“S@#t Tiger Moms Say”: “Diversity” at a Western U.S. American University

I attend a “mid-sized” (about 17,500 student) university located in the western U.S.A. The student body here is primarily white, and many students come from rural or small town backgrounds.

Today a call was put out on the university Diversity Center’s Facebook page for

“S@#t Tiger Moms Say”

The flyer posted was all black with white font and a close-up picture of snarling tiger’s face. The concept is expanded upon in a font like that seen on Chinese food take-out boxes:

“Tiger Mom: Describes mothers who practice extreme parenting. Tiger mothers are considered to have unrealistic expectations of their children and hold them to a very high standard. Many are thought to be overbearing and overprotective of their young ones. This term was made popular by Amy Chua’s book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.”

Followed by this (in some sans-serif, non-racialized font) is the call for submissions:

“Please submit phrases and quotes from your Tiger Mom to email@university.edu. Comments from Tiger Moms of all cultures and ethnicities are welcome. These quotes will be used to create a short film titled ‘S@#t Tiger Moms Say’ and put on the Diversity Center’s YouTube.”

 

There’s a lot going on here. There’s a lot that I’m bringing to the table as I’m reading this.

I started this semester signed up for a 200/sophomore-level Asian American History class. I am a “nontraditional” student (meaning, I did not go to this college directly out of high school, and as such I am older than most students). I am also fairly well-read. My parents have always encouraged me to know about U.S. American history, and I’ve been actively interested in race/ethnicity/color in the U.S.A. for quite a while. Still, I know there is plenty that I don’t know, and I thought this would be a nice introduction to the nitty-gritty of Asian American politics.

The first day of class was horrific.

We began be reading Amy Chua’s 2011 Wall Street Journal piece “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” When the professor asked for content analysis of the piece, the small (maybe 20-person) class broke out the racial stereotypes. Young, white men were the majority of the class, and they almost exclusively dominated the conversation. Comments in the vein of, “Asians should stop playing piano and violin, they’re only confirming stereotypes” were more or less how the majority of the class went.

When I pointed out that the mythical Tiger Mother only reinforces the individualistic, racial hierarchy that punishes Black and Brown peoples who supposedly cannot rise above their subordinate statuses by juxtaposing them with the myth of Asians who were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the young, Hawaiian man sitting in front of me nods, but remains silent.

I can’t blame him. I didn’t want to talk either.

 

This call for “phrases and quotes” from “Tiger Moms” suspiciously avoids mention of the gendered, racial origin of the stereotype, unironically using a font heavily imbued with racial meaning. I recognize that this may very well be the work of a good heart that might not understand the potential problems in a video meme that exploits racial stereotypes without critically exploring them.

I also see minority students who are tired from the anger that is rooted in the hurt of constant misrepresentation. I have felt and witnessed the points when some of us drop out or lash out with angry defiance.

 

This is how things are at this university.

A few weeks ago I sat in on a general education requirement meeting, and saw how white students were the target audience for the crafting of these requirements. I heard one of the board members question whether or not we need a “diversity requirement” since so few surveyed students and faculty members even cared.

I wanted to tell them that it doesn’t matter whether the hegemony cares. What matters are minority students who are hurting—who we are hurting—because these students are shown over and over that unless they join sororities or fraternities or p.o.c. business clubs, no one cares.

I wanted to tell them, but instead I gnawed on my tongue like I was trying to eat myself alive. I tried to remain invisible.

Advertisements

The Reality of Me (Ruminations on Anti-Contraception, Anti-Abortion Legislation)

Recently, spurred into action by anti-contraception and pro-vaginal probe requirements before abortion, a friend sent out a request for submission of any works around these topics for the blog http://wearethefiftypercent.tumblr.com/ .

I have been trying to come up with something for her and for what she’s trying to do. I think it is good and noble, and I love that she is fighting for something that transcends a single issue or two—that has ramifications for human and civil rights that affects all of us no matter our disability status, age, sexual orientation, or gender.

However, when I turn my attention to the creation of something to contribute I find myself lacking.

 

These issues of state-sanctioned pre-abortion vaginal probing and the doing away with many kinds of contraception are not “women’s health issues” any more than digital rectal examinations for prostate cancer are “men’s health issues” (not that they are at all comparable, but really, what can you compare with issues these broad and dire?). Rather, they are both simply human health issues. It is obtuse and asinine to argue that health issues specific to women do not affect men. We women are colleagues, peers, friends, lovers, partners, children, and parents of men. We do not live in a gender-specific bubble, and neither do men.

I thought about writing about how women’s healthcare is generally seen as “preventative,” because historically men have been doctors and antiquated notions of separate spheres and gender binaries kept women from receiving adequate medical treatment until fairly recently. Thus, women are once again relegated to the realm of the passive (the preventative), whereas men stay actors, diagnosed and taking steps in treatment towards “wellness.”

No, no, much too dry.

So, then, I thought, I’ll go the personal angle.

I could write about the way that sexualized, gendered violence has touched my life, and how the legislation that looms large effectively asserts and maintains my own objectivity as perceived by men who feel power over me because of my biology. Depressingly, this angle ends with the knowledge that it does not take anti-contraception, anti-abortion, anti-woman, anti-human rights legislation to legitimize the ownership that men have felt over my being and my body. This is something that poor women and men, that people of color, that disabled people, have always felt and known.

Besides, no one wants to read that much nowadays.

Thus, I’m left with one answer: write a little something down and take a picture à la the 99% Movement. But this is something that I know I cannot do. See, as a U.S. American I am a consumer of food, of books, of technology, of hormonal contraception. As a young, nondisabled woman of Korean descent, I am also a commodity. In my skin carries the pressure of the touch of boyfriends past who would whisper in my ear, “Hey, China doll.” My mind is branded with the lecherous looks of white men from all walks of life.

To take a picture of myself as if it could sum up how I feel about the anti-human rights legislation feels too close to the object-commodification that has been one source of pressure that blooms like an Evergreen through the seasons of my young life.

Anyway, I’ve never been someone who is able to produce clever one-liners.

 

So what? So what is there to do?

I don’t know, but I know what I wish I could do.

 

I wish that through my words I could let people see how fed up I am with people thinking they have the right to decide for me. Because, as a consumer of history, I know of Margaret Sanger, of back-alley abortions, of Roe v. Wade. I also know of forced sterilizations of thousands of Black American women and Native women. Of sharecropping systems that kept Blacks enslaved and then banishments that drove Black families off the land they worked because it became too attractive to while folk in town. I know that Asians are such a small U.S. American minority group today because of the lethal combination of casual social acceptance of propagandistic racial stereotypes and exclusionary, quota-style legislation (think the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the National Origins Act of 1924, just to name a few).

What worries me about joining the discussion of anti-contraception, anti-abortion legislation is the reality that the government has been invading the lives—ignoring the rights—of racial and ethnic nonwhites, the working class and poor, the very young and old, and anyone who is disabled or even has a body shape outside of the hegemonic, masculine norm.

I am afraid that my brothers and sisters who feel so connected to this cause will not see this fight as the same fight for justice for Trayvon Martin. I’m afraid that they won’t see that it is linked to the slaying of 17 people—adults and children—in the Panjwai District in Afghanistan at the hands of US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales who was serving his fourth tour of duty.

 

I wish that I had something to give to my friend, but all I have is the complex, messy reality of me.

Power Difference

His blonde hair is buzz cut, a sun-ripened wheat-like yellow that frames his face. The hollows of his cheeks constantly flush a pinkish, orangey red, the color of some persimmons. He is so young. 20? Maybe 21.

These are all things that I notice as he turns to me with icy eyes that are a void and says, “You’re wrong.”

I am so shocked, so stunned, that I imagine I do nothing, although I’m sure my face begins to register the immediate hurt before I try to control it. I try to control my face as I try to control my shaking hands as I try to control my breathing to try to regain control of my heart.

The way that he argues his point, the way that he breezily tells me that I am wrong echos in my body through a ribcage that feels barren.

See, this is not a new experience.

This is also not an experience that is foreign to anyone. At some time or another we all must pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off after some noxious encounter with violence or in jest.

The reason I write about this is because this particular incident happened in a classroom with a peer nearly three weeks ago, and still, it rattles around in my skull treading on softer thoughts that threaten to grow. It changes experiences sharpening the bitter cold while blunting the beauty of falling snow.

Because, it takes a lot for me to talk in class anymore. It feels very difficult. Too hard. Every word must be coaxed out because all of the words must have meaning and that meaning must reflect me.

Although my nondisabled, young, white, male peer may not have known this, when he asserted that I was wrong to say that the juxtaposition of religion versus progressive thinking was a false dichotomy, he attempted to nullify my existence.

My track record with religion, Christianity to be specific, is what one might call “spotty.” Indeed, it is so spotty that it might even appear as a solid. But there is something in those holes of nothing. That something there is a someone, and she is me.

I battle, have battled, with Christianity, with people I thought were Christian authorities. People who had no time, no answers to help satiate my dogged questions. But always there was a hand outstretched for my money.

I battle, will never stop battling, with liberalism in the form of people who think that since they watched Roots or Amistad in class that they get to stop trying—because, these liberals have access to an endgame that some of us don’t have.

And when I fight so long and so hard that the fight begins to go out of me it’s the cross that I wear that reverberates secret whispers of love, of compassion, of the need to keep up the fight.

 

Make no mistake, I do not expect people to agree with all of my ideas. I am not so easily hurt nor am I so naïve that dissent coming from any “side” is something I see as a bad thing.

 

What I demand is respect paid back for the respect that I afford everyone else. In that respect I require an understanding of the different journeys—different in length, different in strength, different in fight needed to just be heard—people from different social locations must take in order to speak.

What I fight for is the righting of the wrong that is anyone who thinks he can nullify me.

Restaurants

I like small restaurants.

I like the kind of small restaurant that has bottles of Sriracha or Tapatio sitting on plastic-covered Formica tables. The kind that have plastic or metal chairs that screech loudly when you pull them out so that everyone knows that you’re there. I like listening to servers, bussers, kitchen staff, owners calling out to each other in Spanish, English, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mandarin, Thai while pots clang and water sizzles into steam.

I like these restaurants where servers with skin closer to mine look out at me from eyes, brown, like mine.

I go to other restaurants with my dad, my mom, her friends. They are white. The staff smiles, asks questions, makes suggestions, gives us more time. We almost never have empty drinks. Managers walk by, ask us how we are, how’s the food, everything good? Good. Big smile. Clasp hands. Walk away. Our plates are cleared soon after we are done. Y’all save room for dessert? We have an amazing apple pie/chocolate cake/lemon tart. Our check comes quickly, is quickly returned with a warm smile from the server. Bussers stand to the side so we can pass as we leave. What a good meal.

I go to these other restaurants, these other, small, U.S. American restaurants with their crisp, white napkins and their big, white, ceramic plates with my significant other, a Hapa man who is often asked, What are you? Oh! Mexican! Filipino! Native? I thought he was just a white guy who dyed his hair…

And, even though I’m lighter than he is, my so-called monolid eyes, the caramel tint in my skin reinforce our otherness. So that when he and I go to the same restaurants I’ve gone to with my parents we stand in doorways awkwardly until a white couple comes and stands near us and the host finally arrives and turns to the white couple to ask, “For two?” So that we suffer the indignity of being invisible unless the white couple turns toward us and says, “I think they were first.”

[This is a true story, recently when he and I were out, a white couple had to tell the host/bartender that my significant other and I were first three times before the man turned and saw us. He even said he did not see us, as if this somehow made it better.]

Other times we go out to the same restaurants I’ve visited with my mom and her friends and a wait staff that was friendly and attentive has suddenly become cold. Managers stop at every table that houses a white patron to ask how the food is until they reach our table where there is suddenly something that needs attention—something that is of more import.

I feel cheated.

Because my family is white I know what my significant other and I are missing. We are missing the air of authority and congeniality that comes with the cloak of whiteness. I recognize that we are young, and that servers may believe that we will not tip well, but this cannot account for the consistent, vast differences in service I receive when I am with my white parents or with my Hapa partner.

It makes me sick when I realize what is going on—so sick that the half-eaten sandwich that had tasted so good sits in a plastic container in the fridge for three days before I throw it out because I don’t even want to look at it.

And, I realize—realize that adults and children are going hungry and starving here. Realize that it is a luxury to go out and pay someone to make me food, to sustain me. I realize that there is a hierarchy in most restaurant kitchens that is built on the underpaid, demeaning, intense labor supplied by bussers and dishwashers who are usually poor or working class men of color.

I also realize that when I go out with my light brown-skinned, black-haired, Hapa significant other, we are treated as less than by establishments that fall all over themselves for my white parents or peers.

That is why I like going to small restaurants, where on each table sit small pots that contain three different kinds of hot sauces, or tables that are glass-topped so that they can be squeeged cleaned, where servers, bussers, kitchen staff, owners look into my eyes and can see that part of me that feels like I’m home.

The Key

I say to my professor, “I feel like, as a student of color, I have to do more.”

When she responds, “I certainly hope that I am not adding to that. I know that, as a teacher, I do look for students who are engaged and can explain things to other students. I think that some things are better coming from another student—they’re seen as more valid,” I begin to question why it is that I believe that I do have to do more as a student of color.

Immediately, I think of Elle, that pale, “Irish” American, punk rock hipster I worked and hung out with several years back. I had thought that we were very much alike: both young, both obsessed with being cool, both trying to find ourselves in old music and movies, both coming up short. She was someone I liked very much, and, in many ways, trusted. And, when she crushed the crystalline, spider-web-thin cage of that trust with her words, she did it as swiftly as if she had used her Doc Martins.

“In my high school,” she confided over too-strong iced coffee, “the Asian girls were always the most popular. They stole all the men.”

And, as she said these words, the familiar wrenching in my gut began as my coffee became my trust and I gulped it down, forcing it back in me so that whatever bits were still good would be put back in my body. So that the rest might be excreted.

I think of my first year here. The thin, reedy limb I stretched myself out on to make an offering of my experience in my classes made a profound impression on me—nearly as profound as the quick, dramatic snap that still comes back to haunt me, the feel and the sound of the bottom dropping right out of any silly, superficial feminist sisterhood as my white peers complained about being categorized as white. It felt like they turned on me when I told them that to be a true ally means you suck it up, brave the distrust and hostility, and stick it out until you are a true ally even though no one automatically recognizes you as such.

I felt like they turned on me because it was easy. Because, I am not like them. My skin is sallow, jaundiced, yellow, golden, nonwhite. My eyes are little, slanty, slits, almonds, nonwhite. My lips are full. My nose is what one could call flat. My cheekbones sit high, right under my eyes like strong ship masts. My face is round, like a full moon.

These physical features serve as the gateway to all sorts of humiliations and indignities. What’s worse: I feel the pain that others feel. I feel the absence of a much larger, much more consuming degradation, meted out in generous portions to other people who are more “other.”

So, when I say to my professor, “I feel like, as a student of color, I have to do more,” I mean something other than what I think I’m saying, because, I do feel that as a woman of color, I do have to do more.

I have to reach out past all those other experiences, some scarred over, some so fresh blood hasn’t even come up yet. When I raise my hand in class, I raise it against white supremacy, which creeps into our lives so insidiously that it seems to not be there—I can see it, now, though; can see it in the way I used to hate my “slanted” eyes, my “yellow” skin. When I raise my hand, I raise it against my white, liberal peers who tell me all about the institution of religion without thinking twice about all the other institutions that keep everyone segregated, that they benefit from most.

When I raise my hand in class, it is through the bitter cold of my own experiences, of the things I’ve read, of the things I’ve heard, of the things I’ve been told.

I wonder, what is the demographic make up of the people who can say that?

I believe that in that answer lies at least part of the key to why university students of color still have to do more.