As Asian Americans living in the years of Amy Chua, Ajit Pai, Peter Liang and Nikki Haley, it’s easy to romanticize the Movement: those revolutionary years when “brothers and sisters” from Chinatowns, Little Tokyos, and Manilatowns across the country came together to stand with Black Power and confront the racist war in Vietnam. Together, they made pilgrimage to Manzanar, sat in at Wounded Knee, and walked out at San Francisco State University. Somewhere along the way, they invented “Asian America” as we know it.
A crash course in the history of the Asian American Movement has become part of the initiation process for young newcomers to the Asian American left, and for good reason. And yet, the images that get circulated from that era—of Black, brown, and yellow brothers wearing leather jackets and berets, fists raised and packing heat—hint at a masculinist underpinning that’s worth unpacking.
Take, for instance, the iconic image of Richard Aoki with Berkeley’s Asian American Political Alliance at a 1968 rally to free Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. Aoki (who in 2012 was implicated as an alleged FBI informant) looks decidedly chic: clad in a black beret and sunglasses with a cigarette protruding from the corner of his mouth, he raises one hand in a fist while the other balances the now-iconic sign: “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” But reading this image and its circulation critically, we might ask: Is it Aoki’s revolutionary politics that resonates? Or is Aoki, as a Japanese American man embodying a militant kind of hypermasculinity, rendered iconic for easing modern anxieties about Asian male “emasculation”—that which Tamara Nopper calls “a homophobic and sexist preoccupation among many Asian Americans and our ‘allies’”?
On inauguration day, you promised your commitment to “resist any attempt the President makes to dismantle the progress we’ve made” on issues of health care, immigrant rights, civil rights, and economic justice. The next day, you joined hundreds of thousands of women and supporters at the Women’s March in D.C. — tweeting: “Aloha trumps hate & we will not back down”.
These admirable sentiments are all the more powerful coming from you, our first Asian American woman senator, and a longtime advocate for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. But in these times of political crisis, we know that every single vote counts.
That’s why I was so disappointed to see that on January 20, the same day you promised to resist Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, you used your vote to help confirm his nominee, John Kelly, as Secretary of Homeland Security.
Recently, Mark Tseng Putterman wrote “Against Antiblackness as Metaphor” as a discussion of actor and comedian Margaret Cho’s use of the phrase “House Asian” in an email exchange with fellow actor Tilda Swinton. Cho and Swinton had been emailing in relation to months of controversy over Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in Marvel’s Dr. Strange, wherein a traditionally male, Tibetan comic book character was rewritten as a Celtic woman to enable Swinton’s portrayal; many Asian Americans had criticized Swinton’s casting as the latest example of Hollywood white-washing of Asian American roles. Earlier this month, Cho weighed in on the controversy in a podcast by revealing a private email exchange between herself and Swinton, wherein Cho described feeling as if she had been put by Swinton into the politically dubious role of a “House Asian”. While many have since focused on Swinton’s methods and motives in approaching Cho in this exchange, Putterman offered a slightly different take: he wrote to criticize Cho’s choice to use the phrase “House Asian” in her emails with Swinton. Specifically, Putterman suggested that Cho, like many Asian Americans, should reconsider our use of metaphors of Blackness to legitimize racial justice issues associated with the Asian American community, and that our continued use of such tactics undermine solidarity efforts between the Black and Asian American community.
Based on his writing, I believe it was Malcolm X who coined the phrases “House Negro” vs. “Field Negro” to highlight the relative instability of the plight of all subjugated Black people. Along those lines, Ture and Hamilton’s work, Black Power, also assigned a commonality of experience of subjugation for populations of color across the globe, and coined the term “Third World.” This latter term has fallen out of favor since the 1990’s. Cho’s use of “House Asian” misses many of these nuances, and runs the danger of advancing an agenda where all experiences of discrimination, based on race or otherwise, can be viewed as equal.
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.