oh hell no, possible new oakland hotspot: "geisha"

In Oakland, there's currently a permit to open a bar/restaurant/lounge at 316 14th Street under consideration by the Planning Commission that's getting some negative attention from concerned community members. The bar's name: "Geisha." I heard about it from Diana Wu, who breaks it all down in her extensive, detailed letter to the Oakland Planning Commission:
Dear Planning Commissioners,

I am a resident in downtown Oakland and a professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. Prior to that work, I also worked as the Director of Community Planning at Asian Neighborhood Design in San Francisco and have worked as a researcher on community development, environmental and housing issues for both Urban Strategies Council and Pacific Institute. I have been up here before multiple times, on issues as diverse as community benefits, affordable housing, Oakland arts and cultural funding and youth programs. I am committed to the well-being of all Oaklanders and that is why i will be standing before you tonight.

I am writing with respect to the Permit regarding Case Number CM09-163 (APN 008-0625-047-00) that will be coming before you tonight (Wednesday, 10/7/09), a permit to open a bar at 316 14th Street.

We in the neighborhood have dubbed it the "unfortunately named" bar on 14th St.

Through extended discussion, we agree that the proposed name for the proposed establishment, "Geisha," plays upon and reinforces racist and sexist stereotypes about Asian women and will significantly impact the quality of civic life in the neighborhood should it remain thus unfortunately named.

Intentionally or not, the use of the word is culturally related to a set of stereotypes of Asian women that is a well-documented social fact that is well-documented in the social sciences, Asian American Studies, ethnic studies and even by popular authors such as Sheridan Prasso.

History of a stereotype

The impression that all Asian women were prostitutes, born at that time (the late 1800s and early 1900s), colored the public perception of, attitude toward, and action against all Chinese women for almost a century," writes historian Sucheng Chan (cf. Shah 1997).

As Asian American scholar Gary Okihiro notes, Western stereotypes of Asian women are related to the West's geopolitical relationship with Asia - in particular a desire of the West to take possession, work over, and penetrate of Asia (Shah 1997).

Whether intentional or not, the image and stereotype of the geisha, like that of lotus blossom, china doll, and the dragon lady, are a product of, and reinforce those cultural meanings that pervade our society. Staci Ford of the University of Hong Kong concluded that stereotypical depictions of women in general created by sexist white men continue to haunt movies - and culture - though they now have a disguised form.

The prevalence and reality of the geisha stereotype

A recent study conducted by Derald Wing Sue et al (2007) from the Teachers College at Columbia university identified 8 major types of microaggressions commonly experienced by Asian Americans. Of the 8, 2 are relevant to the issue at hand today.

First is the exotification of Asian women, where Asian and Asian American women are perceived as being available for sexual favors for men. As Jessica Tan and Jen-Mei Wu's testimonials also concur, these incidents are not isolated to academic books and journals and radical social justice circles, but a salient feature of Asian American women's lives in Oakland, in downtown, in the United States every day. I would hope and expect that the Oakland in which I live, work, love and play would absolutely reject any role in allowing this stereotype to live or become in any way a feature of the physical or psychological landscape of this city.

Second was the widespread denial of Asian Americans racial realities. This included messages being conveyed were that Asians are not an ethnic minority group, experience little or no discrimination, and that their racial concerns are unimportant. In this case, the group's prior attempted exchanges with Perry were met with absolute denial that our concerns about the name of the bar-restaurant-lounge could possibly be reinforcing a racist and sexist stereotype, nor even that geisha itself was a racist and sexist stereotype in the US and Western context.

According to Wing Sue et al, microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial - and this case, racial and sex-based - minority group. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily interactions that they are often dismissed and glossed over as being innocuous.

The study also "provides strong support that microaggressions are not minimally harmful and possess detrimental consequences for the recipients."

Impacts of the stereotype

The impacts of this stereotype, as documented in the academic and medical literature, include:

* sexual harassment. every day racialized sexual harassment of Asian and Asian American women
* mental illness. Other studies have documented for all racial groups that the prevalence of every day racial aggression is related to mental illness, physical and psychological well-being and contributes to stress, anger and depression in its victims (Chakraborty and McKenzie 2002; Kim 2002).
* Discriminatory economic; rise in nonconsensual sex trade and pornography. Similarly, Professor of Asian American Studies Elaine Kim has argued that the stereotype of Asian women as submissive sex objects has impeded Asian women's economic mobility and has fostered increased demand in mail-order brides and ethnic pornography.

I sincerely hope that the Oakland City Council understands the impacts of this stereotype and will not deny its existence in today's society. To do so would be to conduct an aggression against the reality that Asian Americans face.

I hope you will recognize the clear and well-documented psychological violence that the name of this bar would contribute to and perpetuate against Asian and Asian American, and all women, people of good conscience, people committed to peace and justice, in the City of Oakland. Please do not allow this bar-restaurant-lounge to go forward with its current name.

Respectfully submitted,
Diana Pei Wu, PhD

Faculty Lecturer, Comparative Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley
(Visiting Faculty Fellow in Global Sustainability, Amherst College, 2009-2010)

Selected Bibliography

Chakraborty, A., & McKenzie, K. (2002). Does racial discrimination cause mental illness? British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 475- 477.

Ford, Staci. "Portrayal of Genders and Generation, East and West: Suzie Wong in the Noble House" (http://sunzi1.lib.hku.hk/hkjo/view/35/3500494.pdf. Retrieved 2006-06-25)

Guillaumin, Colette. 1995. Racism, sexism, power, and ideology. London ; New York : Routledge.

Kim, Elaine (1984). "Asian American writers: A bibliographical review". American Studies International 22 (2): 41-78..

Kim, J. G. S. (2002). Racial perceptions and psychological well being in Asian and Hispanic Americans. Dissertation Abstracts International, 63(2-B), 1033B.

Makhijani, Pooja (Ed.). 2004. Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America. Seal Press.

Na, Vickie (Ed.). 2000. Yell-Oh Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American. New York: Quill Press.

Prasso, Sheridan. 2005. The Asian Mystique: Dragon ladies, Geisha Girls and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. New York: PublicAffairs.

Shah, Sonia. 1997. "Women and Gender Issues" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. (October 7, 2009).

Shimizu, Celine. 2007. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Duke University Press.

Tajima, R. (1989). Lotus blossoms don't bleed: Images of Asian women., Asian Women United of California's Making waves: An anthology of writings by and about Asian American women, (pp 308-317), Beacon Press

Toyama, Nikki A., Tracey Gee, Kathy Khang, Christie Heller de Leon, and Asifa Dean (Eds.). 2005. More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith. IVP Books.

Wing Sue, Derald, Jennifer Bucceri, Annie I. Lin, Kevin L. Nadal, and Gina C. Torino. 2007. "Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience." Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 13 (1), 72- 81.
"Geisha" has planted itself in the wrong neighborhood, and has crossed the wrong UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies professor. And she -- no, we -- will defeat the "unfortunately named" bar with some good old fashioned academic asskicking. With a bibliography.

But wait. According to Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, the Planning Commission voted on the permit last night. Here's how the final vote shook down: 4 votes in favor; 1 vote against; 1 abstain; 1 commissioner absent. Here are the members who vote 'yes' (with contact information, just in case you want to do something with it):
Michael Colbruno
Clear Channel Outdoor
555 12th Street, Suite 950
Oakland, CA 94607
Fax: 663-4662
Email: michaelcolbruno@clearchannel.com

C. Blake Huntsman
SEIU, Local 1021
155 Myrtle Street
Oakland, CA 94607
452-2366, ext. 522
Fax: 452-2436
Email: Blake.Huntsman@seiu1021.org

Douglas Boxer
Boxer & Associates, Inc.
300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 500
Oakland, CA 94612
Fax: 835-0415
Email: dboxer@gmail.com

Vince Gibbs
City of Oakland
250 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza Ste. 3315
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 903-9516
Email: VinceGibbs.opc@gmail.com
More here. On a related note, in the UK, a print advertisement showing an Asian woman bound with rope and exposing her thigh has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority: 'Violent' geisha advert banned. What the hell a tied-up geisha has to do with some friggin' floor tiles, I have no idea.

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