Part I: Background
“Too soon” does not begin to describe the following video that was posted shortly after the tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011, which was posted by UCLA undergraduate student Alexandra Wallace on Youtube, shortly before being pulled on Sunday night, but not before mirrors of the video were posted and numerous reactions erupted.
The video in question:
Some of the negative reactions, though expected, included threats against her and her personal information being posted on the Internet, including her phone number, home address, exam schedule, and dorm room. When I ran into her in Westwood after the video went viral, she had the look of a trauma survivor in her eyes, while being escorted by a male companion for safety. According to some friends in the dorms, her parents came to stay with her to protect her while she stayed there, and she had to take her exams alone and privately, before she eventually withdrew in shame from UCLA.
Other responses included this creative song:
Part II: Panel Discussion
The following here is a summary of the panel discussion hosted by UCLA Law on 20 April 2011. The first speaker, Layhannara Tep, a fifth year undergraduate student and a member of the Asian Pacific Coalition, recounted her experience of studying for finals and hearing about how the video went viral. Due to the stress of finals, the suddenness of the issue at hand, and the lack of time, her response with APC was admittedly rushed as they sought to address why the video in question was offensive. It attacked the Asian Pacific Islander community as a whole without regard to the fact that there is diversity within, “Asian” is a blanket term to bring together people that include Chinese, Filipinos, Cambodians, Hmong, Indians, and more.
At the very least, they attempted to respond and resolve the situation civilly, because by responding with hate, the problem only perpetuates the ignorance and discrimination that is easy to see in many of the video reactions and forum posts revealing Wallace’s personal information. It also called upon the question of how UCLA does not have a diversity requirement in its general education, which they found odd considering that all the other campuses in the University of California systen have it.
The viral nature of the issue spread rapidly, and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block quickly responded, appalled at the video and apologizing, stating that it does not reflect the diversity and openness of the campus, viewing it as an anomaly. The problem here is that it is definitely not an anomaly; as she is one of many individuals who has this racist perspective, though usually not out of hostility, but rather out of ignorance. They had hoped for disciplinary measures to be taken, not in the form of calling for her dismissal from school, but for the education to raise her awareness to the sensitivity to the issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, and religion that UCLA strives to create an environment for. Unfortunately, she withdrew, and in doing so, the problem doesn’t go away; she brings her ignorance with her, now followed by outright fear of Asians, still lacking the sensitivity, education, and awareness that would remedy the issue, as well as not being given a chance to connect to the community she had already distanced herself from.
The next speaker, UCLA Professor Cindy Fan, brought up the psychological concept of the schema: it is a cognitive framework for helping us organize and perceive, notice and not notice the world around us. The problem with this is that it creates bias when processing information. Alexandra Wallace is indeed an example of using schema, and typically, schema frameworks are visual, categorizing and oversimplifying by race, appearance, and gender for example.
Schema are self-sustaining, as they ignore evidence against their judgments and conclusions. Some are more inclined to being schema than others, as well as more open to changing their schema. The question is, do we want to change our own schema? How about others? The answer is yes (she hopes), and because it is in our interest to do so.
Fan concludes with a couple of interesting points: firstly, attitude: we must be comfortable with differences, not constantly separating ourselves and creating the allegorical “other” in individuals that we project this idea onto. Secondly, these stereotypes must be updated, because these ideas of what is Asian are quite archaic and harken back to the 19th century, as well as reinforced every day–Rush Limbaugh in January of 2011 mocked the Chinese language and had no remorse.
The next speaker, Professor Stuart Biegel, discussed the issue of discipline and accountability. One question he raised asked “can a public institution of higher education craft a policy that would hold a student accountable for actions such as what Wallace did?” The answer according to one case, Doninger v. Niehoff (2008) in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court, is yes, if it has a direct impact on what happens in the school in question. Another case, Nuxoll v. Indian Prairies School District (2008) in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court, sought to improve the school climate by prohibiting derogatory counts on race, gender, religion, and ethnicity.
Biegel then called for the possible expansion of the legal definition of obscenity beyond the Miller test, derived from Miller v. California (1973), which led to a three-part process to determine if something is obscene: 1) Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards“, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, 2) Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law, 3) Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. If we included the synonyms and adjectives for the word obscene as found in dictionaries and thesauruses, then Alexandra Wallace’s video certainly fit the description for all of them.
Lastly, Professor Devon Carbado concluded that the video implies that Asians are not Americans, they do not assimilate, they are an undifferentiated mass that contributes to the detriment of “Americans” like Wallace, and their actions of talking on their cell phones in the library is stifled as a racial crime that she as a “well-mannered American girl” and truth-teller takes as a duty to bring to light for others to see. As a consequence, it assigns a social meaning to what being “Asian” is, and does not advance our understanding, but in fact, limits it to a very degrading perspective.
During the open forum, one thing that came out was that Wallace was not involved in any student groups at all. One of their findings is that those who are more active in one or more groups on campus (otherwise known as community involvement) is what facilitates the sensitivity to diversity, allowing students to look beyond their own web of belief and expand it when they see the world is more than just what they imagine it to be.
The question I raised later on was on the duality of worlds on the Internet: the first world, which is summarized by the pompous attitude of assumed impunity through anonymous online avatars that relies on ignorance, bigotry, and calling it “humor”, is reflected in this common statement: “It’s just the Internet; nobody cares, it’s not serious!” Whereas the other world that exists based off of Orwellian predictions, paranoia, and fear of being monitored by Big Brother governments and stalked by individuals who can obtain their personal information and pictures (which are already on Facebook), is summarized by the statement” Oh god; it’s on the Internet.” The new phenomena is these Youtube celebrities who want to be recognized by many out of this struggle for approval. Thus, it is baffling because they open themselves up to ostracism by putting their real faces and names on the Internet, and when they receive negative responses instead of positive approval, they act surprised, which is the case with Alexandra Wallace.
Part III: Third Culture Kid perspectives
As I write this and reflect both as an Asian-American and a Third Culture Kid, the more I realize that this is not just a wake-up call for everyone to realize that we cannot go on dismissing these people as ignorant. It is also our duty to be both informed and proactive in educating others. I’ve said before that we cannot expect others to be as open or receptive to us Third Culture Kids who have lived in other cultures and moved between them, since many people who are stuck in a very parochial mindset include many Americans (even those who have diverse ethnic heritage).
It is with our background as global nomads that we recognize the difficulty of seeing beyond their limited experiences, much like we did before we became Third Culture Kids for the first time. Whether it was when we experienced another culture besides the first one we associated ourselves with (like my times in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and America), or when we first learned about the Third Culture Kid term to describe our strange experiences that shaped our identities (or lack thereof), that moment of revelation hit hard and sometimes, still is being processed. In knowing this, we are better prepared (and hopefully more patient) to understand that this education does not happen overnight, but after a set of experiences and processes that help us reach the point of maturity and wisdom that allows us to be sensitive to diversity in any and all contexts.
Now I’m not saying that we should go out and act like fundamentalist missionaries out to save people from themselves. As stated earlier, it’s not an overnight process, and people have to want to change–you can have all the evidence for changing normative behavior, but when many take the schema perspective to seeing and interpreting life, they are not likely to accept challenges to their views, even if those said challenges are neither hostile nor imposing. How we go about this is our own decision, but at the very least, we must do it with the patience and breadth of experiences we have to impart to everyone else. We don’t even need to be Third Culture Kids, we just need to be individuals with open minds and open hearts.