Playing (anti-)blackness: Expanding understandings of racism in sport

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

dengThe National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Atlanta Hawks entered the 2015 playoff run as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and with one of the best records in franchise history. Even with injuries, to key defender Thabo Sefolosha, role player Demarre Carroll, and bull’s eye shooter Kyle Korver, the Hawks’ efficient offensive attack and stifling defense propelled them to the Eastern Conference finals. Though the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Hawks, there was much to rejoice for the Hawks after a very successful season of winning streaks. With their rewarding season, however, came a type of forgetting, or even worse, a limited understanding of race. As the Hawks did well, the racial violence within sport became an invisible background to their stories of sporting success. In this essay, I will demonstrate how narrow versions of blackness (as seen in the case of Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry and Civil Rights icon Andy Young) marginalize the black migrant, queer, and trans person which further de-politicizes and de-legitimates anti-racism campaigns.

During the recruitment period in the summer of 2014, General Manager of the Hawks, Danny Ferry was on a conference call with other team executives to discuss potential free agents. Ferry, a white male and former NBA and Duke University player, looked through his data on South Sudanese American player Luol Deng, and stated that Deng “has a little African in him.” With regard to the inflammatory comment, Ferry admitted to perusing through various sources of material gathered on Luol Deng and added, “He’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

Danny Ferry’s comments remind us how the anti-black racism in larger American society seeps and bleeds into the very fabric of sport. The presence of black athletes in the NBA does not make mainstream American sport “post-racial.” These comments and the events that followed them not only demonstrate the presence of racism but also the containing of blackness as identity and politics. In present-day U.S. society, we must carefully evaluate the immediate history of anti-black violence and interrogate it, if we seek to fully understand the ways in which blackness is contained.

The loaded and vile evaluations of Luol Deng resulted in Danny Ferry taking a leave of absence. Many individuals came to the support of Danny Ferry. The support, as I will argue further, gives us a problematic understanding of blackness that is out of touch with the Black Lives Matter movement and the trans women color organizing. Organizations like the Audre Lorde Project link anti-black racism to xenophobia, anti-immigrant practices, and U.S. imperialism. We do not yet fully see this expansive social justice campaign in sport. Instead, after the leak of Ferry’s comments, Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (who was named 2015 “coach of the year”) iterated that it was the genius of Danny Ferry that played a part in the Hawks franchise’s success. This affirmation of Ferry as a professional genius and not a racist—unlike former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was pushed out by the league for his racist comments about black people sitting in his seats—is part of a new terrain of expressing race that is simplistic in its compilation of blackness and in privileging of whiteness. As Luol Deng was African, he was somehow outside the respectable bounds of care and thus not able or allowed to speak against racism. Certain types of representations of native-born blackness become iconic, while the black migrant Other is seen as duplicitous, dodgy, and untrustworthy.

To both my shock and expectations, former Atlanta mayor and civil rights legend Andy Young, a leader in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, came to the side of Danny Ferry. According to ESPN staff writer Kevin Arnovitz, when asked whether Ferry should lose his job, Young responded, “Hell no.” Young said that had he been the decision-maker in the Hawks executive offices, he would have encouraged Ferry to stay on. He added that he doesn’t believe Ferry is a racist. To make matters even more complicated, he substituted himself into this equation to free Ferry of any blame: “No more than I am,” Young told the Atlanta station. “That’s a word that you cannot define, ‘You are a racist.’ You can’t grow up white in America without having some problems. You can’t grow up black in America without having some subtle feelings.”

Andy Young’s comments, although disheartening in their disregard for the harrowing experiences of racial violence, should not be seen as exceptional. Rather, it is part and parcel of the projection of African American identity through which certain nefarious alliances are made between black and white elites. Accordingly, a version of blackness is created through Young comments; it is a narrow, constricted, and limited understanding of blackness that elides and dismisses entire groups of people. This version of blackness contains threads of xenophobia that justify racist acts against immigrant black individuals like Luol Deng.

I believe Young’s support of Ferry keeping his job is tied to a clearly bounded blackness with specific national contours. Deng’s refugee status and African identity underwhelmed claims to blackness and anti-black racism. In the process of constructing what black is by stating who is not—in this case, Luol Deng, we see the parameters of blackness and ideas of respectability come to the surface. By not condemning Ferry’s statements and supporting his dismissal, Andy Young manufactures and engrains versions of blackness that make the victim of racism the middle-class, native-born, heterosexual, Christian African American man.

Not seeing Ferry’s racial statements as problematic, Young defines blackness and subsequent experiences of racism in limiting ways that fails to account for the heterogeneity and contradictions within blackness. The overemphasis on the black Atlantic is prevalent in how we think about race, racism, and activism. Roderick Ferguson, in his chapter in Strange Affinities, asks us to imagine a blackness that complicates our understandings of Africa and accounts for various diasporic African populations on U.S. shores. Instead of centering western Africa, he asks for black studies to include work on east Africans in the United States. For example, there are large Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Somalian communities in Atlanta. In fact, the Lost Boys of Sudan (the young Sudanese who fled across nations and refugee camps at the height of the civil war in 1980s Sudan) have a strong community in Metro Atlanta and there is a large African refugee community in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston (see the fabulous book Outcasts United by Warren St. John).

When Andy Young dismisses the problematic discourse that ostracizes black refugee and immigrant bodies, this might be part of a larger societal discourse of blackness that does not attend to interconnected issues of racism, immigration reform, poor black communities, rising xenophobia, and the entrenchment of Islamophobia (see Junaid Rana’s Terrifying Muslims and Ahmed Afzal’s Lone Star Muslims). In many ways, his encapsulated and static understanding of race is easily worked into the anti-immigrant logic that sees immigrants, especially African immigrants, as non-subjects and not within the discourse of race and racial justice within the United States. As a result, the broken leg sustained by Hawks Afro-French player Thabo Sefolosha is not attended to by persons like Andy Young. Although the details have not surfaced as to how Sefolosha broke his leg in the encounter with police, Young’s conceptualization of blackness already projects Sefolosha outside the logic of racial communities and care.

To go back in time and come back to the present, the blackness that was central to the Civil Rights Movement could not and did not always accommodate blackness in radical ways. The mainstreaming versions of the Civil Rights Movement struggled and failed to attend to LGBTQI and immigration matters in the movement. Andy Young’s version of blackness and respective productions of social justice are therefore not expansive. Luol Deng did not fit enough to the middle-classed, light-skinned, and American-centered version of blackness. Young’s version of blackness was not as expansive as the Pan-African claims by Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, and many other scholars and activists. As we have increasing numbers of African players in the NBA and other professional sports, how will blackness account for the far reach and radical possibilities that move beyond our shores?

Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry plays into the xenophobia that governs how we think about U.S. identity and African American identity. There are many examples of how the histories of Africans, African diaspora communities, and African Americans have not always led to collaborative work. There are instances of tension between these groups, but “blackness” must be an open concept in order to create true change.

As a high school student in Atlanta, I came across the contradictions and entrenchments within blackness. One morning, in 1990, the students and teachers arrived to find anti-black racist graffiti sprayed against the walls at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta. This deeply affected the souls of my African American classmates and a few students of color. We had an African student at our school and he was an exceptional soccer player. Despite the racist happenings at my school, on many occasions, the African student heard racialized comments from African American young men stating that he should go back to the “jungle,” “take care of the goats,” and other such matters. Instead of building a coalition with what the Civil Rights Movement called “Pan-African” connection through an expansive concept of blackness, there continues to be black bleeding, but in isolation and silence. Africans were outside the scope of respectability based on certain bodily comportments, phenotype, name, accent, smell, and desires that defined blackness in Atlanta. This logic, I believe, is evident in Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry. In the process, the Atlanta Hawks can use the iconicity of Andy Young and his blackness to leverage support and wash away the racist structures within Atlanta Hawks management. Thus, we have to ask: Why is there silence regarding Sefolosha’s broken leg? What does that silence tell us about Black Lives Matter when it took place during an encounter with New York police?

When we continue to figure violence only in terms of those people who we think are embodiments of the best of our community, we fail to see the true reach of racism. We fall into the trap of recognizing only certain persons as respectably human and worthy of attention. What does respectability have to do with that? Why should it be a concern? When respectability becomes the crux of why we care about certain deaths and bodies over others, as evident in Lisa Cacho’s wonderful book Social Death, we account for the horrific murder of the nine people at the historic AME church in Charleston. This tragic event has spaces for empathy as the dead included teachers, professionals, and respectable church-going people.

As we mourn the deaths of the nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, we have failed to collaborate to interrogate the haunting and continued silence concerning the killings of trans women of color. So many black trans women have been murdered since the death of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Yet, the campaign to combat anti-black racism generally does not account for these persons. Trans women of color, especially, are marginalized, feel the wrath of poverty intimately, daily encounter the police state and racial profiling, and have little resources for survival. As organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and various others open up the category of blackness, the same must be true in all aspects of society, including sporting cultures. At the ESPY awards for sporting figures, Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage and service. There was great applause and a superficial demonstration of unity. Although this moment brought much-needed visibility to the anti-trans violence, it continued to drown out the activism of Kye Allums, a trans man of color who has been a fierce social justice advocate with sporting cultures for the last 5 years.

Furthermore, with the continued violence against poor African American women, will Andrew Young and the misogyny of the civil rights leadership corps account for the everyday struggle of poor black women? Will this blackness accommodate the young black homeless women like the ones described in anthropologist Aimee Cox’s Shapeshifters and Between Good and Ghetto by sociologist Nikki Jones? If not, then what we have is similar to the blackness that South Asian American athletes consume and appropriate in my book, Desi Hoop Dreams. It is a blackness that is sellable in the larger marketplace but devoid of fierce political fires. Yet, some South Asian American men consume cultural blackness as a way to critique U.S. society and the racial stratification of immigrants. There are other possibilities and openings for blackness that Andy Young and the larger Black Lives Matter movement must attend to in order to create a society for all.

We see how the politics of respectability plays out with regard to organizing against anti-black racism. Racism is expansive, fluid, and recruits a wide spectrum of black victims, yet the responses can be shallow, myopic, and limiting. Racism has always been tied to stratification, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and imperialism. Blackness as a point of identification and as a compass for change must not have gatekeepers but infinite openings that make the category a vision and praxis for a just tomorrow.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015).

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Q&A with author Rachel C. Lee

Last season, Faye Qiyu Lu, one of our fall interns and an undergraduate at NYU, put together a series of questions for Rachel C. Lee, author of The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America. Check out the Q&A on the book below! 

What does the term “exquisite corpse” entail for your project?

Rachel C. Lee: The exquisite corpse, for me, is a structure for collaboration, an experimental method that values distributed sites of intelligence, despite the likely disjunctures of approach and worldview of various participants. In the early 2000s, I began working with a group of feminists in Los Angeles to create a critical-creative prose piece using the cadavre exquis as our model. That exercise led me to appreciate the conjunctive elements of scholarly endeavor, rather than simply to pretend that, for instance, a book emanates from a singular monastic researcher. At the same time, I had also been writing about performances, novels, science exhibits, and other cultural artifacts. All were concerned with racially marked populations and some used “body parts” in their compositions, for instance, wielding human detritus as art material or referring to fleshly organs in their titles. I discovered that these Asian American artists were not simply responding to how racial violence occurs through the assertion of anatomical difference between “colored” and “white” people—differences not simply in hair texture and skin color, but in diet, endurance, pain threshold, and so forth—they were also responding to the way in which biotechnology was changing Enlightenment notions about the integrity and autonomy of the human organism.

André Breton credited games like the cadavre exquis with bringing about something unexpected—a “pooling” of creativity and knowledge, perhaps an early intimation of what is now called “crowd sourcing.” That description seemed an apt figure, encapsulating the way my book had grown from an engagement with racial profiling tied to external features and body parts to an examination of such profiling in relation to risk assessments of populations based on genetic, metabolic, endocrinological, and environmental regulation.

It is argued in the book that a biosocial/biopolitical perspective would shed new light on the literary study of race (Asian American in this case). How did you first arrive at this approach?

The literature on biopolitics and biosociality—which I became familiar with through anthropologies and sociologies of medicine—helped me understand the gap between those who were studying embodiment on the scale of perception and corporeal dynamics and those who were studying it more sociologically, as properties and propensities of bodies aggregated into types. We can think of these as an approach that starts from inside a particular, situated body and an approach that starts from outside, looking over a crowd of bodies. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, literary artifacts often focalize their stories through the perspectives of individual protagonists.

In the case of canonical literature by racial subjects, readers who take up these books vicariously see from the viewpoint of these racially specific characters, taking on their speech inflections, and understanding or sympathizing with the traps of these characters’ own and others’ making. This approach corresponds to the anatomical-political register of biopower—how individual bodies feel the effects of (and partially defy) the managerial, biopolitical aspects of biopower codified in institutions such as the the legislature, the courts, the health clinic, the army, the Taylorized workplace, the credit and finance sector, and so forth. Public policy and the law necessarily address social problems–such as harm caused by institutional bias against racial others, the disabled, and sexual minorities, for instance–in terms of broad edicts aimed at ensuring classes of individuals are not singled out for unfair treatment. In other words, legal and policy discourses necessarily “abstract” individuals into populational patterns, but who wouldn’t feel that his/her individual instance of tragicomedy has not been heard in the broad edicts of these bureacracies? It is the desire to be in a particular body, or the riveting concreteness of a particular body’s story, that finds us looking to literature.

Apparently your study examines not only literature, but also various art forms. Is it pushing your own boundaries as a literary scholar?

Since the completion of my first book in 1999, I had been working on the difference between scripts treated as literary texts and live performances on the stage. Indeed, in my earlier work on standup comedienne Margaret Cho, the archived ‘text’ of a live performance was not a written transcript but a DVD. When working on performance, one pays attention not simply to the verbal emanations of the performer, but to the communicative and tonal qualities of gesticulating arms, crouched legs, pointed toes, sweat streaks, facial grimaces, costume, etc. I suppose you could say that I spent the first decade of the 2000s pushing my boundaries as a transdisciplinary scholar, not simply in terms of taking stage performances as part of my archive but also in my consideration of visual media and other forms of visual-tactile interfaces enabled by electronic platforms. Perhaps the biggest boundary I have recently pushed is that between bioscientific and humanistic approaches. However, here I am grateful to be following in the footsteps of brilliant feminist science and technology scholars such as Donna Haraway, Banu Subramaniam, Hannah Landecker, and Elizabeth Wilson.

Why did you choose the specific cases of Cheng-Chieh Yu’s dance theater, Margaret Cho’s stand-up comedy, Amitav Ghosh’s novel, and Denise Uyehara’s performance art?

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America is also an experiment in various modes of critical writing. My introduction, first chapter, final chapter, and epilogue are all driven by argument and theory. There, I use examples from literature, scientific exhibit, clinical practice, and visual design and art in aggregate, as it were— meaning their force of evidence lies in the sum of their effect. In four chapters on the artists identified above, I ruminate at length on each artist’s corpus, dwelling in the minutiae of their choreographies, multi-media art practices, narrative structures, and pedagogical commitments. The goal is to draw out what ethical and political practices they accomplish—and urge us to accomplish—through their work. There are numerous ways in which the works of the four primary artists overlap and could be explored, but I didn’t want the length of the book to be too forbidding. For instance, while I expressly explore the boundaries among species—microorganisms and their insect and vertebrate hosts—through Amitav Ghosh’s fiction, I could also have turned to dancer Cheng-Chieh Yu, who has a series of dance performances devoted to the animal-human divide; these dances convey a sense that the movements of Chinese martial arts and the pharmacopeia of Chinese medicine acknowledge the continuity of humans and other animals. Similarly, both Margaret Cho and Denise Uyehara (both queer actresses) have recently turned to the topic of having babies; nonetheless, I felt Uyehara’s earlier work on disability and incarceration was far more pressing to address.

Lastly, you mentioned the hope to “provoke a new symbiont species of inquiry.” Would you consider The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America successful at doing so?

Immodestly, I’d love to say yes, but future readers will have to answer that question! Perhaps the best I can do is point to how biotechnology on a daily basis is disaggregating and reaggregating our body parts in ever new ways. Biotechnology now allows for something called the “three-parent embryo,” basically the altering of one’s offspring’s cellular materials, such as mitochondria, while maintaining that offspring’s genetic (nuclear DNA) tie to the parent. While the three-parent embryo is not a new species (all the parts combining are from one species), it nevertheless might do as a figure that is good to think with in our current moment. Such new combinations in and across bodies are coming into being because of well-funded infrastructures enabling their realization. My book aspires to be a more modest infrastructure, enabling analogous new inquisatorial combinations across bodies of disciplinary inquiry.

We might also take a cue from artists, poets, novelists, and standup comedians themselves, who are not leaving the social and ethical implications of these new technologies up to the biotech industry, but are speculating and imagining multiple futures emerging from these changes. Asian American Studies, race studies, literary studies, and American Studies, whether in a symbiont or three-parent embryo manner, would do well to amplify their engagements with bioscience in order to continue the work of critical race studies, social justice, and ethical pedagogy in relation to these developments.

Rachel C. Lee is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at UCLA. She is the author of The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation, co-editor of the volume Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace, and editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature and Culture.

Asian men on TV: Waiting for the (onscreen) kiss

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

© ABC/Eric McCandlessPopular culture is one important realm where Asian Americans, along with other communities of color, negotiate and manage the representations of their communities. In particular, visibility in the mainstream media is one important way to assert an American identity that is inclusive of a variety of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. It also allows for complex representations of Asian America through desires and pleasure that go beyond the stereotypical renditions.

The premature cancellation of “Selfie,” unfortunately, takes another Asian American main character out of primetime television.  However, the melancholy of losing a staunchly heterosexual character fails to address how racism in the U.S. and Asian American exclusion is not solely governed through emasculation. By bemoaning the loss of John Cho, who could offer a primetime kiss to a white heterosexual heroine (a display of sexuality not often seen in Asian males on television), we underscore masculine contours of an Asian American hero whose acts of masculinity do not liberate all Asian Americans. Rather, as I witnessed in my study of Asian American sporting cultures, trying to live up to standards of masculinity that are recognizable and appreciated in our larger U.S. society does not guarantee membership and full citizenship.

Responding to emasculation alone as a major concern means that one is also taking part in devaluing femininity and gay masculinities. Desiring a traditional masculine hero only further affirms what is seen as “normal,” while remaining silent on the exclusions and violence against women, LGBTQI communities, and communities of color. Let us think and desire otherwise. Why must we shortchange our communities by emphasizing a recognizable masculinity? Is it not this recognizable masculinity also the culprit of sexual assault on college campuses, domestic violence in celebrity households, and everyday acts of sexism and homophobia?

Instead of pushing for an Asian American version of a mainstream masculine hero, there are other possibilities. Emphasizing LGBTQI heroes and celebrating dynamic working-class Asian American characters can create a version of America where the boundaries of inclusion within U.S. society is opened up to all. In the process, there is an affirmation of all the various sexual orientations, identifications, and class politics that constitutes Asian America. Once we forget our LGBTQI and working-class heroes, we will unfortunately long for a kiss that has little impact on creating an inclusive society.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

­­Diversity and the wage gap

—Cindy I-Fen Cheng

While much has been written about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s tech industries, recent findings by the American Institute for Economic Research sheds light on what may be a more alarming concern: wage disparities based on race and gender.

As data released by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter has shown, the tech industry is dominated by men. Racially, whites made up the largest percentage of tech workers while Latinos, Blacks, mixed-race and groups listed as “other,” the smallest. Unsurprising to those who are familiar with the layout of Silicon Valley, Asian Americans were not only well represented in these companies; they also comprised the largest percentage of tech workers at Yahoo and LinkedIn.

This impressive showing of Asian Americans in tech positions may explain why findings on wage disparities are so appalling. As the tech industry is inching towards “diversity,” isn’t “equality” within the work force the anticipated result?

The wage gap suggests that the answer is “no.” According to the findings of the AIER, Asian Americans made $8,146 less than whites in 2012, $3,656 less than Blacks, and $6,907 less than employees listed as “other.” With this wage gap, “diversity” is reduced to being merely a symbolic measure of equality.

Notably, the Asian American wage gap raises other concerns. With the strong presence of Asians in the tech industry, does this suggest that companies are choosing to hire foreign workers, also known as H-1B workers, over citizens and permanent residents? More importantly, does the wage gap suggest that the hiring of H-1B workers are driving down American wages, given the longstanding practice of hiring foreign workers as “cheap” labor over filling a skills gap in the work force?

Thus far, the debate over H-1B workers has focused on a narrow set of questions that seek to determine whether H-1B workers and more broadly, immigrants, are good or bad for our country. Missing from this debate are questions over what corporations and the federal government are doing to ensure equal pay for equal work. Instead of asking whether or not foreign workers are driving down wages, we should also consider how the belief that it is ok to discriminate against H1-B workers and pay them less is working to sustain wage disparities.

If we want to see equality in work place, we need to recommit ourselves to the struggle against discrimination and engage in open and frank discussions about the effects of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Only then will we see a fair distribution of people from various backgrounds and genders in the work force, and wage parity for all workers.

Cindy I-Fen Cheng is Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race during the Cold War (now available in paperback from NYU Press).

Dude, what’s that smell? The Sriracha shutdown and immigrant excess

—Anita Mannur and Martin Manalansan

All across America, bottles with a green cap, rooster and fiery chili sauce that were once exclusively the mainstay of fast food style Asian restaurants, have been slowly making their mark on mainstream palates. In 2011, the popular television show The Simpsons featured an episode—described by executive producer Matt Selman as a “love letter to food culture”—in which Bart Simpson’s usually pedestrian palate becomes attuned to the finer possibilities of sriracha.

In 2012, as part of a national campaign to introduce a new flavor, the Lay’s potato chip company announced Sriracha as one of the three finalist flavors, along with Cheesy Garlic Bread and Chicken & Waffles. Cheesy Garlic Bread Lay’s eventually went on to win the contest; some claim it was because the signature piquant taste of sriracha could barely be detected in the chip’s flavor. In 2013 the national bagel sandwich chain restaurant Brueggers introduced the Sriracha Egg Sandwich. Not to be outdone, Subway followed suit with their version of a chicken sriracha melt.

By the end of 2013, sriracha popularity seemed to be at an all time high. From January to December of 2012, some 20 million bottles of sriracha sauce had sold, and on October 27, 2013, the first Sriracha festival was held in downtown Los Angeles. Americans, it seemed, could not get enough of the hot sauce. That is, until it came into their own backyards.

On October 28, Huy Fong Foods, the purveyor of sriracha, was sued by the small town of Irwindale, California for causing “burning eyes, irritated throats, and headaches” to its residents. An initial report published by the Associated Press tellingly described the odors produced by the Huy Fong plant as “a nuisance.”

Huy Fong’s owner and creator David Tran’s mistake was in assuming that the sriracha boom meant that the town of Irwindale would accept the changes that came with the presence of Asianness. In many ways, his story was that of the consummate Asian American model minority who had made his mark through hard work and perseverance in America. From origins in Vietnam to “making it” as an ethnic entrepreneur in the US, the story of sriracha, and in particular that of Huy Fong, can be understood as a quintessentially Asian American story.

David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese origin, was among the first wave of refugees to leave Vietnam in 1979. Fleeing Vietnam aboard the Panamanian freighter “Huy Fong,” for which he later named his company, Tran started his fledgling company in the town of Rosemead, California in the mid-1980s with an initial investment of a meager $50,000. Over the next two decades, the company, which exclusively harvests jalapeños grown in Piru, California, grew dramatically, largely by word of mouth, and has become one of the most popular condiments with something of a cult-like following.

Food historian John T. Edge notes that part of sriracha’s success is in its ability to position itself as malleable to many palates: “Multicultural appeal was engineered into the product: the ingredient list on the back of the bottle is written in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French and Spanish. And serving suggestions include pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and, for French speakers, pâtés.” Despite sriracha’s obvious connection to Thainess—the sauce, according to a recent documentary, Sriracha (Dir. Griffin Hammond, 2013), has its origins in the town of Si Racha—Tran disavows the necessary connection to one particular national lineage, noting, “I know it’s not a Thai sriracha…It’s my sriracha.”

As the company expanded, it moved from its more modest location in Rosemead to a larger factory in Irwindale. And with the growth of the factory, resentment of the presence of Asianness has been more acutely expressed through a refusal of the visceral and purported offensiveness of Asian odors. Ultimately it is the inability of odors to remain in place, the toxicity and the purported public health danger of Asian coded comestibles that has come to characterize this stage in the sriracha story as a story of racial exclusion in an Asian American context.

As Martin Manalansan has written elsewhere, “smell in America…is a code for class, racial and ethnic differences.” Yet cities are expected to function as odorless zones, both literally and psychically. Traces of immigrant excess must always be kept at bay and where food is concerned, difference must be managed to ensure that the kind of food one finds at the table is synchronous with the mandates of a multiculturalist ethos of eating. It must not appear “too foreign,” “too different”, “too oily” or too aberrant. In other words it must not be too offensive, lest it upset a carefully calibrated balance of acceptable multiculturalism.

Sriracha seemed poised to become America’s next favorite condiment. But condiments have to be manufactured somewhere, and when Asianness comes to roost in the town of Irwindale, population 1,422 (2% Asian American, 47% white), the cultural odor of the town also changes. And taste for difference, as history has suggested, can often only go so far. The winds in the California city of Irwindale not only transport the sharp smell of chilies in the sriracha sauce, they also convey the heavy weight of Western history’s fraught encounters with olfactory experiences.

Throughout the ages, smell has been used to mark things and bodies that are sinister, sinful, dangerous, foreign, diseased, and decaying. Modern cities were planned under the idealized schemes of de-odorized landscapes. Accoutrements to contemporary living include room deodorizers and air fresheners that aim to eliminate unwanted odors and showcase social uplift and class distinction. The Sriracha incident in California reeks of all these historical antecedents and cultural symptoms. The very fact that sriracha has been called a “public nuisance” and a potential health threat is part of a longer tradition that views Asianness as a public health menace. The SARS epidemic of 2002, with its concomitant xenophobic links to the fear of Asian bodies, is not far removed from the panic about Asianness discursively inherent in the charges being levied against Huy Fong Foods.

In the midst of all the accusations and counter-accusations of state overreach, cultural insensitivity and xenophobia, smell should not be seen as merely a potential health hazard but rather as a crucial signpost of where we are as a society and as a nation in the 21st century. Indeed, to consider sriracha’s odors a public nuisance is not far removed from the kinds of radicalizing language that is used to put immigrants in their place. We may like our sriracha bottles on our tables, but we don’t want it too close, lest it contaminate our spaces of living. Like the Asian American bodies with which we associate the bottles of hot sauce, we prefer to limit the spread of Asianness.

On November 29, 2013, three days after the Los Angeles court ruled in favor of a partial shutdown of the company, Huy Fong Foods released a simple statement to the public with a banner reading, “No tear gas made here,” placed outside its Irwindale factory. Those simple words summed up what is perhaps really at stake here. The underlying issues which have led to the fracas about sriracha are very much about toxicity, but the banner is as much about dispelling the notion that the product they are making is toxic as it is about pointing out that underlying racism and charges against Huy Fong are mired in a more dangerous form of toxicity—one that seeks to vigilantly remind immigrants about where they do and do not belong.

Anita Mannur is Associate Professor of English and Asian /Asian American Studies at Miami University. Martin F. Manalansan, IV is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Mannur and Manalansan are co-editors (with Robert Ji-Song Ku) of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (NYU Press, 2013).

Race and gay pride

—Martin Joseph Ponce

Broadly speaking, my book Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading provides a history of Filipino literature in the United States from the onset of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century through the contemporary moment. Framing the literature in a transnational context shaped by U.S. (neo)colonialism and migration, it focuses in particular on the ways that gender and sexuality are integral to Filipino racializations, social formations, and state and cultural nationalisms as well as to manifestations of U.S. empire and terms of assimilation at specific historical junctures.

Although I discuss the work of several writers who self-identify as gay or queer and consider the depictions of queer characters in various literary texts, the book as a whole doesn’t seek to document a history of non-normative Filipino sexualities or desires in literature. Rather, it attempts to theorize and enact a queer reading practice that attends to the constitutive articulations of gender, sexuality, and eroticism to race, nation, and diaspora. As such, it would seem to bear a tangential relation, at best, to Gay Pride.

Indeed, insofar as the book seeks to contribute to the growing, diverse bodies of scholarship associated with queer of color and queer diasporic critique, it is less concerned with the development and consolidation of sexual identities than with the gendering and sexualization of race (Filipinos/as as savage, effeminate, hypersexual, hyperfeminine) and with the freighted political meanings that gender and sexuality assume when placed in comparative international contexts (liberation vs. repression, modern equality vs. patriarchal hierarchy). Both of these historically shifting but persistent conditions—the production of racial difference in part through gender and sexual deviance from white colonial norms, the production of U.S. exceptionalist discourses in part through (illusory) ideals of gender equality and sexual freedom—place diasporic Filipino writers in vexed positions. Namely, they must contend simultaneously with imperialist denigrations of colonial bodies and aptitudes as well as with nationalist recuperations of normative bodies and aspirations.

However distant they may seem, these ideas come to mind when I think of Gay Pride. While I imagine that for many LGBTQ folks the revelries represent a unique time of the year when all manner of things queer are welcomed, encouraged, and (dare I say it) rendered normal, I tend to see and experience the event as a discomfiting moment when the racialization of non-normative sexualities comes to the surface. Or put conversely, it is when every Pride participants’ sexuality is up for grabs and the default straightness of everyday life is suspended that racial differences and the ambiguous, deviant sexualities they signify become all the more apparent.

Moreover, the specific circumstances that enabled the emergence of Gay Pride in the first place and that we’re supposedly (supposed to be?) commemorating—Stonewall, the Village, New York, the Sixties, and so on—leave me wondering if these particularities are being strategically forgotten or rewritten by the Gay Prides taking place throughout the country and around the world. To avoid further entrenching the association of “modern” gayness with white U.S. sexceptionalism, metronormativity, and capitalist entertainment spectacles, I can only hope that this annual event is being remade dozens of times over, cross-cutting global gay and lesbian imaginaries and practices with local histories and politics, demographics and desires, fabulosities and festivities.

Martin Joseph Ponce is Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University.

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Gazing Into the Crystal Ball of Asian-Jewish Relationships

—Helen K. Kim and Noah S. Leavitt

A quick search through the internet uncovers many comments about romantic attachments between Asian-Americans and Jews, ranging from the serious to the silly. One of the most famous examples of this is a series of discussions on Jewlicious, a site for all things Jewish, about whether Asian-American women are among the most frequent visitors to Jewish dating websites like No matter what their tone or perspective, though, these stories demonstrate the strong emotional reactions that such couples evoke.

No recent Asian-Jewish couple besides, perhaps, Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen has gotten as much media scrutiny than Dr. Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Gazing into the crystal ball of the Chan-Zuckerberg marriage, one might wonder how these two—and other Asian-Jewish couples—incorporate their backgrounds into their shared daily domestic life. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to ignore the question, “What is going to happen with their kids?”

Intrigued by these kinds of questions, we recently spent a year and a half travelling the country to interview Asian American and Jewish American couples to understand how they describe their relationships. And, in the forthcoming Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation, we spend a chapter focusing on the worldviews and reflections of the second generation Asian-American spouses or partners in sixteen of the Asian-Jewish couples we talked to.

While all couples are unique in many ways, based on what our interviewees shared with us, we’ve made a few predictions about the Chan-Zuckerberg relationship:

  1. Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg will share a fundamental value system focused on high educational achievement, close-knit families, and hard work, which is a version of what scholar Will Herberg called, in 1955, a type of common faith that he defined as “the American way of life.”
  2. Dr. Chan will not incorporate her religion of origin into the household religious or spiritual practice to create a dual-religious, or a syncretic, practice.
  3. If there comes a time when Chan-Zuckerberg kids appear (we think this highly likely, even with Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg’s very full professional lives—a characteristic they share with many of our interviewees), they will be raised Jewish, and Dr. Chan—regardless of any religious affiliation she grew up with or claimed—will be an equal, if not the, catalyst for this being the primary identity of the kids.
  4. Their kids might have trouble seeing themselves as tracing their identity through Dr. Chan’s family.
  5. In the end, the couples’ differences will be harmonized and the family will endure.

While critics of Jewish intermarriage often fret about the loss of a Jewish identity in a mixed household, we found that Asian-Jewish households often wind up, surprisingly, becoming Jewish.

Are the Asian-American members of these households losing their religion? Maybe.  Are they trying to acquire status in a still-white dominated nation? Perhaps. Or maybe they are trading their own spiritual practices for a harmonious household. To paraphrase one of our interviewees, a Chinese-American physician on the West Coast, “There are only a few million of my wife’s people but there are a billion of mine. Is one more really needed?”

Helen K. Kim is Associate Professor of Sociology at Whitman College, and Noah S. Leavitt is Assistant Dean of Students and a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at Whitman College. Both are contributing writers to the forthcoming edition of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (NYU Press, 2012).

The Long-Term Costs of Amy Chua’s Crazy Parenting Essay

The Huffington Post runs a piece by erin Khue Ninh, author of the forthcoming book “Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature”, who argues that immigrant parents will still be reading the inflammatory article, which chronicles the success of extreme parenting without discussing the dangers, after the furor has passed.

Despite the frenzy of responses both in and now outside the Asian American community, however, I’ve not seen anyone name my deepest dismay about this essay. And as the piece continues to circulate — through the delayed but ever-widening network of emails forwarded — that neglected point becomes only more salient: Long after we have tired (as we have already begun to tire) of Facebook-posting or retweeting rebuttals and responses to Chua’s piece, it will still be finding its way to Asian parents like my own.

In light of this, to the extent that the book and essay do not align, the essay is more reprehensible, not less.

Because you see, the WSJ essay will reach these immigrant parents without context. It will not be accompanied by the outpouring of blogs and comments, testifying that parenting methods like those the article champions have driven their writers (or siblings) to therapy (or suicide). Neither will it be accompanied by Yang’s article nor Chua’s book, in which latter the author says she has beat a partial retreat from these methods — finding their destructive costs too high.