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.

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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.

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