The 'Other' Within

Peggy Orenstein is the author of "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap" (Anchor Books).

A week ago, I stopped by my local bookstore to pick up the novel of the moment, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." If you don't run in "tween" girl circles, you might not have felt the heat of this book, which is in its 15th printing and has been optioned by Warner Bros. Having written extensively on adolescent girls myself, I was itching to get hold of it. I knew that the plot centered on four girls who separate for the summer. Each is challenged by a character-building obstacle that she overcomes with the help of a pair of magical, universally flattering jeans that represent the quartet's friendship. It all sounded very empowering, very Ya-Ya.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading the first two paragraphs, which breezily compare the dungarees to a beloved dog that one would give away if one were moving to someplace like Korea, where people eat dogs.

Here was a book selling sisterhood -- it's in the title, for heaven's sake -- reducing an entire group of girls to an ugly cultural stereotype, making them sound like savages just for a laugh. I couldn't imagine the author getting away with a similar crack about cheap Jews or African cannibals.

To be honest, at another time in my life I might not have noticed. But these days, such casual insensitivity hits me right in the belly. That's because, if all goes well, I'll give birth to a baby girl this summer, a child who will be "half" Asian.

I've often said there is nothing that makes a man a feminist faster than becoming the father of a daughter. Now, it seems that, as this baby grows inside me, her blond, blue-eyed mother-to-be is turning Japanese.

Suddenly, I find myself grumbling that although there are plenty of Asian American doctors and lawyers, Ming-Na of "ER" is their lone representative on prime-time TV dramas (and even she can't seem to get a decent plot line).

Meanwhile, on "Survivor: Thailand," Shii Ann Huang was roundly shunned for eating a chicken neck, while on "E!" fashion forecaster Steven Cojocaru recently cooed that "Madonna has worn so many kimonos she's practically Chinese." (And I'm so fond of lederhosen that people mistake me for being French!)

Then, of course, there's Shaquille O'Neal. When asked about his rookie rival on the Houston Rockets, Chinese-born Yao Ming, the veteran champ sneered, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.' " This from an African American who had recently been honored with a Young Leaders Award by the NAACP.

The media rushed to Shaq's defense. Tony Bruno, who played the taunt repeatedly on his national FOX Sports radio call-in show, declared it "not racist," then invited listeners to call in with their own Chinese "jokes". Which, of course, they did. Later, during the ESPN broadcast of the game, former NBA player Tom Tolbert insisted the comment, "Wasn't meant to be derogatory." Would they have been so tolerant if Yao had been the one to, say, launch into a Stepin Fetchit routine? Ask Jimmy "The Greek."

Those sportscasters, like many people today, dismissed any objections as "politically correct," a phrase that has become almost mythic in its power: Originally used to mock excess (though I doubt that anyone ever seriously called a short person "vertically challenged") it's now a weapon, wielded by those who resent having to care, to excuse their authentically racist, sexist or homophobic remarks.

But what gives those guys the right to decide what's offensive to another group? Who are they to say what hurts someone else's community, someone else's family, what wounds someone else's child? What would I do if my little girl came home crying because some Shaq-worshipping kid on the playground -- as a joke -- pulled up his eyes at her and chanted, "Ching-chong Chinaman?"

"You still don't get it," my husband, Steven, said. "The thing is, she wouldn't tell you. She'd just absorb it and it would eat away a little piece her soul."

What I wasn't understanding, he explained, was that it's not the egregious instances of racism that are so corrosive. "It's the everyday ignorance that seems designed to keep you in your place. It's being constantly made to feel like the 'other.' "

Like a few weeks ago, when we hiked to the top of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County. A park ranger asked Steven where he was from. "Berkeley," he answered. "No, I mean where are your parents from," the ranger responded, frustrated. "Los Angeles," Steven said, less amiably this time. The ranger acted as if Steven were simply being willful. "OK, so you don't want to tell me." Steven stared at him a moment. "I did tell you," he said, then walked away.

To him, that's part of daily life. For me, it's a continual shock. But white parents of children of color are on the rise. As many as half of Asian Americans "out-marry," and international adoption adds to those numbers. I suspect, like me, these Caucasian moms and dads have thinner skin regarding racial slurs, fewer coping mechanisms than those who've endured them all their lives. I also imagine they feel more entitled to express their outrage. They certainly have better access to forums in which to do so.

Last year, for instance, when ABC aired a tasteless episode of the sitcom, "My Adventures in Television," focusing on a Hollywood executive's adoption of a Chinese baby (which included the line, "you break her, you bought her"), the response by white parents was instantaneous. They pressured the show's main sponsor, Kodak, into pulling its advertising. One of the show's stars, Ed Begley Jr., publicly apologized. The sitcom was not renewed.

When asked about the hurtful passage in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," Ann Brashares, the author, was caught off guard. She explained that, if I'd read further, I'd see that the comment was in the shoot-from-the-hip spirit of the introduction's narrator. "I don't wish to offend anyone," she said. "I don't like the thought of driving away my Asian American readers."

If she really means that, perhaps she'll retool her novel's opening before it's released in paperback. Maybe she could reference Lewis and Clark, who did, in fact, eat their sled dogs (although I've never heard an American of British ancestry called "dog eater").

As for me, I came home from the bookstore and called a Korean American girlfriend who is the mother of two biracial children, a daughter and a son. She had already seen "Traveling Pants." "It turned my stomach," she told me. "But don't worry. I have a fabulous collection of children's books with faces that look like our kids'. Let me know when you're ready."

I told her to send them along. My daughter won't be able to read them for years, but she has 10 cousins -- Asian and white, male and female -- who need them right now.

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