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Always Foreign, Always Brown: Crown Heights-based activist DJ Ushka on growing up in Thailand, gentrification, global bass, and Edward Said

By Guest Contributor Rishi Nath, cross-posted from Open City Magazine

Crown Heights-based activist DJ Ushka. All images by Nabil Rahman.

[Editor's Note: This is Open City's second installment of "Lyrics To Go," a collaboration between writer Rishi Nath and multimedia journalist Nabil Rahman . The series features conversations with contemporary musicians whose life and work intersects both Asian-American communities and New York City neighborhoods. Click here for DJ Ushka's special mix for Open City readers.]

These days, DJ Ushka seems to be everywhere at once. She is all over Brooklyn, whether opening for Sundanese vocalist Alsarah in Stuyvesant Heights, deejaying and booking the monthly iBomba party in Williamsburg, or swooping in to save the AAWW PageTurner Festival party after a booked act canceled last minute. She also zig-zags the country, appearing at gigs in Boston, Philadelphia and Oakland. And that’s just weekends. During the day, she is a full-time staff member at the New York Immigration Coalition , where she handles communications and youth development.

Born Thanu Yakupitiyage, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Ushka grew up in Bangkok, Thailand. She attended college in western Massachusetts, where she was turned on to post-colonial theory. From her spacious, dimly lit living room in Crown Heights, she described how that experience, a decade ago, changed her.

“It was the first time that I really started to understand concepts such as Orientalism, through Edward Said,” she said. Her laptop, attached to speakers and headphones, was open and glowing on the coffee table in front of her as she spoke. A poster proclaiming “Stop Racial Profiling,” hung on the wall behind her.
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The Gentrification Shuffle

Gentrification: The displacement of poor women and people of color. The raising of rents and eradification of a single, poor and working-class women from neighborhoods once considered unsavory by people who didn’t live there. The demolition of housing projects. A money-driven process in which landowners and developers push people (in this case, many of them single mothers) out of their homes without thinking about where they will go. Gentrification is a premeditated process in which an imaginary bleach is poured onto a community and the only remaining color left in that community is white… Only the strongest coloreds survived.—Taigi Smith, “What Happens When Your Hood is the Last Stop on the White Flight Express?” from the anthology Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism.

by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson

Last year, the Washington Post published a series of articles about the H street corridor in downtown DC. The article detailed the thoughts and opinions of the historical residents, who had seen H street through riots and a depressed economy, and spoke with the new residents who had moved to H street after the city slated the area for economic revival.

What interested me more than the article was the surrounding chat about gentrification, proctored through one of the Washington Post’s “live online” sessions. The discussion quickly dissolved into an argument about the events at a local bar, where some new residents picked up some of the sidewalk chalk sitting in a decorative basket and began drawing on the tables.

The black proprietor objected to them using the chalk. The white party at the table asked why they couldn’t draw with the chalk, since you generally use chalk to draw. The proprietor responded, saying you shouldn’t draw on a place where people eat – no one wants a bite of chalk dust.

This is where the story gets a bit blurry. The white kids assert that the proprietor became shrill, telling them that they didn’t belong in her neighborhood. The proprietor states that the white kids became hostile, saying she should be lucky that they were spending money in her “ghetto” neighborhood.

The article and chat discussion epitomize the delicate dance we do around gentrification. Class divisions and race divisions tend to pop up, turning neighbor against neighbor. Revitalization of an area isn’t always bad – many people enjoy living in luxury condos, having shops within walking distance, and having a nicer, cleaner, and safer neighborhood. Gentrification, however, is revitalization in a different stripe. While revitalization seeks to improve a blighted or run-down area, gentrification aims to attract people with higher incomes to live in the community.

And unfortunately, the people with higher incomes tend to be white. While affluent professionals of all races participate in the gentrification of historically ethnic enclaves, the introduction of whites to a predominantly POC area seems to herald the coming of a gentrification effort. Continue reading

Race Preference or Race Fetish?

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

[Warning: Post contains links to pictures of hot male entertainers in various stages of undress. Click at your own risk.]

Back in April, I read this Kimchi Mamas post and was reminded of an ongoing debate I have with a few friends: is exclusively dating members of your own race being racist or having a preference? Is dating outside of your race exercising a fetish?

I’ve heard arguments on both sides of the debate, of equal merit. (Check the Kimchi Mamas post for some other ideas on race and dating).

When my friends and I discuss the idea of race and dating (or interracial sex, depending on the day) we tend to take the debate a step or two further and pose the following question: is it a preference or fetish? At what point does admiration of certain characteristics (mocha skin, jet-black hair, a petite stature, a porcelain complexion) become a full-blown fetish?

And further, can you fetishize your own race?

Tackling the first idea, I believe it is difficult to differentiate between a fetish and characteristic. The only rule that sticks seems to be making blanket statements about an entire race of people (i.e. all white women are wild in bed) as an indicator of a fetish. So when I hear a comment like “Asian girls are hot,” it does give me some pause. Hearing a statement like that kind of makes me think that the speaker already has a preconceived notion of what “Asian” is – and it probably excludes women from Malaysia, the Philippines, India, or Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, sometimes certain characteristics (which may or may not be common to a certain race or ethnicity) can be highly coveted by individuals. Darker skin is not common to all races. Neither is long, straight, jet black hair or blue eyes. So, it would stand to reason that people who find certain characteristics attractive would start seeking out individuals with those characteristics – which may lead to dating along racial lines.

Hmmm…preference or fetish?

One of my close friends tends to date white women, though he maintains he dates the rainbow. When I ask him about the reasons for his attraction, he goes into different factors of why he is attracted to the women he dates. He lists things like body type, hair, and complexion. I prodded him playfully about one of his recently revealed fetishes – the fact that he, a black male, wants to have a white woman tie him up and treat him like a slave.

He asked one of his former sex partners to do it, and she didn’t speak to him for a week.

He acted puzzled.

“I just asked her to beat me a few times and call me Toby.”

I asked him if his desire for that particular sex act has caused him in recent years to narrow his focus in dating, pointing out that he has not dated anyone of color since freshman year of college.

He contemplates that for a moment.

“Maybe,” he finally answers.

Still, I’m not really one to talk. I’ve been accused of harboring a fetish myself. Continue reading

Around the World at 180 Beats per Minute

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

A few years ago, when M.I.A. was more commonly known as a military acronym than as the stage name of a Sri Lankan-born singer with a seductive British accent, my friends and I were busy spreading the word via burnt cds and “have you heard?” interjections about Ms. Arulpragasam. Her tracks, which somehow touched on just about every form of music I’d ever loved, remained in heavy rotation on my faux-Pod. Her voice was unique, but what I enjoyed most about her music was what I heard in the background. It wasn’t until I went to her free Central Park concert in the summer of 2005 that I realized who was the culprit for the music behind the lyrics. Diplo, M.I.A.’s Philadelphia-based on-again/off-again love interest, was the one who had produced and remixed the songs on M.I.A’s underground cd entitled Piracy Funds Terrorism, which sparked M.I.A.’s first major release: Arular, an eclectic mix of reggae, funk, electro, bhangra, grime, and hip hop. He had helped to propel her career and make her a prime candidate for collaborations with artists like Missy Elliot and Timbaland and sampling by DJs worldwide.

Diplo was suddenly to underground music as Pier One was to imports.

He had successfully highlighted the talents of a Third Culture Kid, all the while satiating an American audience’s hunger for something “different.” He was welcomed by various ethnic groups and music junkies, mainly for his ability to highlight the new and cool without turning it into a cliché exhibition of the exotic. He invited us all to join in on this form of musical exploration, not simply as spectators, but also as participants, as he combined aspects of distinctive music from the U.S. like dirty south hip hop, to remind us of his roots, with a few notes from the international underground, to remind us that he had a well-used passport. We all had something to contribute as well as something to learn. And while some Americans still may not know of Diplo, it seems that the rest of the world, in particular the oft-ignored “global south,” is paying close attention.

And for good reason.

Though films, music, and tv shows from the U.S. have come to dominate the global market as the end-all, be-all of exportable pop culture, Diplo and his cohorts at Mad Decent, the record label he established in 2006, have worked to reverse this trend. Serving somewhat as a curator of global music and culture, he has used the label to promote his moving museum of sound throughout the club scene. Having already formed relationships with well-known DJs in countries like England, Sweden, and the United States by way of his mix albums and the club and music collective Hollertronix, the man known to his parents and friends as Wesley Pentz set out for countries like Brazil, Angola, Australia, and Israel/Palestine not only to play music, but to learn more about the musical traditions of the population. Fully knowledgeable of the power of subculture, as his success was due in part to his influence therein, Diplo has made a concerted effort to connect with members of the lower class around the world. Ironically, the ingenuity they exhibit despite their economic and social misfortune has become a key element in Diplo’s success, thus begging the question of whether or not his role is one of student turned educator or appropriator cum exploiter. Continue reading

The Words of Asian American Men

by guest contributor Jennifer Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

A little less than a month ago, a panel discussion was put together by The Asian Society focusing on Asian American male identity. The panel, consisting of three prominent Asian American men in pop culture today: The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, the single best Asian American writer of contemporary pop culture, Jeff Yang, and the ever so swoon-worthy Yul Kwon of Survivor: Cook Islands (whom this blog dubbed the real Super Asian Man back when his show was on the air). These three men chatted for a night on issues affecting Asian American men, and The Asia Society graciously put an edited “clip show” of the event on YouTube for us to view.

One of the central thrusts of the discussion was the emasculation stereotype. I agree with all three panelists in their emphasis of Hollywood as being the primary source of the asexualization of Asian males, and how this perception has a deleterious effect on developing young Asian American boys. Kwon said,

When I was growing up, I was very much influenced by what I saw, and more importantly what I didn’t see, on television. Whenever I saw an Asian American man on television, he was inevitably a kung-fu master who could kick ass but he couldn’t speak English, or a computer geek who could figure out algorithms but couldn’t figure out how to get a date. And for myself, I really think I internalized a lot of these images.

All three panelists emphasized the need to change Hollywood’s depictions of Asian Americans, viewing mainstream media as the primary source of the stereotype. After all, the true insidiousness of APIA male asexualization is its effect on the self-image of young boys, which is communicated to them beginning at childhood. In this way, the asexualization stereotype is no different than anti-feminist socialization that promotes gender roles for young girls; in both cases, the images are designed to control those who are principally “The Other” in American society.

Exposed to image after image of Asian Americans as nothing more than the Perpetual Foreigner and the Geek diminishes the self-esteem of boys and introduces an internalized racial self-hatred where one associates one’s racial identity with limited personal and social success. Particularly damaging, however, is how this diminished self-esteem actually discourages radical activism to change the root source of the problem; race and masculinity become linked. This internalized relationship is problematic because Asian American men rarely challenge the association between race and masculine self-worth. They advocate changing the stereotypes of Asian American men (a solution destined to failure as it still promotes dehumanization and objectification), rather than to advocate an elimination of race-based sexual stereotypes altogether.

As a community, we should not prioritize advocating for a hypersexualization of the Asian American male body, but for a humanization. To define us based on race is still to limit our evolution as people to pre-defined narratives externally applied to us based on our race. Stereotypes limit us because it stifles our own self-growth and opportunities, regardless of whether those stereotypes are “positive” or “negative”. As Jeff Yang said in the panel discussion,

…[C]oming from my own perspective, every time I hear people say Asian American men shouldn’t be portrayed as geeky-looking and having glasses and being nerdy and all this, and I’m like, “you guys are all protesting in front of my mirror”. It’s kind of unfair to hold us all to these standards, as incredible as it is to see people like yourself and Daniel Dae Kim and Aasif transcend the historical representation of what Asian American men are, there’s also a sense in which it leaves some of us behind. And I think the notion of manhood is changing. Continue reading

Denial and Delusion – Why Public Conversations About Race Fail Before They Begin

by Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

I am done, done, done.

I intended to work on my follow up to Internalizing Stereotypes.

Key word: intended.

However, the sequel is not happening this week.

The sequel is not happening because my mind is cluttered with two articles that came to my attention in the last half of the week.

The first was a blog post on GameDaily Biz, a site and blog dedicated to the video game industry housed on Game Daily. I peruse GameDaily Biz every few days to find news and trends to discuss in the online gaming magazine Cerise. In addition to writing first person and opinion pieces about gaming, I also write their Gaming in the Media column. So, when I came across a “Your Turn” first person post on GameDaily Biz by Chris Mottes, CEO of Deadline Games, I was intrigued to see what he had to say.

Particularly because the post was titled, “That’s Racist! The Unjust Crusade Against Video Games.”

The article begins:

Members of the media often attack video games for being racist, sexist, mean-spirited, callous, unpleasant, insensitive, or just generally nasty. As a developer, I find most of these claims not only a touch insulting but also extremely tenuous, and in the majority of cases unfounded.

Fascinating. The majority of these cases are unfounded? As a black, female console gamer, I can definitively say that many of the video games I play (and enjoy) can be considered both sexist and racist. Sexism is rampant, particularly when you consider character design, costuming, and forced gender roles in play. Most female characters are designed for maximum sex appeal, relegated to damsel in distress roles, or physically limited and/or forced to contribute to the game in a limited capacity. Major female characters in RPGs tend to be healers or magic-users, normally devastated in battle by a few hits from a stronger male character. While there are a few standout exceptions – Samus from Metroid, Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark, and the oft-debated Lara Croft – most women in video games are side characters.

To illustrate the issue of racism, let’s play a little game. Off the top of your head, name 5 black video game characters. Now, exclude any characters that were not main characters. Now exclude any that appear in a sports game or hip-hop based game. Finally, exclude any characters that embody stereotypical representations of African Americans. (Yes, that means excluding CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.) How many are left in your list?

Or, let’s look at Asian Americans in video games. Again, off the top of your head, name five Asian video game characters – you can use both side characters and main characters. (For this one, we will exclude RPGs from the discussion since character ethnicity a murky subject). Now exclude fighting games. How many are left on your list?

Name five Latino game characters. Can you? I cannot – I have a vague memory of heavy accents in certain video games, but I am not able to bring up one latino character that wasn’t in a historical game like Age of Empires (which technically means I remember playing the game as an Incan and as a Spaniard). For those who can, what stands out about these characters? Continue reading

Scapegoating or Community Empowerment? The Flipside of the “Korean Takeover of the Black Haircare Industry” Debate

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

After Latoya wrote the excellent article “Know Your Place, Woman: BET’s Meet the Faith on Black Marriage,” I decided to do a little additional research by checking out the BET site for the show with the all the questionable content. I ended up reading very little on Meet the Faith. In fact, the one thing that stood out to me about the site was actually a random distraction . . .

Toward the bottom of the page regarding a segment on black beauty, I noticed a survey entitled “Korean or Black Owned?” The caption read:

For the most part, Black haircare products didn’t exist until Madame C.J. Walker introduced her Wonderful Hair Grower in the early 1900s. Today, there are still very few products and equipment made for or sold by Blacks.

For such a loaded topic, there were only two simple questions:

1. There are two beauty supply stores next to each other. One is Korean-owned and sells your shampoo for $10. The other is Black-owned and sells your shampoo for $12. Where would you buy your shampoo? The Black-Owned Store or The Korean-Owned Store?

2. If the Korean-owned shop sold items $2 to $3 higher, where do you think the average Korean customer would shop? The Black-Owned Store or The Korean-Owned Store?

I immediately felt the urge to look into what had compelled this very basic set of questions and find some answers. Carmen raised a question of her own back in December, “Do Korean-Americans Control the Black Hair Market?” prompting readers to check out Aron Ranen’s documentary Black Hair and leaving them to render their own judgment on the issue. Half a year later, however, I find myself asking less about the prospect of Korean market dominance in the black haircare industry, and more about the process of seeking an answer to the inquiry itself. What methods have we used to publicly examine this market dominance and what effect have they had on the respective communities involved?

First and foremost, there is the film by Ranen. Black Hair is a documentary created to bring attention to the plight of people of African descent who attempt to manufacture and/or distribute black hair care products within the black community as they face considerable adversity in a market now controlled by Korean immigrants and their families. While some, including members of the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA), see the film, as absolute truth, I find that it could be quite easily interpreted as an open attack on Koreans. I understand quite clearly that the film is a powerful form of advocacy for keeping money spent and earned by African-Americans in the black community, but I question the need for Ranen’s clear manipulation of an already troubled case of ethnic disunity between American blacks and Korean immigrants as a means to push the “buy black” agenda.

During an interview with NPR, Ranen is asked whether or not his film creates “an environment that shows Korean proprietors as the enemy.” In defense of his work, he answers simply that he does not want to be a “hater,” but instead he wants to be a “motivator.” Yet I can’t help but consider his attempt to “motivate” the black community suspect. By publicly picking at old wounds between Koreans and African-Americans, Ranen has tapped into an increasingly lucrative market for the press: inter-ethnic conflict. The American media can’t get enough of it. Stories about people of color fighting other people of color, even if their initial disagreement has little to do with race or ethnic background, always make headline news, often yielding skewed and/or distorted results. Asian-American activist Helen Zia discusses this phenomenon in her book Asian American Dreams with regard to the L.A. Riots: Continue reading