution is as easy as telling Asian men to “just be yourself,” or be your own version of masculinity. The impetus for changing how we understand masculinity should not fall solely on Asian men. But until that societal change does occur, it’ll take more than a little self-confidence for me to just be myself.
BSG needs to improve as student advocate
A constitution is meant to be a body of fundamental principles that guides how an organization is to be governed. In other words, an organization should regularly remind itself of its vested interests and purpose derived from its constitution. Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) would be wise to remind itself of why it exists and who it serves.
According to the BSG constitution’s preamble, BSG seeks to be “a relentless advocate for student needs and desires…[and] aims to serve as a thoughtful and fearless voice for conveying student opinion to the campus and beyond.”
I admire these words, but I worry that presently BSG risks divorcing its actions (or lack thereof) from its stated purpose.
Last Wednesday, At-Large Representative Kiki Nakamura-Koyama ’17 and Vice President for Student Government Affairs Charlotte McLaughry ’15 put forth a proposal to BSG to adopt a representative from the Student Center for Multicultural Life. After a brief discussion of the proposal, BSG President Chris Breen ’15 explained that a vote requires multiple meetings and that the proposal would need to be pushed off until next year.
I do not doubt the veracity of the procedural rules invoked by Breen to delay the vote, but I do worry that the comments made by him and several other BSG members during the meeting reflect BSG’s growing detachment from the student body.
One sentiment expressed by several BSG members was what specific role the multicultural representative would play. To understand the function of such a representative, BSG only needs to look at its own track record to see its dismal handling of multicultural issues.
Why, for example, did BSG remain silent when Ferguson, Mo. and New York City protests swept the nation and Bowdoin campus? At a time when President Mills and Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Programs Leana Amaez explicitly addressed these events and sought to acknowledge the emotional impact they may have had on students, what was BSG doing?
There are other examples as well—the failure of BSG to address the issues at the Meeting in the Union on race, class, gender, sexuality, and climate change, as well as the BSG’s lack of response to the open letter to the community.
What was BSG—a self-proclaimed “relentless advocate” and “fearless voice” for students—doing when many of its constituents had expressed dissatisfaction with their Bowdoin experiences?
While the BSG constitution states that “the proceedings of meeting and meeting minutes [are] to be made public,” as of publication BSG has neglected to provide any meeting minutes online for the 2014-2015 school year. How can the constituents of BSG hold its elected officials accountable to its constitutionally derived functions when their actions are not for public record?
Another sentiment expressed by several BSG members was how the multicultural representative might be held accountable for her or his attendance. In the past, they noted, special interest representatives from the Department of Athletics and the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good have had poor attendance records.
Perhaps BSG would be wise to engage directly with the current special interest representatives responsible for their poor attendance records. Why prematurely fault the multicultural representative for the actions of other special interest representatives?
A final concern expressed by several BSG members was how one multicultural representative could represent individuals of various races, sexualities, religions, and genders. I think this inquiry is valid and merits further discussion.
Unfortunately, when I sent out an email last Wednesday to the BSG executive committee members, class representatives, and At-Large representatives offering to engage in further dialogue about these issues, I was dismayed to see only two of the over 22 currently serving officials respond. After initially expressing interest in talking with me, one BSG member changed his mind and the other member did not respond to my follow-up to meet. (A week after no current BSG members had met with me, an incoming BSG member who was clued in on my request offered to talk. Since then, three BSG members have been in contact with me).
As the school year comes to a close, I hope BSG will take a moment to reflect on why it exists and who it serves. I hope BSG members—especially those serving next year—will take the time to reread the constitution and better understand how they can better serve the students who elected them.
Paul Ngu is a member of the Class of 2017.
Include Asian-American voices in racial discourse
“Do you identify more as white or black?”
Michelle’s brother posed this question to her when she was 16, and it forced her to think about how much of her identity she could actually construct for herself. The obvious answer to the question was Not Applicable—she is an Asian American.
For Michelle’s brother and for many other people in this country, conversations about race mostly function on a black-and-white binary. What her brother was really asking was, “As an outsider, which team are you rooting for?”
But Michelle is not alone in her struggle to place herself within this constructed racial binary. As three individuals from different U.S. geographical regions and Asian ethnicities, we are connected by our feelings of otherness—of not belonging to either black or white identities.
On one hand, South and East Asian Americans’ relatively high educational achievements and family income levels are used by our society to call us “model minorities.” (Curiously, most Americans seem to forget that 40 percent of Hmong Americans and 38 percent of Laotian Americans drop out of high school.)
The “model minority” stereotype operates on the harmful assumption that merely with hard work, any ethnic or racial group can climb the social ladder out of poverty. It also has the unintended effect of pitting Asian Americans against African Americans and Latinos by positioning them as somehow different from other minority groups and as honorary whites.
And yet, the three of us have never felt fully white. We are never quite sure what people mean when they ask us, “Where are you from?” Even though Michelle and Wendy were born in America (and Paul immigrated when he was six), people assume that all three of us have a special familiarity and connection with our homelands and speak an Asian language fluently. This complicates our status as so-called honorary whites, and suggests that we may be forever foreigners under the gaze of society.
In high school, Wendy was excited when her teacher announced a new unit in the health curriculum centered on race and identity. It would be a rare public space for her and her peers to talk about race, a topic that was seldom discussed in her predominantly-white high school in New England.
But when she watched the movie that her teacher said was about race in America, she only learned about issues facing blacks and whites. When the movie was followed by a student panel that her teacher said was “comprised of all different cultures and backgrounds,” she was equally disappointed to not see a single Asian face in the panel.
Who would speak to her experiences as an Asian American? How did an educational space supposedly set on affirming her race instead affirm her feelings of otherness?
All three of us are privileged not to face the same systemic discrimination that many African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans face. But we also think that it can be all too easy for our communities and governments to neglect the critical issues affecting Asian Americans, such as the little-known fact that they have higher poverty rates than the national average.
Even at Bowdoin, we have felt culturally and socially slighted, and have found that many spaces on campus centered on race rarely seek to actively include and affirm the voices of Asian Americans.
“Growing up [as Filipina], I never learned about my history in textbooks or in school… My research has shown that history can be personal and [be] about you. It doesn’t have to be objective,” said Genevieve Clutario, a cultural historian at Harvard University.
Clutario spoke at the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) Conference earlier this year, which Paul attended. It was the first time in college when Paul had found a public space where conversations on race centered on his own Asian American identity and where he didn’t feel like the “other.” Curiously, that first experience was not at Bowdoin.
Whether through public spaces like ECAASU or private conversations with friends, we know that race for us does not operate on a black-white binary. We know that our experiences cannot be easily compartmentalized as white or black, and we know that our conversations on race are richer when we expand the dialogue.
Next Wednesday, Multicultural Student Programs will hold a discussion on Asian American race, identity, and activism. But we can do more. Petition the school to add more courses in Asian-American studies (there were none this school year), or ask the Women’s Resource Center and Health Services to follow up on Kristina Wong’s talk on the high rates of depression among Asian-American women. Whatever your cause, let’s show that Bowdoin values its Asian American students.
Wendy Dong is a member of the Class of 2018. Michelle Hong is a member of the Class of 2016. Paul Ngu is a member of the Class of 2017.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that no Asian Studies courses were taught this year. The College taught many Asian Studies courses, but no courses in Asian-American studies. The article has been updated to correct this error.
BSG Update: BSG to sponsor absentee ballot distribution system
In an effort to increase voter participation among students, Bowdoin has recently partnered with TurboVote to make voting an easier and simpler process.
TurboVote, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, provides absentee ballots by mail to its members. Through the College’s partnership with TurboVote, students who sign up at bowdoin.turbovote.org can receive election reminders and absentee ballot request forms.
TurboVote will also help students register to vote and provide them with reminders about upcoming voting deadlines.