Being a Young Ethnic Male in Los Angeles Academic Conferences, Public Lectures, and Public Basketball Courts

Posted on May 28, 2010 by


In my quest to determine my career path, I’ve observed around 60-70 lectures, conferences, symposiums in the past four years all across LA spanning a wide variety of topics.

Topics of these lectures, conferences, and symposia have ranged from the possibility of opening a street car on Broadway in Los Angeles to 3-day conferences on transcultural psychiatry.

There were topics I attended just for the fuck of it, like one about mustang horses and their prevalance in American culture, and a conference on the History of the Pacific Islands.

I went to a bunch of public policy panels dealing with health care, higher education access, local government.  I was very interested in the histories of everything from sciences to Los Angeles.

I went to Caltech for random neuroscience-related discussions.

All of this was conference, lecture, symposia-going was just food to feed my thinking, which I’d hope to use later in my career.

Who exactly goes to these academicky things?

As far as conferences and symposia go, besides me, it’s professors and graduate school students.

What age are most of the attendees?  Middle-aged and older people blended in with young people.

As far as public lectures, it’s also mostly middle-aged – older…*wait for it*…WHITE people.

When you take race and ethnicity into consideration, there aren’t too many people who fit my racial, ethnic demographic in these conferences, symposia.

My demographic, what is it exactly?

The young ethnic male, AKA the people who are more likely to be in prison than in school. They are also the people that get accused all the time of being general malingerers and gang members, particularly blacks and Latinos.

Being a Chino, more specifically, Filipino, I’m not harassed to the extent that blacks and Latinos are by police. However, on a handful of occasions, police have wanted to know what I was doing in the middle of the day out of school. They wanted to know what I was doing minding my own damn business walking LA’s sidewalks or surveying Metro stations.

Of course, looking like I just skipped by puberty through my lack of facial hair and my cross-country running like upper body, they assumed that I was just ditching school. They had no idea that I had a college degree and probably had more of that book-learnin’ ability than the two of them combined could ever have.

Sadly, neither white academics nor long-term employers have failed to match the level of curiosity that random police officers have always had in me, despite my attempts to be seen in the career-advancing spaces of conferences, lectures, job interviews, and job fairs.

My demographic’s absence was most glaringly apparent at a very small conference at USC on the history of the Pacific and when I was attempting to sit-in on an Albert Einstein symposia at Caltech.

In these discussions, I stuck out like a sore thumb  — a young, hip-hop habitus-ed (i.e. wearing baggy clothes), teenage-looking, no-monied kid walking amongst accomplished, middle-aged or hipper, on-the-ball younger white people with an occasional dropping of smarter, smugger ethnic females.

It’s not like I’m trying to antagonize people by wearing my baggy clothes, it’s just kind of how my clothes are and have been.

In settings like this with the exception of ethnic studies’ events, the conferences and symposia are a constant mental battle of questioning whether I belong.

Without a feeling of “belonging” or “ownership/expertise in a field”, I feel a social anxiety about talking about anything. So with this anxiety, I just kinda sit through a lot of these events indulging in my note-taking.

I only asked questions if I was really really really compelled to. And even then I was quite scared and shaking with a profusion that would make you think I was being exorcised. It wasn’t my place, my role to shake things up. What if I asked a stupid question?

Had I made the mistake of asking a stupid question, I thought “I would be a shame to my people. I would’ve definitely proved why we didn’t belong.” Long story short, I hadn’t seen anyone like me participate, so I didn’t want to do it.

Questions of “belonging” or “ownership/expertise” are not as glaring however when I take off the academic thinking cap and go play basketball in Eagle Rock on Fridays or Sundays.

Playing basketball at a public park, I’m exchanging elbows, shit-talking, a free flowing, witty back-and-forth discourse with the very young ethnic males absent from these aforementioned lectures, conferences, symposia.

This is pretty much the only demographic at many public parks and basketball courts around LA.  That’s our domain. That’s our shit.

If we “own” it, we can feel much freer to express ourselves the way we want. And that’s exactly what happens at the public park basketball courts in LA. The quintessential ethnic male space and place.

But when it comes to finding upward mobility through our careers, particularly in academia, our ethnic female counterparts seem to do a lot better than us.

There isn’t anything wrong with women doing better than men.

However, we need as many people of color as possible infiltrating powerful, influential positions. In my experience, I see considerably less young ethnic males than ethnic females around. And I think there’s something wrong with that.

There’s an idea in the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down that captures how immigrant ethnic males tend to not only lose their positions of power, but get relegated to the lower-end jobs and social status once they get to the US.

The book in particular showed how the power dynamics for Hmong immigrant families dramatically changed once they migrated to the US.   In the old country, the eldest man in the family would be the highest status individual; the youngest female would be the lowest status individual.

However, in the US, that dynamic would be the inverse.  The youngest female Hmong would likely be the highest status individual, assuming she’d be the most likely to succeed in school.  Meanwhile, poor grandpa would be lowest status individual. Why? It’s because he’s not likely to speak English, doesn’t have the skills that our information economy demands, and therefore can’t really participate in the workforce.

What this example shows seems symbolic of a trend I’ve noticed:  ethnic males are either having a hard time breaking into positions of upward mobility here, particularly in academia, (or maybe they are not trying at all.)

At non-ethnic studies academic and public lecture functions, I am and have always been looking for other males of color to be like “aye, what’s happening cuz” with.

In four years, I’ve only seen like two black dudes at all the academicky non-ethnic-studies-related conferences.  I was damn near shocked and mentally celebrating to see a dreadlocked black guy attend the transcultural psychiatry conference. However, I watched him very intently; he interacted with almost no one.

I can’t really tell who the Latinos are sometimes, but the ones that I kick it with don’t seem to match the social habits of the ones I might see at the conferences.

At that same conference with the black dude, I also saw my very first young Filipino dude who wasn’t me. He ended up not being affilated with the conference. He was some kind of Business douchebag.

In contrast to this absence of the ethnic male, ethnic women are a pretty fast emerging group of academics. I see a bunch of them. In clusters. Slowly but surely. I celebrate that fact! However, while they’re there, they are not quite leading the presentations, the panels. They usually aren’t the “experts” that people want to come hear and talk.

How and why are ethnic females rising somewhat faster in academic-like settings?

Maybe because they’ve gotten so much shit for being women and they can see and seize their opportunities. Maybe they have less pride and ego invested in their “other” cultures and have more willingness to adapt. Maybe this willingness to adapt broadens their careers to different things. I have no idea.

So if the women have a flexibility, maybe the males have a more rigid way of doing things. This makes it harder for them to jibe with the cultural norms in America.

Sometimes back on the basketball court I’m thinking, what we as  ethnic males are all doing in life, besides playing basketball. Why can’t we be as flexible with career choice as the females?

So I looked at my own group of friends: the ethnic males on the basketball court.

In my basketball group, I know one engineer, one freshly-minted nurse, a tutor, a few bank employees, and the self-employed alpha player taking accounting classes.

On one hand, its cool, people who didn’t have to go to a UCLA are making a lot more money than I am. They’re off doing their thing, whatever it is — getting married, having kids, etc. Not the worst, but ultimately were not in positions of influence (i.e. policy-making — politics and knowledge-making — academia).

However, if I look at them and then other people I grow up with, it feels like as a people, were just butting heads with a glass ceiling of chosen careers, boxed, bound, and caged in a few professions and not capable of making any breakthroughs anywhere else.

Ethnic male and female I think were all still quite limited in terms of social power and influence.

Human beings tend to make life decisions based mostly on their social groups and networks of influence. So if I was to follow my social group and network of influence I would’ve already been a nurse and maybe not writing this.

It’s really hard to network at places like those conferences, symposia, lectures when you’re communicating with people who represent demographics you didn’t really grow up around. I mean you speak the same language and all, you know what to say, but there’s a certain habitus of speaking, a stiffer way that lets you know implicitly that this isn’t your space to own. You’re only here to rent.

If we can get more young ethnic people in positions of power, maybe we can bridge that communication gap between these demographics we tend not to grow up around and the demographics that we do grow up around. As we bridge that communication gap, we can adapt a shared communication. And as we adapt that sociality and more ethnic males and females can get into influential positions, we can begin to change the perception of what is “normal” and “acceptable” in our communities.

As it is right now, what is “normal” around us is not all that great. What is normal around me is unemployment, nursing, and an expectation that our people will continue to be ignored as knowledge-makers, decision-makers, role models for everyone else and not just our own people.

Nursing isn’t exactly the worse or most degrading profession in the world. I really do think it takes special people to do that. It’s also quite the hot profession right now.

But if everyone does it while there are so many other possibilities staring us in the face, it becomes this glass ceiling, difficult to break. With limited possibilities means less representation in important legislation, and in other important decisions. Our hard work then becomes limited and concentrated into only a few things and specialties. And that limitation seems to foster a limited infrastructure for doing whatever the hell we want. And pretty soon we only travel, swim, and cycle only around our stereotypes, and can only cry passive-aggressively at our disconnections from the American fabric.