Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The American Saga Continues

Precisely when all the talk about this year's Academy Awards has focused on Hollywood's lack of diversity (#OscarsSoWhite) and less-than-equitable treatment of minorities, out come the racial jokes targeting Asians. During the Oscars' ceremony, host Chris Rock lampooned three children of Asian/Asian American heritage as "accountants," and then tossed in a child labor quip while he was at it.

PRI interviewed one of the children, Estie Kung, and her family, and it's a pretty gut-wrenching read:

What it's like to be the butt of the joke. One of the kids at the Oscars speaks out.

You know why this happens? Because we are the silent "model minority." Because we take it, and our parents remind us, "Don't make waves, don't make trouble!" They just got off the boat and don't want to provoke rage or greater opposition than they already face, every moment they live their lives in the American public sphere -- in the grocery store, at the airport, in the workplace.

Where's the solidarity? "I'm beat up by the white kids, so let's attack the even more hapless Asian kid?" (They are literally KIDS here. What gives?) This behavior shows a reprehensible lack of humanity and responsibility. It's also extremely immature.

While I'm always down for critiquing East and Southeast Asian countries, this is done through the lens of "We can do better." or "This isn't a society I believe in." (There's also more than a little pointed criticism of America built into a lot of these neo-liberalism-run-amok commentaries.) But to simply pick on someone because they're meeker than you, because you know they won't resist? That's called BULLYING.

At the end of the day, somehow in America, it's okay to poke fun at Asians. Because "positive" stereotypes (which are really backhanded-compliments) are seen as less offensive. Because we never fight back. Because we just silently take it -- even as we are building the country. See: Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

This is why we move into ethnic enclaves that have more delicious food. (In some cases, these places also have higher average incomes and less crime than the average American town. I qualify this statement because I'm trying to avoid falling into using the "model minority" trope, but my point is that Asian Americans can "make it" when they take matters into their own hands.)

I want us to stand up and fight, to push back on this kind of disgusting and pernicious discrimination -- but not on White Americans' terms or African American's terms. Let's resist, without turning into mainstream doltish America. We can do better.

We've always survived, and we're going to keep going. However, the way to truly fight back is not to become whiter (please avoid whitewashing ... don't do that to yourself!), but to be vocal and proud about being Asian. It means flourishing and growing, while maintaining cultural fluency in both worlds. It means making it in America, but on our own terms -- holding on to a sense of ethics, identity, and values, while helping to define anew what this diverse society is all about. It means owning and celebrating who we are; it means being who we want to be.

Don't give in. Don't give up.


Who are the people here? (Source: PRI)

The juxtaposition here is strangely bittersweet. I see two amazing kids looking up in wonder at C-3P0 and R2-D2, a pair of esteemed pop culture icons from our childhood. Yet some part of America only sees blank-faced "all the same" stereotypes across the board, which enables them to make tasteless jokes -- and not even recognize how it's wrong. Apparently we're not people, only faceless droids.

In spite of all this, at least one thing does give me hope:
Estie [the Asian child actor], though, is taking it all in stride. She isn't familiar with Rock's comedy ("I've never seen 'Madagascar,'" she says) and she didn't initially understand the child labor joke until her mother explained it to her. (She thought Rock was saying that they designed the phones.)
Aside from the hilarious-yet-unintentional dig at Rock's appearance in a kid's cartoon, Estie's wondrously innocent response speaks volumes. It shows that:

(1) Young people aren't naturally bigoted. It's learned from flawed models of human beings, i.e. adults.

(2) Not just those three, but their whole generation will grow up in a globalized, multicultural world, where Asians and Asian Americans are not only tech savvy, but also media and business savvy. They won't just be the IT guys anymore.

So yes, not only will they design your phone -- they may also manage the robotic facility that manufactures it, own the company that sells it to you, and probably be your next-door neighbor too. They may even represent you on the city council.

In any case, instead of pumping up one particular ethnicity in a misguided and meaningless arms race, it's more important that we preserve that child-like sense of equality and openness. Let's aim for a world where anyone is empowered to make a contribution to society and isn't hindered or pigeon-holed by their ethnic background.

Welcome to the 21st century!

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