Tag Archives: Asian-American

quiet is ok

I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone can defend Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, a blog post that’s receiving a tremendous amount of attention in the blogosphere and on Twitter.

Basically, Shirky says he knows what success looks like among academics – and in our society generally – and he knows how it’s achieved. It’s a formula that women don’t currently have a handle on but better master otherwise they’ll be overlooked, passed by, doomed to obscurity. And what is that formula? According to Shirky:

… women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

I’m an Asian-American. And I’ve heard similar arguments made about Asians – that we are quiet, unassuming, unwilling to draw attention to ourselves. Though it’s impossible to generalize with any kind of accuracy about the various cultures that fall under the umbrella term “Asian,” it’s true that in some Asian societies self-aggrandizement is frowned upon. So, would Shirky have then felt comfortable writing a post titled “A Rant About Asians”? Would you have felt comfortable reading a post with that title? Would you have felt Shirky’s was a defensible position if you had read the exact same piece by him but everywhere you find “women” now you found instead the word “Asians”? If your response to any of these questions is “no,” then you can probably understand why I’m dumbfounded that anyone sees Shirky’s generalizations – and, understand, I have great respect for much of his work and in fact have held up his thoughts as dead-on elsewhere in this blog – as shedding light on the plight of women writ large.

So, in essence, Shirky believes that the solution to the problem of women not receiving their fair share is to have them take on the mannerisms of the dominant group. Shirky writes:

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what?

He goes on to explain that we as a society have essentially conditioned men to act more like women recently, so where’s the concern? But Shirky misses the point. We shouldn’t ask women to act like men in order to succeed. Just like we shouldn’t ask Asian-Americans to act like white male academics in order to succeed. Instead, we should ask ourselves: What is it about the landscape that unfairly dictates who will succeed and who won’t and what can we do to change that inequity?

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the americans

theamericansSF MOMA has a wonderful traveling exhibit of Robert Frank’s photographs from his seminal book The Americans. Frank shot these photos in the mid-50’s with a starkness that lays bare our culture. The exhibit is titled Looking In, so appropriate for a photographer who made visible underrepresented people and moments.

In a November, 1951, interview in LIFE magazine, Frank said, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” That’s in fact exactly how I felt as I stared at the African-American couple sitting so upright on their motorcycle, the parade watchers in Hoboken whose faces are obscured by a window shade and an American flag, the gas pumps in the middle of a desolate landscape, sitting under an incongruous SAVE sign.

I especially loved seeing the hand-written correspondence from Frank detailing his arrest as he traveled through Alabama shooting for the book and the discrimination he faced there as a Jew. There is also Kerouac’s typed introduction to the book, complete with misspellings.

I was enthralled by this exhibit, enthralled by the apparent connections between Frank’s work and that of the great early 20th century documentary photographers.

And yet …

In all the photos, not one was of an Asian-American. On one hand I have no problem with that. This was Frank’s vision of America, beautifully realized. He makes many points, and they are all indeed poetic.

On the other hand, on the other hand … I can’t help but feel like Asians are slighted once again. It’s irrational, I realize, because I know many, if not most, groups go unrepresented in Frank’s collection.

So I propose a new book be made, called The -Americans. It will be a homage to Frank, shot in the places where he shot across this country, but this time employing a more current sensiblity of invisible in America. What do you say, Guggenheim, will you fund me?

If you’re in the Bay Area, see Looking In. At SF MOMA until August 23.

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