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Old Racism, New Victims

By Aline Brosh

ASIAN-AMERICANS used to be called "Orientals." During World War II, some were incarcerated in camps. Still, in 1988, American society has not learned to deal with Asian-Americans fairly. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who could tell the difference between Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thais or Filipinos.

It's interesting to compare the mass media's depiction of Asians with that of Blacks. Although racial prejudice against Blacks has certainly not been eradicated, white Americans are now more sensitive to the old images of Blacks as Mammies, slaves, whores or pimps. And while Blacks on televison and in the film industry are still under-represented, artists like Spike Lee and Bill Cosby have opened up American media to positive, or at least intelligent, portrayals of the lives of Blacks in America.

Now Asian-Americans are encountering close-minded, stereotypical depictions similar to those long directed at Blacks. Evidence of racial antipathy toward Asian-Americans abounds in movies and television--where they are usually portrayed as samurais, Charlie Chans, dry cleaners, waiters, sages. They are seen as docile, servile, inarticulate and "inscrutable," or as barbaric, paganistic and violent.

You know a stereotype is really in vogue when it lands on Saturday Night Live. Last year the once-funny series ran a set of continuing skits featuring the decidedly un-Asian Dana Carvey. Carvey, sporting a black wig and thick glasses, played a Chinese pet shop owner. He spoke in an exaggerated "Chinese" accent. The main joke in the skits centered on Carvey's dubious proclivity for his chickens. "Chicken make good house pet" was his motto.

The result of the skit's premise was to perpetuate base racial divisions. towards the end of the season, presumably in response to viewer complaints, the show introduced an extra character to the skit. Although he was also played by a white actor, the character was supposed to be a more handsome, intelligent, and articulate Asian. Whenever he came onscreen, there was a caption that read something like "Positive Ethnic Role Model." Clearly, the show's creators were aware that they were offending people. Their solution, however, was glib and insensitive, belittling valid anger with a ludicrously negative portrayal.

There are virtually no Asian movie stars besides Pat Morita, who played "Arnold" on Happy Days (in heavily accented English) and Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid (also in appropriate patois). Last year when John Lone and Joan Chen delivered two excellent performances in The Last Emperor they were both completely ignored by the Academy Awards.

Lone and Chen at least had the good fortune to end up in a film that was an intelligent depiction of Chinese history. When Asian-Americans do get parts in Hollywood films they are almost invariably stereotyped. Who can forget the absurd "Long Duck Dong" character in Sixteen Candles?

A particularly vicious stereotype appears in a new Pontiac ad. The ad features representatives from a variety of car manufacturers. When the fictional spokesman for Nissan--an Asian actor--stands up he blathers on in basically incomprehensible English. We are meant to see him not only as an enemy, but as a particular type of enemy. He is loud and boorish, all bug-eyes and buck teeth. It is a convenient way to deal with American fears, making Asians seem at once crude and oddly polite and subservient.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out why American society and consequently American media are exhibiting xenophobic anger against Asian-Americans. The U.S. clearly feels beseiged by Japan's assertion of economic power. This anxiety is compounded by the unparalleled success of Asian-Americans. Here at Harvard we are all aware of the disproportionate representation of Asians. And Asians are excelling everywhere in America, especially in fields that were advanced by "real" Americans--science and technology.

This anxiety leads many Americans to look the other way when confronted with representations that are clearly prejudiced. But the next time you feel tempted to laugh at the portrayal of Asian-Americans as docile, blundering or subservient, look at your TV set. I bet it's a Sony.

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