Standing up and Fighting Ignorance & Racism

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Being an entrepreneur isn’t usually easy.  You’re often fighting uphill battles to educate your market, build customer acceptance, overcome technical challenges, win over investors or other types of supporters, shape a great team and culture, and much more.  But for the most part, I feel so fortunate to have a mostly equal shot in our society to have the opportunity to work passionately and to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams.  

So with that as a backdrop, today I felt my temperature rise a bit when I saw Miley Cyrus and her “controversial” photo where she and her friends mocked Asian Pacific Americans by pulling their eyes back to “slant” them.

Here is the photo:

Image

Gut reaction = upset: I have to admit that after seeing this I was a bit upset.  Seeing some kids doing dumb things isn’t so uncommon, though it did remind me of some not so pleasant grade school memories.  But the thing that really upset me was reading some of the commentary around the photo: I was shocked that there is SO MUCH DEBATE as to whether this photo is offensive or not.  Are you kidding me?  I’m reading commentary on the Interwebs from people who are saying, “Oh come now, this is nothing, it’s not offensive.”  

Excuse me but the “targeted audience” should ultimately be responsible for determining as to whether this is offensive.  Believe me, every Asian Pacific American, or more properly, every Korean American, Chinese American, Japanese American, etc. who has been taunted or made fun of in a similar fashion most definitely finds this incredibly offensive.  I don’t care if it’s Miley Cyrus or not so much as I care that people understand how offensive and demeaning this type of behavior is.

My personal experience is that racial taunting sucks: I grew up as one of the few non-Caucasian students in a upper middle class suburb of Pittsburgh, PA.  I have admit that for the most part, I had a pretty great upbringing.  Most of my classmates were good people and I got along with most everyone.  However, I did have some classmates, in addition to random strangers on the street or at the pool or at the park, who would make fun of “chinks” or make “ching chong” noises either about others or in front of me. The most ignorant would go so far as to make fun of me directly, calling me a “gook” or worse.

As a young person, I mostly tried to help these folks understand that I didn’t enjoy their taunts, and that they were being offensive.  When it got bad, I did sometimes react with anger, physically confronting the worst of these “people”.   But the first rule of fight club is that ‘we do not talk about fight club’ 🙂  And like any entrepreneur/person worth his salt, I realize that this type of physical confrontation is just not a reasonable or a “scalable solution.”

Racism is personal and offensive: Still today, I witness firsthand that racism is still prevalent and personal.  If I’m out at a bar with friends for example, depending on the bar, the time of night, and the location/city, there is probably a 1/7 shot that some drunk guy will say something racist around me or to me that will make me want to step up and put the guy in his place.  But again, I realize that this is not a scalable solution.  What is one to do?

My Caucasian buddies often tell me to ignore it.  Some have even gone so far as to say that I am overreacting.  But they admit that they have never experienced this type of offensive racist behavior.  It’s actually sort of hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in this type of situation in America.  I realize that.  This lack of comprehension is exactly what is causing the debate about whether the photo above is offensive.  So please just trust me, unless you’ve experienced it, keep an open mind.  And please don’t tell me if I should be offended or not!

Debate over this photo demonstrates ignorance: Some responders have pointed out that there is a male in the photo who appears to be of Asian/Pacific descent in the photo and that this would seem to excuse the participants in the photo.  I am being blunt here but, are you kidding me?  I have friends who are African American, Israeli-American, or even Italian or Irish American whose parents and grandparents have described to me tales of how poorly they were treated in the past under various circumstance, and how they often had to “grin and bear” it when confronted by a large group of the “majority”.  Well, I’m not grinning and bearing it.  I can’t stand it frankly.  The ignorance must stop.  Some people even blame this guy for not standing up for himself.  Excuse me but is it really his fault that this photo was taken?  Come on!

Everyone is in their origins an immigrant to America.  That is what makes us the most innovative and entrepreneurial country (arguably) in the world.  But in that context, people every day call others spic or a wop or a kyke or a n*gger or whatever.  Is that we are about?  Is that any different than squinting your eyes and calling me a chink?   Is any of this acceptable?

Something more fundamental needs to change: I believe that the core issue is education and mainstream media adoption.  As an entrepreneur, you are constantly searching for patterns to study what has worked before and what could work in the future.  In this case, I look at examples of groups such as Jews, African American, Irish, and even woman that have become more and more accepted or at least well-represented over the years.  For example, in movies from as recently as 10-15 years ago, now-obviously offensive portrayals of Jews, Blacks, and other ethnic groups were commonplace.  But as Jews and Blacks in particular have achieved more and more prominence, with more political and media influence, their perspectives are at the least much more represented to (and hopefully understood) by mainstream people.  Can you believe there was a time when woman couldn’t vote?  Now, it seems to hard to remember, but in all honesty, we’re still in the “startup stages” when it comes to the understanding of other cultures.

Bottom line: Mainstream America’s understanding of Asian Pacific American culture and perspective is very far behind.

To see what I mean, here is another example of similarly offensive and racially insensitive behavior:

0image

Meant to symbolize Peace? Do you remember this from the 2008 Summer Olympics?  This is the Spanish Men’s Basketball team posing to “honor” their sponsor, the Chinese Sports Apparel Company Li Ning.  What a show of sportsmanship and world unity!  To me, this was almost laughably horrible.  But there was relatively little public condemnation about this behavior, and Spain’s team issued no formal apology.  They mostly brushed it off saying, “we didn’t mean to offend.  It’s not a big deal.”  Unacceptable!!  See, but this is my whole point.  It was tremendously offensive to the millions of people of Asian and Pacific decent who were outraged at Spain’s cultural insensitivity and rudeness.  But there was no media or political call for a formal apology because the mainstream media does not understand the perspective of the Asian American minority.  

Cycle of Racism Repeats Itself: Asian Pacific Americans have only just begun to crack into the mainstream media and political consciousness.  We need to increase our social and media standing.  But people in general need to try to see the patterns of racism repeating themselves over and over every generation or so.  It’s always some group that gets subjugated only to gradually claw into the mainstream, leading to increased understanding over time.

In 40 years, will the perception of Asian Americans be different as the perception of African Americans has evolved?  I truly hope so.  Like any entrepreneur I’m filled with a disproportionate amount of optimism.  I’m hopeful that Asian Americans will be much more accurately represented as individuals, and family members, and neighbors, and friends, and lovers, and siblings, and mentors, and children.  That we will be judged based on “the content of our character” – and that more and more public examples will help mainstream America understand that that is what they need to try to do.  In 20 years, what kind of world will my son experience?  Will people call him a “gook”?  Will people still debate whether or not photos like these above are to be offensive to him??  

We need to take a stand against ignorance and closed-mindedness.  This insensitive and uneducated behavior and lack of understanding is the basis for conflict, strife and even war.  We truly cannot achieve peace without understanding.  As I an entrepreneur, I know that you have to carefully choose your battles.  To me, I feel that this one is too important for any of us people who HOPE to ignore it any more.

UPDATE: A friend of mine who is gay just emailed me to tell me that when he goes to a bar, the odds that someone says something homophobic is 1 in 2.  Yuck.

UPDATE: The OCA (Which is dedicated to embracing the hopes and aspirations of Asian Pacific Americans) and many other Asian American activist groups has demanded a formal apology from Ms. Cyrus.

UPDATE: Miley says she’s sorry that some people took her “goofy faces” out of context.  Groups like the OCA are understandably not satisfied.

UPDATE: Miley finally says she’s sorry.

UPDATE: Margaret Cho throws down over Miley.  Nice!

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21 thoughts on “Standing up and Fighting Ignorance & Racism

  1. Brian I enjoyed your article, I don’t see many Asians openly talking about this issue, much less take your tone of wanting to do something about it. I don’t think you are being overly optimistic in thinking that Asians’ image will change over time. You are right on reflecting on the history of blacks, women, and other opressed groups. It wasn’t too long ago that racial segregation existed, but now our president is black(well, at least part). In a country that has an entertainment/sports industry dominated by black people, such as music, basketball, etc, it’s hard to believe black people were enslaved at one point in this country. Give it time, it’ll change.

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