Do I resemble that ‘yellow girl’?

I feel weird straight-up scanning my birth certificate, so you get the relevant snippet.

People tend to not believe me — understandably — when I explain that my birth certificate lists the color of my father’s race as “yellow” and the color of my mother’s race as “yellow.” The above scan shows you the relevant section. It’s only been three and a half decades or so — hard to believe, on some levels. We’ve come a long way . . .

. . . but then again, states’ anti-miscegenation laws weren’t declared unconstitutional in this country until 1967. I’m getting married this year to a white American. There would have been a time in certain states — as late as the 1960s — when this would not have been legal.

And how far have we come, really, when, as I discussed in my last blog post, someone running for the U.S. Senate can release a completely racist ad in targeted Michigan markets on Super Bowl Sunday.

When I first moved to East Lansing, Michigan from New England — after growing up in California — I was stunned when one of my first drives around town took me past a grocery store called Oriental Market. Was this really 2005, I wondered. (Turns out, the store was  owned, as far as I could tell, by people of Asian descent. Sigh. I chalked it up to the Midwest moving far, far slower than some parts of the country when it comes to such issues.) And then I drove past a Beaner’s coffee shop (remember, I’m from California) and thought, “What have I done? Where have I moved to?” (Happily, Beaner’s later changed its name to Biggby.)

I’ve felt much better in recent years in this state. There’s a lot to love. But then comes this ridiculous Hoekstra ad and I am wondering whether Fred Davis, the California-based strategist who executed the 30-second commercial for him, banked on Michigan’s small Asian-American population and maybe even banked on the state as a whole not caring enough to protest.

If so, they miscalculated. Sure, the reaction is nothing like what it would have been in California had this same ad run (though I doubt any serious politician in California would be so foolish to do so). Yet while Hoekstra and his supporters predictably defended his ad, criticism came from others within the Republican party. And criticism came not just from Asian-Americans, but from others as well. Here’s a large chunk of yesterday’s AP story by Kathy Barks Hoffman, who has been doing a great job of covering this story:

LANSING, Mich. — Criticism of a Senate campaign ad featuring a young Asian woman talking in broken English about China taking away American jobs grew Monday as some warned it could revive discrimination against Asian-Americans.

Michigan has seen its share of Asia bashing, especially in the 1980s, when images of sledgehammers smashing imported cars were common. Chinese-American Vincent Chin died after being beaten to death in 1982 by two unemployed autoworkers angry about competition from Japan.

Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra began taking heat after his ad targeting Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow ran statewide Sunday before the Super Bowl.

“Mr. Hoekstra may believe that his ad is just a way to express his political goals. But it does so in a manner that points the finger at Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for our nation’s problems,” said Thomas Costello, president and CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, a 70-year-old civil rights organization in Detroit. “All of us need to be vigilant in the words we use and images we portray to avoid giving tacit permission for racist behavior.”

The ad was created by media strategist Fred Davis of California-based Strategic Perception Inc., known for both Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s successful “one tough nerd” ads and for the 2010 “demon sheep” web ad attacking Tom Campbell in California’s Republican Senate primary.

Hoekstra told reporters Monday that his ad’s “insensitive” only to the spending philosophy of Stabenow and Democratic President Barack Obama.

“We knew we were taking an aggressive approach on this. But this is a time where the people in Michigan and across the country are fed up with the spending, and we wanted to capture that frustration that they had with Washington, D.C.,” he said. “This ad … hits Debbie smack dab between the eyes on the issue where she is vulnerable with the voters of Michigan, and that is spending.”

Glenn Clark, the former Republican chairman in Michigan’s 9th District and a Hoekstra supporter, called it a “great ad.” But most comments weren’t so positive.

National GOP consultant Mike Murphy tweeted that it was “really, really dumb,” and Foreign Policy magazine managing editor Blake Hounshell called it “despicable.”

Stabenow criticized the ad’s “divisiveness” and said Hoekstra should be “embarrassed.”

Two of Hoekstra’s rivals in the Republican primary, Clark Durant and Gary Glenn, issued statements questioning whether the current front-runner is the candidate their party should support.

California Sen. Leland Yee, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs, said Hoekstra should apologize.

“I would hope that in this day in age, especially from a California company, we were beyond the use of caricatures in political advertisements,” Yee said in a statement. “Regardless of the role of China in our economic situation, making fun of one’s language and culture is completely baseless and unnecessary.”

Several Detroit pastors called for Hoekstra to pull the ad, as did the Michigan Roundtable and the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission.

“The Asian woman speaking in this video would be no different than him having a black person speaking in slave dialect,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II of Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist Church, where civil rights leader Malcolm X spoke in the 1960s. He added that Hoekstra’s “using the whole politics of fear, and the whole politics of division, and he knows it.”

. . .

Hoekstra told reporters in a conference call that the ad has “jumpstarted the debate” over deficit spending in Washington and a federal debt of more than $1 trillion. Asked about the woman in the ad, Hoekstra said that “her parents are 100 percent Chinese.”

The kicker for me, though, came last night when I saw this tweet from @derekdevries:

The HTML code on @petehoekstra‘s anti-Stabenow site captions the Asian actress as “yellowgirl”

I checked the source code and that’s exactly what it was. Supporters argue it’s referring to the actress’s yellow shirt. But if you look at the code, all the <img class> tags are reflected in the png file names. For instance, <img class=”spenditnow”> with the png file “spend-it-now.” Except this one. The <img class=”yellowgirl”> and the png file name is “yellow-shirt.” Intentional? Not intentional? It says something either way, even for the conversation it started. The Atlantic’s James Fellow had this to say last night:

The image of the “Chinese” girl in the video, who speaks American-accented English, is labelled as … well, see for yourself:

Now, in context, they could have been referring to the color of her shirt, as seen in the picture below. Perhaps. Although in that case “orange girl” is the term that might occur to most people.I suppose it’s as if you were using a picture of Colin Powell or President Obama wearing a black shirt. If you were producing one of these ads, by the same logic you could just label it “black boy,” right? I mean, why not?

I have labels for myself — ashtangi and yoga teacher being two of them — but “yellow girl” sure as hell isn’t one, despite what my birth certificate says.

An ad like this makes you wonder, though, doesn’t it? My father is Chinese and my mother is Thai. I wonder if anyone looks and me and sees “yellow girl.”


By the way, to see another Louisiana birth certificate from a few years before mine, see the one released by Bobby Jindal. Why did he release this? “Hoping to avoid a struggle similar to that between President Obama and the so-called “birther movement,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal released his own birth certificate on Friday,” according to the May 7, 2011 Huffington Post story.

Skin color still matters. We’re nowhere near being “beyond race.” Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.

© and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl ad sucks. And oh yeah, why it’s racist.

At the end of each Ashtanga yoga practice, we recite the closing prayer, also called the mangala mantra.

The line I’m thinking about right now is the second English line: “May the leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path.”

Screenshot of Politico story

Here in Michigan, it’s been a news story over the past week that Pete Hoekstra, who is running for the U.S. Senate — a pretty powerful position as far as political seats go — would premiere a campaign ad during the Super Bowl. I just saw it in the pre-Super Bowl run-up, and was stunned. I don’t normally talk politics on this blog, it’s hard to not say something about this one. Politico offers a good summary, in saying that the ad:

features an Asian female with a conical straw hat riding a bike through a rice paddy field.

“Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good [sic],” the actress says, in broken English.

“Thank you Michigan Senator Debbie ‘Spend-it-now’. Debbie spend so much American money [sic],” the actress says, without a Chinese accent. “You borrow more and more, from us… we take your jobs. Thank you Debbie ‘Spend-it-now.’”

It gets better. Check out the tortured attempt at an explanation from the Hoekstra camp:

“You have a Chinese girl speaking English – I want to hit on the education system, essentially. The fact that a Chinese girl is speaking English is a testament to how they can compete with us, when an American boy of the same age speaking Mandarin is absolutely insane, or unthinkable right now,” Hoekstra spokesperson Paul Ciaramitaro told POLITICO. “It exhibits another way in which China is competing with us globally.”

“I think that China is our global competitor and the facts are what they are. They hold $1.1 trillion of our debt, their economy is booming, ours is not. It’s not a racial overtone to compare yourself to competitors on the global stage,” added Ciaramitaro. “I think the viewer of an ad is going to recognize satire. … I wouldn’t agree of the characterization [of the ad] as racial.”

My father is Chinese and my mother is Thai, and they came to American in the 1970s to attend graduate school. As a second-generation Asian-American, I try to not be knee-jerky reactive when it comes to labeling something racist. I realize part of it is education. I try to take a measured approach and discern whether I am overly sensitive, someone else is overly sensitive, etc. I know this country has come a long way, but I know there’s a long way to. And this ad proves that latter point.

The ad is racist.

For one thing, the Hoesktra camp talks about education system, but the ad doesn’t take place in a classroom. It relies on all the stereotypes — the straw hat, the rice fields, the broken English, the idea that we (viewers in Michigan and, by extension, America) are threatened by this girl, who stands for her entire society (read: race). The accompanying website is no better — and arguably, it’s worse, with its dragons, fans, red doors and all the rest. (Yep, still not a classroom in sight on the website.)

I’m not going to get into the politics of the claims. I will say that fear-mongering and protectionism do not constitute the right path, and the more our leaders go down that path, the more it gives way to citizens who see the enemy everywhere they turn. I’m not saying we should pretend everyone gets along in a kumbaya kind of way. I am saying that if candidates can’t stay on the right path in a commercial, how can I expect them to stay on the right path about anything else — like foreign policy, immigration law, and yes, economic spending. Because if you thought those were well-spent dollars, then I hate to see what you would want to buy if you were elected.

I won’t embed the video of the ad or do screenshots of the accompanying website, but you have to see it so you can decide for yourself. Here you go.

(Graphic credit: Screenshot from the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute website.) 

© and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.