The February 2015 issue of Chicago Social features a cover story with Olivia Munn. In it, Munn is described as “exotic” and “half-Chinese, half-American”.
For the remainder of the month, you can flip through the digital edition of CS Magazine, where you can read this passage in the featured cover story.
Olivia Munn is not “half-American”. Olivia Munn is American. Olivia Munn was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to parents including a Vietnamese American mother of Chinese descent.
Racially speaking, Olivia Munn is biracially or multiracially Asian/Asian American. Nationally speaking, Olivia Munn is American. Period. Full stop.
This cavalier and off-the-cuff treatment of Olivia Munn’s identity may seem inconsequential, but it arises out of the broader and more damning narrative of where Asians and Asian Americans “fit” into the larger American landscape. More specifically, Asians and Asian Americans have struggled against the stereotypical manifestation of contemporary Orientalism that suggests that the word “American” means “default White”, and instead treats Asian Americans as the perpetually foreign and exotic. Rather than being a simple fact of our birthplace, our national identity is presumed to be imprinted upon our skin.
This perpetual foreignness might manifest with the patronizing descriptors used to describe Olivia Munn’s face (oh, for the day when a Woman of Colour is not described as “exotic” as if this were a compliment); but more often, it manifests in hostility, suspicion, skepticism, and outright fear of Asian Americans. When Vincent Chin was beaten to death in 1982, witnesses say the attack was escalated by his killers’ anger at Japanese competition with the flagging American auto industry. When US Figure Skater Michelle Kwan took second place in the 1998 Winter Olympics behind team-mate Tara Lipinski, MSNBC ran the headline, “American beats Kwan”. While Taiwanese American scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was working on improving nuclear safety and reliability, he was arrested and charged on federal espionage charges; those charges were later dropped.
Only yesterday, we commemorated a Day of Remembrance to mark the 73rd anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration of Japanese Americans under the presumption that they were loyal to Japan — a country that many of these Japanese Americans had never even been to — based solely on the colour of their skin.
To assert that Olivia Munn is “half-American” is to erase Munn’s American identity, but also the American identity of Munn’s mother who immigrated to America to attend college. It is, moreover, to reinforce the notion that Asian Americans aren’t American; we can only occupy a space of “something else”. When we are “well-behaved”, we are “exotic” and “unusual” and when we are not, we are “disloyal” and “threatening”.
Ugh, not a good look, CS Magazine (@CSchicagosocial). Not like I was going to buy your magazine, but I’m sure as heck not going to now.
Act Now! Reader @ProfChanbonpin tweets that she has already sent a letter to CS Magazine outlining the problem(s) with their Olivia Munn feature. Please join her by tweeting to @CSchicagosocial or writing a letter to Modern Luxury making sure to specify that you are talking about CS Magazine’s February issue.
Update: Here is and excerpt of @ProfChanbonpin‘s excellent and powerful letter which she forwarded to me to reproduce with her permission! Let me know what you’re writing!
Dear Mr. Zivan:
… By conflating citizenship with race, Fuhrman’s article sustains the narrative that people of Asian ancestry (mixed-race or otherwise) in the United States are perpetual foreigners. Fuhrman’s choice of words did not likely intend to cause harm, but her mistake is nevertheless insulting and it is also dangerous. In 1982, two White autoworkers murdered longtime Detroit resident Vincent Chin, because they could not imagine that he was an American. Just last year, the Chicago City Council agreed to pay a large settlement to Jessica Klyzek. Chicago police officers had raided the tanning salon where Klyzek was a manager. To force her compliance during the raid, police handcuffed her and then slapped her. When she protested her treatment, asserting her constitutional rights as a U.S. citizen, a police officer yelled: “You’re not fucking American! I’ll put you in a UPS box and send you back to wherever the fuck you came from.”
Asian Americans continue to struggle for recognition and visibility in mainstream U.S. culture. Earlier this week, ABC debuted “Fresh off the Boat.” The show is heralded as the first sitcom about an Asian American family on network TV to air in 20 years. I hope it is a commercial success because its depiction of an Asian family as one type of American family combats the perpetual foreigner myth promoted by your magazine.
Update 2/26/2015: Reader @ProfChanbonpin updated me yesterday that the editor of CS Magazine has responded to her email with a short “half-hearted” apology.