This forum was organized by New America Media (where I work) and also with help from David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, who is one of the people who stood up for AsianWeek in this whole thing – he’s kind-of like a San Francisco Chinatown insider. Smart guy, but I’m not sure I trust him – he’s seems tied a little too closely to the Fangs.
Anyway, the idea was to bring together Asian American media and African American media and have them go beyond pointing fingers at Kenneth Eng’s ridiculous words and talk about responsibility and racism. It seemed like the impulse from David Lee’s side was to stop the crucifixion of AsianWeek, but after some development – the forum turned into a really powerful discussion.
Neither Samson Wong nor Kenneth Eng were there to talk about the editorial process that allowed the column(s) into the paper, but a robot-like Ted Fang told the crowd that AsianWeek “rejects the racist words that were published” and “recognizes the diversity of voices that are out there but thinks there is no room for hate.” Pretty much not saying anything at all.
Most of the African American media representatives that spoke on the panel refused to indict AsianWeek, instead pointing to the reality of racism that exists in our communities and how the words of one person don’t really mean that much.
“Kenneth Eng is the world’s leading authority on his own opinion,” Chauncey Bailey, a veteran black journalist who now works for Oakland-based Our-TV. Bailey went on to say that the real issue is the institutional racism that keeps people oppressed and that “people shouldn’t get sidetracked by individuals.”
Yet later Bailey was very adamant about the issues with Korean Americans taking over the black beauty business in Oakland. Interesting.
Willie Ratcliffe, of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, pointed out that much of what Eng said in his controversial article was wrong, especially when it came to Eng’s comments about blacks being enslaved for 300 years without fighting back. “What about Haiti?” Ratcliffe asked. “What about all the slave uprisings? The problem is that we are not educated about each other’s histories.”
Ratcliffe’s point was echoed throughout the rest of the forum. Raj Jayadev, the editor of Silicon Valley Debug – who we profiled in Issue 3, said that the ideas expressed by Eng were archaic, at least to the young people he works with.
“They thought it was garbage,” he said. “Race is still an issue, but not in the way it was written about in the article.” Jayadev said the diverse group of young people he works with in San Jose – who are Black, Latino, white and Asian – are afraid because their understanding of race is so different from the adult generation, who they will have to deal with in the education and employment system.
Jayadev also cautioned the ethnic media about printing columns like this because of the power that print gives to words. “This fiction can become history as soon as it is printed,” he said.
Various Asian American media representatives like Kai Ping Lui from the World Journal and Lito Gutiererez from the Philippine News, talked about how this was shocking because of AsianWeek’s long history in the community.
Kevin Weston, who also works with New America Media, talked about how Eng’s column is a sign of the media times. “What has the blogosphere done to our business?” he asked. “People can say anything and have no check put on them. Then maybe they’ll say something really controversial, make headlines and maybe get a book deal. Maybe Kenneth Eng will get one out of this.”
After the panelists spoke, the floor was opened up to panelists and for the next 40 minutes, there was a really interesting mix of black and Asians who got up and spoke. The most moving was an older black woman – a columnist for the BayView whose name I didn’t catch – who spoke about moving into the Chinatown projects back in the 1980s. She talked about the racism she and her family faced and how she overcame that to become an active part of the community.
“I ride para-transit and all the drivers are black,” she said. “Whenever they would come to Chinatown, they would see me and start bad-mouthing Chinese people. I wouldn’t let it slide. But it came from ignorance. They thought all Chinese people were rich. But I don’t blame them. We don’t learn about each other’s history. I didn’t learn about my own history until I was 30 years old and joined the Black Panther Party.”
Along with all the feel-good comments and coming together-ness of the event, there were also some loud calls for AsianWeek editor Samson Wong’s head on a platter and a general disregaurd and suspicion about the publication as a whole.
“It shows a lot about how that publication is thinking,” filmmaker Kevin Epps said. “There is more going on than just scapegoating this writer.”
Vincent Pan, president of Chinese for Affirmative Action, and one of the main leaders who started the petition against AsianWeek in the first place was pretty straightforward in what he thought should happen. “We stand on the precipice of setting a dangerous precedent,” he said. “That we hold our media at a lower standard than other media.” He went on to say that he felt like the apology wasn’t enough and that Samson Wong should be held accountable and fired.
Throughout the discussion, various black people acknowledged the racism they have felt -- especially from older generation Chinese people in this country. The Asian Americans there had a much harder time of admitting to both the reality of racism in the country and the idea of being discriminated against or having issues with people of other races.
Anyway, the whole event and this whole incident really makes me think about our work here at Hyphen and how important it is to continue to investigate Asian American issues and the complexity of our community. A lot of the recommendations made at the end of the event were about forging coalitions with other types of ethnic media, cross-promoting stories and looking at where the communities intersect. These are all things that Hyphen does and will continue to do as we grow. Part of me hopes that this will be a final death toll for AsianWeek -- which seemed to be slowly dying anyway -- and then Hyphen can really step up to the bat.