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—thereismuchacademic and popularwritingonthesubject—but to examine one effect of its prevalence in public discourse: confused narratives of Asian American aggrievement.
At the age of 51, Chris Rock has evolved far beyond being the brash stand-up comedy of his early days. His latest film projects (Head of State,I Think I Love My Wife, and Top Five) are characteristically funny, but what makes them resonate is their meta-textual commentary on race, politics and Chris Rock’s personal life. With his latest slate of films, Rock no longer simply entertains; he expresses himself and explores the world around him as part comedian, part philosopher, part public intellectual.
In particular, Top Five offered insight into Rock’s reflections – oftentimes wistful and self-critical — on being a Black man in White Hollywood, and the distance that this placed between him and the rest of Black America. It’s a fantastic, deeply intimate film that deserves a wider reach than it received, but it is not without its flaws. Others have written about Top Five’s bad gay joke, but fewer have mentioned that Chris Rock slipped in some cringe-inducing and completely unnecessary anti-Asian jokes over the course of the film.
It has been a little while since I’ve seen Top Five, but at least one joke involves Rock grilling Rosario Dawson’s character – who plays Rock’s love interest — about her dating history, incredulous that a past boyfriend was Asian. The implication, of course, was that Asian and Asian American men are bad in bed. Dawson rejects the remark by pointing out that Asians make up a large segment of the world’s population and therefore – of course – Asian men are good at sex, but the damage is done. As others in the theatre laughed at yet another comedian made yet another joke about the (untrue) stereotype of the “small Asian penis”, I felt angered, betrayed and marginalized as an Asian American woman.
What was perhaps even more frustrating was that the inclusion of these objectively racist jokes in Top Five was totally unnecessary. Top Five is otherwise a smart, well-written, and racially nuanced film that offered a compelling deep dive into contemporary Blackness. So: why did he also include the totally pointless, unfunny, and lazy humour of Asian-bashing and gay-bashing?
That’s pretty much how I feel about Sunday night’s Oscars.
The University of Texas employs a so-called “Top Ten Percent Plan”, wherein the school automatically admits students from each of the state’s high schools who score within the top ten percent of their graduating class. The remainder of available slots are filled through a holistic review process that includes race as one of several characteristics used to assess applicants. Fisher — whose high school grades were insufficient to yield her automatic acceptance to the University of Texas — contends that she was rejected under holistic review because she is White and therefore that the University of Texas violated her 14th Amendment rights. However, independent review of her application and the characteristics of other applicants in 2008 demonstrate that Fisher’s application package was weak in comparison to others in her year, and that her rejection likely had nothing to do with the colour of her skin.
This is an awkward question, but here goes: How does a respected New York Times opinion-maker expend so many words to say so very little with accuracy about Asian Americans?
Late last week, columnist Nicholas Kristof reignited his earlier conversation on American racial inequity (collected in a series of columns tagged “When Whites Just Don’t Get It”) when he set out to explore the purported cultural underpinnings of supposed Asian American exceptionalism (“The Asian Advantage”). What resulted was an embarrassingly under-reasoned meandering through Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) identity politics, one rife with the kind of Model Minority Myth generalizations and stereotypes best relegated to the set of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor.
Earlier this week, I gave a standing-room only talk at Yale about the Asian American Model Minority Myth, wherein I talked about the Myth’s anti-Black underpinnings and its dehumanizing obfuscation of the struggles (and very real racism) faced by the diverse people who belong to the AANHPI community. Afterwards, a young Chinese American woman came up to me and introduced herself: her name was Joyce. Earlier this year, her father (Temple University physics professor and former department chairman, Xiaoxing Xi) had been arrested by the Justice Department and wrongly accused of espionage. In 2002, Xi had worked at a company that had invented something called a pocket heater, which is now a restricted technology used in superconductor research. Later, Xi purchased limited access to the technology for one year to continue his research on it.
In an emotional and heartfelt op-ed published this past week, Joyce recounts how in May of this year, the US Justice Department raided the Xi family home. Twelve FBI agents broke into the house in the early morning hours and pointed guns at a bewildered and terrified Xi, his wife, and their children. The agents dragged Xi away in handcuffs, and accused him of sharing the pocket heater schematics with Chinese scientists in 2010, in a series of emails. They implicated Xi — a US citizen who naturalized in 1989 — as a Chinese spy. In addition to facing federal charges of espionage, Xi became informally black-listed: before even having a chance to defend himself in a court of law, Xi found himself demoted from his departmental chairmanship by Temple University.
One inconvenient problem: Xi appears to be completely innocent.