I’ve come to a curious, heightened recognition these past few weeks: my ethnicity is something to laugh at. When an Asian woman is denigrated and exoticized by a group of white men in an offensive video entitled “Asian Girlz”, I am told I shouldn’t be so upset because the woman clearly enjoyed it and the video was clearly just a joke. When the lone Asian character in the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” perpetuates negative racial tropes through easy, cheap humor that capitalizes off of her awkward silences and accented, broken English, I’m supposed to double back in laughter, shake my head, and say “Well, at least they have Laverne Cox!” When I express my anger at careless, racist reporting of an Asiana Airlines crash that killed two teenage girls--KTVU fired a producer after the network broadcast the pilots’ names as “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” and “Bang Ding Ow”--the immediate reaction I get is a giggle and a laugh.
In Matthew Salesses’ “How the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,” Matthew recounts how he came to realize that Asians seem to have no place in discussions about racial hierarchies:
For my day job, I organize a seminar at Harvard on the topic of Inequality. I attend these talks both out of responsibility and out of interest. But after two and a half years, I can only remember Asians being mentioned twice, once in direct response to a question by an Asian student. I remember sitting beside another Asian American student and listening to a lecture earlier this year. He said something like, “Nobody ever talks about Asians,” and I said, “Asians don’t exist in Sociology.” We both laughed. It was a joke, but it stung with a certain truth.
I recognize that the Asian American experience in this country is not punctuated in the same way black narratives are by stories of enslavement, the insidiousness of Jim Crow, the myth of the rampant black male rapist, and the re-manifestation of Jim Crow through abysmal incarceration rates. I will never understand or have to live out that particular level of systematic, institutionalized, and brutal oppression. I also recognize that our socio-economic realities are often miles apart from others--some of us do have it better, and we certainly enjoy some privileges that others do not have. Additionally, anti-black racism, as I suspect it is with many other non-black communities, is an ongoing problem within the Asian community and needs to be rectified in order for true solidarity to exist.
But I’ve experienced firsthand how the “model minority” narrative, this strange tendency to assume that Asians are simply a quiet, high-achieving community tagging along with our white brethren into a melting pot of joy, effectively de-legitimizes our voices in conversations about promoting racial justice. Leaving our voices and experiences out of the fight for racial justice erases our long, often tragic history in this country and homogenizes all Asians into one, high-achieving blob. Leaving us out means turning a blind eye to the fact that 1 in 6 Filipino-Americans and 1 in 4 Korean-Americans are undocumented, that Southeast Asians have the highest high school dropout rates in the country, that Asian American students are the most bullied ethnic group in classrooms, and that Asian women are consistently hypersexualized, objectified, and orientalized via widespread media representations. If you choose not to include us in discussions on racial justice, you are telling us that our struggles don’t matter.
The most alarming thing about racism against Asian Americans is that, for me, it is often perpetuated casually by friends, family, and supposed allies in the fight for racial justice. Those comments to my reactions to “Asian Girlz,” “Orange is the New Black,” and KTVU’s racist on-air gaffe, for instance, were all made by my friends, people whom I respect and adore. While, in our supposedly “post-racial” atmosphere, blatant and explicit racism has moved underground and has morphed into implicit, hidden mechanisms, above-ground racism against Asians is condoned, and Asians are still considered fair game for outright misogynistic, racist humor.
The call for true, multi-racial and multi-gender solidarity is about recognizing that privilege and oppression exist even within progressive circles, and that they manifest themselves differently in certain spaces and forums. I want my voice as an Asian woman to not be labeled as some fringe, niche topic, but to be considered an integral part of a larger discussion. That starts with understanding that, yes, you are being racist when you call me “China” or yell “ching-chong!” at me in the streets, that you are being racist when you ask me what my “real” name is or ask me where I’m “originally” from, and that you are being racist when you laugh at caricaturized portrayals of people who look like me on television. You can show your affirmation of solidarity and appreciation for varying struggles and experiences of different constituencies by refusing to be complicit in casual racism. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple “No, that’s not funny.”
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