Monday, May 02, 2016

In Defense of Digital Tools (by a Non-Tool)

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I found the recent broad critique of the Digital Humanities in LARB by Daniel Allington, David Golumbia, and Sarah Brouillette to be pretty gripping reading. I know many of those same friends and colleagues have many disagreements with the characterization of the Digital Humanities in that essay; here are a few of mine.

The first paragraph of "Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): a Political History of the Digital Humanities" is carefully considered -- the authors are not newbies to this debate, and know what they're doing. I'll work mainly from the paragraph in these brief comments, since it introduces many of the main themes of the essay that follows. I'm also much more interested in the overall tenor of this essay than in debating at great length every individual topic they cover. So here is the opening paragraph:
Advocates position Digital Humanities as a corrective to the “traditional” and outmoded approaches to literary study that supposedly plague English departments. Like much of the rhetoric surrounding Silicon Valley today, this discourse sees technological innovation as an end in itself and equates the development of disruptive business models with political progress. Yet despite the aggressive promotion of Digital Humanities as a radical insurgency, its institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives. Advocates characterize the development of such tools as revolutionary and claim that other literary scholars fail to see their political import due to fear or ignorance of technology. But the unparalleled level of material support that Digital Humanities has received suggests that its most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university. (Source; my emphasis)
Many of the points Allington et al. make, here and throughout the essay, can be characterized as deflating a caricature of a DH-branded balloon: while the Digital Humanities positions itself as a "radical insurgency," in actuality it is anything but. But I have to shrug a bit at these types of arguments: even if there's some truth in the idea that DH is not the vanguard of a progressive revolution within academia, so what? What actual harm is it committing? If you don't find the scholarship interesting, you don't have to read it.

I put in bold-face the two phrases that suggest where the harm might fall for Allington et al. On the first assertion -- that the rise of the DH has "involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship," I'm very curious to know what progressive humanities scholarship they're thinking of, and how it's been displaced. The  American academic environment I have always known (I started graduate school in 1995) has been elitist (bordering on casteist), exclusionary, and utterly dependent on a capitalist economic system. Yes, there were Marxist, black, queer, feminist, and postcolonialist voices in this pre-DH university. But they were marginal then -- and sadly, remain marginal now. Have they been further displaced by DH? Or are we talking more about branding? (i.e., postcolonial theory was once seen as "the next big thing," while today it isn't quite as shiny)  If so, I'm still unimpressed. Branding led to a certain bubble-like atmosphere within postcolonial studies (think of Dirlik's idea of "the Postcolonial Aura"); that bubble has, undoubtedly, popped. And I'm not sorry.

Here's a way of thinking that might get us past this muddle (and I think I agree with the authors that the hype around DH is a mistake): let's stop branding our scholarship. We don't need Next Big Things and we don't need Academic Superstars, whether they are DH Superstars or Theory Superstars. What we do need is to find more democratic and inclusive ways of thinking about the value of scholarship and scholarly communities. In my brief time engaging with DH scholars and scholarship, I have had very good experiences, while I have struggled with some of the other academic communities I have worked in. With its emphasis on collaboration and on resource-sharing, I have found Digital Humanities to be a more inclusive and welcoming community than, say, the community of scholars intensively focused on French and Continental theory.

The second phrase I put in bold in the paragraph above ("the neoliberal takeover of the university") is one that I take quite seriously. I recently gave a talk where I cited Wendy Brown's new book quite extensively (Undoing the Demos), and I share the authors' concern with what Brown and others have been calling the Managerial University. I should probably also point out that last year I published a favorable review of Sarah Brouillette's awesome book, Literature and the Creative Economy (here's the Project Muse link to my review)

For at least part of this argument -- the question of the dependence on funding -- I have to say that the authors of "Neoliberal Tools" have a point. There's no doubt that university administrators are only too happy to encourage DH projects (I had a conversation like that just last week with an administrator at my own university...), while conventional humanities scholarship can be a harder sell, specifically with regards to funding.

However, we should note that funding isn't everything: DH projects might easily find funding, but that doesn't mean they will find audiences composed of interested faculty and students. At my own institution, I attended several talks this year related to critical race studies that were standing-room only, while some prominent DH speakers we invited got relatively modest audiences. So it's not so much a question of "don't believe the hype"; I'm not quite clear there is that much hype around DH for the graduate and undergraduate students I have been working with.

In general, I think we need to be more careful than Allington et al. are being with regards to exactly how and when DH practitioners are complicit in managerialism / neoliberal takeover. I put the blame for this phenomenon first and foremost on the institutional frameworks that govern our universities: boards of directors, university presidents (especially those that come into their positions from the corporate world rather than through academia itself), and upper university administration more concerned with "prestige" and financial shortcuts (i.e., online education) than with the core values of liberal arts education.

There's a relatively easy fix for the possible harms that could come from an overly cozy relationship between scholars engaged in digital humanities work and university administrators and funding agencies. And that is to deemphasize the dollar values of big grants as much as possible while emphasizing the actual outcomes of the projects funded -- specifically, their value as humanities projects. Finally, for people just starting out in DH, I might suggest considering whether you even really need big grants -- there's so much we can now do with "off the shelf" tools (see Lauren Klein's essay, "Hacking the Field: Teaching Digital Humanities with off-the-shelf Tools."). If we really can't do DH work without big grants (and without the sense that the size of those grants reflects the quality of the scholarship), then Allington et al. will be proven correct. But there are so many DH practitioners who are doing interesting work without this grant infrastructure (for example, Jonathan Goodwin did this enlightening and revealing project without seeking any grant support at all).

* * *

Don't just take my word for it...

I would recommend checking out some responses to Allington et al. by other people (and if you know of other responses, please post them in the comments below).

Joshua Danish in the comments at LARB has some understandable strong feelings. Danish points out (I think rightly) that the real object of critique here is the legacy of the DH program at the University of Virginia. While the authors do have a lot to say about Franco Moretti (at Stanford), there's little discussion of the rest of the DH program at Stanford in the essay under discussion. Nor is there much discussion of the DH programs at other institutions, including George Mason, Maryland, Nebraska, Kansas, etc. Each of these programs are different from one another. And while to me it seems accurate to say that the Digital Humanities first congealed as an academic field at the University of Virginia, it has not been "central" to DH as a field for some time. To construe it as such in order to support an argument that the field is composed of Jerome McGann clones is highly problematic.

Along these lines, I found the comments from Schuyler Esprit, a Caribbeanist and Postcolonialist scholar who had earlier in her career worked with some UVA people, quite salient:

(See her whole Storified Twitter response here.)

And I also agree with many points made by Grace Afsari-Mamagani at HASTAC, including especially this paragraph:
Suggesting that “the workers in IT departments of corporations such as Elsevier and Google are engaged in humanities scholarship,” then, is particularly problematic. There is a fundamental difference between the “preservation and access” agenda at play with a project like Google Books and the “preservation and access” agenda pursued in an academic library or department: the latter tends to care deeply for the content itself, and to integrate an awareness of a particular object’s needs and potential uses. The production of digital archives and editions becomes itself an act of scholarship, reliant upon criticism about the role of scholarly resources, accessibility across demographics, use cases, and book and media history, all typically supplemented with contextual information and annotations reliant on deep engagement with existing scholarship. (Link)
This nails it for me. One way to attack DH (and people have been saying a version of it for years) is to say that it's too dependent on tools and applications developed by for-profit companies like Google (and indeed, Wordpress), who don't share our values or priorities (especially with regards to archival content). I doubt we'll be able to overcome at least some dependence on Google anytime soon, but I do think that projects like Scalar (a non-profit CMS developed with a DH grant that is now free to use, and pretty powerful) suggest that we can use DH grant money to develop non-profit versions of commercial applications that are suitable for scholarly projects in the humanities. Along those lines, I think we also need non-profit versions of social networks (witness the recent controversy over Academia.edu, among many other things), so we can talk about essays like this one in venues other than Facebook (TM) and Twitter (TM). 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Spring Teaching: Immigrants and Refugees

(I wrote this up for an informal talk at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. I ended up not using much of the actual text of it since the event was a more informal, salon-type conversation. Thanks to Colleen Clemens for inviting me.) 

I’ve been teaching a first-year writing course called “Nation of Immigrants” this spring with a combination of literary texts and films and a strong non-fiction component emphasizing refugees. Earlier in the course we read books like John Okada’s No-No Boy, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, to open up a space of conversation about different immigrant histories and experiences. What are some of the dilemmas immigrant communities face as they follow the path towards acculturation into the American mainstream? What is lost and what is gained along the path to becoming an American?

We used the Boyle novel, which was published in the wake of the Proposition 187 debates in California, as an opening to talk about the huge and yawning problem of America’s undocumented immigrant population. I had the students read debates about immigration in the press at that time (including op-eds by Governor Pete Wilson and others); it was remarkable to see how much overlap there is between what was being said then and what is being said about undocumented immigrants now. I also showed the students Jose Vargas’ documentary, Documented, to give them an example of an undocumented immigrant who looks and sounds a lot like themselves. And we of course talked about how the Presidential candidates have been discussing the issue of undocumented immigrants in the current election cycle.

In the last few weeks of the course we’ve been focusing on refugees. I built the unit around the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, a remarkable event where 125,000 Cuban migrants entered the U.S. without documentation or prior approval, and were immediately granted parole (parole: temporary legal status and work authorization; the first step towards permanent residency). The vast majority of them would later be granted green cards under the Cuban Adjustment Act – a policy which has enabled hundreds of thousands of Cubans to come to the U.S. and gain legal status without the same kinds of resistance experienced by undocumented immigrants from other national backgrounds. While we talked about this unique event in class, I also gestured to my students about the contrast between the American response to this extraordinary influx of immigrants in 1980 and our current response to the prospect of admitting increased numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing the devastating conflict in their home country.

We started our conversations about refugees in American history with a discussion of some earlier American Refugee policies, including the Displaced Persons Act (1948), the Refugee Relief Act (1953), the Cuban Adjustment Act (1966), and the Refugee Act of 1980. (One source I used was David Haines' book Safe Haven? A History of Refugees in America.) All told, these various acts have been responsible for the admission of more than 4 million total refugees to the U.S. between 1948 and 2009. The large Cuban American population in Florida, the Laotian and Hmong populations in the upper Midwest, and a sizeable chunk of America’s Vietnamese and Korean populations are the result of those policies. And while there might on occasion be some grumbling about these communities (mainly from older white folks: think Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino), by and large it’s pretty clear that these were successful refugee resettlement projects. The combination of government agencies and non-governmental agencies (such as, in the Hmong case, the Lutheran Church) worked together to help these new immigrants find a place for themselves in American society.

We also talked about the national origins of many of the Refugees – and the U.S. history of admitting refugees in particular from nations where it had been involved in creating the problems that led to civil conflict. Thus, the U.S. was especially open to immigrants from Korea in the wake of the Korean War in the early 1950s, and then again to refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after the war in Vietnam ended in the early 1970s. According to State department data, we admitted more than a half million refugees from Asia between 1975 and 1981, and continued to admit large numbers of Asian refugees through the 1990s (1975-1999: total 1.3 million Asian refugees). Starting in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, we were admitting tens of thousands of refugees from various conflict areas in the former Soviet Union – a total of 500,000 refugees between 1988 and 2001. Up until 2001, it was common, even routine, for the U.S. to admit more than 100,000 refugees a year from all over the world. Those numbers dropped dramatically after 2001 – into the low thousands -- and have only slowly been rising again during the Obama administration, reaching a plateau of about 70,000 refugees a year for the past three years.

(Incidentally, the migrants who came into the U.S. from Cuba in the Mariel boatlift were not classified as refugees by the State department, so they are not counted in the statistics I gave above.)

The Mariel boatlift is a particularly interesting case study that reflects an immense patience and generosity on the part of the U.S. government and the people of Florida, where most of the Marielitos settled. It wasn’t that the boatlift was all that popular; at the time, the government’s failure to create an effective blockade to reduce the numbers of Cubans entering Florida was seen as a sign of weakness by the Carter administration. News reports were rife with stories indicating that the Mariel Cubans were uneducated and predisposed to criminality – the rumor was that Castro had emptied his jails and mental asylums, and put those inmates on boats headed to the U.S. And while these reports turned out to be exaggerated, there’s no doubt that the Cubans who entered the U.S. in the Mariel boatlift were, on the whole, less educated and less financially secure than the earlier generation of Cubans, many of whom came into the U.S. at the time of the Revolution in part to protect financial assets that Castro was threatening to nationalize. 

For more fine-grained detail on the Mariel boatlift, check out the detailed timeline we created in a collaborative, in-class Google Docs exercise, where students added their own material to a skeleton structure I created for them. I derived a good deal of my own knowledge about the Mariel boatlift from Kathleen Hawk and Ron Villella's book Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980: The First Twenty Days.  As a side-note, I showed the students two films with very different representations of the Mariel boatlift, Mira Nair's The Perez Family and Brian de Palma's Scarface.

From Mariel to Syria

As we learned, the choice to allow the 125,000 Cubans to enter in the span of five months was effectively a deliberate decision by Jimmy Carter at the time. The Marielitos, who came in on private boats chartered by Cuban American relatives in Miami, quickly became a political football being juggled in an intense PR war between Castro and Carter. Carter was hoping and expecting that the image of thousands of Cuban citizens fleeing the country would make Castro look weak, and potentially destabilize the Communist government (it didn’t). And by opening the floodgates and allowing 100,000 people to leave the country in just a few weeks, Castro was in some ways daring the U.S. to follow through on its claims of being a democratic society invested in humanitarianism. While Carter only planned initially to accept 3000 Cuban emigrants, in the end he accepted 125,000. He may have lost the PR war in the short term (and the Mariel boatlift probably contributed to his losing his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan that same fall), but in the long term we have to see that openness as an extraordinary expression of generosity.

Today we don’t seem to have that same openness or generosity. Arguably the conditions in Syria are comparable to those in Southeast Asia in the 1970s. Then, we saw a humanitarian situation in Vietnam and Laos that was a direct consequence of the U.S. military action there. The U.S. took an attitude of “we broke it – we made this country inhospitable for thousands of people who supported us and worked for us there— so we at least have to do a little something to fix it, and take them in.” Arguably, we helped “break it” in Syria too, with support for the protests against the Assad regime that triggered brutal repression from Assad and sparked off the civil war that continues to this day. We are also engaged in ongoing bombing of ISIS targets in eastern Syria. And the general sense of instability in the region is clearly linked to the unnecessary war in Iraq that started in 2003. The U.S. may not have the same degree of involvement in Syria it had in Vietnam and Laos, but it also cannot stand back and say, "this has nothing to do with us."

While we hear a good deal about the political crisis European nations are having over Syrian refugees, it’s worth starting by noting that by far, the countries that are currently holding the largest numbers of refugees are Turkey (2.75 million refugees), Lebanon (more than a million refugees, and Jordan (1.25 million refugees – 600,000 of whom are officially registered). Germany and Greece have both taken in nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees each. Canada, our neighbor to the north that has 1/10th the population of the U.S., has taken in 30,000 Syrian refugees.

Nearly 2800 Syrian refugees trying to teach Europe by boat have died or disappeared while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. (If you count migrants from other national backgrounds, nearly 4000 people died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. We all heard about the horrific incident last April, when 800 people died in a boat that capsized off the coast of Libya. But that was only the biggest incident…)

Meanwhile, as of February 2016, the U.S. has taken in and resettled a grand total of 3000 Syrian refugees. Given the scale of what other countries are doing to alleviate the sufferings of Syrians in refugee camps in neighboring countries, the number is laughably small. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to the refugees themselves to do more, arguably we have a responsibility to our allies – especially countries like Turkey and Jordan – to alleviate the immense strain that is being placed on them by the huge influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict.

It’s also pretty sad given what I have been saying the history of American generosity at earlier moments. Because of that history, the United States has a highly developed capacity we have to absorb new immigrants and resettle refugees around the country. I mentioned the very robust network of organizations around the country that have been helping to resettle refugees for decades; we can certainly handle thousands more Syrians (given the scale of the crisis and the example of the Mariel boatlift, if I were President I would U.S. target for this year at 100,000 – not the 10,000 the Obama administration has set as a target). We have ample evidence that most refugees do quite well in the U.S. and become productive members of society and contribute to economic growth. The United States can and should be doing more.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Gender and the State: A Beginner's Guide to the Personal Law Debate in India

Next week, Lehigh hosts an exciting conference called "Feminisms Beyond the Secular," with a number of prominent feminist academics coming into speak, from India, the U.S. and Ghana. 

I am not presenting at the conference, though I am moderating a panel. Nevertheless, I thought this might be a good moment to post something of my own related to this topic. I had tried to get it published earlier with a scholarly journal, without success. The second half of the essay, not included, deals with novels -- Taslima Nasreen's writings related to secularism and Muslim women's feminism, and Samina Ali's Madras on Rainy Days

This section contains an account of the Personal Law debate in Indian law, which affects Marriage Law, Divorce, custody of children, and property in marriage. It might serve as a beginner's introduction to that debate -- helpful to people who don't have much background in debates over feminism and secularism in India. 

* * *

It is becoming increasingly clear that the often-presumed link between “secularization” and “modernization” does not quite hold, as certain regions of the developed world remain strongly religious in the cultural sphere, while the rapid progress of industrialization in the developing world has come with the growth, not the diminishment, of strong religious beliefs. Secularization, as a cultural, historical tendency, is therefore not an inevitable process, and in a surprisingly wide swath of nations around the world the question of what exactly constitutes “secularism” has become a hotly-contested issue. In these debates, women's rights are often—indeed, nearly always—the central material question under debate. Questions of women’s dress, access to education and employment, control over reproductive rights, the right to divorce, property rights, and child custody rights—these are variously contested by religious conservatives, from Saudi Arabia, to Europe, to India, to the United States. The diversity of different national histories and cultural contexts is so great that no simply universal, “secular feminist” response is readily available.

As critics such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others have pointed out, universalism has tended to lead to analytic errors, and is often premised on a kind of neo-colonial presumption of western feminist superiority. And yet, women’s struggles with repressive religious authorities in different parts of the world can be explored, and indeed, profitably understood, across cultural and political boundaries, as long as close attention to cultural and historical specificities is maintained. In the case of the concept of secularism in particular, a helpful corrective to a conventional universalist model might come from a political philosopher like Rajeev Bhargava, who has argued that western political secularism may be only one among many concepts of workable secularism. If in a country like the United States “secularism” seems to indicate a wall of separation between Church and State, in India secularism can refer to a state deeply involved with religion, but focused on using its power to adjudicate resources and rights equally amongst different religious communities (Bhargava 2005; Bhargava 2011). As Priya Kumar phrases it, this kind of secularism emphasizes “tolerance or freedom of all religions rather than as the exclusion of religion from state” (Kumar 2008: 15).

Gender and Secularism in India: a Brief Historical Overview

In the Indian case in particular, secularism in the contemporary moment seems to hinge on women's rights, sometimes with the same degree of complexity and even awkwardness of the recently enacted French laws regarding the Hijab, or headscarf. The current crisis in women's rights and religion has been directly debated in regard to two legal controversies in the 1980s, the Shah Bano case (Agnes 1999; Agnes 2007) and the Roop Kanwar Sati case (Mani 1998), though arguably it could be extended both backwards—to the debates over Sati in the colonial era and the centrality of rape in narratives of Partition—and forwards, to the violence against women in the riots that engulfed the Indian subcontinent in 1992 and 2002 (Baldwin 2002). 

Monday, March 07, 2016

"The Classroom is a Public"

The following is a shortened / excerpted version of a keynote address I gave at the Literature and Social Justice (LSJ) graduate conference held at Lehigh this past weekend (see details here). The topic of this year's LSJ conference was "Public Humanities," and I wrote this to address that particular topic. 

Many of my colleagues and students know me as an enthusiast for social media but in truth I have grown increasingly ambivalent about these services as tools for social transformation. I felt misgivings about giving a boosterish talk that would have aimed to show everyone how great it is to be on Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogs. Finding publishing success via social media and mainstream venues like Salon.com is highly dependent on market forces and ratings/rankings structures that quantify -- or economize -- the fundamental mechanics of communication online. While doing this kind of writing can be very rewarding, writing for commercial venues and ranking-based social media will not, by itself, resolve the "crisis in the humanities." In my talk, I tried a different tack: instead of encouraging attendees at the conference to retrain themselves to be more "public" than they already are, I argued that teaching -- something we're already doing, but don't always value -- is a very important way in which we all already engage with a non-specialist public. What's more, humanities teaching in particular plays an important role in helping to create the next generation of questioning citizens. 

As mentioned, these are excerpts from the longer talk. If anyone would like to see the full text of the talk, please feel free to contact me. 

* * * 
The Classroom is a Public

1. The Idea of the Public Is In Crisis

It’s customary for talks like this to begin with a discussion of how the “humanities are in crisis.” We’ve heard that phrase a lot -- maybe a little too much -- and academics writing in public venues have become very skilled at diagnosing the causes of that problem. And my talk today will speak to at least some facets of what’s ailing the humanities and what might be done to better defend and advocate for the kind of work we do. But I want to start somewhere else: with the stipulation that the idea of the public is in crisis.

In his classic book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas put forward the idea of a modern bourgeois public sphere as an intermediary between the private space of individuals and families, and the state.

[... section removed ...] 

Habermas’ idea of the public sphere has been widely and persuasively critiqued, and I’m not too strongly attached to the ins and outs of his argument, especially as pertaining to the putative decline of the public sphere. (Among other things, it seems strange that the era of the public sphere he talks about was one in which women and people of color were by and large excluded at the very period when he claims the public sphere was most effective.) That said, Habermas continues to be helpful in giving us a vision of what a public sphere might look like, where we might find it, and why we might want it. We find it in evidence in a free and independent press, in public spaces where citizens of different socioeconomic strata can engage in free and open debate about pressing issues, and in institutions that are designed to support and sustain it: museums, public libraries, civic centers, coffee houses -- and yes, universities.

Another political theorist who may take us further in terms of providing a useful way of understanding the present-day crisis in the public sphere might be Wendy Brown; her recent book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, explores the triumph of neoliberal ideology. For Brown,

[N]eoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. (Brown, 10-11)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Evolution of the “Natural Born Citizen” Idea: An Explainer For Students

[I am teaching a course on "Immigration and Literature" for first year-students this spring. Today we talked about the controversy about whether Ted Cruz is eligible to be President as an opening conversation. I wrote up this explainer for the students to introduce them to some of the basic outline of the history.]

In the past few weeks, there’s been a growing debate over whether Senator Ted Cruz is eligible to run for President. There are certain basic facts that everyone agrees on: Ted Cruz was born in 1970 in Alberta, Canada, to an American mother and a Cuban father; the family relocated to Texas in 1974 and Cruz grew up there. The Constitution requires that a person who runs for President be a “natural born citizen.” Is a person with one American parent who was born outside of the U.S. eligible to be President?

Most Constitutional Law specialists seem to think that the answer is yes, because Cruz’s mother was an American citizen. But a number of serious scholars have raised questions about the assumptions they’re making. One is a Widener University Law Professor named Mary Brigid McManamon. Her essay arguing that Cruz is ineligible (if you’re curious) is here. Warning: it’s a bit legalistic:


Two terms that are helpful to know before we get deeper into this: “originalism” refers to a mode of interpreting the Constitution to the effect that our goal is to understand what the Framers must have meant at the time. According to Originalists, all laws we pass today need to be in line with their intentions. Originalists are often politically and socially conservative (several of the conservative Supreme Court members on the current Supreme Court consider themselves to be “originalists”). Against originalism is a philosophy described as the “living Constitution” philosophy. According to people who follow this line of thinking, the Constitution was never meant to be an absolute document that could never change. As society changes and evolves, we have to pass laws to describe events no one in 1789 could have dreamed of. (The Framers could never have imagined digital surveillance or drone warfare. Don’t we need to think about those types of controversial practices using reasoning based in our present moment?)

A Timeline -- to help understand the history of the controversy

1789: Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which contains this phrase:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Some constitutional law experts (who follow the “originalist” methodology) have argued that what “natural born” meant in 1789 is exactly what it sounds like: you have to be born in the United States.

1790: Naturalization Act of 1790

"the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens: Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.”

1795: Naturalization Act of 1795. The phrase “shall be considered as natural born citizens” is removed. The author of the revised statute was James Madison, an extremely important figure in the drafting of the Constitution (later, he would be the fourth President of the United States). In this version, the sentence is “shall be considered citizens of the United States.”

Mary McManamon thinks the removal of the phrase in the 1795 bill is telling:

Third, Katyal and Clement put much weight on the first U.S. naturalization statute, enacted in 1790. Because it contains the phrase “natural born,” they infer that such citizens must include children born abroad to American parents. The first Congress [1790], however, had no such intent. The debates on the matter reveal that the congressmen were aware that such children were not citizens and had to be naturalized; hence, Congress enacted a statute to provide for them. Moreover, that statute did not say the children were natural born, only that they should “be considered as” such. Finally, as soon as Madison, then a member of Congress, was assigned to redraft the statute in 1795, he deleted the phrase “natural born,” and it has never reappeared in a naturalization statute.

1986: Immigration and Nationality Act of 1986

Naturalization and Immigration laws passed by Congress have continued to evolve and redefine what it means to be a “Natural Born Citizen.” There have been a number of laws passed in the 20th century that have attempted to clarify various issues and complications relating to the meaning of “natural born citizen.” For instance, earlier there was doubt as to whether someone born in a U.S. territory that is not a state (say, Puerto Rico or Guam) could be called a natural born citizen (the consensus is that they are).

In 1986, Congress defined natural born citizen for people born overseas as follows:

  • If both parents are U.S. citizens, the child is a citizen if either of the parents has ever had a residence in the U.S. prior to the child's birth
  • If one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other parent is a U.S. national, the child is a citizen if the U.S. citizen parent has lived in the U.S. for a continuous period of at least one year prior to the child's birth
  • If one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other parent is not, the child is a citizen if
    • the U.S. citizen parent has been "physically present" in the U.S. before the child's birth for a total period of at least five years,and
    • at least two of those five years were after the U.S. citizen parent's fourteenth birthday.

Ted Cruz’s mother meets those criteria; she lived in the U.S. for most of her life.

That law seems like it ought to solve everything. But some legal scholars have doubts. For one thing, the law defines people in that last category as citizens -- not “natural born citizens.”

For another, note that this is a law passed by Congress in 1986. For a real Originalist, nothing passed in 1986 ought to matter. What matters for them really is the meaning of the text as the Framers intended it in 1789. What did they intend, then? We don’t entirely know (and that fact is by itself an argument against Originalism in my opinion: there are many things the original Framers of the Constitution could not have thought of that we now have to make decisions about. Living Constitutionalists would say that we should make the fairest decisions we can based on the realities of the world we live in today, not the world as it was 226 years ago).

People like Mary McManamon have argued that for it to be unambiguously clear that someone like Ted Cruz is eligible to be President, what we really need is a new Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that plainly states that a person meeting those criteria is a natural born citizen who is eligible to serve as President. Not just a law passed by Congress -- but an actual Amendment to the Constitution itself. Here’s what Prof McManamon says:

Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the power to naturalize an alien — that is, Congress may remove an alien’s legal disabilities, such as not being allowed to vote. But Article II of the Constitution expressly adopts the legal status of the natural-born citizen and requires that a president possess that status. However we feel about allowing naturalized immigrants to reach for the stars, the Constitution must be amended before one of them can attain the office of president. Congress simply does not have the power to convert someone born outside the United States into a natural-born citizen.

It’s unlikely that a Constitutional Amendment will happen anytime soon; however, given that there are now numerous legal challenges to Cruz’s eligibility that have been filed, it’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court will rule on the issue sometime this year. My bet would be that they say that Cruz is, after all, eligible to be President. But even then, if he actually wins the job, because of this controversy there will likely be some folks around who will doubt it.




Friday, January 22, 2016

The Problem With H.R. 158

BBC Journalist Rana Rahimpour, a British and Iranian dual citizen, after being denied entry to the U.S. earlier this week.

Even as the end of strict sanctions represents a step forward for U.S.-Iranian relations this week, new visa restrictions recently passed by Congress are starting to take effect, causing many Americans with dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan to feel like second class citizens. These restrictions were passed in the House last December with broad bipartisan support and little public discussion. Even as Donald Trump’s fantasy of banning all Muslim immigration to the U.S. has been widely discussed--and universally criticized--a real law has been enacted that's causing serious hindrances to a large number of American citizens, including many Muslims.


The law in question is H.R. 158, the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015.” The law cancels the current Visa Waiver program that allows citizens of 38 nations to visit the United States without a visa if those citizens either have dual citizenship with any “country designated as one that has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” or if an individual has visited one of those countries since March 2011. The intent of the law, which was passed immediately in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks last fall,  is evidently to try and make it more difficult for American citizens who may have trained with organizations like ISIS while visiting these nations to return to the U.S. and wreak havoc here.


Given the timing and the focus on ISIS, the inclusion of Iran in particular on the list of nations to which the new law applies is puzzling, as ISIS is very much a Sunni organization (and therefore totally absent from Iran), and none of the attackers in any recent international incident have been Iranian. Indeed, some have speculated that the Republican-controlled Congress included Iran and Iranian Americans on this list specifically to embarrass President Obama at the very moment when sanctions on Iran were about to be lifted.


Laws passed by Congress in the heat of the moment -- think the Patriot Act -- often end up being bad laws, and this one is no exception. H.R. 158 adds a new area of bureaucracy and an array of travel restrictions that the more than half-million American citizens of Iranian descent are calling discriminatory. It also does precious little to actually help fight the threat of Paris or San Bernardino-style attacks. Tashfeen Malik had been radicalized in Saudi Arabia, not Iran, Iraq, or Syria; her husband, Syed Farouk, had been raised in the U.S. and had only visited Pakistan. (Neither of those countries are on the list of nations affected by the new restrictions).


The law also has some odd side effects. For one thing, the American Visa Waiver program operates on a principle of reciprocity with the 38 countries that are party to it. These include many European union countries as well as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. That reciprocity is positively- as well as negatively- reinforcing. So if the U.S. no longer accepts a certain class of dual citizens (say British subjects who were born in Iran) via visa waiver, that same class of dual citizens will now need visas and embassy interviews to travel to those countries as well. Thus if anticipated reciprocity takes effect, Iranian-Americans and others may soon need visas to visit many countries that previously would have allowed them to enter simply based on the fact of their possessing an American passport.


It should also be mentioned that Iran considers people who were born there or who are descended from Iranians to remain citizens even if they become citizens of another country. This is true even if they exclusively travel on an American passport and give up their Iranian passports. So Iranian Americans who hold U.S. passports and have not visited Iran since the days of the Shah may very soon find that they need a visa to go to London, Paris, or Seoul.

There is at present quite a bit of confusion regarding when and how H.R. 158 will be applied. BBC journalist Rana Rahimpour, a dual British and Iranian citizen, learned this the hard way this week when she was denied entry to the U.S. Rahimpour had been on her way to visit family and celebrate the birthday of a nephew, as the Guardian has reported.  Rahimpour has worked for the BBC Persian service, but has not visited Iran for many years (ironically, because Iranian officials frequently harass BBC journalists). On January 19, she Tweeted, “Three days after lifting Iran sanctions, US denied ESTA/visa waivers for me and another two British citizens because we have Iranian nationality too.” In addition to live-Tweeting the denial of her visa, Rahimpour posted an image of herself and her daughter in tears at Heathrow airport.
                                           
The State Department’s web site  does not clarify matters, as it only announces that the program will begin to roll out soon. It does not give details as to who exactly is affected and what steps they might need to take to get around potential travel restrictions. The expectation is that the bill will go into effect on April 1, 2016, but Rahimpour’s experience suggests that the implementation of the law has already begun.

More evidence that the law is already in effect comes in the form of emails that dual citizens have begun receiving from the U.S. State Department. The following email was posted to a Facebook group by the spouse of an Iranian / Swedish dual citizen:




Iranian American groups have begun mobilizing to raise awareness about the unfairness of H.R. 158. Links to the recent Guardian story about Rana Rahimpour are generating a lot of social media uptake, and Facebook groups like “See You in Iran” and “Stop HR 158” have been created.


Most critics agreed that Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration would be both unconstitutional and totally ineffective (indeed, it lends fuel to Jihadist organizations, who use the recent history of the American abuse of Muslims to recruit new volunteers).  H.R. 158, which is apparently already in effect, is likely to equally ineffective, and raises troubling questions about lawmakers’ failure to treat American citizens fairly -- or to think through the potential fallout from laws designed, even perhaps with “good intentions,” to combat terrorism.




Friday, January 15, 2016

Claude McKay's Uncollected Political Poetry, 1918-1922

(Cross-posted at Harlem Echoes ; also see my earlier blog post explaining this collaborative project. This page accompanies a Timeline of McKay's publication history between 1917 and 1922 . Thanks to Chris Forster of Syracuse University for invaluable bibliographic help. Also see Prof. Forster's excellent blog post charting the publication histories of some of this material here.

And coming soon: we will present 24 of McKay's uncollected political poems from this period, using scans from various magazines in which they appeared.) 
The years leading up to the publication of Harlem Shadows were full of fraught political as well as aesthetic dilemmas for Claude McKay. After publishing two well-received and highly innovative books of poetry in Jamaica in 1912, for several years after arriving in the United States he published nothing at all. Today, it looks a little like “life happened”: as his biographers describe it, McKay got married to a fellow Jamaican in New York City, but the marriage quickly fizzled. He tried a business venture in New York, which also went nowhere. And then he began a series of jobs, including especially a job as a porter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, which exposed him to various aspects of American life and labor. As McKay describes it, the experience was freeing; his life amongst the working people also helped shape McKay’s subsequent commitment to radical politics.
It was not until I was forced down among the rough body of the great serving class of Negroes that I got to know my Aframerica. I was perhaps then at the most impressionable adult age and the warm contact with my workmates, boys and girls, their spontaneous ways of acting on and living for the moment, the physical and sensuous delights, the loose freedom in contrast to the definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised—all served to feed the riotous sentiments smoldering in me and cut me finally adrift from the fixed moorings my mind had been led to respect, but to which my heart had never held. (Claude McKay, quoted in Cooper, 87)

Beginning in 1917, even as McKay continued to work on the railroad, that artistic drought ended, and he began to publish poems in American magazines, growing increasingly confident in the new voice and lyrical form he was developing. Alongside the 70 or so poems that McKay decided to include in Harlem Shadows, there are about 24 poems he published in various magazines during these years that he elected not to include in any of his collections of verse. The vast majority of these are ‘political’ poems articulating a plainly Communist critique of labor relations, and in some cases a celebration of leftist revolution. The majority of these political poems were published in Leftist magazines such as The Liberator and Workers Dreadnought.
McKay’s specific reasons for excluding these poems from Harlem Shadows are not fully known; he did not address these writings at great length in his memoir, A Long Way From Home, and his personal correspondence from this period has not survived. However, it is not hard for a contemporary critic to speculate that McKay and his editors may have seen the tone and theme of these poems as too disparate from his other poems, and opted to exclude them in the interest of greater thematic coherence. It is also true that many of McKay’s most stridently revolutionary poems from 1920-1922 in particular were published under pseudonyms in Workers Dreadnought (“Hugh Hope” being the most frequent pseudonym). In wake of the mass deportation of Communists from the United States in the fall of 1919 and the arrest and imprisonment of British Communists, including many of McKay’s close friends and associates, in the fall of 1920, it is also quite likely that McKay (having returned to the U.S. in 1921) decided not to claim ownership of these poems as a matter of not exposing himself to legal trouble – including possible deportation.
Whatever McKay’s reason for excluding the political poetry from Harlem Shadows, the poems should be quite interesting to readers today, and I tend to think we should reinsert them into McKay's "canon," even if McKay himself might not have agreed to it. For one thing, several (though admittedly not all) of the political poems are written in a style that suggests strong intellectual overlap with McKay’s other works. We say this despite the consensus of earlier critics and biographers like Wayne Cooper, who dismissed the political poems as “proletariat doggerel” that was “clearly inferior to his best efforts” (Cooper 117). In fact, I would argue that the best of these poems are much more than doggerel. Below, we’ll look closely at one particularly interesting example of a compelling political poem, “Joy in the Woods.”
In general, all of McKay’s poems from this period (including the poems in Harlem Shadows) reflect a set of conscious stylistic choices and an evolution from the aesthetic mode he had used earlier in his career. Writing in British and American magazines, McKay dropped the Jamaican patois he had used in Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica in favor of standard written English; he also committed to conventional poetic rhyme and meter – and the sonnet form – a move that seemed anachronistic to some of his more experimental contemporaries. Even at the moment of the publication of Harlem Shadows, McKay was clearly aware that his aesthetic choice represented a rejection of the rapidly proliferating modernist preference for free verse.
He describes and defends this choice in the Author’s Word he elected to wrote for Harlem Shadows:
Consequently, although very conscious of the new criticisms and trends in poetry, to which I am keenly responsive and receptive, I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods. I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist nor a modernist. My intellect is not scientific enough to range me on the side of either; nor is my knowledge wide enough for me to specialize in any school. (McKay, “Author’s Word,” Harlem Shadows. See the full Author's Word here.)
These words mark a pretty compelling defense of McKay’s choice to use a conservative form and language in which to express his feelings of righteous anger at the various forms of oppression he witnessed in both the United States and England in those years. The constraints  McKay placed on himself (i.e., “the older traditions” he references) in writing poems like “America” and “The Lynching” in sonnet form may have led him to express himself more precisely than his “lawless and revolutionary passions and moods” otherwise might have dictated. And the poems are the more powerful and memorable for it.
A close look at the timeline of McKay’s publications in this period demonstrates just how unusual McKay’s path to the publication of Harlem Shadows actually was. On the one hand, in the late 1910s McKay was finding some success in these years in mainstream American publications such as Pearson’s and The Liberator, in the mainstream (i.e., white-dominated) little magazine, Seven Arts; in England, he published in Cambridge Magazine. Several of the poems for which McKay is best known today were published in this period and they focus on racial oppression and the struggle of the black community for survival and dignity in the face of violent oppression. However, McKay also wrote and published poetry that we could today recognize as conventional love lyrics (many of these describe love objects of indeterminate gender and we can infer from what we know of McKay’s biography that they are about men).
In the spring of 1920, even as he was intensely involved with the British revolutionary left, McKay was also working closely with an editor named C.K. Ogden to produce a largely apolitical collection of twenty poems for Cambridge Magazine (admittedly, some poems dealing with race-relations, including “The Lynching,” were in fact included in this sequence of poems). To the Cambridge Magazine poems he would add a few new entries, and publish, in the fall of 1920, a collection of poems called Spring in New Hampshire that largely consisted of poems about nature, forbidden love, migration, and American race-relations – with no mention of proletarian revolution anywhere in the mix.
Biographer Wayne Cooper suggests that McKay’s more “literary” editors (i.e., Ogden) in England discouraged him from including more radical or revolutionary writing, whether that radicalism was oriented towards calling out entrenched English and American racism or the class struggle. (And yes, “The Lynching” – which deals with racism in the far-away American South – would have been acceptable to Cambridge Magazine, but not poems addressing forms of systemic oppression that were closer to home.) The rules were only too clear: in order for his work to be included in an establishment magazine, McKay’s poetry needed to be thematically conservative.  As a young and very marginalized writer, it’s quite easy to see how McKay found the idea of acceptance in a prestigious venue like Cambridge Magazine attractive. While he was writing and publishing some of the aggressively political material of his career in Workers Dreadnought, he was also presenting himself as a new “Negro Poet” to the literary establishment. The established editors (I.A. Richards and Max Eastman) who wrote prefaces for McKay’s two volumes of poetry published in 1920 and 1922 were especially invested in marking McKay’s writing as “universal”:
And it should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it—they are gentle, simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears—yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind. There is no special or exotic kind of merit in them, no quality that demands a transmutation of our own natures to perceive. (Max Eastman, Preface to Harlem Shadows, 1922)
As the “first black poet” to be published in many of the white-dominated venues that accepted him, McKay was presented as a representative of the experiences of his race. But the particularities of McKay’s experiences and identity – as an immigrant, as a gay man, and as a leftist activist – would not have fit the universalist picture Eastman was attempting to paint.
Let us take a brief look at an example of political poetry that McKay published just around the time he was developing the sequence of poems for Cambridge Magazine (published in June 1920), but which would be excluded from that collection as well as Spring in New Hampshire and Harlem Shadows.  
Joy in the Woods (published in Workers Dreadnought in April 1920)
There is joy in the woods just now,
The leaves are whispers of song,
And the birds make mirth on the bough
And music the whole day long.
And God! To dwell in the town
In these springlike summer days,
On my brow an unfading frown
And hate in my heart always—
A machine out of gear, aye, tired,
Yet forced to go on—for I’m hired.
Just forced to go on through fear,
For every day I must eat
And find ugly clothes to wear,
And bad shoes to hurt my feet
And a shelter for work-drugged sleep!
A mere drudge! but what can one do?
A man that’s a man cannot weep!
Suicide? A quitter? Oh, no!
But a slave should never grow tired,
Whom the masters have kindly hired.
But oh! For the woods, the flowers
Of natural, sweet perfume,
The heartening, summer shows
And the smiling shrubs in bloom,
Dust-free, dew-tinted at morn,
The fresh and life-giving air,
The billowing waves of corn
And the birds’ notes rich and clear: —
For a man-machine toil-tired
May crave beauty too—though he’s hired.
I find this 1920 poem of McKay’s particularly helpful in bridging the apparent gap between McKay’s political poems and the poems McKay included in Spring in New Hampshire, especially the title poem, which shares with “Joy in the Woods” a distinct sense of longing for a natural beauty that is denied to the speaker. While the reason for that denial is never specified in “Spring in New Hampshire,” in “Joy in the Woods” the speaker identifies himself repeatedly as a “hired” man, who must work for wages in town rather than enjoy the freedom and sensory pleasures of spring in the countryside. The sense of yearning expressed in the final couplet (“For a man-machine toil-tired / May crave beauty too – though he’s hired.”) speaks powerfully to a contradiction that addresses the competing thematic interests McKay was struggling with throughout this period. Despite his commitment to the workers and to revolution, McKay also “craved beauty” – and yet he could not find a way to reconcile these competing interests in the volumes of poetry he published in 1920 or 1922. As a result, fine poems like “Joy in the Woods” were effectively inaccessible to readers for generations – until recent editors have unearthed them.
To his credit, McKay’s most important American editor in this period, Frank Norris, found at least some aspects the British editorial conservatism unacceptable. What we can clearly see, in the evolution of Spring in New Hampshire (published in London in 1920) into Harlem Shadows (published in New York in 1922, on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance)is the reinsertion of Mckay’s most defiant poems dealing specifically with race (especially, "If We Must Die")– but not his poems dealing with class oppression, labor relations, or revolution. (It is not known what Norris thought about McKay’s Communist poetry – or if he even knew of it.) Both the various differential editorial influences we have been discussing and McKay’s repeated experiences of displacement can be seen in the poems in the final product that is Harlem Shadows.


Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Asian American Studies Explainer: What is "Yellowface"?

I was going through some of my teaching notes from last year and came across these introductory comments on the concept of Yellowface, which I presented to students in an Asian American Literature and Popular Culture course. The ideas in this post dovetail quite extensively with the "Indians on TV" episode of Aziz Ansari's "Masters of None." 




We might tend to think that the kinds of anti-Asian sentiments John Okada talks about in his early novel No-No Boy are artifacts of the past -- that anti-Asian sentiments and ideas have receded in American life since the days of the Asian Exclusion Act, “Yellow Peril,” and the Japanese internment during World War II.

But that’s clearly not true. As recently as the 1990s various forms of anti-Asian sentiment were pretty mainstream and widely accepted in political discourse. Robert G. Lee opens the first chapter of his book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture with a discussion of the above cover of a 1997 issue of the mainstream conservative magazine National Review. Recognize Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton,and Al Gore? (The term “Manchurian Candidate” comes from a spy thriller from the Cold War: a man is brainwashed so that he’ll infiltrate the American government and perform actions in the interest of the Communists -- Chinese and Russians -- who secretly control him.)

Later Lee talks about the scandal that emerged in 1996 regarding campaign contributionsto the Democratic party from Asian American donors, and prints a disturbing (and to my eye, flagrantly racist) cartoon from the same year mocking the idea of voters with the last name “Huang”).  (As a side note, one of the key players in the 1996 campaign finance controversy was named John Huang. In that controversy, Asian American donors would give large donations to the Democratic party. But the corporations from which the funds were being drawn were dummy corporations created by the Chinese government…)

Yellowface is active in this cover cartoon. To put it quite simply, Yellowface is similar to blackface performance as a way of appropriating and mocking African American racial/cultural difference. Yellowface is a way of performing Asian difference for mainstream American audiences -- and Hollywood has a long tradition of this kind of performance, going back to the famous Charlie Chan movies of the 1930s and later, films like Sayonara. (More recently, M. Night Shyamalan was criticized for casting his live-action version of The Last Airbender with white actors when in the original Nickelodeon cartoon the characters clearly appeared to be Asian. Periodically, Caucasian actors continue to play Asian characters in yellowface, though generally in comedies: Christopher Walken played “Feng” in Balls of Fury; Rob Schneider played an Asian photographer in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and so on...)

Here’s an image from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, source of a Yellowface depiction of a Japanese man that many Asians continue to find galling (especially since this is a much-loved romantic film -- people have tended to overlook its racism):



Here’s a bit of Charlie Chan to give you a flavor of how it was done. This is from a 1940 film called Charlie Chan and the Wax Museum:


The actor playing Charlie Chan was Sidney Toler, who had no Asian ancestry.

But Yellowface can also be used in a more general sense to refer to the appropriating of Asian symbols or appearance -- along the lines of the cartoon above.

Yellowface marks the Asian body as unmistakably Oriental; it sharply defines the Oriental in a racial opposition to whiteness. Yellowface exaggerates ‘racial’ features that have been designated ‘Oriental,’ such as ‘slanted’ eyes, overbite, and mustard-yellow skin color. Only the racialized Oriental is yellow; Asians are not. Asia is not a biological fact but a geographic designation. Asians come in the broadest range of skin color and hue. (Robert Lee, Orientals 2)

We should probably talk about the color “yellow.” For Lee, yellow is a shorthand for a racial concept of the Asian (Oriental) other. It’s not a term by which Asians themselves would have understood their commonalities. Europeans and Americans described Asians as “yellow” as a category other than “white” or “black.” But strictly speaking in terms of color palettes: white people are not “white,” black people are not black, and Asians are not in fact yellow. 

Over time, however, some ethno-racial groups that have been defined by others along these lines often come to accept the short-hand “color scheme” that’s been invented for them. Many African Americans embrace the term “black” or “black American” (and indeed, some prefer the term “black American” to “African American”). Many Asians do not have a problem with the color designation “yellow” -- and Asian American artists, writers, and performers often use the term when identifying their work as Asian (think of Jeff Yang’s satirical cartoon, the “Y-Men”).  And I know a fair number of South Asians who have come to embrace “brown” (though brown isn’t as specific as white, black, and yellow; many Latinos also identify as “brown”).

Because the organizing principle behind the idea of race is ‘common ancestry,’ it is concerned with the physical, the biological, and the reproductive. But race is not a category of nature; it is an ideology through which unequal distributions of wealth and power are naturalized--justified in the language of biology and genealogy. Physiognomy is relevant to race only insofar as certain physical characteristics, such as skin color or hue, eye color or shape, shape of the nose, color or texture of the hair, over-or underbite, etc., are socially defined as markers of racial difference. (2)

What does Lee mean when he says that aspects of physiognomy that are traditionally associated with Asian appearance are only “socially defined as markers of racial difference”?



While traditional Yellowface has declined since the 1960s in mainstream Hollywood productions and on TV as more actual Asians are cast to play Asian characters, it’s still pretty widespread for actors to be asked to ‘play up’ their Asianness for Hollywood movies. Often Asian American actors who speak English with an American accent are asked to adopt an accent to sound more Asian. And it’s quite common for Asian American actors to play actual Asians (in Asia) -- one thinks, most recently, of Randall Park (the dad in Fresh off the Boat), who played Kim Jong Un in the recent film The Interview. Park is of Korean descent, but he was born and raised in Los Angeles… At times this kind of performance can be seen as benign (his character in Fresh off the Boat is appealing -- not a negative stereotype), but it’s still a source of concern and consternation for many aspiring Asian American performers. Some actors have staunchly refused to do any accented roles (Aziz Ansari comes to mind); others will put on the accent to get work.


In effect, there’s a comparison to the way black actors are often asked to play up their blackness for comedic effect. Some actors do this without thinking twice. But for others there’s something that feels wrong about using a voice that may not be their authentic speaking voice to entertain white audiences.