Friday, February 04, 2005

White masters of the film showing

Last night (Thursday), Siskel Film Center showed a screening of “Masters of the Pillow” and “Yellowcaust”. The former, directed by James Hou is a documentary about the making of the first Asian American porn movie. The second is an edit of that porn, directed by Darren Hamamoto, which has been cut from the original 50 minutes to 10 minutes with cries of anguish and subtitles detailing the United States’ genocidal practices towards people of Asian descent.

Both films attempted to address the extreme imbalance between images of Asian American females as exotified, objects of fetish with racist overrepresentation in porn and the utter lack of Asian American males in porn, with the exception of being “bottoms” in gay porn.

What was particularly unusual about last night’s showing was that due to the setting and Chicago’s racial demographics, the audience was comparatively white. To be honest, it made me a little uncomfortable especially when many of the white patrons laughed at the clips from racist media comments on the project (Jay Leno had a short mocking Hamamoto’s work). Plus, the projection work was uncharacteristically shoddy. They started the film with Spanish subtitles, accidentally shut it off when trying to turn them off, and we were left in the dark for five minutes wondering whether forces really were conspiring against the showing of Asian American porn.

To complicate matters, the work is a little hard to follow for those not empathetically familiar with the complexities of Asian American sexuality and stereotyped gender roles. I seriously believe that a number of the folks were there because they saw, “Asian Porn” and hoped to catch a glimpse of Asia Carrera’s ass.

Others seemed to be there as the typical emissaries for white guilt. “It’s downtown Chicago, we’re cosmopolitan as shit, we be real cool checking out the colored people’s porn documentary!” The problem with “diversity posers” is that some folks can handle the brutal realities of diversity. It’s like those white kids who joined your Afro American studies class—there to pose on how much they love black folks, but the message is lost when they drop the class after the third meeting because “black folks are so mean to me!” (Translation: they don’t agree with my point-of-view.) These are generalizations and I’m quite sure there were some empathetic folks there as well. I also felt a little bad for one of my best friends who brought her new white boyfriend to the show. They hadn’t seen each other all week and the poor dude was exhausted and here they were trying to sit through this heavy-duty social commentary on race and sexuality. He seems like a wonderful person, but sometimes, mixed couples would just rather be getting their rainbow grooves on rather than dissecting the social indoctrinations that affect their relationships.

I was deeply disgusted by one particular experience following the showing. As we left the theater, there were pockets of white folks outside discussing the film. Interested as headed out, I eavesdropped on the conversations. They were attacking the filmmaker for “misleading the cast”. “They thought they were making a regular porn, and he used them. He used them for his political bullshit!”

This is something I’ve noticed frequently. Often white folks will used mock outrage on behalf of one person of color to attack another person of color. On the one hand, I think it’s great when people empathetically advocate on behalf of others. It’s better than great, it’s the cornerstone of a equitable, free society. Unfortunately, in most cases, white folks don’t take the time or effort to be empathetic. Instead, they take their shallow, poorly-thought out understanding of the issues involved and lack of knowledge of the context and impose it on the performers and attempt to speak on their behalf. They try to use their “colored friends” as mouthpieces for their idiotic viewpoints and assumptions.

Getting home, I hopped on the computer and looked up Hamamoto’s work. It took me two minutes to find James Hou’s explanation:

Dr. Hamamoto has produced two versions. One is a straightforward adult film called Skin on Skin. This was produced for the mainstream market. The other is called Yellocaust: A Patriot Act. This is a politically charged version of Skin on Skin that usually screens with my documentary at film festivals. I guess you could call it “political porn”. This film is intended to provoke reactions rather than titillate. It's quite an experience to watch it with an audience.

It reminded me of an experience a friend of mine who is an amazing performance artist had written about:

I think these folks consciously mean well, but that it is the pathological nature of white privilege that is shining through. They accuse us of being paranoid, yet the illusionary set of perceptions that they use to keep their self-image afloat is far more extensive than any minor edits we might do.

Sometimes, I think we all need to come back to the most important question in the world: Why? Why did you come to this performance? Why do you consider these people your friends or allies? If they are your friends and allies, why don’t you learn more about their positions and magnify their voices instead of just spewing ignorance by claiming to speak on their behalf?

How can we fight racism and other bigotry when we aren’t even willing to give people the same respect that we expect on a daily basis? Let’s stop being critics and get constructive. I don’t agree with everything that Darren Hamamoto has done, but if you read his research, there can be little doubt—he is working his ass off to counteract the vicious, racist stereotypes leveled at Asian American men and women. What are we doing besides going to trendy film showings and nitpicking his execution through flawed assumptions about his work?

Go ahead, spin the question on me, but be prepared to answer it yourself because I have my answer ready.

The Gaijin Zoo!

When I was in Japan, my friends and I spent a great deal of time rolling our eyes at the foreigners who treasured their artificial celebrity based on their foreigness. I found that white males tended to be afflicted with this far worse than any other groups. (That's a generalization--of course individuals were diverse.) One of my friends, who is half-Japanese/half-African descent from Texas commented on the lack of game that these ex-pats had, "I don't mind guys hitting on me at a bar, but 'I'm a foreigner!' what the fuck kind of pick-up line is that?"

Don't get me wrong; there are great opportunities based on this artificial celebrity. In being a foreign "teacher", you are suddenly the know-all, end-all expert on your native country. People will ask you questions like, "What do people in America eat on Christmas!" "Why did YOU bomb Hiroshima?" and "What are important holidays in America?" Here let's roleplay for a minute--compose your answers in your head to see if you are ready for this kind of responsibility:

If you answered concretely, like "Turkey" or "Because we had to" or "Christmas and July 4th", give yourself a zero. You are drunk on power. If you gave an evasive answer like, "It varies from family to family" or a personal answer, "In my family we celebrate X,Y and Z, but that's just my family", give yourself a pat on the back. If you gave a ten-minute lecture on the how families of different cultures would respond differently and that they are all equally American and offered to answer further questions, send in your application to teach in Japan today--you are sorely needed, and try not to use the pick-up line, "I'm a foreigner" while you are there.

Anyway, the big mistake that these people made was to confuse "curious interest" with "respect and admiration". I'm curiously interested and bewildered in what upper-class white people do in their homes for such long periods of time. That interest does not indicate a deep respect and admiration. I've been told "Scrapbooking", but I find that hard to believe.

This comes out often in the New York Times or other major American publications and general conversations' constant references to idolization of the West in Japan. Like many things in the New York Times, it's bullshit. I've actually been in long-term arguments with other ex-pats in Japan about this and watched them get in a conversation with Japanese people about American superiority in English to prove me wrong, only to hear their conversation partners mutter racist remarks in Japanese.

As I said before, interest and respect as not the same thing. Many men in our society are "interested" in women, but do they respect them? Much of Japan recognizes white foreigners as a precious natural resource--"exotic animals that speak English" and treat them accordingly.

I came up with a sarcastic solution to meet this demand, but also to frame it in a way that attention drunk foreigners could understand: "The Gaijin Zoo". (Gaijin is a semi-derogatory term for foreingers in Japan.) The Gaijin Zoo would be similar to most zoos in Japan--drive through with the subjects at a safe distance from the customers. The gaijin would be in glass cases in their native habitat--Beatles and Carpenters posters on the wall, Beverly Hills 90210 decorations, etc.--everything that would fit the paying customers stereotypes of what these exotic animals should enjoy.

Tongue-in-cheek, I argued this business venture to my friends. I tried to get them to fund me, "People pay by the car load to see some over drugged dying polar bear, I'm absolutely sure they'd pay to see real life gaijin in their native habitat!"

Well, sarcasm is lost on some; here is the idea in fruitition complete with totally unforseen objectification of women:

Monday, January 31, 2005

For Central IL kids:

For many of us, IL looks like this in our minds:

some other stuff

But if you do happen to reside within range, you should listen to 90.1 WEFT Champaign. I used to share a show with my friend Dirt and a bunch of other kids. Dirt's current show is Thursday mornings from 6-9am. Even if you aren't in range, do check out the show's webpage so you can feel bad that you can't hear such great music.

Our old show, the Illustrious Eight Show is still on Friday Nights from 10pm-12am. The quirky cool Steph is now hosting it. I think it's still found here.

You can catch DJ Geist on "Sublimation" Tuesday nights/Wednesday mornings from 2-5am on WEFT.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Rings, skin and assumptions

My deep thinking friend Matt (who needs to get his punk-ass up to Chi to visit soon!) posted an interesting series of anecdotes on the intrusive questioning his wedding ring sometimes evokes in public that spawned an even more interesting discussion.

I actually had similar experiences when I ended my first serious long-term relationship and continued to wear our promise ring (we had a pair of interlocking matching doves that we each wore) on my right ring finger.

Sometimes it hurt when I was forced to recount in gory detail the history of the wonderful, but now defunct relationship, the non-explosive, but gruesomely long decline and my current aloneness. When I mentioned this to anything but my closest friends, my acquaintances would say, "Well, you shouldn't be wearing that stupid thing anymore, anyway!" Which of course, made me feel so very much better.

I think that sometimes we act in visible ways for ourselves, not for the benefit of others. The assumption that our fashion, public behavior and public manner are solely to solicit the response of others is a comment on the shallow society that we live in. I needed to wear that ring to grieve, but that did make it hurt any less when forced to relive the pain I was passing through. I didn't resent others for it, but I sure did resent people who were assumed to be friends who couldn't understand that.

Some of the responses to Matt remind me that it's not fair to respond to someone's pain, bewilderment or discontent with a simple, "Well, if you didn't do XXX, then it wouldn't be an issue." Those type of responses support widespread bigotry in society.

What I mean by this is that as human beings, we all are weak occasionally, we need to act illogically occassionally and we need understanding and empathy perpetually. Sadly, the inequities rampant in our society dictate that not all people receive understanding of this equally. As a person of color, a poorer person, a non-heterosexual person, a female, or a person who is different or quirky in any number of other ways, we are expected to defend ourselves and whatever identity we hold constantly in ways that others are not.

There are certainly times that anyone in society doesn't want to openly answer 20 questions about their person life, and certainly everyone has been in a situation that they've been forced to otherwise.

But privileged people act like this all evens out in the end because they want to believe that. It doesn't. It never does. This week, I'll have to answer more and put up with more and the next week and the week after that. And plenty of others will have to do so more still than me. Everyone gets weird questions everyday, but not everyone gets told three times a week, "Your English is SOOOO good!" or "Where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from?" or just a tight squint and "What are you?" The question itself is not the issue, but the assumptions and possible unintentional bigotry behind the questions.

Equity doesn't mean that the society is forced to justify the crappy ways it treats minorities, it means that people are not discriminated against on the basis of the groups that they are identified as belonging to.

There's one weird twist in this social dynamic, however. I do want people to ask me questions. I do want them to push to fill in their areas of ignorance, even by asking uncomfortable questions. If the whole society moves toward more open discussion on these topics, it will benefit all of us, persectured groups most of all.

The litmus test is whether the questioner would put up with being made to feel the same way. This is tricky--a lot of white folks try to similate this by saying, "I don't mind people asking me where I come from!" or "I would love to be complimented on my Chinese!", etc. This fails because the statements are not reflexive. It's not the same thing to just "flip it around" and often, the attempts to flip the statement replicate the original prejudice.

Think about the assumptions behind the statements or action--"Colored people can't speak English!"; "Colored people are always foreigners, not Americans"; "You are an unknown and that's a problem!", "You are a man, so you should have a woman attached to you somehow!" These are the key points of contention--not the speech or action itself. Understanding the assumptions behind the speech we can see why these intrusions make people uncomfortable or upset--they are, intentional or unintentional, mechanisms for establishing what is normal or good in the society. Whites are normal. Whites speak English. Straights are normal. Married people should not hang out with people other than who they are married to.

To really flip the situation would be to find a way to make the questioner feel uncomfortable in their own skin, sexuality or own hometown and country. I don't know too many people who would welcome that, but if they do, by all means, they are entitled to their sensibilities and values.

So I challenge people coming from all perspectives to challenge this dynamic in the society. Engage strangers and teach and learn from them. But do it in ways that destroy the social assumptions instead of supporting them. When confronted with nosy questioning, attack the root prejudice, not the questions themselves and craft strategic responses to force them to think about those prejudices.

If someone asks you questions that delve into your sexual preferences, answer as well as you can for you comfort level and then ask them personal questions about their sex life. If they compliment you on your native language, tell them that they suck at their native language. Challenge assumptions and create a better world. Make people see beyond the wedding band or whatever symbol and see the human being beyond it and slap them around a bit if they refuse to, and when you tire or its too much, come vent to your friends or your journal (online or otherwise).

Listed on