Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

Indian Americans and the Usefulness of Covering

Southern governor (and candidate) Jindal and Haley are Indian American

If Nikki Haley wins her bid to become the governor of South Carolina, she will join Bobby Jindal at the highest level of Indian Americans in contemporary politics.

This should be a moment of triumph, right? Indian Americans around the country should be rejoicing at the representation, the similar-toned faces and shared priorities, shouldn’t they?

Or, like me, did you not realize that both of these high-profile politicians were of Indian heritage?

Born Nimrata Randhawa, Nikki Haley is the daughter of Indian Punjabi Sikhs who emigrated from Amritsar, India. Her colleague, the current governor of Louisiana, Piyush Jindal, was raised in a Hindu household by Indian immigrants, converting to Christianity in high school and eventually baptized as Roman Catholic while at Brown. It’s telling that both politicians converted to Christianity at an early age.

In The Daily Beast, Tunku Varadarajan analyzes the success of these American-born politicians: not only have they removed the ethnicity from their birthnames (essentially whitewashing their public title) or exchanging their family’s religion in favor of the majority’s faith, but both public figures have adopted radically conservative stands that mirror the views of their Southern constituencies. As Varadarajan asks:

What explains the success of Jindal and Haley in their respective states? In posing this question, I hint, of course, at the South’s lingering reputation for racial intolerance; and who can deny that the two states in question have not always been at the forefront of America’s historical striving for racial amity?

I was first introduced to the concept of “covering” (as opposed to “passing”) by NYU Law School professor Kenji Yoshino in his book of the same name. Covering, essentially, is actively playing down one’s difference, whether racial, ethnic, sexual, or physical.

FDR covered his physical disability when he presented himself to the public behind his desk, chest-high, his wheelchair absent from view. Vanessa Hudgens and Nicole Sherzinger cover when they play ethnically ambiguous roles and decline to discuss their Filipino heritage. Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster cover when they purposefully avoid disclosing their sexuality to advance career and avoid controversy. As Yoshino writes:

Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our increasingly diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way.

Haley and Jindal are only the latest in the long history of American covering. What’s frustrating, for me, is not the theory of covering but the actuality of it: that public figures must conform to whitestream notions of normalcy to achieve success. What if Haley or Jindal expressed outrage over racial profiling in Arizona? Would it jeopardize their conservative political careers?

And by covering the essential, indivisible part of their ethnic identity, what kind of message are these very public figures sending to Indian American children? That to take pride in one’s heritage–or to speak against discriminatory policies rooted in xenophobia–creates unnecessary dissent?

For M. Night Shymalan, who whitewashed the summer blockbuster The Last Airbender, issues of covering are irrelevant because people of color are literally represented in his film. That all of the heroes were cast as white actors and the villains played by people of color does not trouble him:

Maybe they didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there.

What’s the use of a place at the table if we have to cover our identity to get there?

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Filed under: asian america, government, india, media, politics, race, racism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where the Filipinos Gather

Benito Vergara, an academic and web editor, gives an insider’s look at Daly City, California, the unofficial capitol of Filipino America, in today’s NYT. When I’m out on the West Coast, I try to always find time to visit Daly City with its amalgam of Filipino turo-turo restaurants, shopping malls crowded with Fil-Am teenagers, and its hybrid vibe of Philippine and American cultural values. It’s one of the few places in the U.S. where I don’t feel self-conscious or marginalized, where eating with a spoon and fork is the norm rather than the exception.

Among other concepts like “crab mentality” of Filipinos, Vergara discusses the beauty of the predominantly Filipino community:

There’s this joke that Filipinos like telling: “You know why it’s always foggy in Daly City? Because all the Filipinos turn on their rice cookers at the same time.”

It’s another indelible quality of being Filipino: the ability to laugh at oneself and her circumstances. In a more religious sense, it’s also the concept of “bahala na,” or, roughly translated, “come what may.”

Filed under: asian america, culture, filipino, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Whitewashing a Summer Blockbuster

The phenomenon of whitewashing is a little like racism’s polite younger brother. He takes his place at the table, mostly silent except for a “yes, please” or “no, thank you” when addressed, and hopes that no one will notice his presence. The Last Airbender is the latest film to receive Hollywood’s whitewashing.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, the source material for the film, was a children’s television show rooted in Asian culture, including Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, Chinese calligraphy, characters that were clearly Asian (with names such as Aang, Katara and Sokka), and, perhaps most promisingly, Asian actors cast in the lead roles.

This pride in the show’s Asian heritage changed in the last two years as the series made a transition to film. Out of the four lead Asian characters, four White actors were cast. Audition flyers explicitly solicited for actors in this way: “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”

Later, when one of the four actors dropped out, Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire was cast. Good for the diversity of the cast; bad for the representation of Asians, since Patel was cast as the villain.

Though a single incident of institutionalized racism (and one understandable from a purely business point-of-view–after all, if the point is to sell tickets, you market to the largest audience, in this case, White moviegoers), the whitewashing of The Last Airbender reflects a larger, persistent history of whitewashing in the U.S. From the racist caricatures of Charlie Chan in the 1920’s to the casting of a White woman to play the Asian female lead in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth as early as 1937, Hollywood has consistently reduced Asians to villains and minor characters.

Recent films such as 21, about a group of Asian students from MIT who created a plan to steal millions from Las Vegas casinos, was cast with Caucausian actors Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth in the lead.

The sad thing about The Last Airbender is the missed opportunity for Asian Americans–whether actors, moviegoers, or, most importantly, Asian American children–to see representations of themselves on the big screen.

How can you engage in a discussion of the problem? Racebending offers a video with some helpful tips below.

Filed under: asian america, business, film, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Great American Graphic Novels

Oh, how far the graphic novel has come.

Long gone are the days of comic books and limitations of superheroes or cartoon characters. Maus offered the graphic novel gravitas with its Pulitzer pedigree; more recently, Chris Ware and R. Crumb sustained the innovation–Ware in his dazzling, intricate storylines and Crumb in his artful, subversive content.

Writer and painter Belle Yang tells a fascinating story of recovering her Chinese heritage in Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale. Though the title evokes the hokiness of a Hallmark card, the graphic novel itself is an honest tale of an Americanized child in the 60’s, a horrendous ex-boyfriend/stalker, and Yang’s gradual embrace of her Chinese culture. More than a dozen years in the making, Forget Sorrow is reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis for its exquisite memoir in text and images.

Yang’s new graphic novel reminds me of the rich storytelling in Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine. Both works tackle the invisibility of Asian Americans. And both artists offer an unflinching look at what it means to transcend seemingly opposite identities in favor of the embrace–and empowerment–of multiculturalism.

Filed under: art, asian america, writing, , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Routine: Councilwoman Margaret Chin

I grudgingly like this breezy series in the New York Times called “Sunday Routine,” despite the fact that it’s fairly bourgeois and appeals to a readership that can actually luxuriate in a brunch-filled, sleep-late Sunday morning routine.

This week, the series tracks the Sunday routine of Councilwoman Margaret Chin. She is the first Asian American in the New York City Council, and the founder of Asian Americans for Equality. A busy woman, indeed.

In particular, I was drawn to her commitment to getting to know her constituents by attending different churches in her district: a Latino church on East Broadway, for example, or a service at the Salvation Army. Seems to show her commitment to representing all of her constituents, not only her fellow Chinese Americans. Perhaps the next Patsy Mink?

Filed under: asian america, government, , , , , , ,

Publications

BIOGRAPHY

RECENT PUBLICATIONS
» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
September 2017
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About Me

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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