Yes, the first essay I ever published was about media representation and the politics of desirability. I wrote about the depiction of the white woman as the romantic ideal in a movie made by a South Asian comedian. I wrote it because when I saw the movie at an advance screening, I was chilled by what the majority-white audience was laughing at: the brown women, their accents. I saw ourselves through the white gaze, and it was not a pretty image. I wasn’t aware of the essay’s incendiary potential, and while it gained me fleeting notoriety, it also made me think deeply about why Asian America cares so deeply about representation.
Yes, AAPI folks have been fighting for visibility — and citizenship — for a minute now. We started off radically. In a way, belonging and survival in this country is inextricably linked to the visibility of the Asian American in the United States and the Western world. But as our population grows in this country, and the economic standing of many Asians (but certainly not all), the perception that all Asian Americans are rich, educated model citizens on the brink of acceptance and true belonging is a myth that permeates deeply. Even in the less-than-intentional self-identification of Asian American, the louder, more privileged ones subsume the struggles of others. While three in four Taiwanese and Indians have a bachelor’s degree, that number drops to 1 in 5 for Cambodians, Laotians and Hmongs. More than one in every four Asian Americans live in poverty in New York City. The fight for representation pales in comparison, almost becoming a precious one — one predicated on multiple privileges.
Asian Americans as a group recently made headlines as a cohort joined the Project for Equal Representation to sue Harvard University admissions for more clarity into their admissions process. Another coalition filed a similar complaint. Their target?
Not the legacy admissions that constitute around a third of Harvard’s intake. Because that’s for mostly privileged, white people. Who gets to be a legacy but those whose parents were also born into the Ivy League path?
It was, of course, affirmative action. This comes at a time where Black and Latinx students are more underrepresented at top universities than they were 35 years ago, according to this analysis by the New York Times.
Now, there’s the question of why it is no surprise. Asian Americans, as a whole, seem to take on social justice issues in a way that excises the causes of Black and Indigenous people. This may seem like hyperbole, but the accusations of anti-Blackness in Asian communities have become increasingly common as Asian cishet men take on the mantle of social justice to litigate the status of their masculinity in society, equating it to other social justice causes and eliding the effects of patriarchal oppression on women in Asian communities.
MRAzns are Asian men who use lingo like “AF” (“Asian Female”) to refer to women. They compare their struggles with emasculation and subsequent reduced sexual access to the fetishization of Asian women, as if the problems of AAPI people in the US culminate in binary, heteronormative sexuality. A recent example that comes to mind is Joshua Luna’s April 10 cartoon depicting an Asian man and woman at odds, both crying for retribution. Its name “Reconciliasian” would imply that the conflict in AAPI gendered spaces are caused “by both sides.” The polarizing reaction to the comic — feminists protested against this “both sides” logic while some men claimed that “Asian men don’t have any power or privileges to enact patriarchal oppression on Asian women.” Some speculated that “any acknowledgment of internalized racism” on the part of Asian women’s dating preferences would incite “revenge.” People like Albert Hur go out of their way to target Asian women for things like starting women’s organizations.
By streamlining the multitude issues of AAPI into two heavily-gendered, opposing issues — emasculation and fetishization — the MRAzn takes a leaf out of the book of male supremacist groups that enforce black-and-white thinking. The prizing of this so-called lost masculinity itself is a rank attempt to establish supremacy over other genders. It completely flattens and erases anything out of the heteronormative mainstream, specifically queer, trans and nonbinary experiences.
The Harvard admissions lawsuit lawsuit brings up the uncomfortable question of whether Asian Americans are discriminated against in higher education — if the threat of us “taking over” is so immediate that our chances must be limited, our stakes increased. “Is an admissions process that disadvantages a minority group benign, or even desirable, if that minority group is demographically overrepresented in higher education?” asks Jeannie Suk Gersen in the New Yorker, saying she would “not relish seeing the nation’s most elite colleges become majority Asian, which is what has resulted at selective high schools, such as Stuyvesant, that do not consider race in admissions at all.”
The Project for Equal Representation, founded by Edward Blum, has a history studded with fights against diversity — or in their words, it “challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts.” Infamous for fueling Abigail Fisher’s case against the University of Texas — Fisher was found lacking in merit by ProPublica — Blum and his supporters might have been hopeful that their Supreme Court case would strike down affirmative action, but it didn’t.
And now Asians have been weaponized as the model minority tool against other people of color by the majority that finds its foothold in education and the workplace shrinking. The model minority, maybe once a myth propagated by the US government to degrade the Civil Rights movement, is now the Asian American Dream: “we” have all sort of political weapons like Ajit Pai in action. If the model Asian, who already might face an SAT point penalty, cannot get into Harvard, who can? This false narrative of affirmative action stealing seats away from “deserving” students is one that the model minority has been coaxed into — and as Vox points out, it’s not new. It’s been done before, in the ‘80s when schools like Stanford and Brown admitted to bias against Asian Americans, but when they found out how conservatives were using them as racial props against other minorities, they backed out of it.
But what will happen now, as Asians get richer and richer, and more emboldened to co-opt racial justice politics to further their sexual marketability?
Similarly, Crazy Rich Asians has inspired both excitement and censure. The first all-Asian cast in the last 15 years, fans on Twitter were soon met with resentment as some people drew comparisons to Black Panther’s runaway success. Beyond the rankling self-importance of comparing a rom-com about the wealthy to the layered message of Black Panther, the furor in response to the trailer drop included critiques of its all-East Asian optics: East Asian supremacy in Asian American spaces has become even more of an issue as Black and brown Asians are silenced or spoken over. An Asian rapper speaks in obvious AAVE while meting out sage advice. It is a gawking celebration of unfettered, exploitative capitalism. It is situated, after all, in Singapore where Chinese-heritage residents are openly racist towards Indigenous and brown people — maybe mimicking, in a way, the play of AAPI diaspora politics.
We are critiqued and critique one another for our proximity to whiteness, but even within AAPI there are varying degrees of that proximity. To notate and list each axis of oppression would boggle the mind, which is why causes get flattened, why binaries get reinforced. We are forced to group and coalesce because of our historically precarious position in the diaspora, and these coalitions may not be the most thoughtful, the most nuanced. Most supremacist ideologies, after all, operate on very clear in-group and out-group boundaries, and we have way too many fractures to negotiate a clear delineation.
As I watch the Twitter rage cycle about a white girl wearing a Chinese cheongsam for prom coincide with intra-Asian discourse about Crazy Rich Asians — surely it’s not bad representation, and Constance Wu is a treasure — I wonder how lost we are in the reflection of the model minority.
For so long AAPI have wanted belonging, citizenship, education, and now, media representation — and as it comes to us, slowly and incompletely as it may, these seem like gateway causes. Too little too late, as they say. Media representation for the sake of media representation may not be quite enough, and maybe that’s why we get stuck in these circular arguments. And while media is a lens to our culture — which then heightens the importance of visibility — our culture, as a fractal diaspora still trying to reconcile our torn histories to our radical American roots to the unintentional census grouping we are now, needs to understand the role of the model in the minority. We need to look into the future and see what our goals are beyond media space.
Hopefully it is more resplendent, more lasting, more future-oriented than that. Maybe we can take care of our seniors. Maybe East Asians can make room for Southeast Asians. Maybe light-skinned AAPI will stop treading on the Black and the brown. Maybe we take down toxic masculinity. Maybe we can dismantle the model minority myth and politically side with Black and Indigenous communities.
Maybe we can do all of the things with intentionality, with grace, with purpose.
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