by Naomi Ishisaka
If anyone had any lingering doubts that the United States was still a country obsessed with race, the month of April 2007 will have dispelled all questions.
The nation was first in a state of apoplexy after longtime foul-mouthed millionaire talk show host Don Imus – who has ranted against Jews and Arabs, and once called pioneering African-American journalist Gwen Ifill a “cleaning lady” when she covered the White House – described the women of the Rutgers basketball team in racist, sexist and truly appalling terms. His comment, despite a long and cozy relationship with Washington, D.C., pundits and politicos, was finally enough to break the camel’s back, and one by one, his supporters became eclipsed by his detractors. At long last, his friends could no longer justify his racist, homophobic and sexist slurs. Advertisers no longer wanted to have anything to do with his show. He was fired by two media outfits. Yet, what would seem a victory for civility and racial progress quickly turned into a referendum on hypocrisy and double standards. Suddenly, many people were concerned about the content of rappers and comedians who, they said, were “just as guilty” as Imus for spewing racist and sexist garbage.
I certainly am not on the side of those rationalizing the tone or content of the types of commercialized rap music that glorify violence and verbally assault women and gays. Still I can’t remember the last time I heard the likes of Senators John McCain or John Kerry or broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw – who have frequented Imus’ show – making guest appearances in a 50 Cent or Young Jeezy track. What’s lost in this debate are the hip-hop artists – and Seattle has some stellar examples in Blue Scholars, Common Market and Gabriel Teodros – who take a different tack, who use the medium to reach young audiences with a conscious message that honors their experience and asks that youth take an active role in their own lives and communities.
As the Imus debate was reaching fever pitch, another controversy re-emerged: The white lacrosse players of Duke University accused of raping an African-American woman were exonerated of all charges in the year-old case. What happened to the students was wrong, and the story was a tragedy all around. But what was most tragic was to see the unraveling of a case when, finally, a white prosecutor takes seriously the accusations of a black woman against her white alleged perpetrators. How many times have we seen the very opposite? How many times have we seen crimes against women of color – and particularly those in sex work, as in this case – treated as if the victims had it coming? Will the Duke case make prosecutors more wary of believing women who have been abused or raped?
How often have we seen men of color accused of crimes they did not commit? As I listened to the Duke players talk about their yearlong ordeal with journalist Leslie Stahl on the TV program “60 Minutes,” I thought of another North Carolinian, Darryl Hunt – and the thousands of other African Americans like him – who did not share the same fate and privileges the players had. Hunt and others had all the evidence in their favor but they were not from wealthy and influential families and could not retain the best defense lawyers money could buy. Hunt, like many others, served nearly two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, such heinous injustice engenders little of the outrage in white America that’s arisen over the Duke case.
Even as the Duke debate was going on ad nauseum on the airwaves, in the blogosphere and in print media, a new tragedy booted others off the public radar: the horrific massacre of students and teachers at Virginia Tech on April 16. Thirty-two lives were tragically cut short by a sick and vengeful member of their student community.
As the news unfolded, every person of color in the U.S. must have said what has become an all-too-familiar prayer – “please don’t let it be one of us.” But Asian Americans struck out. The shooter was “Asian,” the media said. Then the collective prayers narrowed – “please don’t let the shooter be (Japanese) (Chinese) (Vietnamese).” The shooter was identified as a South Korean man. What did that mean? I assumed by calling him South Korean he was an exchange student from Korea – yet Seung-Hui Cho had lived in the United States longer than he had lived in Korea, after immigrating with his family when he was only 8. This timeframe mirrored many others in the Korean-American 1.5 generation, who immigrated to the U.S. as children. If he had lived, would Cho ever have been called anything other than Korean? How long would he have to have lived in the U.S. for Cho to be called Korean-American?
These questions are important, because in our racialized culture, Cho’s ethnicity is central to what makes him “different” to the majority of Americans. Just hours after his identity was revealed, media pundits on MSNBC were already hypothesizing about the pressure his family must have put him under because “that’s how Asians are.” An American caller to the BBC said if the Asians are under so much pressure, why don’t they just go back to where they came from? Others on blogs went viciously further, saying Americans should go to Korea and literally hunt down Cho’s family. For Asian Americans, these comments and assumptions have a familiar sting. We can recall being asked numerous times how long we have been in the country and when we learned how to speak English. The baseline assumption here is that we are Asian, not American, no matter if we grew up in the U.S. or how many generations our families have lived here.
This tragic story, as others before it and still to come, will have ripple effects throughout our country and culture. Will it spawn a conversation on guns and social isolation, race and belonging? Or will it give a further boost to the stereotyping, bigotry and fear of “the other?” Already, South Koreans and Korean Americans fear the worst. Many are afraid their entire community and nation will be tarred by the actions of one individual.
There is an urgent need to prove their apprehensions wrong. Our economy, our democracy and our very integrity are at risk here. Individually and collectively, we need to rise above our fears and broaden the discussion about the inequalities surrounding race and class in America. Seeking out our shared understandings, we need to pledge to find commonality among differences and peace among global strife.