It Was A Banner Year For Asian Representation. Now What?
In the wake of the murder of six Asian women in Atlanta, why do we talk about representation like it’s the solution to racism?
How do you know you belong? For my eight-year-old self, it was simple: Did I have friends who sat with me at lunch? Was there a Power Ranger who looked like me? Did I get to eat at McDonald’s on my birthday? Gratefully, thankfully, those juvenile hallmarks of belonging were all I needed when I was growing up; my parents shielded me from feeling like I didn’t belong, and from the worst consequences of not belonging. Because of this, I never really understood how impossible it was for my parents to find work, despite their advanced degrees. I never understood what it took for them to decipher mountains of paperwork in a language they didn’t speak well, all in order to access benefits to keep my sister and me fed and clothed. I never felt endangered, because my parents absorbed it all, at least until I was in my early teens.
Obviously, I’m no longer that same shielded child, but if I try to shut enough things out today, I can still inhabit that narrow field of vision; I can believe that my personal comfort and consumption are a meaningful indicator about whether Asian-Americans belong in this country. On Monday, I woke up to good news: Asian-Americans had finally broke through the Oscars’ bamboo ceiling, with Minari’s Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung, producer Christina Oh, and director Lee Isaac Chung — as well as Nomadland’s director, Chloé Zhao — clinching nominations. This came after a major spike in Asian-American storytelling across film, TV, streaming networks, and music. Where we once only had The Joy Luck Club and Claudia from The Babysitter’s Club, we now have Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, The Farewell, Lana Condor, Alice Wu, multiple reality shows about millionaires of Asian descent, and also three presidential candidates (though they do not create movies, I’d argue they had more screen time than most actors last year). To take it a step further — Asian-American products are now lining our shelves, Asian-American faces stare back at us from advertisements, and Asian-American executives have been promoted into boardrooms. If I were only basing Asian-Americans’ progress off the accomplishments Asian-American elites have had with representation, I would have been caught off-guard by the news yesterday that six Asian women were murdered by a vengeful white man.
On Monday, the power of celebrity representation was supposed to mean that all Asian-Americans could feel like they belonged. I wonder how much that mattered to the Asian women who were killed.
I don’t want to suggest that representation is not important in affirming Asian lives. There’s value in feeling seen and heard. When we see our stories told by mainstream venues, it quells our anxieties. When I talk to Asians just a bit older than me, their feelings tend to be even stronger: They vividly remember when Asian representation in media wasn't just absent, it was overtly racist. They understand the importance of being seen as we really are, instead of as stereotypes, or not at all. But our representation in Hollywood, in corporate America, and even among the political elite, isn’t evidence that our country’s systems and institutions are any less racist in the ways in which they dole out wealth, protection, and opportunities. I fear that placing so much importance in cultural trophies like representation wins is misleading — a distraction.
When representation as an end-goal so dominates our conversations and energies, it diverts us from being able to identify and address the Goliath problems that lead people to commit crimes, take lives and livelihoods, and threaten public safety. Recently, celebrity-led social-media activism has bubbled up around crimes against Asians, and has reinforced the idea that being anti-racist amounts to showing hashtag solidarity or being represented on magazine covers. As I see it, racism has very little to do with corporate brands not posting on Instagram about Asian hate, and everything to do with the outrageous economic injustice that plague minority communities; the unbelievable lack of stable employment, especially during this pandemic year; the inhumane cost of acquiring non-employer-provided healthcare; and the easy access to weapons that turn racist thoughts into violent, hate-fuelled actions.
When I am at my most cynical, I think that racism is inevitable. Small-minded and insecure people will always harbor racist ideas, no matter which movies win Oscars or who is in the White House. I sometimes dream of an America where racist institutions of violent oppression are instead turned upside down: Instead of empowering racists, our systems will instead disarm and disempower violent and discriminatory inclinations. What would it look like if racists only had words to injure people? What would it look like if our schools, our hiring practices, our law enforcement, our legal systems, our immigration policies, our hospitals, our social welfare programs were just and fair? Would it even matter, then, if someone tweeted that their eyes looked "chinky" or joked about happy endings? What would our world look like if it were impossible to put any actions behind racist thought? Where it would be impossible to even conceive of that?
I have an idea of what that world looks like. It looks something like mine. The greatest gift my parents gave to me, at the expense of their own safety and comfort, were the tools to create a personal safety net. I am not scared when someone shouts konichiwa at me on the street, or when I receive racist DMs and emails, or when I see tweets that make cheap jabs at Asian-Americans' expense — because I have the resources, the energy, and acquired skills to neutralise those words from becoming actions that affect me. My job is one that I was able to get because, culturally, I inhabit a white-adjacent space; the money I make doing it means that I am largely shielded from the violence, threats, and life-altering discrimination that plague many Asian communities. I mention this not because I’m proud of having these tools —I’m not; how can you be proud of gifts? — but rather because I find it shameful that the state has left it up to individuals to construct these nets ourselves, making it a certainty that more people than not will slip right through.
But also, by finding success and safety within racist systems, there is a tacit affirmation that these systems — that racism — is valid. It proves that racists are right, and it makes it easy to commit acts of racism that have real impacts on already vulnerable people’s lives. To me, it seems futile to fight this iron scaffold of racism by asking individuals not to hate us. Stop Asian Hate highlights a crucial wrong. But as a solution, I believe that it's as misguided as trying to prevent bullying by telling a tormentor that they’ve hurt their victims’ feelings — that was always their intention, after all. But while being told to “Go back to China” or “Your people did this” is upsetting and dehumanizing, it would become less terrifying, less of a threat, if it were not also a very real possibility that someone saying these words was not also carrying a gun.
I’m not the only one to see racism this way. According to professor Ibram X. Kendi, the author of the widely read How To Be An Anti-Racist, racist thought flourishes and mutates into violence under discriminatory policies — a theory he proves over and over again in his previous book, Stamped From The Beginning. The key to eliminating racism, according to Kendi, is dismantling unjust policies that protect the economic interests of a small minority. It is not putting oppressed people in positions of power in these same unjust institutions.
I worry that the current conversation about representation distracts us from addressing the root cause of suffering, and that representation is considered by too many as an adequate “solution.” In so much of the recent and necessary discourse around the violence targeting Asians, I see people like myself — protected, privileged, and semi-public figures — who have used this as an opportunity to reframe the conversations around their experiences. I’ve seen Asian celebrities sitting in magnificent homes cite the statistic that there are more Asians living in poverty in NYC than any other minority group, as if their lives and that of poor New Yorkers share anything but a census designation. This statistic is horrifying and tragic, and should not be used to justify how badly people have felt about being called a rude name or getting a tacky email from a publicist. But, the inevitable conclusion of seeing Asians as a monolith is that privileged Asians will potentially benefit from other people’s suffering; when guilt-trips finally catch up with people in power, they will dole out anti-racist favors to those who need it least, to already privileged Asians, who are mostly Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or of mixed race. Asians like myself are the ones who already benefit most from white supremacy; we also get to benefit from being seen as victims of it, too.
I want to be clear: It’s important to our individual well-being to share our own stories, and to reckon with and heal from our own traumas. But it is another thing to believe that speaking up and saying I have suffered, too is a productive way to fix the most racist aspects of our country, especially if these statements aren’t coupled with criticism of our institutions and the state.
How do you know you belong? I’m no longer convinced that it’s the right question for minorities to ask, or that it’s even an idea worth spending time on. In a country founded upon the idea that only land-owning white men have the divine right to self-determination, what does it even mean to belong? And why would we even want to? But, it’s our natural instinct, a basic human desire to feel like we are at home. I’m deeply sympathetic to people who lack the external affirmation that their lives are valuable, worthy, and meaningful. But, I’m inclined to see belonging as less a presence of something — like visual representation — and more an absence: of violence, of fear, of the need to expend an unbelievable amount of paranoid energy just to live.