Dissecting the state of the Asian American identity today and its relation to racial oppression.
After a long and relaxing Thanksgiving break, I figured it would be nice to return to my blogging ventures with a casual and light topic, to ease back into the flow of things. So, today I’ll be discussing race relations and a history of discrimination in the U.S.
Particularly the Asian American perspective, my area of expertise, which I have been studying relentlessly for 26 years now.
Our country has made great strides of social evolution and so much within my lifetime, though we are still teeming with racial tension. Efforts to support Black and Latino communities from centuries of oppression are finally rising to a level of mainstream importance (with MUCH farther to go), same-sex marriage is legal, Islamophobia is actually recognized as a thing (which, I guess is a start), and white privilege, though contentious, is being acknowledged.
One group that consistently seems to get glossed over, despite brief moments of attention, is the Asian American community. Our progress is laudable, however attention gradually drifts away from the Asian minority and subtly feeds into the misconception that we have “made it” and are “finally equal.” The oppression of Asian Americans is incredibly misunderstood and unprioritized at the expense of not only Asian Americans, but ALL minority groups in our country.
It’s vital to try to understand the plight of Asian Americans and its nuances, not because it’s special or should be elevated above any other experience but because it directly impacts and intertwines with the oppression of all minorities in the U.S.
The lack of awareness is the most insidious feature of the cultural paradigm, that allows discrimination to creep in.
*** Disclaimer. When people generically say “Asian” they are most likely referring to East Asians and rarely include Indians, Middle Easterners or Russians, which is a problem of its own. I will be referring to Eastern Asians (i.e. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese,) when I say Asian Americans (AA) as well, because they are most similar to my experience.***
Life of an Asian Boy
I grew up with 2 younger siblings in a suburban, middle-class household. My Father is Chinese and emigrated from India as a child; my Mother, Japanese and Hispanic, born and raised in Gilroy, California.
My childhood seemed perfectly split down the middle, Asian AND American.
- We celebrated New Years and Chinese New Year.
- We ate Dim Sum, we ate Pop-Tarts
- We took our shoes off in the house and also didn’t help with chores.
- My siblings got good grades, I got bad grades
But I always thought of my family as American not Asian, which ill prepared me for a world that would mostly see me as Asian, before American.
My parents were fully immersed in Western culture and never failed to keep my siblings and I up to date in clothes, fads or movies and tv shows . Only my dad was resolved in keeping our Chinese heritage alive. Growing up I was unaware of the subversive tension, between my two cultures.
My Mom did not want us to learn Chinese, so we wouldn’t be seen as “too Asian,” or develop an accent that would be ridiculed. She projected the lifetime of racism and othering she felt as a Japanese-looking girl, in a small town. My dad conceded, likely surrendering to the same fears. I internalized these tensions growing up, more than I was ready to admit.
I was embarrassed when my Grandparents spoke Chinese in public. I was humiliated at how funny and Chinese my last name sounded. I never thought girls would think I’m cute because my eyes were too small. I couldn’t get my hair to be curly like the skaters, during the Ryan Sheckler phase of 2006. I felt like an outcast in music, movies, and even on the basketball court, with zero representation to look up to on TV.
Then came Yao Ming, but I never really identified with him, I wonder why…
The clash of cultures in my home was a manifestation of the divide existing in the U.S., the wavering acceptance of Asian Americans in mainstream culture all the while exoticizing, foreignizing and ridiculing them.
I accepted a lot of the racism I was subjected to. I didn’t hear or see much validation telling me otherwise. I assumed that was just the way it is and found ways to navigate it. Nobody seemed concerned about what the Asians were going through due to the dismissive perception that they were all doing just fine.
This misconception goes by the name of the Model Minority Myth, emphasis on the Myth. For those that are unaware, it is in my own words:
The illusion and representation of general success for the Asian American population, that overshadows any disadvantages they experience while simultaneously undermining the struggles of other minority groups.
It was created around the 60’s, post World War II. When the U.S. suddenly decided to accept the Asians as their buddies. How and why you might ask? Well…
For centuries, Asian Americans received harsh societal racism and institutional (the Gov.) oppression. Here’s a few examples:
- The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, was the first law enacted by the U.S. explicitly banning an entire race/ethnicity from immigrating. After the Gold Rush saw an influx of Chinese immigrants, thus ensued the “Yellow Peril.” White Americans feared Chinese overtaking the workforce and marrying white women. (Americans feared immigrants? No way!)
- 1854 Supreme Court Case, People v. Hall, ruled that the Chinese, like African Americans and Native Americans, were not allowed to testify in court.
- 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans in detention camps, they were determined “threats.”
Chinese people couldn’t get high paying jobs for decades, resulting in many opening up laundry mats, cooking food or doing what they called “women’s work.”
Thus began the emasculation of the Asian man. Fear of interracial marrying led to the spread of sexual discrimination. They were deemed weak, sexually devious and submissive. Women inversely were fetishized, seen as exotic foreigners but also the perfect wife whom is docile and subservient. Those ideas are alive and well today.
Asian men are listed at the bottom of preference for women, yet Asian women most desirable for men, on dating apps. Similarly, Gay men find messages written explicitly stating, “No Asians” or “No rice, no curry,” (Black women were at the bottom for men’s preference, illustrating more racial bias).
And let’s not forget Steve Harvey’s hysterical reaction, to the absurd suggestion that Asian Men could possibly be attractive.
DID YOU KNOW…
The MYTH of the tiny Asian dick, was actually created by huge white dicks, not penises but insecure white men, who were AFRAID of Asian men stealing “their” women. Coupled with the exoticized sexualization of Black Men’s HUGE PENISES, that leaves white guys in the perfect “just right” position, how convenient?
I’m not bitter though, it’s not like I’M TRYING TO PROVE ANYTHING. This is my car, so obviously I don’t have ANY problems down there!!
So after decades of disenfranchisement, oppression and discrimination, how did we achieve the geeky, rich and harmless status we have today?
Was it because the Asians just “worked hard” and “earned their place?” Maybe it’s the focus on education that Asian families are known to stress.
Maybe, for some… but mostly for the U.S. (white people’s) benefit!
- Chinese immigrants were finally allowed to immigrate in 1943 because the Gov. was afraid we would lose an ally in the fight against Japan. The one time Americans could tell the difference between a Japanese and Chinese person!
Immigration wouldn’t open up to all “Asians” until 1963. SIXTY-THREE.
- The Japanese, eventually began to gain respect in society for their efforts in the War (maybe they also felt a little guilty for locking them up).
- Blacks and other minorities also fought but received very little recognition.
Slowly, restrictions were lifted on Asian Americans, allowing us to vote, own businesses and receive loans, leading to an uplifting of the Asian community, in part. Asians were supplied the tools to build the foundation for our success, while other groups were NOT. The Chinese were then exalted as success stories in the U.S. and glorified as the “model” minority. Get it?
The U.S. used AA as an example, to further subordinate Blacks and Latinos, while they did not receive the softening of racist attitudes in society or institutionally. Many Jim Crow era laws are still in effect TODAY and Latinx immigrants are CURRENTLY being put in detention centers and are villainized as immigrants.
Asian and African Americans at one point shared many things in common; in their experience, homes and lifestyles. Now there is much racism and resentment between both parties, fueled by this myth.
Asian success in America has much historical context and should never be used as a counter-weight to other minority groups’ struggles. Success in the U.S. and how hard someone worked, is not always proportionate.
There is nothing intrinsic about anyone’s culture that will determine how successful they are.
I have heard Asians and non-Asians succumb to this narrow minded and harmful ideology. Dismissing the obstacles society arbitrarily places on select groups, allows for increased discrimination and racism towards all.
“If the Chinese can do it, why can’t you guys?”– Dumbasses
Where Are We Now?
Asians aren’t just used as fodder for the race debate, they’re also being left out of the conversation. With a recent resurgence in AA representation and appeal, I feel once again, successful Asians are being touted as the go-to image for all Asian people.
Asian Americans currently have the LARGEST income gap of all races. The rate of poverty in the community is likely much higher, due to the stigma in the culture as well as lack of English speakers able to report.
In New York City, Asian Americans hold the highest poverty rate of ALL racial or ethnic groups, at 29 percent. Yet, “Asian American community organizations received only 1.4 percent of the total value of the city’s social service contracts and 1.5 percent of total contract dollars from the Department of Social Services” (urban.org, 2018). The widespread assumption that “Asians are doing ok,” allows for many to fall through the cracks.
The movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” a story about just that, has been regarded as a box office success and an accomplishment for Asian representation in the media. This is true and cannot be taken away, but it also must be recognized as a perpetuation of the myth.
This is the negotiation of what is required for the AA image to be represented in media and what our culture is willing to accept. Unfortunately, this perception totally disregards the immeasurable, diverse experiences that exist. Would a movie about the Chinese women that pick the bottles out of my garbage cans every morning, attract a similar audience?
Conversely, the success of Asian Americans is also taken for granted. There are many AA’s in the workplace but very few in leadership roles or managerial positions. The idea prevailing, that both men and women are too submissive and docile to be leaders, this is called the “Bamboo Ceiling.”
This isn’t meant as a “woe is me” post. I only want to bring awareness to the Asian American image and it’s role in the racial context of the U.S. that exists today.
We are not seen as terrorists, like our Islamic counterparts; or violent criminals like the black and latinx people, it’s that we aren’t seen.
Our representation has improved but is less than ideal.
Occasionally, this racism does get acknowledged, yet for some reason people still think it’s ok? Brazenly, derogatory statements are made in public ALL the time and bewilderingly unabashed. The astonishing part is not that people say these things, but that they think it’s OKAY to say it.
I call this practice, casual racism. I want to point out some things that just need to stop, now.
“You’re cute for an Asian”
“You’re Asian but you’re not Asian Asian”
“Yeah, but you’re not one of those Asians.”
In conversation, people said these things thinking they are actually complimenting me. Admittedly, I experienced a twisted torment of offense and regretful pride, as a child. I was secretly comforted that I wasn’t one of those Asians, the stereotypical, less assimilated, more culturally centered Asians.
Now, I will smack a fool that says that to me. Jk. I feel a sense of regret for not being more connected my culture or knowing the language. I feel deprived of my authentic culture and I wish I could be more like “those” Asians, that are often so poorly represented.
In music, I still hear very casually placed racial epithets, that rarely catch any attention.
“I think I’m turning Japanese” by The Vapors. You know this fun, 80’s jam? The title is a euphemism for masturbation, referring the “squinty eyes” face we make during orgasm. *Cringe
Hip-Hop, the language of liberation for the oppressed, STILL resorts to the same tired racist analogies and depictions of Asians. Flatbush Zombies line “eyes Chinese cuz we smoke that Sour Diesel” is one of many. In “Get Right Witcha” by literary thespians Migos, they outright say “Chinks.” I really hope they don’t Walk it like they talk it.
There are still many artists that honestly embrace Asian culture, with its street fashion being adapted, along with the popularity surge of Anime.
It’s great to embrace another culture, the requirement is to respect it. Don’t use a culture as costume, for its novelty. You only reduce the identity further, to a cartoonish caricature that diminishes the identity of the people.
The scariest part of casual racism, is that they don’t think they are doing anything wrong. If this conversation rises to the public sphere and continues to be had, I think we will slowly eliminate these instances from our culture.
This is not innocent ignorance, if there is such a thing. This is the racism that is intended to degrade someone, intentionally seeking out an aspect of a race and using that to demean them.
It of course, sickens me to see these people acting this way but what can you expect from racists? What really disgusts me is the response, or lack thereof, by the public to this despicable behavior.
The classic tune sung by those whose mother drank Four-Loko with them in the womb. It is the playground racial slur, mocking East Asian language.
Rosie O’Donnell (remember her?) actually did this on National TV.
Then there’s this little gem posted on NATIONAL BROADCAST NEWS. If Fox counts.
And of course, there’s this friendly lil gesture.
Pro-Athletes, Celebrities even TEAMS make this gesture, WITH NO HESITATION. They know they are in front of thousands, maybe millions and don’t think twice. Even Bill O’Reilly could catch himself before using the N-word on TV… come on guys, I expect more. Maybe not from you Lil Pump.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I’ve been seeing a lot more representation within recent years, some better than others. I want to see Asian actors on TV playing roles that aren’t specific to Asian-ness. I especially don’t want to see a kung-fu master, a wise mystic Grandpa or a woman in a kimono.
This is the character I want to see:
Just a badass character being badass and complex, not centered around his Korean identity.
Even though this happened to him :/
Unless of course, it is made to pay RESPECT for the culture like this beautiful masterpiece.
Gets me every time.
Or a fresh story, a unique perspective we haven’t seen before, adding a new dimension to the people they portray.
“Gook” is a beautiful and tragic film, following two Korean brothers during the Rodney King Riots in LA during the 90’s. It impeccably captures the tension between Asian and African Americans sharing neighborhoods at the time.
We need more diverse characters on TV, Film and media so that the world starts to see Asian Americans as more than what has been presented thus far. Sharing more stories will open up more opportunities.
Reclaiming Our Identity
Asian Americans are not weak, passive or submissive and we need to stop portraying them that way. If we can do these things, hopefully there will be less kids growing up that felt like I did.
More role models means more possibilities for children to become or strive to be. When we start to see ourselves as dynamic and complex people, the world will begin to as well.