The past couple of months has been a blur. On the surface life is the same. I still go to work every day. I still see my friends. I still put off doing laundry. But of course overhanging everything, constantly in the back of my head and floating near the top of my subconscious, is fear. There’s so much I’m afraid of with the new administration and what it will bring. But one of my biggest fears, which has already been coming true, is the emboldening of white America’s behavior towards POC.
Long before November, for most of my time in America, I was aware of the hostility against people like me–a refusal to acknowledge me, my presence, my words, denying my humanity. How they considered it a compliment to say to me, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be [something positive and not stereotypically Asian]” or “you’re not really Asian, you’re basically white.” There had been a spate of Asians being pushed onto the subway tracks here in NY, and I had been careful to stay away from the edge of the platform for months.
However the hostility has grown to be more explicit and cutting. People who believe that they had been unfairly forced to suppress views, until now, are emboldened to say things to me. Complete strangers, like the MTA bus driver on election day who demanded to know who I was voting for, then went on a tirade about Hillary Clinton. I was the only passenger on a long, nonstop 20-minute ride to Queens. I quickly de-escalated the conversation, and he moved on to calling a woman, cursing her out and dropping a bunch of F bombs, and then hanging up with “Goodbye, ma.”But for a full five minutes, I was afraid he would pull over the bus and attack me. He easily could have. I’ve since taken a krav maga defense class, and I imagine how I would defend against various random men I see on the street.
And the election wasn’t even over yet. Now, it’s official, he’s been sworn in. Immediately the whitehouse.gov page changed, singing the praise of fossil fuels and how the priority is now protecting the police over civil rights. “America first, America first!” I watched some of the swearing-in ceremony, with declarations of triumph and cut-aways to the almost exclusively white attendees cheering. I imagined the conversations they would be having amongst themselves, about putting uppity POC in their place, wrenching jobs back from immigrants.
All this to say I’m really afraid and paranoid. Yes, he could kill us all with a nuclear holocaust, but I’m also afraid of what other Americans will do to me. What they now feel they have permission to do.
A few days ago I talked for a while about racism with a white man, because I couldn’t figure out how to extricate myself from the conversation. If you have tips on how to do so gracefully, please advise.
Early on he alluded to how he isn’t racist because “I guess because I wasn’t raised that way.”
Well yeah, duh. No one thinks they were raised racist. Just like no one thinks they’re sexist, it’s just that women are too emotional to lead! And they’re not homophobic, they just don’t want to see gay men being so flamboyant.
I’m not saying this guy is actually racist. I don’t know. I think racism’s kind of a spectrum though–I don’t think this guy would advocate for banning Muslims or anything. However, I’m pretty sure he’s ignorant of his own preconceived notions and prejudices. I know I had to learn that I had my own prejudices, that I still have to deal with at some level (and funnily, I think Asians are more willing to admit they might have some weird views because being racist isn’t such a terrible thing–open hatred of dark people is somewhat widely accepted in Asia). I’m not proud of it, but that is how it is. I’m not sure if that makes me racist. Maybe. But I try to stay conscious and it’s surprising how often I have to check my own preconceived notions.
A lot of white people seem to think they don’t need to go through this exercise. They think they can just say “Oh I’m not racist!” and poof, that’s it. They’re not racist. It’s very lazy. Yet another white privilege, I guess. But saying something repeatedly doesn’t make it true. Most people, especially white people, just never had to think about how they might have some whack notions. They need to.
A friend recently told me a story of an acquaintance who had asked her for a restaurant recommendation for a lunch with her supervisor. (We’re all Asian women) My friend recommended a very good, popular Asian-fusion type place, and the acquaintance apparently responded, “But isn’t that TOO Asian?”
POC are constantly pressured to minimize their cultural identities for white people’s comfort when they are in white spaces, which includes most workplaces. For Asian people that means you can’t bring smelly lunches, or never speak your own language to assure white people you’re not making fun of them. A great number of Asian people even change their names to use generically white sounding ones so white people don’t have to deal with their ethnic name.
We have to erase so much that is central to who we are as individuals, just so everybody can pretend we’re not actually different from each other. Except, POC are still expected to pretend to be interested in the things their white coworkers are into. Biking. Bikram Yoga. Trying to save animals that are practically extinct anyway. But I wouldn’t dream of bringing up the Korean movies I like or try to discuss Chinese New Year. White coworkers aren’t interested, and they just don’t care.
It’s because don’t know how to take an interest in or even pretend to be interested in anything that’s not already in their own sphere, because they’ve never had to think outside their own frame of mind. It doesn’t even occur to them that I wouldn’t be interested in their likes–one of them recently asked me if I had joined other coworkers on a 50 mile bike ride. I’ve never, ever discussed biking at work, just smiled and nodded while others talked about it. And yet, they assume that means I’m into biking just as much as they are.
My small protest is writing passive aggressive messages to my coworkers in various Asian languages while stuck in boring meetings. But it’s really starting to take a toll on me, pretending to be someone I’m not. It’s very isolating.
I love, love movies. I’ve been obsessed with stories and storytelling since I was a baby. My mom made me learn how to read when I was three because she got tired of me begging her to read to me. She hired me a reading tutor, I learned, and I have no memory of my parents reading to me.
Through childhood and adolescence I devoured stories and later, movies–I remember watching the Little Mermaid over and over at age five or so. I’ve been in love with all sorts of movies my whole life. They’re a refuge, and an escape.
You might think I would have wanted to go into filmmaking or some other field that involves storytelling–writing, etc. I do kind of the opposite (I’m a lawyer). In my dissatisfaction with work I’ve been mulling over why I didn’t think about pursuing that field, or something else more creative. I skirted around it–in college I took a film class (boring as hell), an acting class (Alexander technique, ugh), and an animation class (that was fun). It was just out of a liberal arts interest, though, and I went on to major in biology. I’m a lawyer now.
I’ve realized one big reason is that I never saw anyone who looked like me in those roles. I’d watch DVD commentaries narrated by the white male lead and the white male director, where they would riff for two hours on how beautiful the female actors looked. The names in the credits were overwhelmingly white, and mostly male. How could I envision myself becoming like one of these men, when I knew most of them would rather pretend I don’t exist, unless they wanted to have sex with me?
Relatedly, the white male controlled world of filmmaking etc has a perspective that refuses to try to see or understand anything beyond its preconceived notions or perspective. They could, with effort–they’ve just never had to do it, because every story is about them. If a story is somehow not focused on them, it doesn’t matter and they refuse to see it. I don’t matter to them, my stories don’t matter to them, and they don’t care about anything I have to say. How could I get a movie made? My movie made? “My movie.” It’s impossible to even imagine.
So that’s what it is. How could it happen? How could I make them see me as someone whose story matters? You could say all that’s holding me back is fear, or that I have nothing to lose by trying. I feel like I do have things to lose–my time, my energy, hope, continued degradation and dehumanization and rejection of the idea that I could present anything that matters. All the potential pain.
Who knows, maybe I’ll one day have enough time and energy and money to invest into this. But it saddens me that I never even had the chance to think about this and waste some time in my 20s trying. It didn’t even occur to me to try. I wish I could have.
The easiest way to learn what white people think about Asian people by talking to racist white people. I was recently talking to a white woman about Asian models, and I mentioned that I thought the Japanese model Tao Okamoto was very beautiful. When I showed her a picture of Tao, the woman said, “Well, she looks more white than Asian.”
This woman apparently held a preconceived notion that Asians are all slitty-eyed (thus ugly), and when she saw a beautiful Asian person with large eyes (whether large eyes are a requirement for beauty is beside the point), her mind apparently resolved that internal contradiction by deciding that this Asian person was only pretty because she looked white. She then had the audacity to say to me, an Asian person, that Tao didn’t look Asian, implying that her “whiteness” was the only reason she was both Asian and beautiful.
Tao is Asian. She’s from Chiba, Japan. As far as I know her ethnicity is fully Japanese. If a Japanese person looks a certain way, then that particular feature is one present in Japanese people. Besides, plenty plenty plenty Japanese people (and Koreans, and Thai, and Nepalese, etc…you get the point) have large eyes. I do, too. I have giant Bambi eyes with long eyelashes, and there are tons of Asian girls who look like me.
The same white woman, at another point while discussing a mutual friend, a tall, broad-shouldered man of Chinese descent, said “well, he’s taller than most Asians.” I mentioned to her that he had characteristic Han Chinese features–tall and sturdily built. She maintained that he was just an exception–Asian men are short and small! All of them on the entire continent! Just like black people have wide noses! At this point I gave up. I can’t fix stupid.
The politics of Asian beauty is complicated. A lot of Asians undeniably spend a lot of time and effort trying to look white, and pine over features like blond hair and blue eyes. However, large eyes and whatever other features Tao has are features that do naturally occur in East Asian people, and are not rare. It’s frustrating that many white people have a set notion of what Asian people look like, based on what they believe we look like. It’s not just a superficial thing–it’s one of the many ways that white people justify how “All Asians look alike, I can’t tell them apart” and other dehumanizing of Asians and POC. It’s not just about insisting nonwhite races can also be beautiful–which is an important recognition as well–it’s also about recognizing that Asians and POC have individual and varied features, and each of us is a full human being and shouldn’t be grouped into one massive group of 4 billion.
So white people, please stop thinking we all look the same. We never have, it’s your closed minds that tell you we do.
I watched FOTB faithfully for the first season. While I personally didn’t relate to many aspects of the show, I was very happy that any show that portrayed an Asian-American family existed at all. I hoped my views would count on ABC’s website to show networks that people wanted to watch shows featuring Asian people. Sure, they drew on some stereotypes about Asians–tiger mom, restaurant owners, accented English.
And cheap. So, so cheap.
I chose to overlook the show’s use of these race-based tropes in that first season. Like as the creators of the show repeatedly emphasized in interviews, it was acceptable for the actors to use a fake accent or otherwise be portrayed using certain stereotypes because they weren’t making fun of them for having those features. So it was totally okay for a Korean-American actor who normally speaks accentless English to fake a generically Asian accent (while he slips out of it half of the time). Yes, no problems! I still side-eyed that because it would have been perfectly fine to portray the parents without accents–it’s not inconceivable they might have learned very good English in Taiwan, or lost their accents in America as plenty of people do.
But then they did cross the line and made an Asian stereotype the butt of the joke of an entire episode, in the first Season 2 episode, “Family Business Trip”. It’s about a business trip/vacation the family takes together. The running joke of the episode is that the mom, Jessica, is cheap. Super super cheap. She take absurd measures and goes crazy the entirety of the episode trying to maximize what they can get out of a hotel stay, while trying to cut down on the hotel bill by refusing to pay various standard charges like tax. As Jessica’s actions grew more and more extreme, it became downright offensive and I had to stop watching.
The problem with FOTB is that it’s essentially a whitewashed version of an Asian family. A version that white people can be comfortable laughing at. The creators and writers of the show have taken pains to assure white people it’s okay to laugh, because their intent is not to make fun of these Asians–we’re not laughing AT them, but ABOUT them (?).
But in the end my discomfort comes from my fear. I’m afraid that white people WILL make fun of the accents. I’m afraid white people DO think we are all like that, and the show just reinforces their stereotypes. Comedy is not made for nuance. The creators of the show may not intend for the Huangs’ accents or stereotypically Asian behavior to be the butt of the joke, but that’s not under their control. People will pick what they laugh at. It’s kind of like how Chappelle stopped making his show in large part because of how white people picked up and ran with the jokes on his show in a direction that he never, ever intended (I can’t imagine what people did with the Ni**er Family sketch). He discussed in an interview how he realized this when a white crew member laughed at the wrong part of a race joke they were filming:
Success, however, by creating a bigger and different audience than they ever expected, left them unable to control what people were laughing at. This is what he meant when Time interviewed him in Africa and he kept on repeating, “I’ve got to check my intentions.“The example he brought up often after quitting came when shooting a sketch in which, in an attempt to skewer racism, Chappelle was performing in blackface. Chappelle says a white crew member laughed at the “wrong” part of the joke. As he explained on Oprah, it was the fundamental difference between an audience laughing with him and an audience laughing at him. This is a big difference for a comedian who famously will laugh at his own jokes.
There’s probably at least one white person who probably heard Jessica’s accented tiger mom act and laughed AT her. White people probably took away from that season two episode that wow, Asians will go to crazy lengths to save money, because they are so damn cheap! Ugh, those immigrants.
For a while I assumed that most if not all of the writers must have been white. I looked it up and there are a few Asians. I tried to think about how this show still ended up the way it has. One theory I came up with was, most of the writers, to get far enough in their comedy careers to get this writing gig, they had to advance and be considered funny as defined by mainstream comedy, which is white male comedy–not known for their racial sensitivity. They likely developed a good deal of their creative notions while being surrounded by mostly young white guys. This isn’t their fault, but it’s pretty much inevitable that such a circumstance did influence their comedy–maybe they even made fun of Asians themselves, like how Margaret Cho is famous for her bit making fun of her mom’s accent.
I also presume that most of the writers grew up in the US, so probably lack a really good understanding of the people they are writing about. For example, I was confused by Jessica’s accent because her way of speaking would be quite unusual for a Taiwanese woman–Taiwanese people are known for having a very soft, mellow way of speaking, while Jessica’s accent (and spoken Mandarin) is a much louder, assertive version:
In comparison, look at how different the below girls are, and who does Jessica sound more like? (It’s really funny and you should watch anyway)
Obviously not all Taiwanese women are the same, but my point is that the show seems to draw into the loud Asian woman stereotype to poke fun at Jessica, whether the writers intend it or not, and quite possibly without an understanding of what actual Taiwanese people are like.
I guess what it really comes down to is, especially in light of what Chapelle experienced, that your intentions don’t matter. People are going to read into what you create however they like, based on their already-formed perspective about the people you’re portraying. The writers might then conclude that, oh well, nothing you can do, racists will be racists so just do whatever we want with the race things. But I think that’s a lazy view, and using the Huangs’ stereotypically Asian features for humor is lazy, and in a way makes it a minstrel show.
It’s possible to create a show about Asian people or other POC and be funny without using stereotypes. I truly believe it. And I think the show still has the chance to do it. Maybe I was too harsh and even should give it another shot. But I’m still afraid of how this might be the way that a number of people will learn about Asians, and that’s what they will think of us. I don’t want people to see me and have the first thing they think be loud, cheap tiger mom. There’s enough in this world saying that I’m one-sided like that already.
In 2015, Bernie Sanders was asked a question about gun control and answered as below:
Q: The parents of one of the 12 innocent people killed during the Aurora movie theater shooting, sued to hold ammunition sellers liable for the attack, but their lawsuit was dismissed. And one of the reasons was a law that you voted for which protects manufacturers of ammunition from being sued. Why did you vote that way?
SANDERS: We have been yelling and screaming at each other about guns for decades, with very little success. I come from a state that has virtually no gun control. But the people of my state understand, I think, pretty clearly, that guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles. In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they’re used for kids in gangs killing other kids or people shooting at police officers, shooting down innocent people. We need a sensible debate about gun control which overcomes the cultural divide that exists in this country. And I think I can play an important role in this. [emphasis mine]
What the fuck.
So he’s saying that in Vermont, guns aren’t used for violence, only for hunting, while in Chicago they’re only used for “shooting down innocent people” and not for legal self-protection like in Vermont. There’s a problem with each facet of his statement, which a) ignores both inevitable violence when people have guns and b) assumes guns are only used for bad purposes in Chicago–really implying that it’s black/brown criminals who use guns for bad purposes there. Addressing each more in full:
a) Obviously crime happens in Vermont, and guns play no small part. For example, with regard to the number of women murdered by men, Vermont has the eighth highest rate of any state. Of the women killed by men they knew, three-quarters were intimate partners (wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends) and a full two-thirds were shot to death. So yeah, guns are used for “bad reasons” in Vermont, not just for hunting. These numbers get ignored since who cares about violence against women? They probably did something to deserve it.
b) Presumably a great deal of gun ownership in Chicago is for the same reason that Vermonters are obsessed with guns–self-protection. And I imagine a lot of those people, maybe gasp, even black and other colored people, own guns to protect themselves, not to commit crimes! Or people who live in Chicago might like to go hunting too! But who cares, black and brown people are all criminals, they shouldn’t be allowed to have guns. There’s no gangs in Vermont, no no.
This kind of attitude is why a lot of POC don’t like Sanders. He puts us into broadly generalized, usually negative categories and in the process, glosses over tremendously important issues that affect POC and/or women. As a WOC, this infuriates me. When push comes to shove, he is really going after blue-collared white male votes, and if we’re being honest, I don’t think they really care about my right to bodily integrity or wage equality or being murdered by a man whose advances I rejected, at least not in the place of unattainable unicorns like single-payer and free college.
Sanders supporters insist that this kind of attitude is confined to a few bad apple Berniebros, but I don’t believe it. And as much as people insist Sanders is ideologically pure and all that, he’s still a politician in a democratic system–and in such a system, it is his job as the representative of the people to do the will of the people. And whatever he personally believes about gun control, through his record Sanders has indicated that he bends to the will of his constituents. Which he should have done, since that’s what this system is supposed to do–have elected official represent the will of the people.
I get that things are messed up. But as Clinton haters like to say, “I just don’t trust him.” Unlike Clinton haters, I actually have an articulated reason. I know I won’t convince any Sanders supporters to instead support Clinton for this kind of thing, but I hope some Sanders supporters can understand why people like me haven’t jumped on the Sanders ship.