Asian-Americans and Racist Love

Spotlights
Patrick Lim

‘Get Out’, the 2017 eminent comedy-horror directed by Jordan Peele, made waves early this year for its striking social commentary on racism in a ‘post-Obama (read: post-racism)’ world. Critics hailed the movie for bringing to light the ‘new’ type of racism pervasive in white liberal America. This conversation was a long time coming —the election of Obama was meant to herald in a new era of post-racial community —America could no longer be racist— we had a black president. And indeed, Trump’s election was a rude awakening. Prejudice in America was simply bubbling at the surface. ‘Get Out’ packaged this idea into a sharp and stylish cinematic production, with Peele hinting at the notion that racism never really went away, but rather changed forms, morphing into subtler, yet still —as the movie viscerally suggests— dangerous varieties.

Certainly a startling wake-up call for racial discussion in America. But for astute Asian-Americans, this is old news.

More than 40 years ago, pioneering Asian-American playwright and writer Frank Chin, and a professor of Asian-American studies, Jeffery Paul Chan, co-wrote an article entitled ‘Racist Love’. This seminal work tore apart white racism and peered in from the seldom-viewed lens of Asian-America. In ‘Racist Love’, Chin explains that first of all there exists racist hate —the common understanding of racism— which manifests as violence and demonization born of prejudice from majority groups towards minorities. In his article, Chin asserts that there is another, elusive form of racism called ‘racist love’, which he defines as characterised by the Asian-American condition. It is the idea that a minority group, in fulfilling certain stereotypes —or in behaving in a particular way— is granted a degree of acceptance into the majority community (recall Peele’s soulless black characters acting ‘white’). Chin described Chinese and Japanese Americans as communities who shamelessly embraced this affliction, and in doing so, gave up their racial identity and became easier to control.

It is crucial to remember that Asian-Americans were not always viewed this way. For a large portion of American history, Asian-Americans were mostly seen as threatening, dangerous, and degenerate. Recall the ‘yellow peril’ in the late 19th century, where economic anxieties from an influx of Asian immigrant labour led to a whole host of laws and policies designed to prevent Chinese participation in society. During WWII, hateful propaganda against the Japanese reinforced this anti-Asian sentiment, resulting in a slew of racially targeted policies, culminating in the forced mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans. The 50s and 60s witnessed a remodeling of these attitudes, instigated by new geopolitical interests and a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. In the mid 20th century, a turn towards improving relationships with China and Japan led to the repeal of many discriminatory policies. Moreover, rioting and racial tension encouraged portrayals of Asian-Americans in a more positive light, a ploy to discredit appeals from ‘problem minorities’, a term used by sociologist William Paterson in his 1966 article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style”. Asians in America were now the ‘model minority’ —racist hate had morphed into racist love. Asian-Americans as the paragon of sensibility —quiet, hardworking, and docile— something the other ‘problem’ races should aspire to.

There has been analogous movement towards ‘racist love’ for African-Americans. Increasingly progressive attitudes and feminist ideology prominent in media and entertainment has created an environment of political correctness where overt racism is socially unacceptable. The change in attitudes towards African-Americans has an almost uncanny resemblance to the Asian-American developments described previously. Arguably, African-Americans no longer suffer the same kinds of discrimination addressed by the civil rights movement. Legislative discrimination has been virtually abolished; Black representation in America has increased significantly in all echelons of society. Obviously, vast economic disparity still exists, but in terms of mainstream societal attitudes, the trend is certainly moving away from the degrading prejudice of Jim Crow era America. Returning to ‘Get Out’, we can observe an unabashed representation of this modern attitude of white America. From the beginning of the film, we take the perspective of Chris —played by Daniel Kaluuya— a 20-something black photographer, who visits the family home of his white girlfriend, meeting her parents for the first time. Upon arriving, Chris finds himself on the receiving end of an onslaught of crude remarks by his girlfriend’s relatives and family friends. A recognizable scenario no doubt, for minorities who have spent enough time in white circles. Comments are made about his ‘athleticism’, ‘genetic make-up’, and the name-dropping of Jessie Owens and Tiger Woods is thrown in for good measure. These reductive comments mirror common complaints of Asian-Americans, who cannot escape expressions of love for Chinese food or sushi, or rarely encountering satisfaction with the naming of an American state as an answer to ‘where are you from?’.

21st century African-Americans are now facing their own version of ‘racist love’, albeit taking a more literal affection —the love of black culture, as something cool, a kind of jealousy— stemming from the same insidious root as the racist love towards Asian-Americans, a projection of a ‘positive’ stereotype, itself being an equally malevolent form of racial stigma. In ‘Get Out’, this is exemplified by the girlfriend’s father (Bradley Whitford) who mentions what a “privilege it is to be able to enjoy other people’s cultures”. Not a benevolent love, but rather, the love that an insensitive tourist has for ‘exotic’ cultures seems to be the overwhelming sentiment. For 50 years, Asian-Americans have faced these kinds of reductive and alienating remarks. Disappointingly, little has been written from the perspective of Asian-Americans, a group to whom many of the themes raised: ‘microaggressions’ and ‘dehumanising stereotypes’, should be far from unfamiliar.

What are the consequences to this form of racism? For Asian-Americans, this has allowed an easy method of control and manipulation, encouraging Asian-American efforts to maintain the status quo, and in a way, also reinforces the subjugation of black America. Could this be what Peele is suggesting with his inclusion of a Japanese character amidst the white throng, who also participates in the ‘auctioning’ of Chris? Perhaps this is an allusion to the complicity of Asian-Americans in white supremacy? His only spoken line ‘Is the African-American experience an advantage or a disadvantage?’ is a provoking statement. Coming from another minority, is this perhaps an evaluation of the different kinds of racist love being offered to the two difference racial minorities? And which is to be preferred?

This raises many more questions that need to be explored. Perhaps it is the nature that racism takes, or its various iterations throughout history that have to be identified. In the early 20th century, our current understandings of racism were not always as obvious. We take it for granted now that our prior attitudes and behaviors towards minorities were unacceptable, for instance, we forget the heated discussion and relentless debate that preceded the Civil Rights acts. Let us see the analogy in today’s ‘new’ forms of racism, which perhaps— 50 years down the line—may seem painfully obvious to those looking back. Black-America may have begun the conversation, but Asian-Americans still have a long way to go in finishing it.

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