“Asians in the Library”: Internet Intolerance

By April 8, 2011The WIN Column

“Asians in the Library”: Internet Intolerance and a Wake-Up Call to the Gay Community

This March, UCLA student Alexandra Wallace shot to viral Internet infamy with her offensive “Asians in the Library” video. In 3 short minutes posted onto YouTube, Alexandra bemoans the “hordes” of Asian students accepted at UCLA. She urges them to adopt “American manners.” She complains about Asians making mobile phone calls in the library to family impacted by the recent tsunami in Japan. And to top it all off, she offers a mocking interpretation of Asian languages, complete with “ching chong ling long ting tong.” One million video views and a firestorm of racial backlash later, count me as one of those offended. In fact, I am triply-offended as someone who is Asian, an immigrant and a UCLA alumnus. But as a gay man, I was even more disheartened. While “Asians in the Library” depicted racial intolerance, it should also ring loud wake-up calls to the LGBT community.

First, gays and lesbians must remain vigilant to win the hearts and minds of today’s “Millennial Generation.” Our community believes that today’s younger population is more exposed to gay peers and media imagery, is more tolerant, and thus will support us in greater numbers. Certainly, polling data indicates that younger age translates into greater support for marriage equality and other gay rights. But we should not take the “youth vote” for granted. While Millennials may be more open-minded, we can’t rely on them to automatically be champions of gay rights. We must still educate Generation Y about equality and tolerance.

Alexandra Wallace proves that point. She is growing up at a time of greater racial diversity in America. Until she withdrew from UCLA due to the firestorm from her video, she was attending a major metropolitan university surrounded by students of many ethnicities, including yes, plenty of Asians. Even back when I attended UCLA in the early 1990s, it was already jokingly nicknamed the “University of Caucasians, Lost among Asians.” Today, the Asian population on campus is apparently even greater (some 37% of UCLA’s 26,000 undergraduates.) If exposure to minorities supposedly makes you more accepting, Alexandra’s time at UCLA should have turned her into one of the most Asian-friendly people in the country. To the contrary, it obviously brought out latent disdain of foreigners, people who don’t use “American manners.” And to think, Alexandra called this “an attempt to produce a humorous YouTube video.” She cannot be serious.

I’m sure Alexandra does not represent the opinion of all, or even most, Caucasian youth. But I’m also certain that Alexandra is not alone, and there are others her age with equally intolerant beliefs. They just haven’t been shortsighted enough to record them on YouTube for the world, and oh yeah, future employers, to see.

So gay community, please take this wake-up call. If college students can spew racist comments about Asians, some of them also harbor disdain for gays and lesbians. In our continuing battle for LGBT rights, don’t take for granted that the Millennial Generation is automatically aboard our train to equality. We must still focus efforts on winning their hearts and minds. Luckily for us, many of those young hearts and minds are more receptive.

Second, the gay community needs to denounce intolerance against any minority group. Public reaction to “Asians in the Library” was swift, with Alexandra Wallace decried as an ignorant racist. People debated whether UCLA should expel her for violating the student code of conduct (the university ultimately did not.) The story landed in the New York Times and other media. Yet amidst the firestorm, where was the massive outcry from the gay community?

While the video exhibited racism, it also personified intolerance against any minority group. To win our civil rights movement, the LGBT community needs support from racial and other minorities. We saw this in the legal battles over California’s Proposition 8. Numerous racial organizations – including the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, California NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. – filed “friend of the court” briefs urging the California Supreme Court to strike down Proposition 8. They argued that fundamental rights of minority groups should not be stripped by a simple majority vote. While those arguments did not convince the California Supreme Court, it was heartening to see other historically-oppressed minorities support a prime LGBT cause. That’s because they recognize an attack on one minority group is an attack against all of them.

Yet, we did not reciprocate when Asian culture was under viral attack. Given the recent tragedies caused by cyberbullying against gay youth, gays and lesbians should be particularly sensitive to intolerant Internet speech like “Asians in the Library.” But why weren’t we decrying Alexandra Wallace all over Facebook, Twitter, or their social media platform of choice? Sure, I saw some gay friends remark that Alexandra was ignorant and gave UCLA a bad name. But there was no groundswell of gay criticism.

Likely, that’s because gays and lesbians just were not as offended as we Asians were. After all, the video was not about “Gays in the Library.” (Do gays even speak loudly on cell phones in libraries?) Without “gay” in the title or subject matter, maybe we just didn’t care enough. Or perhaps it was the weight of the subject matter. Mocking Asians on cell phones is bad, but not as important to our community as winning civil rights.

But gays and lesbians still should care. Many racial minorities support us for marriage equality. We need to stand in solidarity with them to denounce any intolerance against people merely for being different.

This was a lost opportunity for the gay populace to win more support from our racial minority allies. It was also a missed chance for us to better dialogue about race issues in our own LGBT community.

I don’t wish for another “Asians in the Library”-type video to explode on YouTube. But invariably, more intolerance will spread through the Internet. When the next Alexandra Wallace emerges, I hope all my LGBT brothers and sisters vehemently shout our collective disapproval.

Before withdrawing from UCLA, Alexandra Wallace issued an apology letter through the school’s Daily Bruin newspaper. She wrote that “I have offended the UCLA community and the entire Asian culture. . . I would do anything to take back my insensitive words. I could write apology letters all day and night, but I know they wouldn’t erase the video from your memory, nor would that act to reverse my inappropriate action.”

Alexandra is right. It’s hard to take back insensitive words. Even after reading her apology, I remain multiply-offended as an Asian, an immigrant, a UCLA . . .and a gay man. But I’ll try to forgive Alexandra and hope she learns some valuable life lessons from this mistake. In fact, I hope she will vote one day in favor of marriage equality.

Meanwhile, I hope my fellow gays and lesbians get this wake-up call. Don’t take the Millennial Generation for granted. And stand by our minority allies when they are the victims of prejudice. We would hope they stand by us, if one day YouTube explodes with a video called “Gays in the Library.”