How We Talk About Asian American Aggrievement

Protesters congregate in protest of the manslaughter conviction of former NYPD police officer Peter Liang in the shooting death of Akai Gurley. (Photo Credit: Twitter / Phoenix Tso).
Protesters congregate in protest of the manslaughter conviction of former NYPD police officer Peter Liang in the shooting death of Akai Gurley. (Photo Credit: Twitter / Phoenix Tso).

By Guest Contributor: Felix Huang (@Brkn_Yllw_Lns)

When three Asian American children were trotted out in front of a national audience as both the props for and the butt of a joke delivered by Oscars host Chris Rock,  mainstream attention was momentarily placed on the extent to which Asian Americans face racism. Ironically enough, Rock’s joke simultaneously demonstrated anti-Asian racism while it relied upon the model minority stereotype, a trope that has long served to obscure anti-Asian racism.

The problems with the model minority myth are legion. I am not here to debunk the model minority myth—there is much academic and popular writing on the subject—but to examine one effect of its prevalence in public discourse: confused narratives of Asian American aggrievement.

The model minority myth suggests that Asian Americans don’t really experience racism, but from both experience and hxstory, we know this to be false. Anti-Asian racism, however, doesn’t quite fit conventional understandings of racism in the US, and thus Asian Americans are sometimes left not knowing how to talk about it—left without structures for our feelings of aggrievement.

Asian Americans have fought hard to dispel the model minority myth, but the joke at the Oscars shows its continued (though declining) staying power. The myth uses the educational and financial attainment of East Asian Americans as proof of equal opportunity in the US and the absence of anti-Asian racism. This has created a prevailing narrative that East Asian Americans don’t really face racism and therefore whatever representational racism East Asian Americans face is harmless.

(Because the model minority myth is popularly constructed around East Asian Americans, the proceeding discussion will focus on East Asian Americans. I do want to acknowledge that the model minority myth does harm to other AANHPI and POC.)

The misguided trope of Asian exceptionalism to racism manifests throughout pop culture, with the joke at the Oscars being the latest in a long litany. And we see this in our own lives, too. When dominant culture tells you that representational racism is harmless, and yet you’ve felt the sting of it in your own lived experience, what can you do?

The idea that representational racism is harmless is slowly (slowly) eroding. The new media landscape now allows wider access to counter-narratives, highlighting pop culture as a site of racialized meaning making and the relationship between cultural production and material, political consequences.

Yet even given this slow erosion, the acceptability of anti-Asian representational racism remains, buttressed by the data on educational and financial attainment. In the aftermath of the Oscars joke, it has been heartening to see people, particularly public figures, speaking out against “Asian bashing.” However, I find it troubling when this discussion is framed by some of my fellow East Asian Americans as something like, “Why does racism against Black people get all the attention, while racism against Asians are ignored?” Anti-racism is then presented as a zero-sum game, where attention to racism against some detracts attention away from racism against others.

This presentation is likely shaped by the pervasive influence of economics on our thinking to the point that anti-racism is viewed as a scarce resource rather than as a virtue that grows with use. I suspect that how race and hxstorical racism is commonly taught (i.e., as only hxstorical) also has something to do with it. Settler colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism – when even acknowledged – is usually described as an episode of the past, and any connection made to the present day is couched as culture blaming. Meanwhile, schools still celebrate Columbus Day. Slavery is presented as bad, but corrected with the (sanitized) work of Martin Luther King Jr., while other hxstories, including that of Asian Americans, are hardly mentioned at all.

Obviously that was something of a caricature. But my point is this: not teaching Asian American hxstories means that the framework we have to talk about racism is a reductionist Black-White paradigm that largely treats anti-Blackness as isolated and/or in the past. This then means that drawing attention to anti-East Asian racism (which is a good thing!), whether current or hxstorical, is done by simplistic comparisons to anti-Black racism (not a good thing!). And so we get sentiments like, “People talk about slavery, but did you know about the Chinatown lynchings?”

This brings me to the case of Peter Liang and the killing of Akai Gurley. I was recently part of a conversation hosted by Al Jazeera’s The Stream about the case. Joining me on the panel were Helena Wong of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and two people who helped organize pro-Peter Liang rallies: Jerry Chan in New York and Tom Fong in Washington, D.C. During the conversation, both Chan and Fong brought up cases of East Asian American aggrievement. Fong talked about the discrimination that his grandfather faced, specifically a story about people pulling his grandfather’s queue (a hairstyle). Chan talked about the bamboo ceiling and the perpetual foreigner trope: “We send our kids to the best schools… [but] once they get out, guess what, they’re working for some guy who just graduated from community college… In US society, we don’t see Asians as part of the melting point. They still think we are foreigners.”

These stories of East Asian American aggrievement are indeed connected to how some ethnic Chinese have chosen to rally around Peter Liang. There is a strong sense that as East Asian Americans we are overlooked, ignored, and invisible. These feelings merit attention. Chan and Fong’s stories merit attention. But, the fact of our feeling overlooked does not alone justify or corroborate the topics that we choose to talk about in expressing our feelings of invisibility. Our desire to combat the stereotyped presumption of our political apathy does not permit us to sidestep consideration of how we take our “rightful place at America’s table”. The ends do not justify the means. Channeling East Asian American aggrievement towards mobilization around Peter Liang is wrongheaded, and it results in an innately anti-Black statement regardless of the stated intentions of the mobilized.

We need more complex frameworks for understanding racisms so that we have greater clarity in discussing Asian American aggrievement. This is why at every level of instruction we need ethnic studies and decolonized education. This is why we need cultural criticism to challenge and nuance the stories we tell.

Otherwise, we’ll keep treating anti-racism as a scarce resource – crumbs from White supremacy’s table to be competed over – instead of cultivating anti-racism as an increasing virtue.

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.

Learn more about Reappropriate’s guest contributor program and submit your own writing here.

Did you like this post? Please support Reappropriate on Patreon!
  • Heidi Yu

    Good. At least Anti-Chinese racism has now been realized and openly discussed. Not in Canada yet: Canadian regulator’s treating of Sino-Forest case has been applauded, despite it alleged the company of massive fraud without evidences, but rather based on short-seller’s allegations and claiming “Chinese are fraud, until proven otherwise”.

  • Ryan Clarke

    I like how you segued from the Chris Rock incident (offered very thin criticism towards it and how the community would organize against it) towards the Liang case, and used it to bash Chinese as anti-black. So insistent on making this point, you neglected to spend your essay talking about the anti-Asian nature of Rock’s remarks. Somehow I knew however you’d make Asians the “misguided” villains in all this. Somehow professional activists and academics make this mistake routinely.

  • Keith

    Your comment is down right the dumbest thing I have read on this blog in a long time. You must be from MM. Ya’ll need a hobby.

  • Jord21

    Please, someone enlighten the Asian American contribution to “anti-Blackness”. We did not implement slavery, we did not implement segregation, nor do we have the ability to bypass other demographic voting to institute discriminatory policies such as stop-and-frisk; we do not hold enough position in banks to deny loans to Black Americans, or implement health-care policies that do not benefit Black Americans; while Asian-American split on Affirmative Action, the super-majority of admission officers are not Asian, even minority affairs committees do not constitute a large Asian American population.

    If the author is so adamant about not being a wedge, then why are we serving the same sentence as European Americans. The essay is pretty much our serving as a wedge for other minority groups.

  • kimmysmith11

    What is amazing is how Asian people who aren’t born here have little respect for African Americans, whether they are here or in China, etc. Asians know racism towards blacks exist in their country, just as it does here.

    Blacks has always fought for equal rights for everyone not just black people to be stab in the back by Asians, Latinos, etc. trying to put their claims before the most oppressed people in this country next to Native Americans (whose country was stolen was stolen from them). Asians came here voluntarily. Latinos came here voluntarily. Blacks were stolen and brought here forcibly and not paid for their labor. Native Americans were the first ones in the US enslaved by the illegal settlers, i.e., Europeans.

    This is why Black people should be Pro Trump. His immigration laws would help black people and rid this country of illegal who feel they share the same rights as blacks. Thank you for posting this article. I will forward it to the Trump team so he can use it to solicit votes from Black Americans.

  • Jord21

    “Black has always fought for equal rights for everyone” – that’s just half true.

    (1) Asian Americans earned their right to vote through international affairs. The removal of Chinese Exclusion Act and the attainment of citizenship was a result of China’s participation in WWII against the Axis.

    (2) Japanese and Korean American rights were earned through post-war reconstruction follow by the country’s pro-American alignment against Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    (3) Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was accomplished through the efforts of Eastern European Americans when US wanted to use quotas against immigrants, which Blacks did NOT support.

    (4) Blacks won desegregation of schools through Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but that ruling did NOT apply to Asian Americans. Asian American won desegregation in schools through Guey Heung Lee v. Johnson in 1971.

    You should stop taking credit for other race’s accomplishments.

    “Blacks were stolen and brought here forcibly” – that USED to be true, prior to 1965, but that’s less true now, unless you believe that there are no immigration from Africa to the United States. I guess you’d be happy to block African immigrants as well.

    “Latinos cam here voluntarily” – that is also half measure of truth. “Latinos” are mix of Native American and European ancestry. Prior to the Mexican-American war, majority land West of Texas in the continental United States belonged to Mexico, so by your definition, they had their land taken. Yet you ascribe to believe that they should have less rights than you do.

    People like you are the reason why newer Asians are dwindling in support Black causes. You want every other race to make themselves martyrs so that you can get what you want.

  • Jord21

    “Asians know racism towards blacks exist in their country, just as it does here.”

    Why type of racism are you referring to? Because Asian countries do not segregate, they do not enslave Africans, and the police do not harass Africans in their respective nations. Yet, somehow, that is racist. I guess, BY YOUR LOGIC, if the police in Asian countries begin gunning down unarmed Africans, that would be an improvement.

  • Vincent

    You are againist racism from Chris Rock, but OKs with Asian Americans been scapegoated by systemic racism, because you are afraid that African Americans will take it as anti-black? what a naive and stupid thought.
    A lot of African Americans are very sensible, they understand the difference between Accident and criminal act. In fact, the protest had receive support from African Americans, along with all other races: Latino, Asian, White and etc.
    What happened for Liang was purely an accident as an inexperienced rookie officer, but been used as a scapegoat in trying to fix past injustice, because he was an easy target And because he’s an asian american, and people naturally think that no one will support him.
    The protest was about against systemic racism. Systemic racism is dangerous not only to Asian Americasn, but all minorities in America.