Andrew Yang is Wrong: Respectability Politics Won’t Save Asian Americans from Racist Violence

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang at the Sept 12 Democratic primary debate in Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, the FBI released a report detailing the attempted hate crime murder of an Asian American family — including the brutal stabbing of a two-year-old and a six-year-old child — by a man who blamed his victims for the COVID-19 outbreak. The attack is part of an alarming nationwide surge in racist anti-Asian violence currently being documented both by the FBI and Asian American community activists, and ranging from incidents of racist harassment and slurs to violent physical assault.

Most Asian American progressives have spent the last few weeks working tirelessly to address the growing epidemic of anti-Asian racism. We have been working to document the attacks, amplify stories of victims and survivors, draw connections to Asian American history, and create resources to support the traumatized — all in an effort to raise awareness about the current anti-Asian racial climate, and to urge the country to not give in to dangerous, hateful racism.

Andrew Yang has a different take.* Implying that Asian American progressives have been overly “negative” in calling out racism, the former presidential candidate wrote a painfully insensitive op-ed yesterday in the Washington Post (paywall).

In it, Yang instead suggested that the current pattern of anti-Asian violence is how people are “wired”. But, says Yang, Asian Americans can prevent hate crimes against us by “embrac[ing] and show[ing] our American-ness in ways we never have before.” Barring that, Yang suggests Asian Americans rush to find a cure for the novel coronavirus so that “any racism would likely fade”.

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Speaking Truth to Power is not Cyberbullying: On Tone Policing and Respectability Politics

Zach McGowan (left), who is not Native Hawaiian, has been cast to play Ben Kanahele (right) in the upcoming “Ni’ihau” film.

Last week, Deadline broke the story that writer/director Gabriel Robertson (EastEnders, Bucket, The Gift) was attached to write and direct a feature film based on the infamous so-called “Ni’ihau Incident”. Deadline further reported that actor Zach McGowan (Dracula UntoldTerminator: Salvation, Black Sails) — who is not Native Hawaiian — had been cast in the leading role of Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, a historical figure and Ni’ihauian who was awarded a Purple Heart for his role in the incident.

News of McGowan’s casting triggered immediate backlash from Asian American and Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander activists, who accused the filmmakers of using “Polyface” to whitewash the character of Ben Kanahele. In addition, Asian Americans criticized early buzz surrounding the planned “Ni’ihau” film, which described the incident as a “catalyst” for Japanese American incarceration (Editor’s Note: see JACL’s Power of Words handbook).

In truth, the events of the Ni’ihau Incident was co-opted by hardline conservatives to provide a veil of legitimacy to obscure the racist and anti-Asian motives behind Japanese American incarceration. History has since confirmed that Executive Order 9066 — which led to the forcible removal of over a hundred thousand Japanese and Japanese American civilians — was not based in significant military intelligence showing that Japanese Americans were untrustworthy; rather, Japanese American incarceration emerged as the latest escalation in a decades-long pattern of legalized anti-Asian and anti-Japanese harassment and criminalization.

Online outcry against “Ni’ihau” was fervent, taking the shape of memes, Twitter threads, and long-form thinkpieces. As it turns out, the filmmakers behind the planned “Ni’ihau” film were listening; and, they weren’t very receptive to the criticism.

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