There are times, I think, when all of this just seems overwhelming. With a new section each week, we are asking each of you to grapple with things that you may not have encountered before and I completely understand that this may not be easy.
But, then again, who said it was going to be?
Although you have to find the balance with this, some part of me believes that, as investigators, we should be a little overwhelmed for it is in this moment that we begin to grasp just how large the problem really is. What was once so clear becomes infinitely murky and we struggle to find a foothold. The issues that Asians Americans face are complex and seemingly never-ending. How do I go about dismantling the myriad problems that we encounter every day? Will I even make a difference? Should I even try?
It’s taken me a few years to get to where I am now but I have to come to believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes.” I get called out for being impractical because I’m not as interested in deliverables, action items, and long-range plans; instead, I’m interested in the transformation that occurs on an individual level when one decides that he or she is capable of making a difference.
And the thing that they never tell you in school is that you don’t have to change the world in a grand way on your first go. Making a difference isn’t about spectacle and scale so much as it is about intent and meaning. There a million ways in which one can change the world on an everyday basis that have profound and lasting implications and it is these sorts of actions that I often think about when we come to issues of sexuality and gender in CIRCLE.
By now, all of you have gone through the exercise where we attempted to place ourselves in the mindset of someone who does not identify as straight. Although our session exhibited moments of laughter and sympathy, I hope that the exercise also went beyond this to generate a feeling of empathy. I get that it’s a bit heavy to think about some of these things on a night when you are coming off of class and looking forward to homework, but I would challenge my session to think about how they would react if they couldn’t just go home after all was said and done. How might you feel if you really had to tear off the corners of your star?
The thing that we strive to teach our students in CIRCLE is that all of these issues are linked (and, yes, messy) but that you can also apply what you’ve learned from one week to another. What if you thought about sexuality like you think about ethnicity? Students in our session can’t just stop being Asian American—just like other students can’t stop being GLBTIQ. How can you map your need to justify your worth as an Asian onto things like gender or sexuality?
But even if that’s a bit too heavy for you, I do want to mention something that I brought up at the conclusion of our session. Issues of gender and sexuality figure heavily into what I do, along with my experiences in college admission and psychology. I spend a lot of time thinking about self-harm/mutilation, eating disorders, depression, restlessness and projects like It Gets Better (which I can happily discuss the faults of). I spend a good deal of my time trying to think about ways to change educational policy to help students to recognize and feel of worth; I think about bullying in schools but also bullying on Perez Hilton, TMZ, and even by Dan Savage.
One of the things that I have learned in my years of college admission is that an increasing number of students are suffering from something that I call “floating duck syndrome”—on the surface, students are serene and perfect but, underneath the water, their legs are churning. Needless to say, students have some issues. I don’t mean to imply that students will not be able to overcome these things, but I must admit that I was shocked to learn about what they were dealing with.
However, I should also mention that I am incredibly hopeful for the generation of students that is following in my footsteps. I am hopeful that students will learn to brave the dark places of themselves, secure in the knowledge that friends and family will always be there to draw them back. I am hopeful that students will come to understand who they are and accept themselves for that. And, I am hopeful that students will learn to step outside of themselves in order to offer their help to those in need. I am lucky to be in a situation where I can empower future students to realize that, although occasionally overwhelmed by adversity, they are all survivors in some respect: any person who has ever been teased, ridiculed, outcast, or made to simply feel less than is a survivor and can embrace that. And, because you are a survivor, you have been imbued with the power to tell your story to others in similar situations in order to pull them through. Ultimately, I am also hopeful because I have learned that young people are incredibly resilient and innovative—you can accomplish some amazing things if given half a chance.
And one of those amazing things is to realize just how much power you have. As I mentioned before, you don’t have to change the world overnight but I challenge you to realize that, just by being yourself, you possessed an incredible amount of agency: each and every one of you has the power to keep at least one point of that star intact. If they so choose, the you have the power to potentially save a life—and how amazing is that?
This week you were all given stars, but the thing that you need to realize—as cliché as it might sound—is that you are all, in your own way, stars. Go out there and burn bright. Shine like you’ve never had any doubt.
As students in my section undoubtedly were aware, the Critical Analysis of Social Issues (CASI) model is one that I struggle with—mostly because, I think, of the word “context.” The trouble is that the word is much too broad to mean much of anything for me: I can talk about unequal power structures or socio-historical background…but aren’t these all forms of context? I understand events like the Irvine 11 as situated in a number of overlapping contexts: political, economic, social, historical, geographic, and temporal. Moreover, the way in which I choose to examine any particular issue also brings with it a certain set of affordances and limitations—I must remember that I too am a sort of context for the event is being interpreted though a series of lenses and filters that have developed out of my personal combination of experiences.
But I do not mean to imply that this effort is unworthy just because it is limited or because it is difficult. I think of critical thinking as a series of skills or tools that one can employ in order to contemplate an issue from multiple angles. The biggest challenge for our group seemed where to begin: with so many questions floating in the air, how does one even begin unpacking it all? Every answer is necessarily connected to another and it seems like a ball of string that folds back in on itself, offering no place upon which to perch. The answer, for me, is to begin analyzing something along one line of inquiry knowing that your work will be incomplete but moving along anyway—you can, after all, always go back and add to what you have uncovered. Only through practice does the plodding turn into instinct.
So although class and immigration are not necessarily my areas of expertise, I’m going to go ahead and give this one a shot with the caveat that I have not done extensive amounts of outside research.
In and of themselves, class and immigration exist as two fairly large and complicated issues in contemporary America. Looking at the current state of politics, it seems hard to ignore either with proclamations of “class warfare” flying, Occupy Wall Street (not to mention events occurring in major cities around the world, Sesame Street, and Education), the 99%, the 53%, the Dream Act and immigration legislation…the list goes on and on. We can employ the CASI model from last week to begin analyzing the question in terms of economics and politics but I also notice that students in our session spoke to notions of cultural capital.
Although there is a rich history on the subject, I encourage to students to think about how cultural capital represents one of the ways in which one can compare differences in class/immigration status.
Stolen from Wikipedia
Cultural capital (French: le capital culturel) is a sociological concept that has gained widespread popularity since it was first articulated by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron first used the term in “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1973). In this work he attempted to explain differences in children’s outcomes in France during the 1960s. It has since been elaborated and developed in terms of other types of capital in The Forms of Capital (1986); and in terms of higher education, for instance, in The State Nobility (1996). For Bourdieu, capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation (cited in Harker, 1990:13) and cultural capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers power and status.
Those researchers and theorists who explore or employ Bourdieu’s theory use it in a similar way as it was articulated by Bourdieu. They usually apply it uncritically, and depending on the measurable indicators of cultural capital and the fields within which they measure it, Bourdieu’s theory either works to support their argument totally, or in a qualified way. These works help to portray the usefulness of Bourdieu’s concept in analysing (mainly educational) inequality but they do not add anything to the theory.
One work which does employ Bourdieu’s work in an enlightening way is that of Emirbayer & Williams (2005) who use Bourdieu’s notion of fields and capital to examine the power relations in the field of social services, particularly homeless shelters. The authors talk of the two separate fields that operate in the same geographic location (the shelter) and the types of capital that are legitimate and valued in each. Specifically they show how homeless people can possess “staff-sanctioned capital” or “client-sanctioned capital” (2005:92) and show how in the shelter, they are both at the same time, desirable and undesirable, valued and disparaged, depending on which of the two fields they are operating in. Although the authors do not clearly define staff-sanctioned and client-sanctioned capital as cultural capital, and state that usually the resources that form these two capitals are gathered from a person’s life as opposed to their family, it can be seen how Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital can be a valuable theory in analysing inequality in any social setting.
In many ways, cultural capital is encapsulated in the types of things that one just knows as a result of one’s upbringing. Knowing how to voice one’s political opinion, how to navigate city government, and blend into the public are all forms of cultural capital and I would suggest that it is fruitful for students to contemplate how their sense of accrued cultural capital intersects with power.
This week our students tried to wrap their heads around the notion of identity, which I must admit is a rather tricky subject. As Nicole mentioned, identity is difficult to compartmentalize in discrete moments, but, on a broader scale, we can definitely compare periods in our lives in order to demonstrate a change in identity. How do we draw lines between discrete parts of our identity? Do we even need to? Part of the challenge, I think, lies in our inability to take a step back and see ourselves as subjects of inquiry; to us, everything forms a continuous stream (how could it not?) wherein one experience feeds off of, and folds into, the next. Despite the difficulties that come from any attempt to unpack identity, the struggle is important for I believe that our identities are not things that are waiting to be discovered but are in fact formed by the very actions that we take to find it.
To make things even more complicated, identity can present on multiple levels! Throughout the course of our session, students flushed out concepts of personal and common identity, but did not tend to see how these two forms of identification are interrelated; even as our students talked about their sense of personal ethnic identity and pan-Asian identity, they did not articulate ways in which community is built off of one’s individual sense of self or how the sense of common identity can also work to inform one’s individual identity. Instead, our session seemed to gravitate toward notions of authenticity, performance, and identity, an area that is also important for students to explore. Interestingly, however, there did not seem to be much discussion about ethnic identity as a form of performance (i.e., students did not talk about the pressures of having to “act” as particular ethnicity in order to conform or distinguish themselves from others).
To address some of these lines of inquiry—and to try to tie everything back to the articles—I challenged the students to think about how the “I” cannot exist without the “other” (what Charles Cooley called the “Looking Glass Self”). In short, Cooley builds upon Georg Hegel’s notion of the “Other” when he argued that one’s conception of “I” takes into account what one imagines the “Other” thinks of the “I” (which, of course, brings up an interesting conversation regarding individuals with developmental disorders that prohibit the reading/understanding of affect). Although admittedly much more complex, the take home message from Cooley and Hegel is that one knows oneself only in relation to others (how similar or different one is to others)—if we accept this position as true, how does this inform our readings of the articles for Week 2? Immediately, we see resonance with the notion of “in group” vs. “out group” as an outgrowth of this process.
And furthermore, once we have established a process by which individuals consolidate into groups, the question is, of course, how these groups relate to one another. This week briefly introduced the notion of racism at the institutional/structural level and we will continue to develop the implications of these power struggles as we turn toward discussion of social issues next week.
This week, our students were asked to reflect on the question “Who is your Asian American hero?” and have done so quite admirably. Looking through the responses, I am struck by how many of our CIRCLE participants chose to write about family members; in some sense, the easiest answer to provide, the phenomenon also causes me to reflect on the factors that might account for this pattern.
In our sessions this week, we talked about push and pull factors with regard to immigration and I would suggest that the people selected as heroes are also the result of a combination of influences like availability and media. On one hand, we have the idea that, when presented with such a question as this one, we tend to respond with answers that are most readily available—in this case, images of family members and friends are most likely to appear. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with this, but we might also want to take a step back and consider another dimension: why is it that our families/friends are the most salient representations that come to mind? Part of the answer to that question, I would argue, stems from a general lack of other people that might be considered Asian American heroes (at least initially). Examining the other environments we inhabit, we might sense a relative scarcity in those worthy of the title “hero.” Sure, we have the occasional Asian celebrity, but I also wonder how the construction of these individuals’ images reinforces dominant stereotypes about who Asians are and, perhaps more importantly, who we should be.
And this, in turn, raises another question for me: just who is worthy of being called an Asian American hero? Do Asian American heroes have to be Asian? How do we determine who receives the title and who is not? Is this distinction based on achievement? On character? On community impact or influence? Can everyday people become heroes? What type of hero? Do all heroes have to have a costume? And, on the flip side, whose stories do we choose to exclude or devalue when we do not consider them heroes? How does the process of selecting community heroes set a bar that all future “heroes” must live up to? Is there a way to celebrate the achievements of individuals in our community without raising the expectation for accomplishment for others?
I mentioned a poem to my discussion section today, in order to help my students see the importance of an issue that is dear to my heart. As minorities, I feel that we need to band together–there is a common theme that runs through these talks in that we are all being persecuted, in some fashion, because of who we are. We are hated or punished for things that we shouldn’t have to be apologetic about. Gender issues is one of the things that gets me up in the morning and causes me to get so mad that I can’t think straight; I’m so hurt sometimes by what I see that my only reaction is anger. In women, I see stories of struggle similar to my own; yet, unlike in other situations, I am in the position of power. I am an ally. I am part of the population who has power to change things. When it comes down to it, it’s not about reaching down to help women up–it’s about reaching across. It’s about realizing that women are, as they have always been, equals. It’s about realizing that those without power are stronger than I could ever be for they have put up with these issues all of their lives. Women are smart, are survivors, are capable, and tough. We ask so much of women and they have risen to the challenge; in a world that stacks the odds against them, women have managed to thrive. Surely, they are not the only ones to have done so, but their victories should be celebrated.
Below is the aforementioned poem that has helped me to understand the world from a different point of view. I hope that it helps you to do the same.
a poem for men who don’t understand what we mean when we say they have it
reprinted from Banshee, Peregrine Press
Copyright (c) 1981 D. A. Clarke. All Rights Reserved
privilege is simple:
going for a pleasant stroll after dark,
not checking the back of your car as you get in, sleeping soundly,
speaking without interruption, and not remembering
dreams of rape, that follow you all day, that woke you crying, and
is not seeing your stripped, humiliated body
plastered in celebration across every magazine rack, privilege
is going to the movies and not seeing yourself
terrorized, defamed, battered, butchered
seeing something else
riding your bicycle across town without being screamed at or
run off the road, not needing an abortion, taking off your shirt
on a hot day, in a crowd, not wishing you could type better
just in case, not shaving your legs, having a decent job and
expecting to keep it, not feeling the boss’s hand up your crotch,
dozing off on late-night busses, privilege
is being the hero in the TV show not the dumb broad,
living where your genitals are totemized not denied,
knowing your doctor won’t rape you
privilege is being
smiled at all day by nice helpful women, it is
the way you pass judgment on their appearance with magisterial authority,
the way you face a judge of your own sex in court and
are over-represented in Congress and are not strip searched for a traffic ticket
or used as a dart board by your friendly mechanic, privilege
is seeing your bearded face reflected through the history texts
not only of your high school days but all your life, not being
relegated to a paragraph
every other chapter, the way you occupy
entire volumes of poetry and more than your share of the couch unchallenged,
it is your mouthing smug, atrocious insults at women
who blink and change the subject — politely — privilege
is how seldom the rapist’s name appears in the papers
and the way you smirk over your PLAYBOY
it’s simple really, privilege
means someone else’s pain, your wealth
is my terror, your uniform
is a woman raped to death here, or in Cambodia or wherever
wherever your obscene privilege
writes your name in my blood, it’s that simple,
you’ve always had it, that’s why it doesn’t
seem to make you sick to your stomach,
you have it, we pay for it, now
do you understand?
Race is one of those things that immediately causes most people to take a position. We have all grown up in a world that is still struggling with racial equality and we have all been exposed to the racial profiling that took place after 9/11. Outwardly, we all recognize that it is no longer PC to call someone by a racial slur or to discriminate in an overt manner—and this is where we begin to enter dangerous territory.
Many of my students have grown up in an environment that shuns racism; we all profess to believe in equality. We think the lack of lynch mobs or ethnic cleansing in our surroundings means that we’ve somehow moved past all of this. But we still have Minute Men, we still have genocide, we still have the KKK, and we still have people dragged behind pickup trucks with their faces melting against asphalt. We exist in a country that is becoming more polarized than ever and it is frankly a little frightening. We are learning to turn our backs on each other and form communities that ascribe to the same beliefs that we do.
Racial issues affect all of you.
If you think that this statement is untrue, look at the world around you. Think about your place in your community and the niche that is carved out for you by others. Where does society tell you that you can exist? What is it safe for you to be? How much of this is determined by your physical features?
On a related note, the concept of Affirmative Action was explored by Thursday’s session—something that I happen to know a little about. Some students voiced concerns over the practice while others stated that they did not support it. Let me start off by saying that I get where these students were coming from as I was no different in college. Like it or not, however, all of you have been affected by Affirmative Action. USC as an institution values diversity and practices Affirmative Action; the term, however, does not mean what most people assume it to. In our eyes, Affirmative Action is about providing equity and access to education. You might think that such programs lend a helping hand to indigents at the expense of “more qualified” individuals; I would challenge you, however, to think about what makes one student more qualified. Is it test scores? Is it GPA? Is it the fact that you went to a fancy prep school and deserve to be at USC? Do you think that this somehow makes you better than someone else?
Now think about how many other people are just like you.
Affirmative Action aims to recognize the strengths that different individuals can bring to the table. Do Latinos and Blacks who have had to struggle to finish high school have a different perspective on the world than Asians (who might have benefited from positive aspects of the Model Minority myth)? Do these students see things in a way that you don’t? Is there a benefit to interacting with them and learning how other people think?
Affirmative Action doesn’t just apply to Blacks and Latinos, however. Are you Southeast Asian? Are you first generation? Are you from a low socioeconomic class? Did you have to work in high school to help your family? Are you from a state that does not typically send a lot of students to USC? Are you from a minority religion? Do you hold atypical political beliefs? Are you a female interested in Math or Science? Are you a male interested in Communication? If any of the above are true, then you have benefitted from the type of thinking that supports Affirmative Action.
Moreover, you all benefit from the diversity that Affirmative Action creates. The depth of experiences that you have at USC is in part due to the voices that we bring in. Every student has value.
And, to turn things a bit, if you think that Affirmative Action is wrong, let’s think about football. Many of the students on the team were individuals who may have scored lower than you on SATs or received lower GPAs. Why aren’t as many people upset that these “lesser qualified” people were admitted? Is it because you enjoy going to football games? Do you only extract value from people when it suits you? My point is that the entire USC community benefits from the presence of gifted athletes (who manage to graduate just fine, by the way) and that these individuals—analogous to ethnic minorities—can bring something invaluable to the table.
I think that the reaction against Affirmative Action stems from fear: we instinctively lash out in order to protect ourselves when we feel threatened by the encroachment of undesirables. We want to secure our hard-earned victories and may feel that our achievement are cheapened by the acceptance of people whom we do not respect.
Fight to see the similarities that you have with others; fight to see their worth. Think about how important it is for other people to see you and fight to feel the same way about others. Fight against the indoctrination that you’ve suffered for so long that has engrained these patterns of thinking into your minds. Fight the urge to think that you’re more important than you are. Fight the need to feel comfortable and fight the urge to judge. Fight for your life and fight for your life to be the way that it should be. Fight to understand the things that we’ve been talking about this semester; fight to find meaning in our discussions. Fight to make the world better for your children, for your friends, and for yourself. Fight for people who don’t have a voice. Fight in whatever way you can…but just fight.
It has been my pleasure to work with you this semester and there’s no real way to convey how hopeful I am that this will be a turning point in your lives. I don’t expect that you’ll all become crusaders for API rights (nor should you feel compelled to), but I do hope that we’ve been able to get you to see things for the first time or to feel empowered to make change happen. Take the critical thinking skills that you’ve learned from CIRCLE and go out and find your cause. We’ve got a long way to go, but you’ve already taken the first steps.