During the Olympic Games this past summer these pictures of the Spanish men's Olympic basketball team, and Spanish Olympic women's tennis team, became public:
In recent weeks this picture of Miley Cyrus
and this picture of one of the Jonas Brothers
also became public. Apparently, the "hot" new thing to do when taking group pictures is to slant one's eyes to "look" Asian. As someone who as a child dealt with being called a "gook" by overzealous white children looking for a way to elevate their social status I find the gestures offensive. Now, I'm not here to necessarily bash Miley or the Jonas boy, they're kids and do stupid things, but I am a little troubled by the use of such gestures to make a "funny" photo.
There has been an outcry of sorts among Asian-Americans concerning these photos. Eugene Cho, a somewhat well-known Korean evangelical pastor in Seattle, has been one of the main voices speaking out against them. He has done so here and here and here. He has even posted a picture of himself widening his eyes to demonstrate how ridiculous and offensive the gestures are:
One word that has been used a lot to describe these pictures is "racist." While I am offended by the pictures, and think they are demeaning to a large percentage of the earth's population (including my mother and myself), I do not think they are, nor do I think it helpful to call them, racist. Do they display prejudice? Yes. Are they offensive? Yes. Are they racist? No.
Asian-Americans, like myself and Cho, do face certain forms of discrimination and racism in this nation. I do not, however, think this is one of them. And I am sure that calling them such diminishes the impact of the word when it is appropriately applied to racist structures and institutions.
For someone, or something, to be racist they must have power. Not only must they have power, they must have enough power to keep a person or people group subjugated and in an inferior position because of racial or ethnic identity. Finally, they must not only possess this degree of power, but must actually use it to oppress a people group. Peoples of Asian descent have faced racism in this country. (The treatment of the Japanese in internment camps in WWII is just one example of this.) However, with Asians attending college at a higher percentage, and several groups of Asians (like Indians and Japanese) earning a higher average wage than whites, I think we must be careful when thinking about how racism affects our lives. (I do not mean to diminish the experience of the Hmong and other Asian ethnic groups that are facing certain racist societal structures.) Asians, and I am speaking as a 1.5 generation bi-racial Asian-American, face plenty of prejudice, discrimination and even racism, but spoiled athletes and pop singers posing in pictures with slanted eyes does not qualify as a state of oppression. This is especially true when I look at what many poor Mexican-Americans, people of Arab descent and African-Americans face in our country today. There are societal structures that literally keep them in a state of oppression.
While I agree that we should decry racial prejudice, discrimination and insensitivity I think we should call it what it is. Racism implies a particular use of power, and I think it pragmatically important that we only use the term when it is referring to such an immoral use of political, economic and social power. (For example, a white slave owner is racist, but a poor white man who thinks black people are inferior to him is prejudiced. Both are sinful, but they are different sins.) Otherwise, when we truly do face racism we will encounter what I call the "Sharpton Effect" and we will be dismissed as simply angry minorities who have a complex that we need to get over.
So, please decry the pictures. Let people know that it is offensive to use such gestures, but please don't going around saying it is proof of racism against Asians in America. There is much more we could point to to prove that point. (I would argue that the fact that this hasn't gotten the mainstream news coverage the "Barack the Magic Negro" song, or Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" comment, received is a form of racism, but the pictures themselves aren't.) This is simply ignorant and insensitive people being caught in a compromising position.