Sunday, April 20, 2008

If You're Not White, You're Colored

One of the scenes in Mississippi Masala that I found particularly intriguing was the one in which one of the Indian men in the motel approaches Demetrius and Tyrone trying to prevent Demetrius from suing for whiplash. It is one of the few (if not the only) instance in which he speaks in favor of solidarity among different minority groups. “As long as you’re not white, you’re colored,” he says. It’s interesting that these sentiments are only brought out when it’s strategically useful, in the context of a financial dilemma. This early scene, in which the idea of cooperation among minorities is exploited for a financial end, criticizes the possibility of genuine third-world solidarity.

I guess the story of the relationship between Mina and Demetrius demonstrates a reach across racial borders in a more genuine way than this manipulation-- and, of course, as the main storyline, this relationship is more important to the overall theme of the film. However, even this model of inter-minority cooperation is full of problems. In order to be together, both Mina and Demetrius have to leave their families, which suggests that their relationship is not possible within the spheres of their communities, and that it can only exist in some isolated limbo land (which is never shown in the film). Their ending isn’t exactly a happy one, or at least not one that holds much suggestion of future success.

As Mississipi Masala suggests, the relationship between the African-American and Asian-American communities is a problematic one. Why is it that two groups with similar histories of mistreatment by the white majority have such trouble getting along? I think a few important differences between these groups contribute to this. First, as we’ve discussed, the African-American community is larger, visible enough to create a black-white racial dichotomy that other races-- including Asians-- have trouble fitting into. Second, a key aspect of the Asian-American experience is the immigrant experience. The stories in Sa-I-Gu are part of a standard trope of the Asian-American narrative: couples who left everything in their home countries to struggle in the Land of Opportunity for their children’s sake.

I was struck by one interview in Sa-I-Gu, in which the woman tells of how she’d expected America to be, essentially, whiter. She’s surprised by the number of Hispanics in her new neighborhood and says she could have believed it was Mexico, but not America. It made me begin to wonder whether the Asian immigrant’s American dream was a _white American dream. This brings up an interesting idea. We’ve talked about the Asian-American as the perpetual foreigner; but this interview suggests that, at least to this Korean-American woman, all other ethnic minorities are just as foreign. If you’re not white, you’re colored-- and, perhaps, not quite American enough.

An early sequence of Sa-I-Gu shows a Korean church singing “Amazing Grace,” a traditional African-American spiritual. This clip perhaps suggests that Asian-Americans and African-Americans have more in common than either community will admit. Watching _Sa-I-Gu reminded me of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which deals with race in Brooklyn in the late ‘80s. While it mostly deals with black-white relations (no surprise there), the film also addresses tensions between other ethnic groups, and it features a corner grocery owned by a newly immigrated Korean couple. Below are a few clips from Do the Right Thing which focus on the Korean couple (it also includes the looting/burning scene, which I think is pertinent in light of the L.A. riots).  

Especially interesting is the moment in which the mob turns away from the burning, white-owned pizzeria, toward the Korean grocery, and decides to leave it alone after the owner yells, "I'm black! I'm black! You-- me-- same!"  Is this what it takes for people to even consider minority solidarity?  Angry mobs and threats of lawsuits?  Well, if these extreme situations are what it takes, then so be it.


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