By Belle Vang, COSS Communications Student Assistant
Professor Thomas-Whit Ellis, Africana Studies (AFRS) program coordinator and Theatre Arts professor, shares his experience of being a Black scholar in different countries–the United States, Japan, and Taiwan–comparing the dissimilar interactions towards his racial identity.
Ellis pursued his bachelor’s degree in broadcasting at Sacramento State and finished his education on the other side of the camera with a Masters of Fine Arts at Michigan State University. After several years teaching at Fresno State, he was selected as a Fulbright scholar and posted at the National Taiwan University’s newly formed Theatre Arts Department in 2000-2001.
“National Taiwan University is the flagship university of the higher learning system in Taiwan, but they didn’t have any African American students or professors,” Ellis laughs. “So I was the only Black person on campus.”
He says his status as a Fulbright scholar transcended his race in Taiwan. Due to this, faculty and staff treated him like royalty. Even while knowing Ellis would only teach there for a semester, the National Taiwan University faculty included him in every meeting and discussion regarding the drama department and asked for his input on all matters from renovation plans to curriculum development. Ellis welcomed the inclusion and even joked about it with them.
“After one long meeting, I asked if they thought I was white because they treated me with such respect and deference,” Ellis recalls. “It was a joke that had them all laughing, but I had never experienced this, not even as a tenured at my home department, here.”
Ellis compared his experience directing theatre in Taiwan to an English teaching (TEFL) position he took in Japan two years prior. He was also the only Black person in the Japanese town in which he lived, but Ellis shared that the Japanese community treated him like he was no different than anybody else and were extremely respectful.
“They treated me like I was no big deal, but in a good way, like I blended right in,” Ellis exclaims. “In Taiwan, I was a bit of an oddity at various places, but in Japan, nobody stared or noticed my differentness–not even children.”
The cultural shift of Ellis’ experience contradicted the ideas of what he would encounter teaching and directing abroad–but in a good way. Even when participating in everyday activities like shopping, Ellis commented on how the Japanese always treated him with the utmost respect whereas in America as an American citizen, he’s dealt with being treated as a “thug” or shoplifter all his life.
This is not an uncommon experience that many people of color experience. Ellis provided examples of the tensions between Black and Korean communities in Los Angeles.
“They almost always watch Blacks in convenience stores and shops to guard against the preconceived notion that all Blacks are shoplifters,” Ellis grimaces. “To be fair, I experience the same treatment in white stores. This ‘watching’ appears to have been originated by whites and adopted by Korean shopkeepers. In making these observations, it’s important to not present overblown generalizations, but historically, many Angelenos will note the tensions that have existed between these communities, especially in the 90’s.”
The perception of stereotyping Blacks as criminals and lazy is a direct result of biased media reporting, social media, and conservative talk shows, where the ongoing theme is black criminality. Ellis agrees that minorities who are laser-focused on hard work and responsibility resent those perceived traits, which contribute to animosity towards the Black community.
He comments that it appears some Asian Americans who identify as conservatives are not necessarily anti-Black but pro-business. The objective is the attempt to follow and blend into the American culture that can often be cruel to those labeled as “outsiders.” Despite this clash of stereotyped cultures, Ellis continues to highlight the similarities between the minorities.
“There is still a common bond between many minorities due to the general oppression of all ethnic minorities as being regarded as subhuman by much of white culture,” Ellis states. “That’s one of the things that is really frustrating. There are coalitions being formed politically but it gets harder to do among regular, grassroots organizers because they are constantly pitted against one another for pieces of the social-economic pie.”
Teacher-scholars like Dr. Jenny Banh, Asian American Studies (ASAM) program co-coordinator and Anthropology assistant professor, emphasize the importance to recognize the structural factors that led to some Asian and African American mutual distrust. In Banh’s classes, she addresses these issues through literature written by Asian Americans, such as Unsettled by Eric Tang. Tang specifically states that Southeast Asian Americans were settled into what he terms “hyperghettos” where there were poorly funded urban schools in working-class areas.
The minorities in these areas were extremely underprivileged and under-resourced. Both groups were subject to the “divide and conquer” technique where minorities were pitted against one another to get the few resources that were offered. These new Southeast Asian residents were not received well by the other underprivileged minorities which led to bullying and robberies of the Asians.
Today, many Asian American groups are confronting and putting forth efforts to educate their own community about racism by supporting movements like Black Lives Matter. Banh encourages activities like these by highlighting the importance of coalitions between undermined groups. She shares that the primary reason minorities like Asians and Latinos are able to be in America is because of the 1965 Hart Celler Act fought for by the African American community, allowing for equal immigration for all groups.
In the face of antipathy between the Black and Asian American communities, Banh highlights Asian American activists in history who committed their entire lives advocating for the African American community such as Chinese American Grace Lee Boggs, a lifelong African American social activist; Japanese American Yuri Kochiyama, a longstanding civil rights advocate; and Japanese American Richard Masato Aoki, an early member of the Black Panther Party. Banh puts in endless efforts in creating Afro-Asian coalitions by educating her students of the parallels in underserved communities and how to be an activist in “Introduction to Asian Americans” (ASAM 15).
This semester, she invited Dr. Herbert Ruffin II, Syracuse University African American Studies chair and professor, to educate faculty, staff, and students on California’s Black Power Movement. Her endeavors of bringing a world-renowned African American historian emphasizes the importance of Asian American studies building coalitions with African American studies.
“I want the students to understand the history of civil rights and how it affects them today,” Banh highlights. “It’s an ongoing struggle that’s not yet ended; we’re also a part of this history.”
Banh and Ellis continue to develop curriculum to combat stereotypes and segregation amongst minorities by empowering their students to learn about social justice and collaborating to create coalitions.
Ellis highlights the cruciality of becoming educated about different communities on a college campus because it provides opportunities to learn about contrasting cultures. He applies this to his courses by teaching “African-American Theatre” (DRAMA 187) and working to produce proper representation of minorities. He is currently directing Detroit ‘67, a production with performances March 20-28th.
Banh was a part of the 50th Anniversary of Ethnic Studies Celebration committee at Fresno State. This event brought in over two dozen speakers to campus and included the original Ethnic Studies activists and professors as well as the current Ethnic Studies professors. The final group to present during the event was the Central Valley’s African American students who were fighting for ethnic studies in the classroom. Over 450 multicultural community members attended this event.
“Everybody stays separated, but once you get on a college campus, all bets are off,” Prof. Ellis emphasizes. “It’s different than what happens in the community. Blacks, Asians, browns–we all form coalitions. We respect one another.”