Sunday, March 13, 2011

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? - Looking at Critical Ethnic Studies

I have a big camera and I'm an artist but for some reason I just couldn't bring myself to shoot pictures at the Critical Ethnic Studies Conference...I was frozen. What follows are descriptions of the scenes I wish I had shot.

Scene 1: Over 1,500 people attended the inaugural critical ethnic studies conference at UC Riverside this weekend (March 10-12, 2011 which billed itself as "a major conference." The panel I presented on with Gina Osterloh and Wei Ming Dariotis, "War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art," was booked for during the very first slot of the conference on Thursday at 9:00am. We had a modest group of students attend who had driven overnight from Colorado as well as Lucy Burns, a professor from UCLA, in the audience.

Scene 2: Sitting in the glaring high noon sun with Gina and Lucy outside the school cafeteria, I realize, after years of working in Asian American studies and mixed race studies, that if it's not about aesthetics, art or visual culture....I'm not that sure if I'm that interested in ethnic studies. Am I a formalist? I've been so concerned with representation but when visual form and structure are not part of the equation....I'm not sure.

Scene 3: Rushing with a mass of people to go hear the evening plenary on "Professionalization and Praxis: The Changing Trajectory of Ethnic Studies", I walk past the African Student Program office. A group of black students in suits are intensely discussing something against the backdrop of a multicolored figurative mural. I sit next to my friend Pawan Dhingra, an Oberlin Sociology professor who is on sabbatical working at the Smithsonian. He tells me about his research on Indian hotel owners. I tell him my family used to own a roadside motel but we sold it a few years back to an Indian family. Local tribal elders open the conference with a traditional Native American blessing. Angela Davis was supposed to speak but she has come down with a fever. The audience is obviously disappointed but Professor Jodi Kim, with her beautiful full bangs, red lipstick and snappy modern dress, keeps the show running. I'm falling asleep, despite three cups of coffee, amidst pop culture references to Fantastic Mr. Fox and black power.
UC Riverside has separate program offices for Chicano, African, Women's, LGBT, Asian Pacific, Native American, Hillel. Student Special Services and Student Conduct offices are also housed here.

Scene 4: It's 11pm and the hotel kitchen has closed. I have to eat. I venture down the street in search of a fish taco.  I travel all the time and I never think much about being by myself. I pass a group of white guys who look like gang bangers. One guy start yelling cat calls at me..."you think your so bad?" and walks up behing me going on a diatribe on exactly what he would like to do to me and how. His friends weigh in if they agree or not. I don't turn around. I wonder why everyone is pretending not to see or hear this. I walk straight ahead wishing I knew martial arts. I find the nearest bar...some sort of karaoke cowboy sports bar. It will have to do. Can I make myself invisible? I am half Asian after all.

Scene 5: Friday 9am, eating a scrambled egg breakfast burrito while attending a plenary session on "Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy." Andrea Smith seems really radical and really smart. I have to read her work. I wonder if just sitting in this room will effect my brother's military clearance? He's spent the night flying for the civil air patrol during the tsunami warning in Hawai'i. I remember my friends told me about Andrea's article "Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy." Should I be thinking more about the difference between Titanium, Flake, and Zinc White though? What about Indian's so powerful. A little bit takes over the entire palette. It used to be made from the urine of cows who ate mango leaves. My mind drifts some more to an analogy that Filipino American artist Marlon Fuentes made about the postcolonial position. As Margo Machida writes in Unsettled Visions: contemporary Asian American artists and the social imaginary, "...there is no single 'authentic' preconquest Filipino identity that one can call on in this Asian Pacific territory forcefully consolidated out of numerous distinct island cultures. As Fuentes remarks, attempting to untangle the braided strands comprising such a cultural crazy quilt would be the equivalent of 'unscrambling an egg.'"

Scene 6: Friday afternoon riding the public bus from downtown Riverside to the UC Riverside campus to go back to the conference after taking a much needed break to go see some art (it ended up being a photography exhibit on the Women of Juarez), a retired music teacher asked if I am a student. I say no and explain that I am a professor visiting from Chicago and attending a conference. He asks what it is about. I say "ethnic studies and genocide." "Hmmm", he says, "Good luck with you like to watch movies? I'm going to see The Adjustment Bureau later tonight." I scurry to get off the bus before he can finish asking me out. He shouts after me, "Don't go killing anybody!"

Scene 7: Finding my people on a Friday afternoon - "Deconstructing or Reifying Racial Hierarchy? The Multiracial Idea and Critical Ethnic Studies" (they subsequently renamed the panel but I forgot what the new name was). Our fearless leaders Paul Spickard and G. Reginald Daniel can't make it to the panel. Multiracial UC Santa Barbara protege 2.0 take the stage instead - Rudy Guevarra, Jeffrey Moniz, Lily Anne Yumi Welty, Ingrid Dineen-Wimberly. The panel gets a late start. Lily has finally gotten through to her grandma in Japan. She survived the tsunami and now her grandma wants to small talk. Lily jokes that she asks her why she's not married yet. The official panel discussion is animated, familiar, and a "safe space" for me to speak up. I say something stupid and slightly offensive but I'm sure I'll be forgiven later over Vietnamese food and dreams of the future.
Lily, Rudy, Ingrid, Jeffrey

Scene 8: deleted upon request. Nothing to see or read here.
Brown bear and a questionable scene at the Mission Inn
Final Scene: I was born in Riverside but my family moved away when I was three. I don't remember much. I call my mom and dad to ask them about the town and where we used to live. My mom tells me that she used to spend the afternoons riding her bike with me through the orange groves but those are all housing developments now. My dad used to work at Riverside General Hospital but it's no longer in existence. He asks about the visibility noting that the last time he was there it was pretty smoggy.

It is smoggy and overcast. I'm walking through a farmer's market now and I see a bunch of mixed breed dogs from the local humane society. They are in cages and wearing pink outfits. Even their nails are polished. I snap a shot. It's easy.

downtown Riverside dog wearing pink nail polish

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