On Tuesday, July 10, 2018, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater instructor, Matthew De Starkey, tweeted a photo of himself posing as a Chinese coolie: squinty eyes, a makeshift straw hat (wooden bowl), with hands pressed in mock prayer.
The caption read, “When your crush says she only dates Asians.” Following backlash from the Asian community, he offered no apology and instead tweeted to an Asian student, “Short ass finger,” referencing the tired stereotype that Asian men are less endowed. Like all racist cowards, he then proceeded to change his Twitter handle and username, naively believing that such blatant racism would have no ramifications. Both tweets have been preserved at http://archive.is/uVg2C and screenshotted by a number of users. At a time in which previously-concealed racists have been emboldened by our nation’s leader to step out and participate in overt verbal, emotional, and physical attacks, we as a community have a responsibility to be vocal in our responses to such conduct. And as an attorney for 15 years and activist in the Asian American community for close to 20, I reject the notion that ignoring, taking the “higher road,” and simply continuing on with one’s life is an adequate response to racial hostility.
Racism against Asians is one of America’s most persistent yet least-confronted topics. In 2012, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and the Sikh Coalition surveyed Asian youth in New York City. They found that exactly half of the Asian youth surveyed experienced bias-based bullying. Based on a wide gap between the number of reported incidents of bullying and the utilization of government remedies, the White House created the Asian American and Pacific Islander Bullying Prevention Task Force to address the issue. But as a juvenile justice attorney, I understood this issue on a more micro level. The vast majority of my cases involving Asian adolescents (mostly boys) dealt not with robberies, drug offenses, or theft-related crimes. Rather, they involved youth detained for chronic truancy for refusing to go to school (at a time when California still jailed youth for chronic absenteeism) and youth charged with assault after lashing out against their bullies. A fair number had come close to or actually had been placed on mental health holds (section 5150) because they were not able to cope with the mental anguish of the daily public humiliation. I can still recall the times in which I sat in a room with them one-on-one trying to create a safe enough space for them to disclose the details of the bullying they endured. I recall my emotions when an Asian boy I represented shrugged when I asked if he’d prefer juvenile hall over the classroom. For him, school was just as much of a battlefield. My heart clenched as my clients described being held down and sat on in hallways and ching-chonged after missing a ball in physical education class. I realized the victimization was twofold: first, they were subjected to intense degradation in front of their peers, and second, they were left with the greater stigma of not being able to defend themselves.
Based on my experiences and other anecdotal evidence, Asian males appear to have it worse. My brother once told me, years after high school, that his experience with racism made those four years intolerable. As an adult, he was popular, successful and kept a diverse set of friends so I was surprised when he told me one day — in a rare discussion about racism — that his experience was very different from mine. Beyond feeling irrelevant or invisible or othered for being different, he was actually targeted for relentless bullying and violence. And that experience, he told me, created a pain that lasted into adulthood.
With that, I went on to ask some adult men on Twitter about how Matthew De Starkey’s image made them feel. The below are a collection of responses from Asian male attorneys, writers, actors, fathers — those who are well beyond their high school years. Even years after high school, they still felt the following:
Depression and social alienation.
A feeling of worthlessness and oppression that manifested as a “pit drop in [his] stomach.”
Anger bordering on rage…but with maturity, still anger followed by disgust and pity.
Infuriating anger and, again, depression.
Flashbacks to childhood. Rage, hurt, disgust and anger.
Actual physical reactions: chest tightening, heartbeat rising.
And another recurring theme: Shame, along with anger. “Impotent, helpless anger.”
When asked about the comment attacking their manhood, the men described feeling like collateral damage for non-Asian male ego boosts. Indeed, the origin of the small-penis myth has been traced back to the 1920s, when a “broodingly handsome” Japanese actor by the name of Sessue Hayakawa became a sex symbol in mainstream media for White women, and White America felt a need to respond. At a time of Yellow Peril and anti-miscegenation laws, Hollywood took care to typecast Hayakawa as the villain in every film, reserving the role of the hero or Valentino for White actors. Some say it was during this time that the small penis myth emerged.
Since then, Hollywood has continued to participate in the emasculation of Asian men. Even in movies like Romeo Must Die where Jet Li, a Hong Kong actor, was paired with Aaliyah, Hollywood revised the movie’s ending so that Jet and Aaliyah’s passionate kiss became just a friendly embrace. Many Asian actors will confirm that Hollywood generally refrains from giving them a kissing scene in what appears to be a concerted effort to avoid portraying Asian men in a sexual light. The industry never hesitates, however, with putting out discriminatory jabs at Asian men’s masculinity. The result? Denying an entire race of men their sexuality. Comments like that of University of Wisconsin instructor, De Starkey, reinforces that harmful myth. Read on:
I also learned that these reactions were not limited to straight Asian men. One’s sexual orientation, they told me, did little to insulate him from the emasculation that comes with being an Asian man. “As a man romantically involved with other men, these kids of repugnant attitudes are commonplace — right alongside Asian fetishizers.”
In 1993, Mari Matsuda, a former Georgetown University law professor, published a book, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, And The First Amendment, which posed a highly controversial but thought-provoking question: Why is defamation, invasion of privacy, and fraud exempt from free-speech guarantees while racist verbal assaults are not? She argued that assaultive speech should be regulated because of the then-social and racial climate. She stated, “Racist hate messages, threats, slurs, epithets, and disparagement all hit the gut of those in the target group. The spoken message of hatred and inferiority is conveyed on the street, in schoolyards, in popular culture and in the propaganda of hate widely distributed in this country. Our college campuses have seen an epidemic of racist incidents in the 1980s. The hate speech flaring up in our midst includes insulting nouns for racial groups, degrading caricatures, threats of violence, and literature portraying Jews and people of color as animal-like and requiring extermination.”
“Racist hate messages, threats, slurs, epithets, and disparagement all hit the gut of those in the target group. The spoken message of hatred and inferiority is conveyed on the street, in schoolyards, in popular culture and in the propaganda of hate widely distributed in this country. Our college campuses have seen an epidemic of racist incidents in the 1980s. The hate speech flaring up in our midst includes insulting nouns for racial groups, degrading caricatures, threats of violence, and literature portraying Jews and people of color as animal-like and requiring extermination.”
– Mary Matsuda, Former Georgetown University Law Professor
But to place limitations on speech, she argued, there needs to be a narrow scope. She proposed a three-tier test to define assaultive speech. In other words, a verbal attack, photo, or writing should only qualify as assaultive speech and be subject to regulation if all three criteria are met: (1) that the message promoted racial inferiority; (2) that the message was directed against a historically oppressed group; and (3) that the message was persecutory, hateful, and degrading without causing actual physical injury.
If literature portraying Jews and people of color as animal-like and requiring extermination could justify setting limits on assaultive speech in 1993, then the mass deportation of immigrants, the detention of migrant children, the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans, and the persistence of bias-based bullying on Asian students should also be cause for us to re-examine how we deal with racist speech. And in applying the three-tier test for assaultive speech to the instant case, Matthew De Starkey’s tweets fit the bill. First, they played on the stereotype of Asians as the inferior race –i.e., perpetual foreigners amounting to no more than coolies. Second, they were directed at Asian Americans, a historically oppressed group and even alluded to an time of extreme discrimination and oppression — the 19th-century Chinese coolie trade. And third, the tweets were undeniably persecutory, hateful and degrading. We need to look no further than the replies that I received and continue to receive.
Some of the responses I received carried a different tone. Some argued that it was no big deal, “like water off a duck’s back.” One man stated, “I would just roll my eyes and find it unfunny.” And yet another disclosed, “Definitely bothered me on a conscious and subconscious level in my younger years. Being older and having a family now, I’m aware these putdowns say more about those saying it than us.” In light of these more restrained and intellectual responses, I approached my brother years after our initial conversation. Should such bullying — cyber or otherwise — be considered a rite of passage for Asian males? I asked. Absolutely not, he texted back. He continued to explain that though the experience taught him to be mentally strong, he grew up struggling with self-confidence and still deals with an ongoing battle to let go of fears. And so, for those who advocate taking the higher road or viewing this from a purely detached and intellectual perspective, I ask you to think not of yourselves but of the many other Asian boys, teenagers and young men that will come after you and will inevitably be harmed by this. Inaction by marginalized groups has never been an effective way to combat racism. And if race-based bullying and the emasculation of Asian males has persisted through so many generations, why should we believe that it will naturally come to an end? For the sake of my future sons, nephews, friends’ children — and yours — we as a community have a moral responsibility to shut down such speech.
And so, for those who advocate taking the higher road or viewing this from a purely detached and intellectual perspective, I ask you to think not of yourselves but of the many other Asian boys, teenagers and young men that will come after you and will inevitably be harmed by this.
In conclusion, I’m not sure if I’m ready to advocate for the radical stance of placing legal limitations on assaultive speech. Nonetheless, Professor Matsuda’s point is well-taken. Racist speech extends beyond words; they wound. Because the attacks are specifically on
one’s racial identity, the harm often lasts a lifetime. In today’s political and racial climate, we cannot afford to do nothing. What can you do? In the case of Matthew De Starkey, reach out to the Chancellor Beverly Kopper of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who, incidentally, sits on the Governing Board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation. Ask yourselves if a mere public statement denouncing the tweets is sufficient to deal with this racist instructor. Commit to confronting those making racial remarks. Demand change. Leverage our power. Boycott. Write to other organizations in which they serve. Demand real consequences. I hope that we as a community can work collectively to create a less racist world for future generations.
Guest contributor Kas Lee is a former deputy public defender and currently focuses on juvenile delinquency work. As a college student, she founded an Asian Outreach Program for Asian survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She has worked as a law clerk and attorney providing direct legal services to low-income Asian communities and was more recently a legal expert on Sing Tao Radio’s Files of Justice program. Follow her on Twitter @kasefiles.
ProAsian Contributor @axegang_123 archived and collected screenshots of the tweets.