FRANK WU, AUTHOR, "YELLOW: RACE IN AMERICA BEYOND BLACK AND WHITE":
That's a good question. It's -- well, it's a book of questions, not answers. I'm a law professor, so I'm much better at asking questions than I am at answering them.
I wrote this book to try to provoke people to think for themselves, not to persuade them to think as I do. I wrote it to try to start dialogue about race and diversity and Civil Rights, and a dialogue that's different.
I'm trying to move us beyond black and white in two different ways. First, in a very literal way. Sometimes we talk about race as if everyone is either black or white, and that's it. And when you talk about race that way, you leave out, well, not just Asian-Americans. You leave out Hispanics. You leave out thousands of people, millions of people of mixed-race background. It's as if they don't exist.
And I'm suggesting it doesn't matter who you are, what your identity is, what your politics are, what sort of policies you think we should have, if you can't see yellow and brown and red and all the different shades, well, you leave out a huge proportion of the population in California, on college campuses, and in the future of our nation because it's changing incredibly rapidly.
But I'm also trying to move us beyond black and white in a different sense, in a figurative sense. Sometimes we talk about race as if, well, you've got villains on the one hand, sort of hard-core bigots, you know, who are doing bad things. And then you've got, you know, victims on the other hand.
Now, we still do have villains. The KKK is out there. You see skinhead groups using Web sites, you know, to try to bring the young to their hateful cause. So there are still villains out there. But sometimes it's not just villains and victims. Sometimes we all have a responsibility, even if -- well, my family wasn't here when there were slaves. My family wasn't even here when there was Jim Crow.
I grew up knowing that the "N" word was bad and, you know, I would certainly never use it, but I recognize that I have a greater responsibility, that it's not just about am I someone who has malice in my heart toward people of other racial backgrounds, but rather, there are these tensions and problems that we have to address cooperatively and constructively, recognizing sometimes we're all to blame.
Sometimes none of us is to blame. You just have these situations where the people to be blamed -- well, they're long dead and gone. Nonetheless, we still have this mess that we have to muddle through.
So that's what it's about.
BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Where does this title, "Yellow," come from?
WU: Well, I wanted to have a provocative title, and -- and you know, it's a great dust jacket, I think. I owe a lot to Basic Books for having done it. Really, I joked the title should have been "Gray." It should have a dull, drab cover because it's about how complex all these issues are.
But "Yellow" comes from the idea of taking something that was pejorative, you know, a name that was attached, a label, part of a stereotype, part of these images of the exotic oriental, something with not so nice connotations, and saying, you know, "I can be proud of this. I'm going to take `yellow' and claim it for myself." I -- you know, if other people are going to call me "yellow," I'm going to say, "Hey, sure. I am yellow. And not only am I yellow, I'm proud of it, and I'm going to put it on the cover of my book."
LAMB: But where does that come from in history?
WU: Well, it comes from the idea that every person could be fit into this neat racial classification scheme. You know, now most biologists recognize race is, well, sort of a fiction. It's the kind of thing we make up. There aren't clean, neat lines. A whole lot of people out there who are characterized as black, in fact, are more white than black. And there are a lot of people who are white, who we treat as white, who, in fact, have some black ancestry.
And then these lines blur, and most of us share more genes than we know, and the differences are tiny. And the differences within racial groups are every bit as big as between racial groups.
But there was a time not too long ago, 75 years ago, you'd find the most respected scientists at Ivy League schools had these elaborate tables. You know, they -- you know, there were these huge debates, academic debates, serious ones, over are there 19 groups or 73 groups? You know, and which -- you know, where do we put South Asians? Where do we put, you know, this group or that group? Where are -- are they on top or on the bottom? There were hierarchies. And yellow was just one of those categories. "Mongoloid" was, you know, another category -- another one of those groups that they created.
And that's gone by the wayside, in part because Nazis had tables like that. They tried to look at the shape of your forehead or the slope of your nose and fit you in.
And I think it's important to recognize that we may be past these formal tables, but we still socially and culturally construct them. So that even if race is fictional, it has a social reality. It affects people's lives.
LAMB: As you know, somebody who reads this book would be a little bit intimidated to ask you questions like, "Where are you from?"
WU: Well, I would hope not. "Where are you from?" is something we all ask everyone. There's nothing wrong with...
LAMB: Where are you -- where are you really from?
WU: Well, that's the question that causes the problem. Let me explain why. And I try and make it clear this is a book where I'm trying to explain things, and I'm not trying to complain about things. I'm trying to explain what's wrong with "Where are you really from?"
You know, when strangers meet -- it could be at a dinner party or you -- you're a freshman in college, doesn't matter, or you start a new job -- everyone says, "Where are you from?" well, place people in a context. People ask me that, and I say, "Well, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, grew up in Detroit, Michigan, used to live in San Francisco. Then I moved to Washington, D.C., about seven years ago," give a very detailed answer. Sometimes I'll tell people every place I've lived in the past 10 years.
They shake their heads and say, "No, no, no. That's not what I mean. I mean where are you really from?" And that one word speaks volumes. Why? Well, we don't go around asking everyone that. I know. I've asked the people who ask me this question right back, "Where are you really from?" And they look at me all puzzled and say, "What do you mean, where am I really from? I just told you I'm from Iowa. I'm an American."
That's exactly the point. They -- they're just assured of their own identity, even as they assume -- well, what am I? I'm a tourist, right? Must be a visiting student. I'm a guest. I'm eventually leaving.
And so this "Where are you really from?" says I'm not a real American. I'm not really who I say I am.
Now, when I explain this, I'm always very careful to say there's nothing wrong. There -- there are people who recently arrived here from Asia, not born in the U.S., as I am, who want to be proud of that, want to say "I'm from China. Let me tell you about it." There's nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is when we do this selectively and against someone's will and we pigeonhole them that way. And it shows that we're not colorblind because we don't ask everyone this. We ask people who are Asian, people who are Hispanic, people who are a little foreign-looking, a little funny-looking.
And it's not just this question. It leads to more. Sometimes people say to me, "Oh, how do you like it in our country?" And this is true. They say it less and less often now, but I'm still asked that. Or people say to me -- it's as if they're wondering, "Well, what province of China's Cleveland?" They say, "Oh, when are you going home?"
Or I'll give a speech, and someone who's very nice -- see, what's interesting about this, and I'm always careful to explain this -- it's not mean people. It's not evil people. Sometimes very nice people. Someone very nice will come up to me -- this happens maybe only once a year these days. It used to happen all the time. They'll come up to me, and they'll say, "You know, I just want to tell you something. You speak English really well." I always wanted to say, "Gee, thanks. So do you" because they don't expect that.
They don't expect when someone who looks the way I do opens my mouth that out will come articulate, fully-formed English sentences without an accent. There's nothing wrong with an accent. My parents have them. But they -- they've attached a stereotype to me, a script. They expect me to talk a certain way and behave a certain way.
And sometimes it gets ugly. I will bet you -- because this is true almost every time I'm on any TV show -- if you want to say anything meaningful, eventually you say something controversial. And people will -- will say, "I disagree." I welcome that. I welcome people saying, "I disagree. Let me tell you my my view and I want to start this robust dialogue.
What's interesting, though -- sometimes people don't disagree with what I have to say, they don't like who I am. I will wager you that I will get an e-mail or phone call or letter that says something along the following lines. "If you don't like it here, well, you can just go back to where you came from." And what does that say? It says I can't really be an equal American. I can never be critical of the United States, of its government or its culture or its policies.
I should make clear I think this is a great nation. It's different. This is a nation where we say we believe anyone can come here and become an equal and become a full participant in this great dialogue. And I want to be a participant in that dialogue. I want to make us live up to our ideals. It's because I'm proud to be here, proud to be an American, that I want to do this.
LAMB: You were born in Cleveland.
WU: That's right.
LAMB: How did your parents get there?
WU: Well, my parents were students. They came from China. They grew up in Taiwan. And then my...
LAMB: They came from mainland China.
WU: Yeah. That's right. They were born there, and when Mao took over, like a lot of others, they fled. They grew up in Taiwan. Then they came here. They were very lucky. They came in the '50s. They got scholarships. My dad, in fact, went to college in Iowa and went to graduate school in Cleveland. And that's where my mother was in school. So they met. So you know, Asian-Americans are all over the place. You can find Asian-Americans in, well, Fargo, or in the deep South. It's amazing how diverse these stories are.
LAMB: You say that there are 10 million Asian-Americans.
LAMB: Explain first what would you classify as an Asian-American?
WU: Yeah. That's -- that's an interesting, tough question. It's a harder question than it seems. I wouldn't classify anyone. You know, I would allow people to declare for themselves. An Asian-American is -- well, it's a strange concept. There aren't Asian-Americans in Asia. You know, for one thing, the people in Asia -- well, they're there. They're not here. And for another thing, there isn't a pan-Asian identity, except for sort of a bad one, you know, when one nation wants to conquer another nation.
So the people who are Asian-Americans -- well, their people whose grandfathers or great-grandfathers would have hated one another, would have been at war with one another. But here, we recognize we have a common cause. Sometimes people say, "Well, why -- why do you have to be Asian-Americans? Balkanizing? Aren't you breaking up into little groups?"
Actually, Asian-American is a coalition identity. It brings together people from about two dozen different national origins. You've got Pakistani, Indian, Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, all sorts of different ethnicities, languages, faiths, walks of life, class backgrounds, different stories as to how they got to the United States. And what they've recognized is that being Asian-American can be empowering, that even though our forefathers may have hated one another, here we've got a common cause.
When I grew up, on the playgrounds in school, I used to get picked on. Kids pick on other kids for all sorts of reasons. Some of it's just a childhood sort of thing you grow out of. But sometimes it's racial. And I think when it's racial, it's different. I used to get called "chink" and "Jap" and "gook" and kids would, you know, pull back their eyes. And they had that chant, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, what are these?"
And what's interesting is they'd call me "Jap" and "gook" every bit as often as they'd call me "chink." And if someone said to me, "Hey, you Jap," and I said, "Oh, excuse me. I'm actually a chink," you know, that's not going to do much good. So I realized because I was told I -- well, "You -- all look alike, anyway," right, that I had better reach out.
And even though, growing up, I didn't know very much about Koreans or Thais or Pakistanis, I realized, well, in the United States, we have this shared identity and a set of experiences, even though we're incredibly diverse -- different politics and different cultures -- there is a common thread. It's that "When are you going home, where are you really from" thread of being a perpetual foreigner. And we can turn that into something empowering and positive.
LAMB: You say -- and correct me if I give these figures wrong -- that the census shows 2.4 million Chinese Americans, about 1.9 million Filipino Americans, about 1.1 Vietnamese Americans, about a million Koreans in the country?
LAMB: What's happening to that figure?
WU: Well, it's changing daily.
WU: Well, because people are coming here, people are intermarrying. There are all sorts of changes. And it's certainly no easier for me to keep up with than someone who's white. I'm sometimes shocked -- you know, I go back to places where I grew up, and I suddenly see all these Asian restaurants, all these Asian stores, all these Asian people, where I was used to being the only person who ever -- when I walked into the classroom or anywhere, who looked like me. Or maybe there was one other person, you know, but that was it.
And now you've got 2 percent, 3 percent. Doesn't sound like much, but from half a percent to 2 or 3 percent, that's a huge jump. And you go some places, you've got 10, 20 -- you know, on some college campuses, you're going to find 30, 40 percent of the freshman class is of Asian descent, so that these changes are happening faster than any changes to a nation have ever happened.
And they present us with a tremendous challenge. They present us with the challenge of how are we going to adjust to this? You know, you can't just keep people out. You can't eject the people who are already here. So what do you do when -- and it's not just in stereotypical places.
You know, there have always been Asians around in, say, San Francisco. You know, there it has always been a third or more Asian, even since California was a state. But you've got people in Wisconsin. You've got people in Atlanta. You've got people in North Dakota of Asian descent whose parents -- well, maybe they got a job as a doctor at the hospital, and so the family moves in. And maybe they tell their friends. You know, a cousin moves in. Pretty soon, you got a community.
LAMB: You're the first Asian to -- American to teach at Howard Law School? That -- is that -- that's -- is that's right?
WU: That's right.
LAMB: And you're married to a Japanese American.
WU: That's right. And she is also someone who teaches law. We're one of these households, you know, two-law-professor households. She teaches someplace else. She teaches at a school that's predominantly white. And this...
LAMB: Here in town.
WU: That's right. And it's made me realize some things. I'm tremendously privileged to teach at Howard. I wanted to do Civil Rights work. I wanted to do bridge-building work. And it's changed my life. You know, I grew up in a predominantly white setting. The high school I went to was about 4,000 students. There were...
WU: Yeah. That's right.
LAMB: Actual Detroit city or...
WU: No, no. Outlying suburbs, about 45 minutes from downtown.
LAMB: Which -- what's the name of it?
WU: It's called Canton. Canton. It was the Plymouth-Salem-Canton high school, two high schools on a shared set of buildings and campus. Out of 4,000 students, there were maybe, oh, a half dozen or so people who look like me, maybe one or two Hispanics, and there was, as I recall, one lone African-American. Now, I may be wrong, but if it wasn't one, it couldn't have been more than two. That's about as white as you can get.
Now I'm in an environment where not just my students but my peers, my boss, my boss's boss and my boss's boss's boss is African-American. And I've learned as much as I've taught. This has really changed my life. And although "Yellow" is a book -- well, by an Asian-American, includes Asian-Americans, it's not just about Asian-Americans and not just for Asian-Americans. For one thing, my publisher wants to sell books, you know?
And it's meant to talk about race more generally. Many of the examples are about African-Americans. And they're about African-Americans because I realized -- I face prejudice. I face stereotypes. Sometimes that's not recognized. Sometimes I -- I'm annoyed. And sometimes, in some instances, Asian-Americans can face serious hate crimes and bias. But by and large, what I face doesn't compare with what African-Americans face.
So I realized if I'm going to be serious about this work, Civil Rights work, I have to stand up and speak out not just when it's someone who happens to look like me but when it's others, when it's African-Americans. Their cause is my cause.
If I only stood up when it was, say, the Wen Ho Lee case, and said, "There's racial profiling," in that case, that wouldn't be standing up for principle. That would be standing up for self-interest. I have to stand up when it's "driving while black," when it's a different face on the same problem, if I'm really going to be principled about these matters.
LAMB: What is the difference in what you see when you're standing in front of a classroom full of African-Americans and in that environment, compared to what it's like in an all-white environment?
LAMB: As they react to you, is what I'm getting at.
WU: Sure. Yeah. It's different in that the -- well, the students are -- are incredibly diverse. You know, probably before I taught at Howard, I had the same misconception that many people who aren't black have, which is to think of African-Americans as sort of a monolithic mass. Well, that's not true. They come from different geographic origins, different class backgrounds.
I've got folks who are the first people not just in their immediate family but of all their cousins to go to college, much less law school. And then I've got other folks that are the fourth generation to go to Howard or to Howard's law school. They come from backgrounds of wealth, you know, greater privilege than I ever saw growing up.
And then there are people who are African-American. There are people who are black, but not African-American. Either they recently arrived here or their parents just did, and they don't think of themselves as African-American. Maybe they're Canadian and black. And so there's this tremendous set of differences, and different politics and different views. And it's wonderful to see that.
What's different, though, about being at Howard is this is a safe space. It's safe for African-Americans in the following sense. If you took one of my students, really talented student, and put them in a predominantly white setting, and the teacher -- and they raised their hand and the teacher ignored them, didn't call on them, that student would always wonder, and I think rightly so, "Why is that professor not calling on me? Is it because of race, or is it because they didn't see me because I'm sitting," you know, "off to the side and they can't see me? Is it because they're busy? They want to," you know, "cover the next set of readings?"
At Howard, it's different. If someone is dissed that way, they know it's not because of race, it's for some other reason, or maybe I'm just generally rude. And they know that there's a common set of experiences, that no one's going to look at them and think, "You are intellectually inferior. You're stupid. You don't belong," or "You got in and took someone else's space who was more deserving."
And there's also -- even though some of my students do come from fairly well-to-do backgrounds, there's a common set of experiences that people have because of racial prejudice. Not because they're the same, but because the forces acting on them are similar. Let me explain what I mean.
Almost all of my male students, if they personally haven't been stopped by the cops and frisked for no good reason, their brother was or their cousin was or their father was. That resonates in a way that -- that it wouldn't in a predominantly white setting. So it -- race is not symmetrical. You sometimes can't just flip things around and say, "Would it be different if it -- if you turned everyone from all black to all white?" because institutions like Howard exist because there was a time when, well, it was crime to teach someone who was black how to read and write. So that you can't look and say it's a mirror image.
LAMB: You're on the board of Gallaudet College?
WU: Yes. Yes. I'm very proud...
LAMB: What is it?
WU: It's the only university in the world that's predominantly for the deaf and hard of hearing. It's here in Washington, D.C. I've been doing that for about two years. I'm starting to learn sign language, ASL. I'm a very slow learner. And I'm pleased to be there because it's introduced me to a whole new culture. It's made me realize that the deaf can do anything I can do. In fact, they can do many things better than I can do. The only thing they can't do is hear. But other than that, it's mainly stereotypes and misconceptions that hold them back.
And I'm pleased to be there as someone who's hearing because my goal is to work on these causes as a matter of principle, recognizing that it's not just charity work. I'm learning tremendously from this about deaf culture, about sign language. It's making me think about issues in a completely definitely way. It's really just opened my eyes. And I think that's what we all have to do a little more of, put ourselves in those places where we're the one and only, where people don't expect us to be.
But this is a way that race and these issues, that it's not a mirror image. Let me explain what I mean. Imagine two similar people, equally talented. Let's say they're new lawyers. They don't have to be lawyers. They could be bankers. They could be people climbing the corporate ladder in any setting . They could be, you know, teachers. Imagine one white and one black. Let's say they're both talented, both bright, both go to a downtown law firm, both want to succeed.
What happens to the person who's white? They become increasingly insulated among others who are like them -- look like them, have the same experiences of race, tend to come from the same backgrounds, because we know even though law firms are making laudable efforts, by and large, most major elite downtown law firms have maybe one African-American partner, usually someone pretty junior, or maybe two. And there's still plenty where there's not a single African-American who's ever been a partner or a senior partner.
So as this white attorney climbs the ranks, they're less and less likely to interact with African-Americans as equals. Well, maybe there'll be a janitor or someone cleaning their office, but the likelihood that when they go to a meeting with their client, their corporate client who can afford their $250 billing rate, that that room is going to include African-Americans -- slim to none. They're invited to join a country club. They go to that country club, almost no chance there's going to be an African-American member of their -- and so on and so forth. So for this person who's white, they don't have to think about race.
Sometimes my white friends say to me, very nice, sincere people, they say, "Well, get over it? Why don't you lighten up? Why are you upset? Why did you write a book?" They say, "I don't really think about race very often at all." And they're right. That's just the point. They don't have to unless they're lost downtown and feel a little nervous. They see people standing on the street corner who don't look like them. "Better lock my doors." They don't have to think about race. They can disregard African-American culture. They don't have to know anything about jazz if they don't want to. They don't have to eat grits or greens. They -- they don't have to learn anything about black …
Contrast that to the African-American. The irony here is the more successful that African-American young lawyer is, the more they have to integrate themselves into white culture. They have to walk like whites. They have to talk like whites. They have to shake hands like whites. They have to learn the right fork to pick up when they're invited to their boss's house. They have to mimic whites in every way and leave behind African-Americans. They're going to be isolated, more and more likely to be the only one who looks like them.
So there's this asymmetry. And Asian-Americans fit sort of halfway in the scheme. There are Asian-Americans who live in white neighborhoods or go to school at schools that are predominantly white, with a few Asian-Americans sprinkled in there. So we can say we understand a little bit of what that life is like. We can also say to African-Americans, "We understand what it's like to be a person of color, to face bias, to have people judge you when you show up on the basis of nothing other than your physical appearance." So there's this asymmetry.
And what I'm always trying to do is put myself in new places to get new experiences. I don't suggest that there's one solution or one answer. But if I had any advice for people, it would be put yourself in that new place. If you're white, go someplace not just to look around but to join. Go to a black church and join and say, "I will come to this church. I will break bread and -- with people who don't look like me, whose cultural backgrounds are different. And I will become part of that community."
And all it takes is a few experiences like that, if you're the only white person in the room and you're not the one in charge but you're just one other person in the room, and you're not even talking about ….You're doing something else. You're in a classroom, all black, and you're the only white person. You'll very quickly get a little glimpse. It's not the same as walking in someone else's shoes, but you at least get a glimpse.
And being on the Gallaudet board, doing things like that -- that's all part of my personal journey that I'm trying to share of understanding what it's like to be somebody else, to -- and what it's like to -- to transcend my own identity.
LAMB: From Detroit high school, where did you go to school?
WU: I went to college at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and then I went back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to...
LAMB: Studied -- what did you study?
WU: I studied writing, so -- you know, my parents thought I was doomed, you know? They wanted me to be a doctor or a scientist. They're very much Asian parents. You know, when I got into law school, my mother said, "Oh, you'll probably make a lot of money, but you still won't be a doctor," you know?
And I talk a little bit about some of the bad advice my parents gave me when I was growing up.
LAMB: Bad in what sense?
WU: Well, bad in the sense that it didn't prepare me for the diverse world that we live in. You know, I -- I'd go home and I'd say, "Well, I was being picked on at school, and it was racial, and the teachers didn't do anything." I'd tell my parents this. And you know what they'd say? They'd admonish me. They'd say, "You should try harder. Fit in more. Don't make a fuss." And I was pretty angry about that for a long time.
And I'm ashamed to admit this now, but I was grown up sort of embarrassed of my parents. I was embarrassed of that because they had accents. They didn't laugh at the right time, you know, when they watched TV sitcoms, and they were just sort of awkward. Even as a kid, if they needed to write a letter to the phone company -- you know, maybe there was a dispute about something -- they'd have me write it because they knew my English was better, even, you know, when I was 9 or 10. And I knew that my friends' parents wouldn't be my parents' friends.
What I didn't realize is that my parents weren't blaming me, they were blaming themselves because what I didn't know, because I was naive as a kid -- I thought, "Well," you know, "adults don't use these words. They don't go around doing these things." I didn't realize my parents faced this every day at work, and it's even more severe because they have to put up with it. It's coming from their boss. You know, they got to bring home a paycheck, and they've got a family to raise and feed.
So my parents, when they encountered this, you know what they did? They blamed themselves. They thought it was because they had accents, because they laughed at the wrong times when watching TV sitcoms because they didn't quite get things. They thought it was entirely their fault.
So now that I'm older, I appreciate that. My parents did something I could never do. They put down new roots. They learned a new language. They learned a new culture. They succeeded. They raised me and my brothers well enough that, well, we're doing OK. You know, I could never do that. I'd have to, you know, move to Australia. And actually, that wouldn't even be enough. I'd have to move someplace where I don't know the language. I'd have to move to France and do fantastically well to match the triumph of my parents.
But they had all sorts of advice for me, such as "Fit in," you know? "Don't be controversial." I sometimes -- if I'm on TV doing something like this and I'll send the tape to my mother, she'll call me up and after she tells me that I need a better haircut, she'll say, "You know, Frank, stop being so controversial. Bad for your career." And I don't have the heart to tell her I've made a career out of being controversial.
Her advice is very much the advice of Asians, and it's very much the advice of any newcomer because they're concerned with things other than Civil Rights and protesting. And that strategy worked for them. What I'm trying to suggest, though, is sometimes we Asian-Americans -- and I spend a good amount of my time taking Asian-Americans to task. There are Asian-Americans who have terrible racial attitudes, who think that they're better than whites and blacks, who behind closed doors say awful things about blacks and sound no different than someone who's white who's in the KKK. It's really appalling.
But aside from that, Asian-Americans sometimes don't even stand up and speak out for themselves. There's no Asian-American Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. And you might not like the strategies or styles of those two leaders, but you can bet anywhere in the United States, someone does something that's bad, that shows bias or prejudice toward African-Americans, one of those two or someone else who's local will be boycotting, marching, will be on TV, will be given the opportunity to be on TV, will raise a fuss until something is done about that.
Asian-Americans, what is our response? We just kind of smile and laugh nervously and blame ourselves and consent to it. And part of my message is, look, if -- if we just smile at people who are abusing us, they're going to think it's OK and just continue to do it. You know, wake up, stand up for yourself.
LAMB: Where are your parents now?
WU: My parents did something that -- that surprised me. I had no idea this would happen. It sort of fits a stereotype, I suppose. My parents moved to Taiwan about a year-and-a-half ago. My father worked for his entire life at Ford, and he had a great opportunity to do some consulting in Taiwan. And he's, you know, the proverbial, you know, big fish in a small pond. So they went back to check it out.
And it's funny because my mother realized that she doesn't really fit into Taiwan because it's been 40 years since she's lived there, and 40 years in a developing nation like that -- it's amazing. You know, the Taiwan she left as a girl is not like the one that she's gone back to. She's very much an American now. You know, she -- not as much as I am, but she's louder, brasher, doesn't, you know, know quite how to defer and do the thing that they would do there. And all of her friends are here in the United States. This is where her life is.
So they're not sure. They're undecided, are they going to stay or are they no going to stay? But you know, I'm always a little wary, I'm a little nervous about telling strangers that because it's just going to confirm this image of, "Wow, the Asians, they come here for a little while, then they go back." You know, it's this idea that -- that we ultimately go back to where we came from, and that's where we -- we belong.
But you know, what's interesting is that has been true for all of U.S. history. If you actually study the numbers, white immigrants -- 80, 90 percent of white immigrants from certain nations, from certain villages, went back. It was perfectly common to spend 40 years here and then go back to Ireland, to the same village that you left as a kid in the 1910s or '20s.
LAMB: Do you happen -- do you happen to know, of the 10 million Asian-Americans, how many of those folks were born here in this country?
WU: Yes. A minority.
LAMB: A minority?
WU: Yeah. Most Asian-Americans today, about two thirds of Asian-Americans, were born overseas, are foreign-born. And sometimes people say to me, "Well, you know, that's why it's OK that we think you're foreign because, well, it's more true than not." And part of my book is about stereotypes that have that germ of truth to them.
A lot of stereotypes have that germ of truth to them. A lot of them are reasonable. And if we're really going to be color-blind, we have to overcome not just the irrational, crazy stereotypes -- you know, the idea that Jews are born with horns or tails, you know, things that are just -- just absurd -- but even the stereotypes that are sometimes rational.
Sometimes I'll talk about these issues, and people will say to me, "But isn't it reasonable, though, if you see someone who's black and male who's a stranger, it's late at night, you're downtown, you're walking by yourself -- isn't it reasonable, sensible, common sense to cross the street because we know -- we know more African-Americans have criminal records than whites. The likelihood that your average African-American male in Washington, D.C., has -- has been behind bars is tremendously high."
The problem with this is it's all too easy to rationalize. It's all too easy for us to say, especially when the rationalization -- when what seems reasonable coincides neatly with the stereotype, for us to say, "Wow, it's reasonable." And you get this self-fulfilling prophecy.
What I always ask is, imagine what it would be like if you were on the receiving end of this stereotype. If everyone's going to think you're a thug, everyone, you know, avoids you because they think you …person won't sit next to you on the bus -- and I say this half jokingly, but I mean this. Well, it makes sense. If I were African-American, you know, I'd be furious. I would be a thug. I'd be a thug because if I'm going to suffer the disadvantages, not every day but often enough, that people stigmatize me and look at me and security guards follow me and I get pulled over by cops and frisked and these things happen, I may as well get the benefits of being a thug.
See, if we choose to just do what seems rational and reasonable in the short term, the subjects of stereotyping -- well, we can't complain if they do exactly that, as well, do what seems to be reasonable to them in the short term. And pretty soon, you get this vicious cycle. It's a downward spiral, and we need to break out of that. And the way to do that is to say, even when stereotypes appear superficially plausible, we have to say no to them.
And the reason the Asian-American stereotype is easier to talk about -- it's not as inflammatory. It's easier for whites and blacks to talk -- because it seems kind of abstract, Asian-Americans as mostly foreign-born, but that's really the same thing as African-Americans and crime. If you're going to talk about numbers, logically it's all the same.
LAMB: What would you say made you the angriest -- or maybe that's not the best way to ask it. Your parents, you said, kept saying to you, you know, "Cool it." Well, what was it in your upbringing that you think got you to this point?
WU: Yeah. It's interesting. I actually almost never get angry about any of this stuff. I wrote a book instead, you know, a way of coping when people say these things.
LAMB: But where did you get your interest?
WU: Yeah. Yeah. You know, people will say things like, "Oh, you Asians, you got nothing to complain about. You're all doing so well." Or sometimes people will say, "You Asians, you're all so polite." I immediately want to do something very rude to that person.
I got this interest because I can't help but being interested -- you know, care about these issues. I don't walk down the street thinking, "Here I go, an Asian-American walking down the street." Other people think about race for me.
Here's an example of something. As it happens, I ride a motorcycle. I'm very happy to do that. And in fact, I'd rather spend my time riding my motorcycle, polishing it, thinking about motorcycles than thinking about race. Ten years ago, when I bought my first bike, I took a safety training class. I went to the class. The teacher was, you know, a real nice guy, fantastic rider. I was amazed. He -- he could do things with such ease. You know, we're in the parking lot. He'd show us how to -- how to turn these really tight corners, weave in and out of cones. And he was trying to help all of us -- a real nice guy.
And he saw that I was riding a Honda, came over to me, and he says, "That's a nice Jap bike." And for the entire two-day course, he's talking to me in a very nice way about "Them Jap bikes, they're getting much better. They used to, you know, not be very good, but now there are some -- there are some nice Jap bikes out there. I was thinking of buying a Jap bike." And he'd just go on, "Jap this," "Jap that." And I didn't know what to say. You know, he's talking to me -- he probably doesn't realize "Jap" is a racial slur. And it's not that it's offensive, it's hurtful. It's demeaning.
WU: Why? Because it's the talk that I heard as a kid. It maybe isn't as bad as the "N" word, but it's a word like that. It's explosive. It packs this force. It says I'm not ordinary. I'm not normal. I don't belong. I don't fit in. Now, that's not what he meant, but he may not realize it links up to all this.
And the other thing he did -- and mind you, this is a nice guy. I appreciated what he was doing. He was trying to help me learn how not to kill myself when I'm out there riding. This class was about 20 people. And this other guy, who was Asian-American -- I didn't know him, and I just signed up for this class when I took it, and lo and behold, another guy who's Asian-American, probably not too much older than me. You know, maybe he was 5, 10 years older than me. We had no contact with each other, didn't sit with each other, not because we were trying to avoid each other. It's just -- you know, it was a bunch of strangers in this class.
The instructor just assumed we were pals, we were buddies, we came together. And that's this funny thing that happens, you know? Doesn't happen every day, but it happens maybe once every couple months. I'll be standing in line at the dry cleaners or to buy a movie ticket, or I do a lot of traveling, I'll be at the airport. I'll be standing in front of, behind or five feet away from some random Asian-looking people. They could be Vietnamese. They could be Korean. Doesn't matter what they are. Could be a family, old, young.
My turn will come to buy my ticket or check in or what have you, and half the time -- not all, half the time, a third of the time -- the clerk will assume I'm the father, the brother, the son, I'm related to these random Asian people. And sometimes they're not even behind me, they're just sort of back there somewhere.
And so it made me realize I think of myself as an American. I think of myself as -- as me, but other people automatically link me. They associate me with others who are Asian.
So I think about these issues because I don't have a choice, because our society is obsessed with them. I can be just interested in motorcycles, and I have to deal with, "Well, what do I say when someone says 'Jap bike'"?
Recently, I was thinking about buying a new bike. And there are these Web sites now that you can go to with chat rooms. You talk about things. I went to one and said, "What kind of bike should I get?" And I -- in the back of my mind, because I don't want to be thinking about race constantly, but in the back of my mind, I thought, "I wonder if anyone's going to say anything about `Jap bikes.'" And I got about 20 answers, nice people helping me out, saying, "Well, here are the pros and cons of this model versus that model." And sure enough, within a day, someone started talking about "Jap bikes."
And you know, it makes me think, "Wow. What am I supposed to do about this?" And I suggest in the book there are different strategies. You don't want to be angry all the time. I'm not angry all the time. Sometimes you tell a joke. Sometimes you ask people, "I'm sorry. What was that you said?" And they come to their senses. Sometimes it's appropriate to get a little angry.
Well, I posted something on this Web site. I was very careful. And I said, "I'm not saying anyone's a racist. You've all been incredibly helpful. I don't know you. You don't know me. We're all strangers. But I do want to point out something. `Jap' is a racial slur and, you know, you might want to think about it." I was -- I tried to couch it in the nicest terms because I was afraid of backlash.
Well, I immediately got two dozen answers, and boy, were they nasty! You know, it was people -- well, some people made fun of my name. Some people said, "Well, I don't see what's wrong with calling it a `Jap bike.' You know, "We -- we call other bikes," you know, "by names. We say `Brit bike' for Triumphs." Of course, that's not a racial slur the way "Jap" is. And 90 percent of the answers were incredibly hostile. Eventually, the moderator of this bulletin board pulled my posting, censored it, just wiped it off.
And what this shows is it's incredibly hard to talk about these issues because, after all, who's the one who brought up race? Half of these posts said, "What's wrong with you? We just want to talk about motorcycles. Why do you have to," you know, "be talking about race?" Well, who was it who used the term "Jap bike"? All I'm doing is observing something and trying to do it as gently as I can. And even that doesn't quite do it.
So I think about these issues partly because there's a certain irony here. I am about as American as you can be. You know, I don't speak Chinese. I'm really bad with chopsticks.
I held up my end of the deal. When I went to school as a 5-year-old, 30 years ago, teacher said to me and the kids said to me -- and if they didn't say it, they made it clear -- that if I assimilated -- the deal was, if I assimilated, they'd accept me. But if I didn't assimilate, they wouldn't. If I continued to eat funny-looking foods, if -- if my English wasn't good, well, then, their view was it was right for them to pick on me because then I would be different. But if I -- if I became like them, they'd accept me.
So I did. I learned how to shoot marbles. I collected baseball cards. I built model airplanes. I know nothing about Chinese culture. I went to college, I was told "You have to study the Western canon." So I did. I know Shakespeare. I'm a huge Shakespeare fan. I can recite for you the opening 45 lines of "Richard III" from memory. And I have no accent. I can pick up the telephone, I could pass as a Smith. I could tell you my name's Frank Smith, and until I showed up and you look at me and say, "Smith? How did you get to be a Smith?" I could, for all practical purposes, if I were invisible, be a Frank Smith."
So that the irony here is the more I fit in, the more I realize there's a dichotomy. I'm not bitter about it, but I realize others -- they reneged on the deal. The deal was I'd fit in, you'd accept me. And yet sometimes I'm still treated as if I'm fresh off the boat.
And then here's the most galling thing. This happens to me every now and then. People say to me, "Oh," you know -- they take pity on me. They say, "That's such a shame you've lost your culture." I want to say, "I've lost my culture? Who do you think took it away from me?" You know? "I can understand my parents are upset because I can't speak Chinese, but who are you to admonish me for not speaking Chinese," you know? "I don't see you learning how to speak French or German."
And it's as if, on the one hand, people expect me to assimilate and be no different, never complain and not talk about these issues, but on the other hand, sometimes be exotically ethnic when they expect me to. And they're disappointed if -- you know, sometimes I have people come up to me, very nice people -- again, what's interesting here is sometimes it's people who -- they want to be considerate, but race is just on their minds. They'll come up to me, and instead of shaking my hand, they'll bow. They'll sort of give me this inept bow.
And you know, I'm not going to bow back. I know how to shake hands. I don't know the ritual of bowing, you know? My parents probably don't even know the proper -- you know, there's a depth, how deep you bow, who you bow to, how many times you bow. We don't know that, and there's no reason should react to me differently.
That's what this book is about, trying to create a situation where we each define ourselves.
LAMB: At the end of the book, you talk about a place called Deep Spring College. Why did you write about it? Where is it? And what impact did it have on you?
WU: It was a terrific place. I was just out there for a week. I'll be teaching there again this year, and I hope to teach there for as long as they'll keep having me back. It's a fantastic experiment. The great thing about the United States is we're always trying different things. Sometimes it doesn't work, but sometimes there are bold, novel ideas that will work.
This is a college that's at the edge of Death Valley. It's all male. It's only 26 students. It's two years. It's full scholarship. It's on a working cattle ranch. Students who go there are kids who turned down Harvard, Stanford, you name it. They could go anywhere they want. They've got top grades and test scores. And they go for two years, then they transfer back out usually someplace like the places they were thinking of.
What's unique about this, in the morning they take classes. These are classes -- amazing -- as freshmen, they're taking classes that seniors at other schools …top-notch seminars. And all afternoon, they run the ranch. It's completely student-run -- student government. Students select who the new students will be. They hire the faculty. They make all the choices. You know, they got 300 head of cattle. They herd them. They learn all these skills. And the idea is to make the complete person.
There's no alcohol, no TV, no leaving campus. So it is a unique place. And what I realized going there -- the reason I -- I talk about people …well, what in the world is actually with "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White"? I realized here's a community. It's a community that people have made. It didn't just spring up overnight. It took someone with a vision. It took people committed to making this community work. It's a democratic community. It's a diverse community. People are equals there.
But it's frustrating. It takes a lot of toil and constant effort. It doesn't maintain itself. It doesn't just run itself. That's what the United States is like. It's a community that takes constant effort. These issues of diversity, they're like our nation itself. They take constant effort. And that's what I'm suggesting. It's a process, not an outcome, where if we participate as equals and all come together, recognizing there's no magic bullet, there's no solution -- we don't get to a racial nirvana overnight. Even if we all pledge to be people of good will and not judge people on the basis of their race, sometimes we just can't help it. We get racial consequences, racial patterns and practices.
And so I talk about Deep Springs because it's -- it shows how hard it is to build and sustain a community, yet that it's possible to build and sustain truly unique communities.
LAMB: How long has it been there, by the way?
WU: It was founded in 1917.
LAMB: Who founded it?
WU: A guy named L.L. Nunn. He was the first person to bring power lines to Niagara Falls.
LAMB: How did you find yourself there?
WU: I had always known about it. It's one of these quirky colleges that I guess you hear about. They send out their -- their catalogue to I think the high school juniors who score on the top, I don't know, 1 percent or 2 percent of the PSAT. So I'd heard of them, you know, 20 years ago, when that was me. And always in the back of my head, I thought, you know, "I should go check it out." I'm always trying to check out these unique places. And what's unique about Deep Springs is everyone there is an individual and everyone is unique. But at the same time, in a funny way, they're all shaped by this experience, so they have a common bond.
And that's what's true of people who are members of racial minority groups, as well. Individuals and unique, yet they share a common bond because of the set of experiences they have.
LAMB: Of the 26 students, what was the make-up of the student body?
WU: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, they've been trying to become more mixed, more mixed in racial terms. When I was there, I think it was 22 were white and 4 were Asian or Asian-American. So they've got a ways to go.
LAMB: No African-Americans?
WU: Yeah, no African-Americans, for complicated reasons. I can see why -- because first of all, they're going after a very unique group of students. You know, these are students who are performing fantastically well. And they're the ones who are, well, all a little crazy. They're the ones who will go out to the desert for two years and commit to helping run a cattle ranch. You know, not many people of any racial background want to do this.
And so it's very hard to get someone who's African-American and male who got into Harvard. You know, there's a lot of pressure if you're the first in your family to go to college, you know, Harvard's offering you a big scholarship, to say, "Hey, I'm going to go to the desert for two years instead." So they're working on it, but this shows how even when you're working on these issues in good faith, you can't always just fix them. You can't wish them so.
Let me give you a very quick example of these racial patterns because I always try to make this concrete when I talk about race. I don't want people to think this is all abstract, I'm just some, you know, egghead, you know, ivory tower type. Here in Washington, D.C., you know, in the nation's capital, people who live here know we're majority minority. Most of D.C. is African-American, more than 70 percent. Yet everyone who's been here for any time at all who's not a tourist knows there are some neighborhoods of D.C. that aren't just predominantly white, they're almost exclusively white -- upper northwest -- you know, fancy, very exclusive neighborhoods. There's color coding as -- they -- there's no sign there that says, "Blacks stay out." There are no laws that say only white people can buy real estate here. In fact, there are laws that prohibit that sort of racial bias.
And I'll make you a bet. If you survey 1,000 people in ward 3 or 4 of D.C. -- Chevy Chase, D.C., the most exclusive neighborhoods, big, well-manicured lawns, fancy houses, luxury cars parked out front. If you knocked on the doors or rang the doorbells and said to each of the people who came to the doors -- and there are whole blocks where I assure you, from the census data and just from walking around, you know you're not going to see a single person of color. Maybe you'll see one Asian-American, but you could go 20, 30, 40 houses and it's going to be all white …
You survey 1,000 of those home owners, maybe 1 of them will say something racial. There rest are going to say -- if you say "Why do you live here? I'm taking a poll," they're going to say "Nice neighborhood. I grew up here. Close to the Metro. Good shopping. Good schools. Safe. My realtor suggested it. I've got friends who" -- they'll tell you all sorts of things. Not one of them is going to say, "I live here because black folks don't live next door."
And I'd like to believe these people. I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, trust them that every one of them made -- and of course, you know, they made conscious decisions. They didn't just drop in from the sky into their houses. They spent a half million dollars or a million dollars to buy this house. It was a purposeful choice …a lot of other houses.
I'm willing to take them at their word that race was not for a moment on their minds. Well, that -- this is the paradox that we have, right? All these individuals make decisions, each one of them individually innocent, except for maybe one extremist. Yet you have an unmistakable racial pattern. It's unmistakable. It's as strongly racial as if you put up a sign.
Well, what do we do about that? And that's what I'm trying to address in "Yellow." What do we do about these problems? We do have the serious ones, the extremists, the egregious cases. I don't doubt that. I talk about that, too. But what do we do about these ones where it's nice people? They're well-meaning people. There are just these intractable problems. They're a legacy of our history that are part of the stereotyping we all absorb as part of our culture? That's the tough question.
LAMB: What about the reverse of it? You could have gone over here to another neighborhood where it's all black.
WU: You'll find some neighborhoods like that, but what's interesting is the black neighborhoods -- fancy houses -- those houses are worth $50,000, $100,000 less than in the white neighborhoods, even if you match up all the same features. Everyone knows that one side of Rock Creek Park, the park that divides D.C., is -- well, has higher housing values than the other side of Rock Creek Park. And any realtor will tell you, if you buy on one side, your house isn't going to rise in value quite as quickly.
I think sometimes people say, "Well, don't African-Americans want to segregate themselves? Aren't they all trying to -- to," you know, "form their own clubs or their own cliques?" Well, some of that's true. That's true of Asian-Americans. It's true of many groups. And if we want to really have a racially diverse, integrated society, we have to fight our own tendencies to do that.
But partly, there's a difference. And African-American who wants to have a neighborhood that's predominantly African-American is trying to create something where for once they're not the only person in the room who looks that way. I think African-Americans should have a choice, should have those places where -- where, yes, they're part of the mix, but also have those institutions where for once, whites are in the minority. There are very few places that whites have to go to where they'll find when they look around that most people look different than they do. That's a good experience for all of us to have. If we're really going to be color-blind, everyone has to have that experience.
Sometimes people look at this -- all these changes -- you know, Pat Buchanan just wrote a book decrying all these changes. You know, soon our nation will make a transition never before made by any society in human history anywhere on the face of the globe. Within our lifetimes, we will cease to have single identifiable racial majority. That's scary to some folks. I don't want it to be. I want it to be reassuring….people look. Don't worry about your grandchildren competing against my grandchildren because, well, your grandchildren are going to be my grandchildren. There's going to be intermarriage. And we have a shared future here.
But if whites are anxious about being a minority, you know what that shows? It shows two things. One, it shows that there's some advantages to being white. There's a hierarchy. They'd have to give something up. And second, it shows we're not yet really color-blind because if we're color-blind, whites could never look around the room and say, "Whoa! I'm a minority." They'd be color-blind. We'd all just sort of fade away. But that's not how it works. We may aspire to that, but we don't have that reality.
LAMB: Your brothers, Nelson and Carson, what do they do?
WU: They're writers. They -- they're twins. Nelson edits and English-language newspaper in Taiwan, and Carson edits a magazine on -- on, well, how to learn this language...
LAMB: In Taiwan?
WU: Yeah. They both moved to Taiwan. Nelson married a girl who's from Taiwan, and then Carson -- well, because they're twins -- twins have, I think, a special bond. You know, he moved over there, too. And so that leaves me, to my shock, the only member of my immediate family residing in the United States. But that's -- I'm amazing that my brothers did this because my brothers were born in Detroit. You know, they lived their entire lives here. For them to make this transition -- it's not one that I envy. I would not make that transition.
LAMB: You went to University of Michigan law school?
WU: That's right.
LAMB: Any other schooling in there before you got to Howard, where you teach?
WU: Well, I taught for a year as a fellow at Stanford. I practiced law in San Francisco for a few years, just long enough so I know what I'm talking about in the classroom.
LAMB: And next year, where are you going to be teaching?
WU: I'm going to go back to the law school that I went to, to visit for a year, and as a faculty member. Looking forward to that. It'll be very different. Very different.
LAMB: Chairman of the D.C. Human rights Commission?
WU: That's right. That's something else that I do because I believe in these causes, and I want to make sure that I'm involved. So I'm not just writing and talking.
LAMB: You want to run for office some day?
WU: If you'd vote for me, I'll think about it!
LAMB: But what's the -- is that something that's in the back of your head?
WU: Well, I -- people ask me that every now and then, and I'm flattered. I'm tremendously flattered. I'm -- I don't think that's where my strengths are. I'm here to talk about these issues and try to cultivate leaders. What I'm trying to suggest is every one of us has to see this as not a burden but as our responsibility. We can't just wait for someone to emerge to say, "I will be the leader. I will be the spokesperson." I always turn down that role. I say, "No, it's not me. It's all of us. It's every one of us. It's a shared, common cause."
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. It's called "Yellow," and our guest has been Frank Wu.
Thank you very much.
WU: Thank you.
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