Against Antiblackness As Metaphor

Guest Contributor: Mark Tseng Putterman (@tsengputterman)

Asian American Twitter has been abuzz this week with news that Tilda Swinton singled out Margaret Cho to explain to her the backlash surrounding her whitewashed casting as “The Ancient One” in Dr. Strange. On a recent episode of Bobby Lee’s TigerBelly podcast, Cho described the odd email exchange with Swinton, who she had never met, explaining that it left her feeling like a “house Asian, like I’m her servant.”

While many commentators have rightfully jumped on Swinton’s behavior as another example of white people expecting people (especially women) of color to perform uncompensated intellectual and emotional labor, few have discussed how Cho’s coopting of the term “house Asian” represents a parallel trend of non-Black Asian Americans repurposing Black movements, analyses, and terminology for our own purposes.

The singular history of chattel slavery in the United States tells us that there were no “house Asians,” only “house n–ers.” While Cho placed her use of the term in the context of British imperialism, the phrase is clearly lifted from the context of American slavery, in which slave owners “elevated” the status of some slaves from working in the fields to the household. But Cho’s casual appropriation of the term reduced the history of slavery and its afterlives to a rhetorical device. To Black Americans, the commodification and eradication of Black bodies under slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration is a terrifying inherited trauma, lived experience, and daily threat of violence. But Cho, like too many non-Black Asian Americans, chose to use antiblackness as a metaphor.

Given the hypervisibility of Blackness under white supremacy, many Asian Americans have found Black history and terminology useful as explanatory frameworks to visibilize our own histories of oppression. Cho’s “house Asian” remark leverages Black histories of oppression and the singular history of chattel slavery as a shortcut for explaining her own positioning as a Korean American woman asked to do unpaid labor for a white actress apparently entitled to her time. The shortcut works so well not because average Americans inherently pay more attention to Black issues than Asian American ones, but because of the work of generations of Black thinkers and activists who have pushed Black history and struggle at least marginally into the American mainstream. It’s a shortcut that erases Black struggle while using their histories as a metaphor to advance an Asian American agenda. But using antiblackness as a metaphor for Asian American struggle also limits the ways we talk about our own histories and movements. When we fail to employ nuance and specificity in our discussions of Asian American experiences with racism, we risk misdirecting Asian American anger away from the structures of white supremacy and towards Black communities—hurting all of us in the process.

When Cho calls upon Black history to explain her exchange with Swinton, or when Constance Wu insists on using the term “blackface” to describe Hollywood practices of yellowface because it’s “more evocative,” they model to non-Black Asian Americans that the only way to articulate our grievances is on the backs of Black thinkers. As Felix Huang described in a guest post for Reappropriate, we need a new language for expressing Asian American aggrievement, one with space for holding the singularity of Black oppression and the unique experiences of Asian Americans under white supremacy. Black analytical frameworks cannot be used as props for Asian American spokespeople to claim when useful and discard when they get in the way. Instead, they are a call for us to sharpen our own analytical frameworks, to work to push our own issues into the popular agenda, and to recognize that Asian American movements must take place in deep critical conversation with the mechanisms of antiblackness that are so foundational to systemic racism in the U.S.

When the only way we know how to articulate Asian American experiences with racism is by invoking antiblackness as metaphor, we imply that mainstream apathy towards Asian American political conditions is a result of unearned attention on Black communities. When we bemoan that people who would never wear blackface still think yellowface is acceptable, we are asking to shift antiracist attention away from Blackness and towards ourselves. When we complain that everyone knows about the history of slavery but far fewer know about Chinese and Indian coolie labor, we request that Black history be knocked down a peg or two in service of our own visibility.

A screen capture from Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None”. (Photo credit: Netflix / Master of None)

Aziz Ansari’s character falls into this trap on an episode of Master of None when he claims: “People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about Black or gay people.” Like Ansari’s character, too often we let our frustrations with Asian American invisibility fester into a wound of antiblack resentment, failing to recognize the violence inherent to the Black hypervisibility so many Asian Americans seem to covet. These resentments have material consequences, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of Chinese Americans who marched to claims that former NYPD officer Peter Liang was a “sacrificial lamb” to the Black Lives Matter movement, or the anti-affirmative action advocates who claim that the policy pushes forward a Black agenda to the detriment of Asian American students. These narratives rely on a false view that Black political movements operate in opposition to Asian/Chinese American ones—that fixing political attention on the many manifestations of antiblackness somehow contributes to the invisibilization of Asian American issues.

A screen capture from Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” (Photo Credit: Do The Right Thing)

In a brilliant scene in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, as a crowd of Black community members destroy a white-owned business in protest of a police murder, a Korean store owner attempts to diffuse the crowd from targeting his store next with a simple plea: “I’m black! You, me; same.” The scene resonates because beneath the simplistic audacity of the appeal, it articulates what so many Asian Americans have felt: a sense of connection to Black struggle as people of color living under white supremacy. Indeed, though one member of the crowd laughs off the Korean store owner’s claims to Blackness and another implores him to “open [his] eyes,” the crowd eventually turns away as one character remarks: “Leave the Korean alone…he’s alright.”

When non-Black Asian Americans can relate to Blackness as a political condition, it opens the door for solidarity movements that see Orientalism, imperialism, and xenophobia in relation to antiblackness. But too often, solidarity without specificity leads to erasure of those most marginalized. We must develop the language and frameworks to articulate what Spike Lee’s fictitious store owner could not. We are not Black. But when we tie our futures to the political conditions of Blackness, not as mere metaphor but as a moral demand for material justice, we create new pathways towards being seen in all our complexities and contradictions.   

Mark Tseng Putterman (@tsengputterman) is thinking, organizing, and writing at the intersections of Asian American, Jewish, and mixed race identity and political movements. He is a 2016-2017 Visiting Scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU.

This piece was informed in part by engaging with work by Shanice Brim (@ShaniceBrim), Felix Huang (@Brkn_Yllw_Lns), Jahlani Smothers-Pugh, and @dtwps. I encourage all readers to follow their critical work!

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

Update (12/20/2016): Several readers have raised concerns that the original version of this post used the word “crutch” in a negative and ableist way. The author has elected to revise this post and to remove the problematic usage of the term.

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  • Katie

    I love this and I agree so much! (Also super cool to see another Asian American Jew out there.) I have one small (relative to the size and intellectual rigor of this piece) criticism – the comparison of Black analytical frameworks to “a crutch for Asian American spokespeople to lean on.” As this piece is about the hidden danger of metaphors and the danger of trivializing and invisibilizing other dynamics of oppression, I’d encourage the author to avoid disability metaphors. There’s nothing wrong with crutches, and the visual of leaning on a crutch as something shameful or lazy plays right into the hands of ableism.

    Otherwise, thank you for this piece, and very much appreciated all around.

  • Milkamp

    When Cho calls upon Black history to explain her exchange with Swinton, or when Constance Wu insists on using the term “blackface” to describe Hollywood practices of
    yellowface because it’s “more evocative,” they model to non-Black Asian Americans that the only way to articulate our grievances is on the backs of Black thinkers.”

    The term “yellowface” was coined in analogy to “blackface”, and implicitly equates casting non-Asians as Asians with blackface minstrel shows. If you object to Constance Wu explicitly referring to “blackface” in this context, then you should avoid the term “yellowface” too, as this makes the same comparison implicitly.

    Alternatively, if you’re happy with the term “yellowface”, I don’t see on what grounds you can object to explicit comparisons with blackface of the kind that Constance Wu makes.

  • Mark Tseng Putterman

    I appreciate you raising this point, Katie! Language absolutely matters. We’ve edited the post to remove the term and addressed its usage in an editor’s note.

  • sister_h

    Pointing out that many people shrug at racism against Asians and Asian Americans while simultaneously respecting the history of oppression towards African Americans is not necessarily an expression of resentment towards African Americans, although it can be. Making this point can be an acknowledgement of the racial hierarchy in which white people are on the top and black people are on the bottom with Asian Americans and Mexican Americans / Latinos floating in various places in between depending on geography and other context. This can be a more sophisticated political analysis than assuming that the divide is white people and an undifferentiated mass of people of color.

    There are people who maintain that it’s impossible to be racist towards Asian Americans because of average statistical data showing higher household income among Asian Americans nationwide and because of their belief in the model minority stereotype, and also their Asian friend told them this. These people are found on the left and on the right.

  • Em Botta

    I am kind of confused as to what this article is trying to say. I believe Asian Americans have to learn to speak up for themselves instead of trying to intellectualize things. I would rather hear of people talking about their own personal experiences instead of generalizing to other races and ethnic groups. If you want a more public voice, that needs to be worked on in your communities and actually speaking out instead of letting it pass by quietly. As an Asian American, that’s what I’d like to hear more of. One can write tons of articles and never have any concrete change happen.
    What I’d like to know is are you writing to raise awareness or to change your writing because someone doesn’t agree with it. In effect, you’re not even allowing other people to make their decisions based on what you say, you’re letting the people who comment dictate how you write, at least that’s what I see.
    I don’t agree with the ‘brilliant’ scene in the Spike Lee film. What is brilliant about some dude wanting to save his store and letting someone say to him ‘open you eyes’ which can be perceived as an insult to someone who is Asian.

  • Leo R

    “Black” appears to be employed as a denomination for an ethnicity whilst “white” is a descriptive adjective. “Black” is thus basically an ethnicity that was brought about by slavery. Which in turn means that a Nigerian coming to the US today can be considered “black” but not “Black”. When it comes to using capitalization I have to admit I always cringe a bit because I wonder if we are acknowledging or constructing separation.

  • Nigel Franklin

    Leo I feel you’re missing the fact that “white” as an ethnic distinction was also brought about by Slavery.

    There was no broad consciousness of european commonality based on skin color before blackness was conceived as a justification for enslavement. The artifice of whiteness pops up when you take into account its shifting borders, individual German and later Irish immigrants legally petitioned for “whiteness” in america and courts widely acknowledged that any scientific definition would be logically incoherent.

  • Ryan Clarke

    >Aziz Ansari’s character falls into this trap on an episode of Master of None when he claims: “People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about Black or gay people.” Like Ansari’s character, too often we let our frustrations with Asian American invisibility fester into a wound of antiblack resentment

    This is just silly. What about what Aziz said is antiblack? You lose credibility when you throw this term around in a glib fashion. He’s objectively describing how people react when they observe racism against different minorities. Observing that reality is not anti-black; neither is it diminishing racist actions against blacks. Nor is it claiming the outrage towards injustice towards blacks is unwarranted.

  • Cindy Li

    “the phrase is clearly lifted from the context of American slavery, in which slave owners “elevated” the status of some slaves from working in the fields to the household.”

    don’t know if I’m missing something but I’m not sure how this phrase is “clearly” lifted from the context of American slavery. field slaves vs. household slaves is a dichotomy that has existed in slave holding societies beyond American chattel enslavement. it is a practice that has carried over from feudal societies and is evident in many cultures. perhaps i’m mistaken, but it would be nice to see sources for such a strong claim, especially one that forms the basis of your thesis.

  • Cindy Li

    i believe the antiblack resentment is implied—Anzari is complaining that the general population is oversensitive about anti-black racism, therefore implying that people tend to over-centre black issues, even when there is very little to be upset about. in a way, it IS diminishing anti-black racism by saying people get unnecessarily fired up over instances of anti-black racism, it suggests that things aren’t as bad as we think they are.

  • Ryan Clarke

    Where does he say people are “over-sensitive”? See, when you go overboard in accusations of anti-black racism, you lose credibility. Would you like people to raise questions about your bias against Indian-Americans for distorting what Ansari said in order to critique him? Ansari has been relatively thoughtful on the subject of race; to misrepresent what he’s saying would be unfortunate and irresponsible.

  • Cindy Li

    when you say “so-and-so don’t get as fired up over something as someone else”, the implication is that you think the “someone else” in this sentence gets fired up over things that are undeserving of the reaction. you don’t need to say everything explicitly to imply things. come on, man. it’s really not that hard to understand what i’m saying. i’m not misrepresenting shit.