The right to be racist

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Does honest hate equal harmony?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

How do we hold people accountable for their racist actions? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps their racist actions are justified.

Everyone is a little racist. It doesn’t matter if you belong to a race with privilege or one without; you are a little racist. The thing is, racism doesn’t always come out as hate, very often the solidarity we exhume is an act of boorish racism—sure, it’s not oppression or violence, but acting like a whole coloured community needs your help is a brand of arrogance that sits on one end of the spectrum. I’m not calling you a racist, but I’m saying that if you are, that’s okay.

Sometimes I wonder why there is that divide. Why one brand of people is so intolerant and the other, so righteous. Perhaps it’s the old way of thinking versus the new way of thinking.

I grew up in a conservative Chinese family. My whole life I felt ashamed of the things my parents would say in Cantonese—out in public. They aren’t bad people. They don’t have an AK47 or a diabolical plan for genocide. They just don’t know too many people of different ethnicities, and those they do know have a history of taking advantage of them because they weren’t as well-versed in their “new” country. They see, they feel, they act—just like we all do.

I don’t blame my parents for their behaviour. They have the freedom to say whatever they want and they aren’t hurting anybody. So how can I blame other people for acting the same way?

The majority of my friends are Caucasians. In a way, I’m the token. I think they forget that I’m of a different race most of the time, which is why they are my friends. They rarely call me out and make me feel awkward (but they still do… rarely). However, now and then I catch them in a conversation where the topic falls upon race. I tend to sit back and watch them interact: talking, debating, and agreeing on what is a racist act and what isn’t. I wonder if white supremacists do the same thing but on a different scale. If that’s the case, don’t we all just create our own cultural norm?

If we look at racism not as a thing to eliminate but as a thing to be accountable for, I believe we would live in a more peaceful world. We don’t like everyone, and that’s fine. To not like someone because of his or her race is okay. To not like someone because of their weight, gender, and other factors they can’t control is okay. But own up to it, own up to being an imperfect, shallow person. And allow other people to make the same judgement about you.

We can never know what it feels like to be a different person with different challenges and upbringings. While you may want to call people out for being racist, your actions aren’t as justified as you think. You’ve happened to pick a side, just like how they did. Being tolerant of people means accepting that some people won’t see the world the way you do.

People have the freedom to be racist just like how you have the freedom to be righteous. If we start pulling freedom away from a group of people because they have a different belief, is that not oppression?

One day I hope to be in a room with a group of friends of all colours talking about what racism is to them. I hope, then, we can still all agree.

White is the new black, yellow, brown, and all the other hues, really

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It’s 2015, and still whitewash casting in movies exists

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Dec. 9, 2015

Ethnicity in the film industry has always been a problem. In an attempt to reach the broadest American market, the film industry often omits the idea of diversity and simply casts well-known (white) actors. Think of an actor, any actor—odds are, that person is white. The Jake Gyllenhaals, the Johnny Depps, and the Christian Bales dominate the industry. It’s not a bad thing. They are phenomenal artists and they deserve to work. However, when they are taking the role of some Middle Eastern, Asian, or Aboriginal actor, then there is a clear problem.

I would also understand if these actors were stretching their acting chops. But they aren’t. They are just wearing a costume. So a movie that depicts Egyptian gods now has American actors with spray tans. And it’s all because the studios fear people of ethnicity with power, even when it is in the fantastical realm of film.

This problem is rotting the core of entertainment. It eliminates whatever artistic value the film actually has, discredits all the hard work thousands of people do, and makes it a power move that keeps the minority outside the gates of legitimacy.

There are so many struggling ethnic actors working their asses off for minor roles. They are as skilled in the craft as any Academy Award nominated actors. All they need is a break. Change cannot happen from the outside. Criticisms about casting choices have almost zero effect on the overall decision of the film.

In Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, he perfectly illustrates the fight ethnic actors have with the industry, and how powerless they feel. In an episode entitled Indians on TV, Ansari’s character, Dev, combats the decision to take on a role that would further his career, while also furthering the stereotypes that hold other Indian actors back. It’s a conversation about race, but more prominently, it’s a conversation about money and success. If he doesn’t do it, someone else will.

So it goes in the film industry. Someone else will always sink low enough for the scraps, and they’ll call it luck. It doesn’t matter what race the actors are, the studios will follow through with their plans. It’s not the actors that need to change. It’s the overall way of thinking. But the movement needs to happen internally. White actors need to stop accepting roles that are clearly not designed for them. And ethnic actors need to stop being swayed by the power of money. They need to band together and condemn stereotypes with the same discrimination the industry has shown for them.

You have the privilege

Image via http://everydayfeminism.com

Is your costume racist, offensive… or just sexy?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. October 28, 2015

I want to talk about cultural appropriation involving Halloween costumes. I know, I know, it’s a long-discussed topic between party-poopers and ignorant eye rollers.

Let me come at this subject from where I stand as a Halloween party participant. Each year I attend a party wearing a costume where I feel like it’s not me. Not because I’m uncomfortable or the fact that it’s supposed to be a costume, it’s just because I have a hard time convincing people that I’m a white guy. My previous costumes included: Donnie Darko (I looked like a hoodlum), Richie Tenenbaum (I looked like Kim Jong-il), and Steve Jobs (I looked like my uncle Stephen). One year, I said, “Fuck it,” and went as Glenn from The Walking Dead. I wore a baseball hat; that was my whole costume. Even I knew that was a lame costume. I looked like a tourist.

Yes, you might say, white is the default race and therefore white people cannot be offended if I should dress up as a cowboy. Then how come when a white guy dresses up as a Chinaman it’s a big deal?

Oh, he’s perpetuating a stereotype, you say.

He should check his privilege.

I hate that phrase, “check your privilege,” this line for governing white people. Thanks, I don’t need the protection, other white people. I have thick skin. Your little costume doesn’t offend me.

I’ll never know what it’s like to be a white person, but I do know what racism is. Racism is when you tell me I can’t drive because I’m Chinese. Racism is when a black guy gets arrested, only because the white police officer is scared. Racism is trying to get your foot in the door for a job and having less-experienced white people leapfrog you. A Halloween costume is not a big, oppressive statement. It’s a costume. It’s not the problem, and those that believe it is are those same people who try to be healthy by avoiding sugar in coffee, and then eating a cake as a reward. It’s a molehill problem, not a mountain.

Here’s a popular response: Would you dress up like a black guy around a group of black guys? I’m not saying that if Robert Downey Jr. did it, it’s okay. I’m saying no, I would not dress up like a black guy in Ferguson, St. Louis during the riot. But if I had a Bob Marley costume, I’d wear it on Halloween around friends who understand “One Love.”

There’s a time and place to learn about other people’s culture, and Halloween can be one of them. You can wear a straw-farming hat the same way I can wear overalls and call myself a farmer. The headwear is actually used for farming! It’s real. Wear it because you are interested and you want to learn more about the culture. And do. Mock it because it’s goofy. It is.

Is blackface offensive? Are buckteeth and squinty eyes offensive? Is dressing up as Caitlyn Jenner offensive? Is cross-dressing offensive? Are you able to even out the offence? You know, dress up as Hitler one year and Anne Frank the next? We are so god damn politically correct these days we don’t even know who we are or aren’t offending. We don’t need to walk on eggshells every Halloween. There are more heinous acts of hate in the world. Don’t make hate out of nothing.

There is nothing subtle about racism

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How should we feel about everyday racism?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. November 5, 2014

It enters our conversations, appears on television, and is even broadcast in the news. Whether we go there on purpose or if it was just a Freudian slip of the tongue, subtle racism, like a chronic sore muscle, requires us to shrug it off or address it with a tight squeeze.

In the war against everyday racism, I’m a conscientious objector. It’s a messy game, and I cannot see peace at the end of calling every person out for the asinine things they say or do. Do stereotypical references and cultural appropriation make me angry? Sure, sometimes it’s done out of pure spite and is meant to demean a whole racial group of people, but other times it’s done out of ignorance, stupidity, and insensitivity. When it comes down to it, we all say and do stupid things occasionally. Dumb thoughtless acts do not make you a racist, and we need to stop dropping the R-word so loosely. It solves nothing.

Seeing the Toronto Sun editorial cartoon of mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, dressed as Chairman Mao, riding the coattail of her late husband Jack Layton, made me want to vomit. How did the publication not foresee the poor taste of their illustration? Why at no point between pen to print did they acknowledge the hatefulness of their art? There is nothing subtle about it; however, it remains one man’s opinionated expression, for that is clearly how cartoonist Andy Donato sees Chow, female politicians, and perhaps all people of Asian descent. Chow called out Donato, and rightly so, but will it lead to a progressive outcome, or will more hate spread both ways? That has yet to be seen.

The Vancouver Sun recently had its own foray with subtle racism, naming Canucks prospect Jordan Subban as “the dark guy in the middle” in the caption for a photograph. We all cringed a bit when we read that, but a moment later, we chuckled at the publication’s stupidity. Was it a placeholder that snuck past proofreaders and ended up in print, or was it a snarky presentation of racism? Whatever it was, Subban took it with grace, claiming it was a “pretty honest mistake.”

From those two examples, we can clearly see the party that took the subtle racist gesture better or at least with a healthier attitude. We are all unique, we all have our home team, and we—especially as Canadians—have friends, co-workers, teammates, and even families of different races, which is why I believe it’s important to give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to subtle racism.

Although we live in a liberal country, where we all claim to accept each other, I’m pessimistic that we are all kind-hearted people. Realistically, we all have our preconceptions. The way to put an end to those preconceptions isn’t by striking anyone who dares voice their opinion, but by educating them. Canada is made up of a mosaic of cultures, and we tend to split up into our own groups and communities. Just look at the Lower Mainland and you can see the Chinese community, the East Indian community, and the Italian community all centralized at different geographical locations. We need to break this way of living, learn to coexist not in a mosaic but in a mixing pot. Harmony cannot be appreciated from the perimeter; we must delve into it wholeheartedly and embrace other people.

So when you see or overhear subtle racism, don’t approach it with anger, but rather with empathy. Acknowledge, educate, and move on.

Fresh Off The Boat or Cast Away

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How a third-culture kid tried to act the role

by Elliot Chan

Looking back, I realized it wasn’t just that I was Asian. I was a loud-mouth, brash, broken Asian who had no respect for authority in any form, whether it was a parent, teacher, or country. Not only was I not white, to many people I wasn’t Asian either. Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat

There is much talk about cultural appropriation these days. People are trying to draw the line, but political correctness cannot be traced with a ruler; it’s jagged, squiggly, and all-round messy. Some are overly sensitive with the ineptitude of cultural exchange — or the misunderstanding of it — and will always be, while others are apathetic to the point of offensive.

But what is my culture? What is authenticity? What is a stereotype? And what is my legitimate heritage? Before I can step up and defend myself, I must understand what — correction: who — I am.

My mother demanded that I speak Cantonese at home while growing up. I’m fluent, but I use primary school vocabulary and slur my words. It makes me feel — for lack of a better word — dumb. It’s the last thing my mom can hold over me. Cantonese. If I lose it, it’s gone. Should I have children, they will not learn a word of it from me. It’s sad, but it’s true.

CBC is an acronym used to describe me: Chinese born Canadian. Respect — even though us CBCs are perhaps the first generation of Chinese people to have never felt the wrath of poverty, the injustice of forced labour and head tax, and the hardship of immigration and a life of a refugee. Yes, we haven’t done much to garner respect, but we still deserve it; the glass ceiling above us is evident, but the platform of privilege we stand upon is quite sturdy as well.

But I was more than that whole CBC business. I didn’t know it at first, because people would just put a label on me as a kid, and I accepted it. Especially when I was growing up in a multicultural community like I did in Vancouver/Burnaby, Beautiful British Columbia. My mom and dad wanted me to be one way, the school system wanted me to behave in another, and of course, I had no idea what I wanted, except to be a star on film and television.

I was a kid grasping at influences in all directions. I admired famous white people, I admired famous Chinese people, I had friends of all hues, and I had dislikes from people of all culture; douchebags — I later found out — existed on every continent, and I don’t discriminate. I was a third-culture kid. My parents were yellow, the country was blue, and I was green, not ripe for pickin’.

Eddie Huang, owner of Baohous in New York and host of the popular Fresh Off the Boat segment on Vice Magazine, also found influences in an unconventional realm: hip-hop and rap.

Pac made sense to us. He wrote in his memoir. We lived in a world that treated us like deviants and we were outcast. There was always some counselor or administrator pulling us out of class to talk. We stayed in detention and we were surrounded by kids who had no idea what we were going through. We listened to hip-hop because there wasn’t anything else that welcomed us in, made us feel at home. I could see why Milli wanted to pull a pistol on Santa or why B.I.G. was ready to die. Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority bullshit, and kung fu-style discipline are what set us off. But Pac held us down.

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As a Canadian, there isn’t much to go on, especially when it presents mashed potatoes and casserole content. Good try Canadian Broadcast Company, but CBC ain’t CBC enough for me. I was proud, but of what, someone else’s culture? I caught of glimpse of Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie and absolutely shuddered.

I wanted to change it, but I had to get my foot in the door without falling to my knees. My dad would walk into my room and see me being whitewashed by the television. I told him, I wanted to be an actor. Maybe in Hong Kong, he replied. He wanted me to flee, but I wanted to invade. I was watching television so I could know my enemy.

But when a man of colour asks a white man for anything, whether it be food, work, or acceptance, there is still this raw feeling, as if something between us, as human beings, is still unresolved. Equality is having chips to play, choosing the game is the privilege.

Huang describes the emotion of watching his cousin join a frat, but I believe it relates well to every thing else a minority group goes through in this new world. You can say “please” and “thank you,” but you know that they owe you nothing; the whole process brings you down:

Something about watching my older cousin walk around with PKA hat on his fat head being hazed by white “brothers” pissed me off. It must have been how our grandparents felt watching the British or Japanese herd their people around in water lines. OK, maybe I was imposing my own meaning on the image, but there was something wrong with it either way. White people making my cousin carry their shit, wear their colours, and walk with his head down. It took every ounce of self-control not to go apeshit on his brothers and, when I was done, beat the shit out of Phil, too! It made Allen and me so mad that it finally brought us back together. Like watching William Hung sink your entire race with each word of “She Bangs,” we died every time Phil walked through the towers surrounded by frat brothers.

For eight years, I pursued acting as my Plan A career choice. I bought into the culture 100 per cent. I devoted myself to acting and film school. I printed myself a month’s salary of headshots, produced a demo reel, and even got myself a talent agent.

I knew I was heading down the wrong path when I saw myself waiting in an audition room, hoping to beat out my other brothers, third-culture kids like myself in every way, for a role as a minority in a half-baked television pilot. When your childhood dream was to be Hamlet, anything less than Horatio will not do. So Nerdy Guy #2 was as far as I would stretch.

Legitimate roles for Asians are so limited that the audition rooms become a tense place for those who get a call back. I remember looking around at all those familiar faces, and thinking, we should be partners not rivals. We should work together to make a new brand of entertainment for our own demographic. The industry believes they are offering a piece of the pie, but no, we are fighting each other for crumbs.

My parents believed in me, they wanted me to climb the ladder. They wanted me to land those bit parts and wait for my lucky break. In other words, they wanted me to follow orders, run with dynamite and build the CPR for little to nothing. My parents believed in me. But I was not going to misrepresent who I was in the world. Yes, I wanted to be an actor, but no, I would not be Nerdy Guy #2. If I wanted to be Nerdy Guy #2 I would have been an accountant, I would have been a doctor, I would have been an engineer. Being typecast was as bad as failing. Maybe it was me, or maybe I just didn’t understand the whole entertainment industry.

“When Gene Roddenberry gave me that role,” said George Takei, for PBS documentary Pioneers of Television, “it was a breakthrough role for me personally, as an actor as well as the image of Asians and Asian Americans on the television screen and also on the motion picture screen. And today, if you have a hospital series or a detective series, you always see an Asian as part of the diversity of that regular cast.”

And the token Asian role evolved since. Now, the succeeding Sulu has taken reign as a leading male in a romantic comedy. “Asians narratively in shows are insignificant. They’re the cop, or the waitress, or whatever it is. You see them in the background. So to be in this position . . . is a bit of a landmark,” said John Cho when interviewed for his television series on ABC, Selfie.

Hell, maybe I could be the best damn Nerdy Guy #2 in cinematic history, but no. Respect to Takei and Cho for continuing to inspire, but I’m taking a different route. I would not praise Asian actors for simply making it on screen. I’ll praise them if they dare to be vanguards. I’ll praise them if they can boldly go where no Orient actor in Hollywood has gone before. Some might find the “Me so sorry! Love you long time” bit entertaining, but I hate it. I cannot and will not influence people to do the same cheesy accent and stereotypical jokes.

Asian filmmakers need to take a stand for the actors. Filmmakers are the ones generating work, so it hurts to see Old Boy whitewashed, the same way The Departed took all the credit for Infernal Affairs. Can we Americanize something without changing the skin colour and the language? It appears not. But there was nothing wrong with The Godfather, was there?

Coincidently, my cousin is now pursuing acting. He’s found his style and is getting work here and there, finding far more success than I did half -a-decade ago. Yet he’s still rooted in the same third-culture I am, so I hope he represents us well; not my family necessarily, but other third-culture people. But no offense taken if he doesn’t. Paying the bills is important. We can’t all be activists. Some people just want to be “artists.”

My family would be happy to just see him sell out and live a happy life. My family is liberal like that; they’ve given up on trying to convert us. What may seem to be defeat for them appears to be respect for us. Free will. The respect to let your children create their own legacy, their own traditions, and still welcome them into the old ones.

Am I afraid of losing my heritage? I can lie to myself, but it’s already gone. So when I see a white person doing squinty eyes, when I hear mocking “Ching-Chong” dialect, and when I feel put-down by racial stereotypes, I don’t act the fool — I play the bigger man. Respect.

I have my roots, sure, but more importantly, I have an open mind. I am able to look at each culture, cultures that simply present themselves to me on a daily bases and say: “This is not my life, this is yours and if you don’t get in my way and I don’t get into yours, then no hard feeling. Hell, maybe we’ll even learn something about each other.”

I’d like to believe that most third-culture kids have this forward thinking attitude, I mean, they sort of have to. It’s those who have a reserved, conservative mindset that are keeping future generations back from reaching a common ground. Just look around the world and see the strife; the cultures are diverse, but the attitude is similar.

If you are from a third-culture like me, you can have intelligent conversations about science and religion without feeling defensive. If you are from a third-culture like me, you can welcome people with different values, sexuality and lifestyles with almost zero hesitation. We have lost a bit of ourselves, but we have found something new.

Tradition, whether it be in the form of an industry that teases a minority or a closed-door ritual, we can’t just take it at face value, we need to analyze them, assess what they mean to us, and ask if it holds any value to the future generation and ourselves, then we must protect it like we protect a five-year-old’s belief in Santa or make the child face reality and grow up. If people forget about Chinese New Year, then there won’t be one. Simple as that. Traditions are sturdy anchors, holding us boat people together, but it might also be the shackles holding us back in this new culture.

When it comes down to it, it’s all about perception and every Asian actor understand one thing and that’s how the Western world perceived us, and Huang notes it in his memoir:

My cousin Allen was the first to point it out to me one day when we were still kids: “Yo, you notice Asian people never get any pussy in movies? Jet Li rescued Aliyah, no pussy! Chow Yun-Fat saves Mira Sorvino, no pussy. Chris Tucker gets mu-shu, but Jackie Chan? No pussy!”

So remember, if they are mocking us, they probably aren’t celebrating us.

I quit acting. I felt a bit of shame, but it faded. There were no roles for me. Because not only am I white washed, I’m also acid washed. I watch television today and I’m glad I’m not a part of the industry. I might not be the solution, but at least I’m not part of the problem.

I have assimilated with North American culture; there is no denying that. But I’m content. I can learn from my parents and I can defend their honour. But I cannot live a life trying to change ignorant SOBs, CBCs and FOBs. I accept that there will always be a polarizing opinion toward cultural appropriation and other BS. I cannot guarantee that I won’t offend another. None of us can. We all have our home team. It’s not about being born white, black, yellow, green, or anything anymore. We in Canada have the liberty to find our own identity, instead of having it branded on us at birth. For now, I’ve chosen my side.

My mother told me to speak Cantonese.

“Who would I be speaking to?”

 

See original piece on Medium