What Can Happen When The Majority Becomes The Minority

The not quite melting pot of America.

Posted Mar 18, 2011

Let me be clear.  I'm not defending Alexandra Wallace's actions or the content of her video post.  However, I think she was probably stressed with final exams, she's probably more ignorant rather than racist and intolerant, and I certainly don't think her comments warrant death threats.

With all our modern technology, it's a little too easy for anyone to vent and record their raw thoughts and emotions on a webcam. Unfortunately, Wallace probably ruined her chances of getting a decent job post-graduation (or maybe even ruined her chances of graduating) because she made the mistake of uploading her vent about Asians to YouTube for the world to watch and judge.

Fellow PT Blogger and evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has aptly pointed out that stereotypes are often true on average, just that they are not always true for all individual cases.  This is important to keep in mind when considering an evaluation of Wallace's remarks.  Is there any basis for the stereotypes Wallace makes about Asians?  Is Wallace racist or is she simply ignorant?  Here are a few of my thoughts.

Not all Asians are Japanese

Wallace said, "I swear they're going through their whole families just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing."

The context of this quote is in regards to Asians talking on their cell phones in the library - she implies that they are all Japanese (coincidentally, she posted her video the day the earthquake and tsunami devasted and killed thousands of people in Japan).  Granted, we were not in the library with her, so there is no way to know if her observations were correct. But her comment also suggests her own ignorance of other Asian ethnicities because not all Asians are Japanese.  She is more likely ignorant, rather than racist, about other cultures, particularly different Asian cultures.

Hordes of Asians, cell phones in the library, and "American manners"

Wallace said that there are "hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every year, which is fine, but if you're going to come to UCLA then use American manners," which was in reference to cell phone use in the library.

It is true that UCLA accepts a large number of Asians each year, and this is largely a function of the fact that a large number of Asian Americans live in California.  In Fall 2010, there were 39,593 students enrolled at UCLA.  Asians and Whites were the largest groups: 24.5% were Asian or Pacific Islander and 21.4% were White.  In addition, 3.8% were foreign students, probably a large number which were from Asian countries.  So UCLA admits hordes of both Asians as well as Whites.  What I think may have prompted Wallace's comment is that she is probably not used to being around so many Asians.  In the U.S., Asians make up about 4.5% of the population and in California, roughly 12.5%.  Assuming Wallace is from California, she's now seeing twice as many Asians since attending UCLA.  If she grew up outside of California, she's seeing five times that amount.  And if she's from Smallville, well, she might feel like she's on a different continent.  So comparatively, UCLA seems to have hordes of Asians because Asians are the majority racial group and Whites are a minority racial group.  This may have been one of the first times in her life when she was in a situation where the majority group was of another race/ethnicity and culture. 

What has sparked outrage among the Asian American community is that her statement to use polite "American manners," implies two things:  1. Cell phone usage in the library is primarily an inappropriate "Asian manner" and 2. American manners are synonymous with White American manners.

1.  I agree with Wallace that inappropriate cell phone use constitutes bad manners, whether it is in the library, a movie theater, or any quiet public place.  But this behavior is not limited to Asians, and certainly not characteristic of all Asians. I'd like to point out to Wallace that her mocking tone of Asian cell phone users is also considered bad manners, but I wouldn't generalize her behavior to all Americans and their manners.

2.  Maybe American manners are assumed to be White American manners because they are currently the majority racial group in the U.S. at 65%.  I grew up as an Asian kid in a White world and took it for granted that if I wanted to fit in I needed to learn the culture of my peers.  But what happens when White Americans are no longer the majority racial group, on a campus like UCLA?  Does that mean that they should follow the cultural norms of the majority racial group, which in this case are Asians?  I wonder how many people have grown up as White kids in an Asian world.  Probably not Alexandra Wallace.  But as America becomes more multi-ethnic, I think what people are struggling to define is the question what does it mean to be an American?

The not quite melting pot of America

Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom are scholars who have written extensively on the topic of racial/ethnic relations in America.  Their books America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible and Beyond the Color Line: New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America are essential reading for anyone who wants to get a well rounded perspective on the issues that we have faced as a country and continue to confront today.  As America becomes more proportionally multi-ethnic, Whites may no longer be the majority racial group.  These books raise important questions about this trend:  Will we continue to have a single American culture, or will we have a nation with many cultures?  Will the ethnic ingredients of this American pot ever truly melt?

In conclusion, I don't think all of Wallace's comments were entirely off the mark and it was primarily her tone that made many people upset.  Perhaps Wallace's words have stirred so much controversy simply because heated issues (like Amy Chua's Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior) captivate our attention because along with parts that are surely false, there are also parts that hold some truth.  Wallace is not alone in making generalizations and stereotyping racial/ethnic groups. But does this make her a racist?  We can only hope that she learns from this debacle and begins to educate herself about other cultures, particularly the Asian cultures she offended.  She has apologized for the video, but the response from the Asian American community has been equally inappropriate with retaliation YouTube videos and death threats.  Maybe it's not just Wallace, but all of us who can learn from this episode by educating ourselves about the many cultures that make up America and showing tolerance to one another.  I agree with Anna Lau that this is a teachable moment. Perhaps a more productive response to Wallace's video is educating the public about different Asian cultures with an Asian History Month, rather than responding with more hatred.  After all, how many more people are out there who might be like Wallace, but just didn't upload a YouTube video?

© 2011 by Jonathan and Maya Wai

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