By AUDREY FISCHER
How many Asian Americans between the ages of 4 and 80 have been confronted by a Westerner striking a Kung Fu pose? This was the tongue-in-cheek question posed to a Library of Congress audience by Howard University law professor Frank Wu, who knows more than a little something about racial stereotyping. Wu delivered the 2004 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month keynote address on May 11.
"They don't mean any harm," said Wu, who acknowledged that images of martial arts masters such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan permeate popular culture. "I just wish they would come up with some new material," he joked.
The author of "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White," Wu is often asked why he seems obsessed with race.
"The answer is 'we all are,'" said Wu. "The fact that many white people claim they don't think about race is part of the problem," he added.
Frustrated by not having a witty response to incidents of racial stereotyping, Wu decided to write a book about it. "Some of the things I wish I had said but didn't think of at the time are included in the book," said Wu, who doesn't claim to speak for all Asian Americans.
Born in Cleveland and raised in Detroit, Wu realized at an early age that he was different from his classmates, and he blamed it on his parents. "I was Chinese because they were Chinese," said Wu. In turn, they blamed him for not trying harder to fit in.
"It was neither of our faults," said Wu. "We didn't bring about these forms of discrimination and bias."
Wu also learned early that some of the Asian values his parents tried to instill in him "may not have been the best for their American-born progeny," observed Wu.
The virtues of humility, not calling attention to oneself or claiming credit for a job well done, which are highly valued by Asian culture, run contrary to what it takes to be successful in American society. The Asian proverb that warns that "the nail that sticks up is pounded down" is in sharp contrast to the American adage that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
As a lawyer working in a competitive corporate law firm, Wu realized that he would have to forge a new identity. "I had to choose a path that combines what it means to be Asian but also American," explained Wu.
Perhaps that is why he chose to teach the law rather than just practice it. While he was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, he received the Teacher of the Year award from the Black Law Students Alliance. As a law professor at Howard University, a historically black college, he feels a responsibility to dispel the negative stereotypes attributed to his students.
According to Wu, Asians are seen as nerds and geeks as well as submissive people who know their place. African American males are often seen as thugs who should be shunned and avoided. According to Wu, it is not enough for him to fight against discrimination of Asians. He also feels an obligation to speak out against all forms of racial stereotyping.
"My family often tells me not to be so controversial," said Wu. "They don't seem to realize that I have made a career out of being controversial," he joked.
Wu is troubled by being asked to predict when all the discussion about race will be over.
"I don't think it will ever be over, and that's what makes our country great," said Wu. "I believe that diversity, like democracy, is a process, not an outcome. It's something that people should participate in, as they participate in a democratic society. Only together will we make good on the promise of a diverse democracy."
Audrey Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.