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Exploring Race in America

Is Asian American a useful term given the diversity of ethnicities within that racial designation?

Sure. For one thing, it’s an effort towards building bridges. Anyone who says they are Asian American recognizes that they [now] have a common cause with [other] people [of Asian descent] whose grandparents their own grandparents would have hated, or tried to rebel against, or conquer [in Asia].

What is this common cause?

Responding to racial discrimination is a leading one, but it’s not the only one. Working towards a society that is racially just is another one. I get called “chink” and “jap” and “gook”. I get called “jap” and “gook” as often as I get called “chink”. It really wouldn’t do much good if when someone called me a “jap” I said, “Excuse me I’m actually a chink.” If they said, “Oh, ok, I’m sorry; I’ll call you a chink from now on,” then I have not really helped myself there. In part, that’s what made me realize that these are all related issues.

What are some of the lessons that all Americans can learn from Asian American experiences?

Race is complicated. I really like the cover of my book because it’s bright yellow. I really owe a lot to the graphic designer. But really the title of the book should be Gray and it should have a dull drab gray color because it’s about how this stuff is complicated. There is no easy answer. My answer is there is no single answer. There are many competing answers. If people read the book and think of one thing they haven’t thought of before, I would be happy.

So one of the lessons is that this stuff is complicated. Asian Americans fall half way in between whites and blacks. Some Asian Americans do live in predominantly white neighborhoods. Many Asian Americans face housing bias, but not nearly as bad as what African Americans face. If you look at any social science indicators, we are just about half way in between. So there’s no question, we do face discrimination, but by and large the patterns are that Asian Americans face less bias than African Americans and Hispanics. There may be differences in specific cases, but [this is the] pattern. We also show that you can be simultaneously villains and victims. Perhaps talking about villains and victims is not a helpful way to talk about things. Asian Americans can hold hateful attitudes toward African Americans and mistreat them and be mistreated right back.

It’s easier to see with Asian Americans how things are so unclear. It’s easier to see the gray, at least for whites and blacks. It’s less charged for them.

Can we talk about assimilation? Generally the assumption is that assimilation means assimilation into white culture, that white is somehow the default. But Asian Americans can also assimilate into African American culture.

I’m not saying that’s wrong or bad, but that we should be aware of it. All I’m trying to do is make people aware of things they didn’t notice before, and then we can discuss it. Maybe it’s better to have middle class suburban values, but there are lots of African Americans who have middle class suburban values.

I’m trying to get people to think about who it is that you’re supposed to hang out with. If you’re Asian American and you hang out with Asian Americans, people think you’re self-segregating. If you’re Asian American and you hang out with whites, people think you’re upwardly mobile. If you’re Asian American and you hang out with blacks, people will think either something negative or that you are trying to pose as hip.