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.
I used to follow Humans of New York on Facebook. I quickly noticed a trend. Most of the photos seemed to fall into three broad categories: (1) successful white men “reflecting” on their privilege while lamenting their lost youth/dreams, (2) jolly black guys in Port Authority, and (3) adorable children, often of color. I realized the only brown/yellow people allowed on the page were the small ones–cute children to add a little bit of unthreatening ethnic flavor. A minimal, safe amount, without all those weird smelly hang-ups.
After I noticed this trend it wasn’t fun anymore so I stopped following. I still get it shoved in my face when people on my feed like the posts or I hear about the books. Oh, look at the little boy wearing traditional brown people garb! How cute! Except if a grown brown man were wearing the same thing, people would be yelling terrorist! and giving him dirty looks on the subway. Meanwhile, the white men expound on their life stories (a lot like these) and wax poetic.
Colored people are only allowed on HONY if they’re completely unthreatening to its white male creator and mostly white consumers. This is done by portraying black guys as magical negroes or only having child versions of colored people on–children can’t be suicide bombers or steal your jobs. They’re cute and innocent!
I haven’t looked at any of those posts in a while so maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe things have changed. But to me, it was yet another thing that emphasized how America does not view people of color as full human beings, to borrow the phrase from Americana. It’s demeaning and offensive of the HONY creator to assume POC don’t have stories to tell, to assume the yellow/brown people don’t speak English, and to deny us our humanity.
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.
As someone in the liberal sphere, I occasionally encounter people who seem oddly proud of the fact that they believe in #BlackLivesMatter. Often, these people are Asian American women. One AA woman I went to school with constantly posts about BLM in a condescending, chastising way, in between photos of herself with black men tagged with captions bragging about how she is “down with the people”. I saw another AA woman on the subway wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt as she walked up and down the subway car repeating, “We want to change the world.” She was alone, and everyone on the car was left really confused.
Obviously, it’s great that these women believe in the cause. Of course Black Lives Matter. But I’m a little suspicious of the motives of these women, because of how ostentatious and showy they are about their support. In such cases, I tend to think there is something self-serving about why these women support the BLM movement, especially because these women often share certain traits–one major trait/red flag being that they refuse to befriend or date or otherwise voluntarily interact with other AAs. They complain about how other Asians are racist, Asian men are so patriarchal, and come up with other various excuses about why they don’t like other Asians. Traits and opinions common to self-hating Asians.
So I’m very suspicious of these types of AA women. They seem to think they are very special and cool for being outspoken. “I’m not like THOSE Asians”, they insist, and are so unique for supporting black people, apparently ignoring Grace Lee Boggs and other activists who have long supported various civil rights and other similar movements. I have the inkling suspicion that for these women, at least a part of their motivation is to want to be seen as cool, and this is almost like a phase for them, kind of like how some non-black women date black people to be rebellious. Obviously that’s not always the case, but I’ve encountered this kind of attitude enough times that I suspect their motives.
To these women, I want to say this. Look, I get that it might seem like most other AAs don’t care about these issues, and again, it’s great that you believe black people’s lives matter, but that doesn’t make you particularly commendable or special. You should believe all of that if you are a decent human being who is not a racist. Most importantly, this is not about you, and it shouldn’t be a platform you use to prove to the world or yourself or your family how down you are.
In the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there is a minor character, an outspoken AA woman who is an African-American Studies professor. The character was so oddly specific that I would venture to guess Ms. Adichie also met similar AA women in real life, and this was her small way of calling them out. I could also be totally off base, but this portrayal certainly piqued my interest. And obviously I’m not in any way qualified to comment on how actual black people feel about these kinds of AA women–maybe I’m even being too harsh on them. But I am puzzled by the attitudes of these AA women, who seem to collect non-Asian POC friends and act like they have something to prove.
If you’re really woke, great. But there’s no need to pat yourself on the back or shout about this from the mountains.
As much as people insist Asian beauty ideals aren’t based on desiring white features, it’s just not true in 2016.
The above picture is of Taeyeon, a very famous, popular k-pop star. She’s wearing blue colored contacts and has bleached blonde hair. These features obviously aren’t natural for her. And lots of regular, non-celebrity Asian women also chemically alter their hair and wear medically unnecessary contacts to look like her.
Because lots of Asians are obsessed with looking white.
Many people insist, “That’s not true! Asians have valued large eyes and pale skin for millenia–it has nothing to do with white people!” Maybe they would’ve been right 30, 40 years ago. But today, globalization and constant exposure to white beauty standards in the media, especially in Hollywood movies, have affected what people all over the world believe is beautiful. Now many women also want light hair, blue or green eyes, a narrow jawline, a high, defined nose bridge–features that rarely occur naturally in Asians.
“They just want to look different!” some protest. I don’t see many girls running around getting lavender hair and orange contacts, though, which would make you look way, way more *unique*. And while the old standards like pale skin could be considered desirable because it’s a proxy for wealth (e.g. not having to labor outside), there’s nothing inherently attractive about light hair or a tall nose, other than making you look more like a white person.
We have to admit that these new standards come from wanting to look white. No one is immune to internalizing these Hollywood beauty standards, that blonde is beautiful, blue eyes are beautiful, white is beautiful. You can’t see something over and over without it affecting your perspective. Seeing something repeatedly makes you want it–that’s how advertising works. We have to stop denying the fact that Asians and many others in the world have internalized these standards, and that this hurts us and all POC.
It’s funny because in Asia, people straight up admit they want to look white. A Korean makeup tutorial girl I like kept saying, while contouring her nose, “this makes me look more like a foreigner” (read: white). Another girl was being interviewed by a white girl and told her, “I want to look just like you.” K-pop videos of male artists cast white women as the love interests, while Asian women are relegated to being backup dancers. Asians state their preference for white features overtly. It’s time to realize this and recognize it as a problem, so we can figure out how to stop this nonsense.