Was he asking for fairness or was he asking me to choose sides?
August 9, 2017 10:40 AM   Subscribe

When Michael Deng, a college freshman, joined an Asian-American fraternity, he was looking for a sense of belonging and identity. Two months later he was dead. [SLNYT] ““Asian-American’’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America. Michael Deng and his fraternity brothers were from Chinese families and grew up in Queens, and they have nothing in common with me — someone who was born in Korea and grew up in Boston and North Carolina. We share stereotypes, mostly — tiger moms, music lessons and the unexamined march toward success, however it’s defined. My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.’’
posted by protocoach (27 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh god, this is heartbreaking.
but also because the lie of solidarity was being unraveled and laid out in front of the young men who had been stupid enough to believe in it.
posted by corb at 11:37 AM on August 9 [10 favorites]


This is a very difficult story to read, but I'm glad it was shared.
posted by Fizz at 11:45 AM on August 9 [6 favorites]


I'm... trying to figure out what I think about this. Particularly the writer's curious insistence that there is no actual cohesive Asian-American experience while at the same time pointing to the shared core of what it means to be Asian in the US. I mean, from his own mouth: "We had one of those talks common among people of any marginalized group, in which it’s possible to unload your neuroses without having to explain everything."

No, of course Korean heritage is not the same as Japanese, which is also not the same as Chinese, or any thing else. Yet I basically lived the same life these men did. Immigrant parents that came to NYC, living in cloisters of Asian-ness in the outer boroughs, same questions about identity... I even took the same test to get into the same high schools.

That frat can be described as adolescent and clumsy in its earnestness, but in the way all frats can be--stupid stupid shit happens, and is encouraged. Maybe that's the story here: why did we choose to replicate a structure thinking it was going to turn out any differently than it always does.
posted by danny the boy at 11:48 AM on August 9 [22 favorites]


Maybe that's the story here: why did we choose to replicate a structure thinking it was going to turn out any differently than it always does.

I agree with your thinking here. To me, this story is not as much a parable about the lack of Asian solidarity, as much as it is highlighting the different relationship that Asian men have with toxic masculinity compared to white men or other men of color. In the context of stereotypes of being asexual, nerdy, and docile, embracing toxic masculinity feels transgressive. This is why there is no contraction when these frats assign their pledges to do research on anti-Asian racism, while simultaneously engaging in hazing rituals. You're actively rebelling and reacting against cultural stereotypes of Asian men when you perform masculinity like this.

Why I think this is particularly alluring is because despite being perceived as an act of transgression, it still aligns you with privileged patriarchal values. In other words, I think that this has parallels with the model minority myth, and I would go as far as to argue that performance of masculinity is becoming as much of a currency in deciding which Asians are acceptable, as class and education markers are.

I dunno. That's the way I have explained the surprising number of Asian men I know who subscribe to the whole Asian jock thing - I will bet that a lot of other Asians here will know what I mean, the whole gym bunny dude who throws around "bro" and chances are he's an aggressive high-powered businessman or something too. And it's not like I blame them, because I think Asian men are forced to be polarized when it comes to gender performance - you're doubly penalized for any behaviors deemed unacceptable by patriarchy, because you also have to contend with racism on top of that. In the end, this leaves you in an unhealthy reactionary position, and to me at least, I've had my share of frustration with that as a queer Asian, because it's like - oh my god, I see all of these fluid and vibrant models of gender that white people get to explore, and I get none of that, because the moment I step outside of these boundaries, I get dinged by racism even within queer communities.

It's just something that's layered with contradiction to me, and I'm not even sure if I'm articulating it in a way that's understood by others, because I just so rarely encounter any thinking on this. To me, this is something that really rests firmly in the realm of intersectionality, and it's frustrating that a lot of my queer friends don't get it, because even though they can rattle on about why men need to distance themselves from toxic masculinity, all of their tips seem to be addressed towards white men and they don't seem to understand that Asian men have a totally different relationship with it, but at the same time - I rarely, if ever, see any Asian men writers address these issues, and it's like, am I just being off-the-charts radical queer here for positing that this is even a thing?
posted by Conspire at 12:25 PM on August 9 [105 favorites]


The Accidental Asian is a book of essays from 1999 by Eric Liu which addresses problems with the 'Asian-American' label.
posted by Rash at 12:38 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


"When we hung out, we hung with almost all Chinese kids, but it wasn’t racist or anything. I guess it’s human nature to hang out with people who are like you."

Having grown up in NYC and gone to a specialized high school myself, my observation is that if you're from a cosmopolitan city like New York and all of your friends have the same background you do, you're making a choice.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:39 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


Having grown up in NYC and gone to a specialized high school myself, my observation is that if you're from a cosmopolitan city like New York and all of your friends have the same background you do, you're making a choice.

A lot of your choice is made up for you. I know I stopped hanging out with the white kids as much after they kept making slanty eyes at me on the playground. And then again in high school when the white kids would throw around racist caricatures and stereotypes about the international students being fresh-off-the-boat and spoiled and hold them to unreasonable standards around the food that they would bring and their accents, and then apply them to me as well when I thought they were perfectly down-to-earth and hung out with them, even though I was born here and spoke English perfectly fluently with a hint of a British accent.

And yeah, okay, I won't deny that there is a lot of anti-black racism among Asians as well. But there's a long tail of history in model minority tactics informing that context, that were enforced upon us by white people who wanted to divide PoC and succeeded in doing so, and while I fully hold Asians accountable to anti-black racism, it's unfair to flippantly plop that in the same way you would describe racism from white people exactly because of this context.

If you're not Asian and especially if you're white, can you stop trying to map your experiences onto ours, please and thank you?
posted by Conspire at 12:48 PM on August 9 [48 favorites]


I rarely, if ever, see any Asian men writers address these issues, and it's like, am I just being off-the-charts radical queer here for positing that this is even a thing?

You put into words what I've been struggling to coalesce in my own mind. Nothing I do as an AA male is anything other than a deliberate choice, whether I acknowledge it or not. Or at least it feels that way. At different points in my life I have performed as "Asian" or "white". I have absolutely done what you describe: put on the mainstream definition of masculinity when it behooves to me to so, for societal gain (or well, more accurately: acceptance).


Having grown up in NYC and gone to a specialized high school myself, my observation is that if you're from a cosmopolitan city like New York and all of your friends have the same background you do, you're making a choice.

Well of course, in that any performance of self is a choice. I've written about this recently in an Ask Me where the poster was basically asking "I am weary of every day being reminded that I am Other, what can I do?" And honestly my only answer is: spend more time with people who look like you. As the writer alludes to in TFA, not having to explain every god damned thing is like taking a vacation.
posted by danny the boy at 12:59 PM on August 9 [18 favorites]


Or to put it another way, you learn about all the ways in which Asians have been discriminated against, and all the ways in which the society you live in works to marginalize and invalidate you, and the equalizing structure you think is going to solve this is... being prototypical frat dudes??
posted by danny the boy at 1:02 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]


My own experience of growing up as an Asian-American (Born in India, raised in Texas) is complicated. I imagine every experience is filled with this kind of complication.

For me, I used to get a lot of slack for not being "Indian" enough. I was called "Oreo" by many of the kids in my Indian community. Because I liked certain types of alternative music and because the girls I dated were white and not Indian, I was seen as some kind of betrayer of race or Asian-ness. It's super fucked up. It builds up a kind of self-hate and resentment for people in my community, something I still struggle with.

The other thing I'll mention is that for a lot of us we had our "school-friends" and our "Indian friends". Your school friends were a mix of everyone you encountered in your classes, sports, etc. And then there was the Indian community, your Temple, your parent's friends and their kids. I don't know if other people had this kind of weird social divide.

I felt like I was being pulled in several directions during my junior high and high school days. It's definitely something that makes me feel like my Asian identity is fractured and broken in many ways.

All of this is to say that I understand how a desire to belong can make you vulnerable and how a person might make choices they wouldn't or shouldn't make. I feel like I'm rambling now, so I'll stop.
posted by Fizz at 1:07 PM on August 9 [12 favorites]


The other thing I'll mention is that for a lot of us we had our "school-friends" and our "Indian friends"… I don't know if other people had this kind of weird social divide. '

Of course dude. This is why I reject the writer's premise that there is very little Asian Americans have in common... how could we not, when society looks at us the same way?
posted by danny the boy at 1:12 PM on August 9 [7 favorites]


the different relationship that Asian men have with toxic masculinity compared to white men or other men of color
I think Asian men are forced to be polarized when it comes to gender performance

This is so, so on point, and something that I've rarely read or heard discussed, either. Thank you, Conspire.

I think also that the complex (and ongoing) relationship between (East) Asian-American and (East) Asian culture has a lot to do with it. Obviously Asian culture doesn't simply influence Asian-American culture, but becomes adopted, rejected, modified, borrowed, and clearly Asian modes of toxic and healthy masculinity alike are different from AA ones.

Much of this is not visible to many Americans, though. I often feel difficult being seen as either/both Asian and Asian-American, depending on where I am and who I'm responding to. Having two different sets of norms and understandings to content with is really difficult, especially since the other person may not understand the difference.

Sometimes I wish AA men could draw upon archetypes of East Asian masculinity, or that those were more visible in the US - such as the calm, emotionally sensitive, strong, generous person.
posted by suedehead at 1:12 PM on August 9 [19 favorites]


The other thing I'll mention is that for a lot of us we had our "school-friends" and our "Indian friends". Your school friends were a mix of everyone you encountered in your classes, sports, etc. And then there was the Indian community, your Temple, your parent's friends and their kids. I don't know if other people had this kind of weird social divide.


Perhaps it is felt more strongly in racialised communities, but I always had "school friends" and "church friends" growing up, with no overlap (being a small church that people came from far away to attend). I'm now involved in another religious community, but the same thing happens: you have friends through your religious/ethnic community, and friends who aren't.
posted by jb at 1:34 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]


If you're not Asian and especially if you're white, can you stop trying to map your experiences onto ours, please and thank you?

Cannot favorite this enough. Thanks, conspire.

Conspire's lengthy comment about intersectionality is spot-on, WRT toxic masculinity & Asian-American male masculinity. I feel for my Asian-American brothers, but was beyond dismayed to read that they didn't get well-rounded educations at those NYC exam-entrance schools, ie that they'd never heard of Korematsu or Chin.
posted by honey badger at 1:35 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States

Hmm, there's a lot to unpack in this statement and I know the piece is supposed to be about Deng, but I kind of wish the author would expand on this. The author says he himself is born in Korea and emigrated to the US, so he's either a 1st or 1.5th generation immigrant. Michael Deng, from what I looked up is a 2nd generation Chinese-American born in Queens. Also, in historical terms the Chinese and Japanese communities are probably among the oldest Asian/Asian American communities.

I can see where both of these can create the feeling of not having much in common with some Asian Americans, as the author writes. I can relate a little bit myself, because I was born outside the US while my younger brother was born here. And I can also see it as I was born in Taiwan, and "Taiwanese" is still a controversial term among some Chinese.
posted by FJT at 1:46 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I wish AA men could draw upon archetypes of East Asian masculinity, or that those were more visible in the US - such as the calm, emotionally sensitive, strong, generous person.

I hope this won't feel like a derail to anyone, but growing up as a White Jewish boy in an extremely diverse part of southern California, this is what I thought good men were supposed to be like. I could never relate to American ideas of masculinity, and even European-derived ones didn't resonate with the kind of man I felt I should/wanted to be. I think there's some deep wisdom in that archetype for all men.
posted by clockzero at 1:47 PM on August 9 [12 favorites]


And yeah, okay, I won't deny that there is a lot of anti-black racism among Asians as well.

Yeah, there's even a thread of that in the story, when the research the frat requires pledges to engage in seems to focus solely on racial injustice to Asians. In particular, it jumped out to me with the reference to the frat educating members about what happened to Korean-American shopkeepers during the LA Riots -- if the frat's discussion of what happened to Korean shopkeepers during the riots is annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnything like what I've heard out of the mouths of my family members on the topic, it was anti-Black as fuck.

Like, I had to read the Wikipedia entry as an adult before I learned about, how, the year before the riots, a Korean-American shopkeeper shot Latasha Harlins, a 15 year old Black girl, in the back of the head the year before for stealing a bottle of orange juice. The man who did it got probation, and no, it doesn't excuse looting or violence or anti-Asian racism in the Black community, but it does place in a new context all those """heroic""" images I grew up seeing of Korean-American shopkeepers defending their stores with guns.

I'm still turning and thinking over the other parts of the piece.
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:58 PM on August 9 [13 favorites]


‘I know that what I’m supposed to be seeing in front of me are some nicely dressed, cooperative kids,’’ Claypool said in a flat drawl. ‘‘What we’re seeing here is different from what happened that night. Reading the affidavit shows a lot of poor judgment from the kids.’

I think that could be interpreted and re-seen as an example of structural / institutional racism: what happened was purely poor judgment by kids (how much more patronizing can you be using such a diminutive label and then appealing to "poor judgment", and even setting this aside)—the judge's narrative is race blind and thus complicit in the decontextualization and erasure. "I know that what I'm supposed to be seeing", spoken from a white man in a position of power, is not neutral but racially tinged.

But that's why intersectionality matters. It was a frat hazing and frats as they exist are, in part, misogynist social structures with terrible consequences. In this case, it was also complicated by a cultural erasure that serviced the narratives of power.
posted by polymodus at 2:37 PM on August 9 [8 favorites]


a Korean-American shopkeeper shot Latasha Harlins, a 15 year old Black girl, in the back of the head the year before for stealing a bottle of orange juice.... The man who did it got probation....

I don't want to derail this thread too much but I think it's important to point out that Harlins did not steal or intend to steal the juice. Surveillance footage shows her approaching the counter with money in hand to pay for it. (Also, the storekeeper who shot her was a woman.)
posted by enn at 4:23 PM on August 9 [16 favorites]


Thanks for the correction, enn!
posted by joyceanmachine at 4:49 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


I had heard of Asian American frats, but I had no idea they tried to incorporate any sort of racial history education, skewed or no. Then, to see that just warped back into a senseless Fight Club-style ritual is just surreal.

The author's point about Asian groups not sharing a common culture is a bit superfluous in this story about a senseless death caused by young men, yet to his credit, it does not feel out of place. I would like to hear more about it (and will check out that Liu book), but I speculate that this idea comes from a false idea about cultural cohesiveness within other large racial classifications.
posted by ignignokt at 5:59 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Like FJT, I too wonder how much my own Asian American culture is from being a second generation Asian, with an identity formed more from the racism I faced growing up here than the details of being Chinese. I think about that as I struggle to relate to Chinese raised grad students at work. I think about it when I'm treated as family in Vietnamese restaurants.
posted by advicepig at 7:25 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]


Then, to see that just warped back into a senseless Fight Club-style ritual is just surreal.

The thing that strikes me as the most tragic is that I don't think it was a senseless ritual at all. The ritual of being asked, "Why didn't you ask your brothers for help?" and then being led out of pain to acceptance, actually seems really meaningful.

I think the tragedy is in part that it's easy to forget, when most people are harmed by weapons, that fists have consequences. That tackling and punching can bring not just a few bruises, but long lasting damage.

Likewise, the fact that they talked about calling an ambulance but thought it would cost too much money - it sounds callous at first, but it's not like they would have been responsible for the bill - the victim is responsible for the bill.
posted by corb at 8:19 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]


From the comments:
I'm from Flushing Queens, born and raised. Second-gen Korean-American. I think what is really missing from these comments is the Queens perspective here, specifically those of us who grew up in the Asian bubble in Flushing. Most of us are first-generation American children of Asian immigrant parents - there aren't many who are past two generations. As a result of being surrounded by people who are just like us, most of us don't experience "racialization" or "racism" in the way Asian-American kids growing up in the Midwest or in white-majority neighborhoods might. If you go to school, church, do business with other people who are culturally just like you, you grow up with a positive enforcement of your identity - and nothing else.

I think the purpose of this frat was misguided in its attempt to "educate" fellow Asian peers, who grew up in New York City never really feeling like a targeted minority, and prepare them for a world outside of the city where race is very much a factor in how we are perceived.

...
posted by airmail at 10:09 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]


Likewise, the fact that they talked about calling an ambulance but thought it would cost too much money - it sounds callous at first, but it's not like they would have been responsible for the bill - the victim is responsible for the bill.
You honestly think that they stood over this kid they tacked into unresponsiveness and thought, "Oh, calling 911 is going to cost him a lot of money!" not "I want to avoid getting in trouble for murder or manslaughter"?
The thing that strikes me as the most tragic is that I don't think it was a senseless ritual at all.

I think the tragedy is in part that it's easy to forget, when most people are harmed by weapons, that fists have consequences. That tackling and punching can bring not just a few bruises, but long lasting damage.
I'm confused as to how you think this ritual makes sense. How do you think this should have been done? With controlled pain-causing injections?
posted by ignignokt at 5:56 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


As a result of being surrounded by people who are just like us, most of us don't experience "racialization" or "racism" in the way Asian-American kids growing up in the Midwest or in white-majority neighborhoods might. If you go to school, church, do business with other people who are culturally just like you, you grow up with a positive enforcement of your identity - and nothing else.

It is true that the exact form of racism you encounter will be dependent upon your surroundings and lifestyle choices. But to paint some people as immunized from racism is distorting that reality. I grew up in the city, and I can vividly recount many experiences of racism, as my comments will attest. It's true that I may not be at as great risk of direct assault or ostracization that someone who lives in another area might be, and it's also true that I often have to read between the lines on interpreting racist incidents rather than having it overtly thrown into my face, but that does not invalidate what I do experiences. Similarly, I made reference to my international student friends back in high school. Just because they and their families chose to surround themselves with a community that reflected them, does not mean they did not experience racism - I cannot fully speak to it, but it is real and you can argue that it well informed their decision to seek refuge from white society, as much as their desire to be among people who they had common culture and language with.

This is a modern-day tactic of white supremacy, and I would urge people not to fall for it.

First, by convincing minorities that only overt and recognizable racism "counts" as racism, it enables more subtle forms of racism by limiting the ability of individuals in connecting their experiences to a larger body. It's hard to recognize these forms of racism unless you connect them to a larger frame of reference - you need to contrast yourself with what white people experience to understand that your treatment is not fair, but also compare yourself with what other racialized people are experiencing to understand that this treatment is systematic. By coercing individuals from accepting racism as a potential explanation for their experiences, white supremacy denies us of this reflective and connective exercise.

Second, by framing racism as something not experienced by some Asians rather than a common element that can take form in different degrees and meshes with intersectionality to temper exposure, it disrupts Asian solidarity. To me, it is curious how flexible the definition of those who do not experience racism is depending upon who white supremacy dictates as a target. You can actually even see this in the author's writing! He starts off by talking about Asians who grow up in Asian-majority churches and schools, and the implication is that: Asians who group up aren't subject to racism, Asians who don't are. But then by the second paragraph, he shifts to a broader definition of Asians who grow up in cities, and then the implication is: Asians who grow up in rural areas are subject to racism, Asians who grow up in diverse urban areas aren't. The two groups are not the same! And I have similarly seen other shifts depending upon who white supremacy wants to target. When white supremacy gets xenophobic about "Chinese landlords taking over cities", they will claim that Asians who have class privilege don't experience racism. When white supremacy thinks we're taking over all of their educational institutes, they will claim that Asians who are academics don't experience racism. When white supremacy gets annoyed that we have our own churches and speak our own languages in public, they will claim that Asians who surround themselves with other Asians don't experience racism.

Collectively, we have got to stop falling for this. This is how model minority leverages internalized racism within our communities to use us as unwitting tools. Because if they can point to a behavior or characteristic of Asianness that they find undesirable, and a number of us will easily and obediently march to it and smash it, why would they get their hands dirty themselves? And this is true not only of Asianness, but of much of racialization - they point to black people, we will be there to burn crosses in the hopes that we will curry favor from the white master and gain their privileges.
posted by Conspire at 7:08 AM on August 10 [13 favorites]


You honestly think that they stood over this kid they tacked into unresponsiveness and thought, "Oh, calling 911 is going to cost him a lot of money!" not "I want to avoid getting in trouble for murder or manslaughter"?

Personally I think it was a mixture of wishful thinking ("he's gonna be ok... he has to...") and immigrant attitudes towards frugality. Like I don't go to the doctor for things I really should go to the doctor for because I grew up not considering it to be a normal thing you do because you have awesome medical insurance.

I'm confused as to how you think this ritual makes sense. How do you think this should have been done? With controlled pain-causing injections?

Well not answering for Corb, but for myself the failure here was again, putting a bunch of 20 yr olds in charge of a (patently to us grown ups) dangerous situation. As in, they should have known better... but the frat leadership, who presumably are no longer in their 20s, should really have known better. Like you can do all of the above while minimizing mortal danger--you could keep the barrier of people, you could keep the assault by racial slurs, and you could keep the part where you ask for help, but don't do the thing where you are repeatedly physically assaulting someone.

When I was a freshman there was a comedy of errors where a (non-asian) frat thought I was rushing. I went on one of their social trips where the mode of transport was piling 20 dudes into the back of the smallest U-Haul box truck available, for an hour ride each way. In a closely adjacent parallel universe there was a local news story that night about two dozen college students dying horribly in a fire on the highway in a locked cargo truck. In our universe, someone had the sense to yell at the one guy who started to light a cigarette, in an unventillated space where we were already having trouble breathing in.
posted by danny the boy at 11:56 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


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