Institutional White Racism and Oppression Examined From A Personal Perspective

Reflections on Frank Chin's "Racist Love" and "Back-Talk", and Amy Uyematsu's "The Emergence of Yellow Power in America"

by Anthony Yin

In his writings "Racist Love" and "Back-Talk", Frank Chin discusses the relationship between Asian Americans and so-called "White America", among other issues. At the heart of both works is the premise that White supremacy oppresses Asian Americans through the creation of stereotypes which are eventually accepted and adopted by many Asians living in the United States.In such instances, the Asian American ideology conforms to stereotypical standards, and as a result, is viewed favorably by White America. In contrast, divergence from the stereotypical model is met with racial hatred. Chin believes that this inherently constitutes a form of racism and that Asian Americans, whether they are accepted for having assimilated to White American standards or are castigated for being "uncontrollable", are ultimately oppressed by White supremacy.

According to Chin, White America imposes standards upon non-Whites which form the basis of perceived reality and ultimately influence the self identity of minorities. The necessary result is self-contempt and self-destruction. Chin writes that the stereotype "operates as a model of behavior. It conditions the mass society's perceptions and expectations. Society is conditioned to accept the given minority only within the bounds of the stereotype" (Racist Love, 66). As such, the subject is relegated to play a certain role in order to be accepted by the greater society. He or she "is conditioned to accept and live in a state of euphemized self-contempt. This self-contempt itself is nothing more than the subject's acceptance of white standards of objectivity, beauty, behavior, and achievement as being morally absolute, and his acknowledgment of the fact that, because he is not white, he can never fully measure up to white standards" (67).

A specific example of the skewed self identity perpetuated by this racism in the Asian American community, according to Chin, is the popular belief that "in America, culture, success, and money are white. Such a notion is fraught with self-contempt" for it "encourages us to 1) look on our success as Americans in terms of the degree to which we have been accepted by Americans and 2) to measure the degree of acceptance in terms of the degree to which the White man has rejected other minorities" (Back-Talk, 25).

In much the same way, Amy Uyematsu is highly critical of what she calls 'white institutionalized racism" in "The Emergence of Yellow Power in America". She argues that stereotypes have suppressed the true identity of Asian American individuals, resulting in self loathing, fragmented identities, and fear. Asians in America are "stereotyped as being passive, accommodating, and unemotional" , and Uyematsu believes it is lamentable this generalization is "fairly accurate, for Asian Americans have accepted these stereotypes and are becoming true to them" (10). Under the oppression of institutionalized racism, all that is non-white is viewed unfavorably. Asians have "adjusted to the white man's culture by giving up their own languages, customs, histories, and cultural values" (10). Furthermore, they have "rejected their physical heritages, resulting in extreme hatred" (10). Ultimately, Asian Americans discover that even their best efforts to conform to White standards are "not enough" because they are still outsiders despite their best efforts to deny everything inherently Asian about themselves. This crisis of identity that results from the struggle to conform to stereotypical models, Uyematsu believes, together with the premise that Asian Americans allow White America to "hold up the 'successful' Oriental image before other minority groups as the model to emulate", perpetuate white racism.

Reflection

In my personal experience, this notion of institutionalized White racism is a somewhat unfamiliar one. I have long believed that stereotypes, whether positive or negative, are not useful in assessing reality. Also, I was aware for quite a long time that the commonly accepted ideals and values perpetuated in American society were neither realistically feasible for nor entirely applicable to every person living in this nation. However, reading these articles was the first time I was exposed to the stereotypes applied to Asian American through which they could gain acceptance by what Chin calls "White America". The result was introspective self-examination that allowed me to consider how my identity might be "corrupt" due to institutional white racism.

The idea that minorities who cause little friction with the majority and are this accepted by the greater society constitutes a form of racism is particularly provocative. I had never considered assimilation and conformity in terms of "control" and "oppression". This is lucidly discussed by Frank Chin, who explains that the individual who exemplifies the unacceptable stereotypical model "is unacceptable because he cannot be controlled by whites" (Racist Love, 65). On the other hand, "one measure of the success of white racism is the silence of [a particular] race and the amount of white energy necessary to maintain or increase that silence" (65). Presumably, that amount of white energy is ideally small.

Hitherto, I saw absolutely nothing wrong with cultural assimilation, but viewed in those terms, I am forced to reexamine my position. The crisis of identity and self-contempt discussed by Amy Uyematsu and Frank Chin is not unfamiliar. I have usually viewed certain ideals, values and precepts of morality as being part of Asian tradition, and while I held them in high regards (and continue to do so), they seemed stodgy, old-fashioned, and products of a world somewhat removed from the society I inhabit. On the other hand, many of the benchmarks I use to gauge success and the foundations of my personal concepts of justice, objectivity, and even subjectivity have been shaped by "White America". It is somewhat disconcerting to consider that the society which is responsible for much of my character and my values may also be guilty of oppressing me and my people. Perhaps the fact that so much of my character has been shaped by American society is itself the clearest evident of my oppression. The question now is whether I have accepted the stereotypes I have been assigned, and if so, if I have lived according to them.

Frank Chin believes that "Asian Americans going through white schools grow up with white assumptions about themselves. Racist assumptions." (Back-Talk, 26). This is another provocative issue for me, because, as I have mentioned, much of my character , the kind of person I should be, has been shaped by American society. Uyematsu would claim that this would serve as yet another example of institutionalized racism, "oppression", as Chin says. I somehow obtained the notion that diligence and dedication will bring the rewards of life, but I am not sure if that is my role as an Asian American in White America or whether it was given to me by White Americans. I prefer to think that my work ethic is the product of the Chinese values instilled by my parents. Never was I told to be passive or self-effacing, which is one Asian American stereotype, according to Uyematsu. However, the image of the Asian student studying for hours on end is certainly a common one. But like other stereotypes, this could also perfectly apply to the majority of students in institutions of higher learning.

I should note that coming from an environment as diverse (and I would like to think open-minded) as the San Francisco Bay Area, I never faced overt prejudice or racism. In many areas, Asian Americans are the majority of the population, and racial issues are rarely part of daily life. It seems that everyone, regardless of ethnicity, would rather spend their energies towards achieving the fiscal rewards of hard work in a healthy economy, and technical skills over everything else (including race) are perhaps the most sought assets. Opportunities in the business world, it seems, are open to anyone who is qualified. Asian Americans in northern California certainly have great economic clout; the parking lots of large Asian-owned shopping centers are filled with the expensive European automobiles of Asian Americans who work in high-tech companies, many in management and many more in lower ranking yet extremely lucrative. Whereas the majority of Asian-owned businesses used to be confined to Chinatown in San Francisco, today Asian-owned supermarkets as big as national chains open every year in the East Bay and South Bay. Patrons are Asians and non-Asians. Under these circumstances, it is important that Uyematsu brings up the question of self-identity: "Precisely because Asian Americans have become economically secure, do they face serious identity problems. Fully committed to a system that subordinates them on the basis of non-whiteness, Asian Americans still try to gain complete acceptance by denying their yellowness. They have become white in every respect but color" (9).

These issues have initiated self-reflection and introspection. In the final analysis, I question whether I have been merely sheltered from institutionalized racism by living in a "non-hostile" environment, or if my hesitation to admit that I have accepted and adopted racial stereotypes is itself an illustration of white racism to the highest degree. I have to consider the possibility that I have been oppressed as an Asian American and that there is a side to my identity that I have not yet acknowledged.