UCLA’s Asian RacistA video about talking in the library goes national.
Alexandra Wallace, the so-called “Asian Racist,” is a political science student at UCLA who uploaded a YouTube video complaining about Asians talking on their cell phones in the library. The video has become the flashpoint for a national discussion about racial insensitivity and the limits of free speech. Wallace has since dropped out of UCLA after having her class schedule posted on the Internet and receiving multiple death threats. But what does the video, and the response it has evoked, actually say about American society?
Alexandra Wallace is a fool, but not for the reasons people think. In fact, the basic premise of her rant is quite sound: don’t talk loudly on your cell phone in the library. She even says, albeit as an afterthought, “even if you’re not Asian, you really shouldn’t be on your cell phone in the library,” which she promptly qualifies, “but I’ve just never seen that happen before.” But too little too late. By this point, the offended are already offended.
Wallace’s most basic mistake was to take an inconsiderate action and generalize it to an entire group of people composed of many different ethnicities. That makes her a moron. Then, she assumes that the trend must come from a cultural or racial deficiency. Hence the, “if you’re going to come to UCLA, then use American manners,” and, “Hi, in America, we do not talk on our cell phones in the library!” Asia, she seems to imply, is a land of cell phone library talkers, which might be okay there, but not in the U S of A. This makes her ignorant.
But all this is forgivable. In the jungle of college campuses, the moron and the ignoramus are not endangered species. And the fact that she is a political science major only adds to the farce.
But what makes her a fool is that she filmed these offensive thoughts and then uploaded it to the third most visited website on the planet. Many people, including UCLA’s Asian Pacific Coalition, which wrote a beautiful rebuttal to the situation, are assuming malice where clearly ignorance and foolishness will suffice. Wallace would never have put this on YouTube if she’d known a million strangers would watch it. Instead, she would have commiserated with friends and shared her stereotypical views privately like the rest of us. Sure, Wallace will think twice before blurting out some culturally insensitive remark and videotaping it again, but probably out of fear and not understanding or compassion.
The condemnations of Wallace—the name-calling and death threats—are as without merit as the original remarks. Denouncing the tirade of an angry buffoon isn’t going to educate anyone. What makes Wallace’s video abrasive is that she doesn’t try to understand any of the, shall we say, Asian phenomena around her: she doesn’t ask herself why Asian parents might visit their children on the weekends, and just generalizes that it is something that “all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around” her do. There are reasons why some Asian parents “don’t teach their kids to fend for themselves,” as with Little Emperors in China, but understanding these reasons is not the aim of her video. Although Wallace’s depictions are not entirely wrong, her way of thinking is.
But what about us? Why are we getting mad at an ignorant person venting on the Internet? Isn’t that the Internet? What is the difference between this rant and a bad standup routine? In the lighter moments, that is, before she jokes about the tsunami, one can almost tell that she is joking. At least that’s how I read the, “So being the polite, nice, American girl that my momma raised me to be,” line. In the end, who knew what she was thinking. In fact, she probably wasn’t. But the hurtful and hateful responses, the information mining, the death threats, those are calculated, and much more dangerous. Intolerance is alive and well, but most people know better than to upload it to the Internet.
The Alexandra Wallace affair merely reinforces the idea of the Internet as Panopticon, in which the private and public spheres have been blurred to the point that it’s all a public sphere. It used to be that there was a very delineated and specific way that you entered the public discourse, with clearly marked ways of speaking and behaving that signaled that you wanted to be heard and that you could be judged for it. This of course allowed for institutionalized hypocrisy, but it was accompanied by decorum and boundaries; there were limitations on acceptable targets.
There are no longer any limits, and the Internet is a free-fire zone. It’s easy to pick on Wallace as a target because her words were incredibly offensive, her choice of venue was ridiculously visible, and the whole debacle shows her lack of awareness of the reality of the Internet. But not every case is as extreme as Wallace’s.
Should Gilbert Gottfried have been fired by Aflac for making off-color Twitter jokes about the recent tsunami? How about former Washington Post blogger David Weigel, who was forced to resign for making inflammatory comments about conservatives on a private LISTSERV years before he even took the Post job?
The most disturbing development is how Wallace has been rendered a non-person by this incident. She seems to have realized her grievous error and is trying to withdraw from the public sphere. She’s already been branded and humiliated and she’s making a tactical retreat, but that’s not enough. The Internet is legion; it neither forgives nor forgets. Wallace tried to take her bikini photos off the Internet, but someone found them and posted them back up so the world can crack jokes about her tits. The Internet finds her personal information and her address and circulates it; it issues threats and attacks every possible outlet that Wallace has out into the world. The human flesh search engine demands blood, and once someone like Wallace makes a mistake like this she only exists as a target to be violated and destroyed.
The sad thing is that Wallace is only a visible target like this because she lacks the power to defend herself. She’s simply a girl with some unfortunate prejudices who made a mistake and expressed those prejudices in a way that allowed a vendetta to accrete against her. There are plenty of people with the same prejudices, some of whom have their hands on the levers of power and can actively use them to oppress. They will avoid the punishment that Wallace received simply because they’re more conscious of their audiences and can manipulate them more easily. For them, there will never be retribution.