guest post: who's allowed to be angry?

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Brian Hu on being angry and Asian. Or not.

With Angry Asian Man on vacation, we should use this opportunity to talk about what he stubbornly refuses to discuss. That's right. Himself. And what it means to be angry, Asian, and male. Sure, he throws in the usual autobiographical asides, but I'm more interested in the cracks in psyches, the windows unto furnaces of rage. (Especially because Angry Asian Man appears so lovable in person!)

Last week, we got a peek. In a somewhat throwaway post, we sense a frustration that some might associate with a loss of composure. It was the day after James J. Lee took hostages at the Discovery Communications building, and Angry Asian Man decided to share a racist email he received in the aftermath of the incident, the sort of knee-jerk bigotry he typically chooses not to dignify with a reaction.

I feel weird giving the email sender (name: "Dirty Hippie") any more credence by analyzing him/her, but I can't escape one line in particular: "learn to control your anger." The "you" is directed to the email recipient (Angry Asian Man), to possible future killers and hostage-takers of Asian descent, and to the Asian American community more generally.

Through what loopy Google-search logic "Dirty Hippie" went from "James J. Lee" to "Angry Asian Man," and then took the two as synonymous, escapes me. The day before, Angry Asian Man expressed his regret that the hostage-taker had an Asian face, especially given the proliferation of media images of Asian American killers in recent years. Does that put the blogger in the same category as somebody who straps explosives on his body to fight population growth?

This isn't merely a criticism of one racist person's stupidity. It is an inquiry into a most bizarre irrationality of our moment, much more bizarre than James J. Lee's eco-activism. The willful misconnections many Americans make today regarding race -- misconnections between the President and Islam, or between terrorism and religion -- are founded on an inability to read images, to sort through stereotypes, to see beyond what one wants to see. What does it mean that it's so easy to equate an image of Angry Asian Man (the disseminator and archivist of community news) with angry Asian men like Lee and the Virginia Tech killer? Are there so few images of angry Asian males in the mainstream that the only picture many Americans have of Angry Asian Man (the blogger) is that of Seung-hui Choi?

Of course, those of us in and around the Asian American community know that there are many ways to be angry, Asian, and male, for we are well-acquainted with angry Asian fathers, angry Asian American Studies professors, and the ever-cuddly Frank Chin. But could it be that the only mainstream image of Asian male anger in the U.S. is either that of a tortured killer or that of a yelping Bruce Lee (which, let's not forget, is on the header of this site)? And if Asian male anger is thought of as a perverse psychotic threat (or parodied 70s action star), does that mean also that Asian men, in the words of Dirty Hippie, need to "learn to control" their anger?

In fact, who's allowed to be angry in America? Not males of color, if mainstream representations are to be believed. The recent release of Robert Rodriguez's Machete provides an image of the Angry Latino: scarred, hairy, savage. He's only bad-ass to the extent that he's also an ethnic stereotype. (How else to explain lines like "he's CIA, ICE, FBI all rolled into one mean burrito"?) What other recent images of Angry Latino Men come to mind? Unfortunately, none really, unless you follow the Latino side of the immigration debate and know images of DREAM Act sit-ins and other demonstrations. But few do.

And picture an Angry Native American Man. I suspect most would have difficulty picturing anything other than:

Angry Middle Eastern? Probably not images of an imprisoned Jafar Panahi or a cosmopolitan professional in Beverly Hills trying to send back soup with a fly in it. Instead, it's probably something like this:

African American males are generally allowed to be angry in a number of contexts:

And yet despite the diversity of contexts, the stereotype is still one of ferocity, threat, and irrationality -- and therefore not okay. (See Henry Louis Gates, Jr. incident) Can an African American man be angry and yet peaceful, rational, and conciliatory? And if he does, will the masses need another racial metaphor to contain that seeming paradox? (Say, by mining other stereotypes and calling him a Muslim?)
And yet, an Angry White Man can be...

...a bigot:

But also...

...a commentator:

...a comedian:

...a heroic family man:

...a moral compass:

...a commander:

...the voice of the people:

...a folk hero flight attendant:

The difference is not just in the diversity of images, or the fact that white anger can have positive or neutral connotations. More importantly, it's that the white examples humanize anger. They narrate anger such that, even when we disagree with its motivations, we can't help but acknowledge that there is a dignity in the right to be loud, provocative, and maybe even a bit obnoxious. Asian Americans often debate the need for positive and negative images in the media. But having fewer nerds and kung fu fighters, and more sex icons and even high school bullies isn't enough when these examples aren't three dimensional figures who any American can (and perhaps would want to) identify with. Positive/negative images do little if they simply say that anger exists, but don't insist that it's okay. Because otherwise both positive and negative can ultimately become the same thing: fodder for exclusion and racism.

I don't mind that people like "Dirty Hippie" are frustrated and even livid about what Lee did. I do mind that people use this as an excuse to disarm a community of the right to be angry. Angry about racist imagery in the media. Angry about institutional racism in government, education, and industry. Angry that men with Asian faces wreak havoc on innocents. And angry about those who so predictably exploit tragedy to tell an entire community that they cannot be angry if they want to be American.

Brian Hu is an editor of Asia Pacific Arts and a contributor to Culture Breach, among other things. When he remembers he has to, he works on a dissertation about Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema.

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