By Professor Alex Kuo
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
For Asians, the word “Oriental” in the English vocabulary provided useful service to Western imperialism on every continent, until “yellow peril” upped the ante.
In his 1911 book “The Yellow Peril,” the Oklahoma preacher G.G. Rupert promised that Jesus Christ would stop the menacing yellow peril (the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indians) from attacking the United States. The use of the expression gained popularity in Hearst newspapers and magazines the next year. It was revived 55 years later in 1966 when Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and U.S. News & World Report twisted it to mean the overachieving “model minority,” which was quickly used against the Negroes of that politically active decade.
Ah, Asian Americans, earning success by the dint of hard work, pulling up miles of bootstrap.
According to U.S. News & World Report, we were a group who depended on our own efforts and not welfare checks.
In one bold stroke, Asian Americans became homogenous.
Wow. This overnight branding was more marketable than the inalienable right to gun ownership bundled to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Last week, I stumbled onto a 2005 opinion piece in Seattle’s respectable International Examiner. It was written by a former Washington State University student, an Asian American from Nampa, Idaho.
It was wild, a sweeping assertion that racism against Asians (what about Asian Americans?) does not exist on WSU’s campus, using me (native-born) and two other (one from Taiwan, the other from China) professors with tenure in an argument that if Washington State University (WSU) were racist, the three of us would not have been granted professorship and tenure.
Was this two-degreed alumnus now working for Boeing in Everett saying that just because a few of us have been successful, there is no racism?
I had been caught again pulling up my damn bootstraps. I was astonished and disgusted.
The recognition for my work has come at national and international levels, but never at WSU, not once. In an annual review a few years ago, I was informed that my Senior Fulbright and the National Endowment of the Arts awards that year “did not count” as accomplishments.
Friends encouraged a discrimination lawsuit a number of times, and that option is still on the table. In my 30-year tenure at WSU, I have had to do everything on my own, with no support or encouragement from any unit on campus — nada, nothing.
Preserve, reinvent, create, and carve out my own life after each assault in a large department with a hostile work environment in which all six of the administrative positions are currently held by white men, an unimaginable statistical probability in the profession, except here in Pullman, where the sun has yet to set. To complete the colonial metaphor, the new janitor in the department’s building is a Ghanaian from West Africa.
In 1978, five WSU students and the Japanese American Citizens League with Dale Minami as lead counsel filed a class-action discrimination suit against WSU for violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The settlement in U.S. District Court required the administration to jump-start and maintain an Asian American studies program and a counseling component. In February 2005, three Asian American female students working at this counseling/support center encountered repeated racial epithets, animal calls, and gestures simulating chinky eyes from two varsity basketball players passing by their workplace.
The in-house student conduct staff concluded that these accusations were not serious enough to warrant a full investigation, referring to the two athletes’ actions as adolescent behavior that was misconstrued as racially oriented. The head coach was cited in the media as proffering that because these players were strong Christians and “they had no desire or intent to say anything untoward racially.”
There are no Ku Klux Klan chapters on campus or in Pullman, although I’m not sure about Colfax, the county seat 20 miles to the west. The Rev. Richard Butler of the Aryan Nations at Hayden Lake, Idaho, 90 miles north of here, lost in court in 2000 and had to close down his summer camp for white supremacists. The lore of the 1905 poisoning of Chinese miners at Strychnine Creek 40 miles to the east has finally been included in the tour guides’ history of the region. And last year in Lewiston, 35 miles south, a mother and her daughter were punished for felonious charges of physically assaulting a young Nez Perce girl and yelling “white power” and “white pride” at her.
Hans Frank, Adolph Hitler’s legal counsel and handpicked governor-general of Poland during World War II, said that “not a thousand years will cleanse Germany of its guilt.”
Are we so different?
Are we so exceptional that we believe we can correct our sins overnight, as when President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 in 1965 with a single stroke of a pen?
In the past 30 years, the highest percentage increase in racial diversity in our nation’s public universities has surfaced in administrative appointments — most of them in newly funded, high-level supervisory positions overseeing equity, diversity, and multicultural affairs (the four-letter R word is no longer used) — and not students, staff, or faculty.
This veritable growth industry has been duplicating and mimicking itself, appointing people who have no clue what the issues are, but by gosh, they are professional team players and — by gum — their incompetence spawns committees, procedures, and manuals.
Meanwhile, they stymie any sincere effort to address individual and institutional acts of racism, thereby perpetuating them and creating a campus environment of distrust and skepticism at best and nothing untoward.
It is essential to follow how WSU deals with the issues of race, gender, and ethnicity as the institution goes through its current budget crisis. Will it squander the gains made by the educational programs associated with these issues in the last two decades? (end)
Editor’s note: The full version of this essay originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on March 1. This edited version is reprinted with permission from author Alex Kuo. Kuo is a writer-in-residence and professor of English at Washington State University.
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