The Stories We Tell: Asian Americans on TV and Policy Down the Road

Aziz Ansari, in a promotional image for his Netflix show, “Master of None”. (Photo credit: Netflix)
Aziz Ansari, in a promotional image for his Netflix show, “Master of None”. (Photo credit: Netflix)

By Guest Contributor: Felix Huang

We create stories
That we tell to ourselves
About ourselves
To justify what we do to people.

– Roberto Suro,“U.S. Immigration Policy” (lecture, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, Fall 2015).

2015 was a pretty good year for Asian Americans on TV. Fresh Off the Boat debuted and is now in the middle of a strong second season. Dr. Ken premiered in October and has already been renewed. Master of None was released in November, receiving much acclaim. (The Mindy Project, though, was cancelled by Fox, but later picked up by Hulu.)

These were not the only stories about Asian Americans circulating in public discourse. In an October New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof asked what he framed as an “awkward question”, wondering, “Why are Asian-Americans so successful in America?” A week earlier, an author at The Economist (unidentified, as per The Economist’s practice) had penned a piece about how “The Model Minority is Losing Patience,” referencing the joint complaint against Harvard to the Department of Education made by a group of Asian American groups.

Both pieces exhibit more nuance than other Model Minority hot takes routinely peddled out in the mainstream. But both pieces are still painfully clumsy in talking about Asian Americans, especially when considering the broader political and historical context of race in America. (And there were indeed swift responses highlighting their flaws.)

[1] cultural capital, i.e. knowledge on how to navigate dominant cultural norms. C.f. Pierre Bourdieu and Paul DiMaggio. Both pieces also cite (and arguably misunderstand) sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s research that suggests coethnic resources and networks—what they term as “ethnic capital”—account for intergenerational success among Vietnamese and Chinese Americans in a way that the prevailing socioeconomic and cultural[1] explanatory models of intergenerational mobility do not. As the educational and economic attainment of some Asian American populations continues to both fascinate and confound commentators, Asian Americans are now finally making significant strides in what is sometimes posed in contrast to “successes” in educational and economic attainment: media representation.

Media representation forms a related but different kind of cultural capital than what is referenced in the intergenerational mobility literature. Where the intergenerational mobility literature defines cultural capital as the ability to utilize noneconomic resources to advantageously navigate dominant culture, cultural capital as relates to media representation is about the ability to shape and construct narratives with or against dominant culture, to reinforce or reshape or challenge existing norms, and to create new ones. These representations, these narratives, these norms are inescapably racialized.

Public policy studies often avoids talking about culture and race, preferring “colorblindness” and “race-neutrality” instead, perhaps afraid of repeating the Moynihan Report’s pathologizing. We measure racial composition. We point out disparate impact. We might even talk about the social construction of target populations (Schneider and Ingram 1993). But social constructions matter not just for target populations, but for all stakeholders, including the policy analysts themselves. Social constructions underlie every step of policy analysis, formulation, and implementation.[2] [2] One analysis that attempts to better integrate such analysis is Joe Soss and Sarah K. Bruch, “Marginalization Matters: Rethinking Race in the Analysis of State Politics and Policy” (presentation, Annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA, August 27-30, 2008). Furthermore, public policy is not a mere passive receiver of social constructions, but rather an active narrator, too, telling “a story that reflects and legitimates the (racial) viewpoints and interests of those in power.” (Enrique R. Carrasco, “Critical Race Theory and Post-Colonial Development: Radically Monitoring the World Bank and the IMF,” in Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory, 2002) And so policy shapes cultural stories, and cultural stories shape policy — they are mutually constitutive.

This is historically apparent in immigration policy, where the stories told to buttress policy often take root at greater speeds because they are being told about a more unfamiliar, a more foreign other, painted on a blanker canvas.  But there are also stories whose impact on and by policy is built much more slowly, and whose roots are no less strong (for more, see Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions and Public Policy). The Noble Savage. The Welfare Queen. The Criminalization of Blackness and Brownness. Yellow Peril. We could go on and on. These stories might be retold with newer, more coded language, but they are still there, in media, in culture, in policy.

As Asian Americans now gain greater control over the stories being told about us, we must remember that when we tell stories about ourselves, we are inevitably telling a story about ourselves in relation to others, and thus inevitably telling stories about others, too.

This plays out clearly in episode 4 of Master of None. Titled “Indians on TV,” the episode directly addresses Asian Americans and media representation, but juxtaposes it against homophobia and anti-Black racism. In one scene, the show’s protagonist Dev (played by show co-creator Aziz Ansari) says, “People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only really risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about Black people or gay people.”

That scene has been critiqued as anti-Black by Jahlani Smothers-Pugh, who writes in an open letter to Ansari, “Framing the conversation as if Black representation is in opposition to South Asian representation stifled what could have been a valuable discussion. You shut down an opportunity for dialogue. You could have scripted a nuanced response.”

I do not believe that fictional depiction necessarily equals endorsement. Nor do I expect every television show made by people of color to convey nuanced understandings of racisms. But both that episode of Master of None and Smothers-Pugh’s critique are important. “Indians on TV” brings needed attention to issues of media representation for Asians. It also depicts what frustration with those issues might produce, such as reductive comparisons to other racisms, comparisons that certainly warrant scrutiny. That Master of None scene missed the opportunity to acknowledge that the symbolic violence of anti-Black racism, such as that committed by Paula Deen (and referenced in the episode), is tied to a distinct history of anti-Black bodily, material, and structural violence. (This is certainly not to say that anti-Asian racism isn’t also tied to material consequences.)

We should celebrate Asian Americans telling our stories. We should also interrogate what those stories say about ourselves and what those stories say about others. Because one day down the road, we might use them to justify what we do to others.

Felix is a public policy graduate student who helps curate Critical Policy Blog and blogs intermittently at Broken Yellow Lines. His writing has previously appeared on Deadspin and Dime Magazine.

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