In its April issue, the magazine Details printed an infographic entitled “Gay or Asian?”—a collection of stereotypes of Asian American men as effeminate, materialistic outsiders. The piece has enraged the Asian-American community, male and female, gay and straight. Most objectionable of all is the underlying assumption that it is race that dictates personality, that traits such as slavish imitation, “inscrutability” and “delicateness” are no accident, but the product of birth, and as intrinsic to Asian-Americans as their hair color. It is the racial basis of stereotype, and not any one specific stereotype, that is offensive; for example, a piece exploiting the old depiction of black American men as hypermasculine would be no less deplorable. And yet, oddly, no one is likely to soon write a “Gay or White?” column. Why should the racial identifier “White” seem to encompass too many diverse human lives to caricature, while the identifier “Asian” does not? At best, the reduction of the rich diversity of a pan-ethnic minority group into a mere subculture gives it a status subordinate to white heritage, and is deeply disrespectful. At worst, the pigeonholing of Asian Americans into limited personas feeds the unconscious conviction that they are, in life as in art, objects. The greatest problem, then, with material like “Gay or Asian?” is the prevailing climate of prejudicial attitudes towards Asian Americans that it will only strengthen.
Would-be protesters are dogged by two counter-objections: the claims that the humorous nature of the writing makes it harmless (“it need not be protested”), and that the writing is protected as free speech and free press (“it cannot be protested”). The first argument is easily disproven. It supposes that mockery, by being different from more severe expressions of racial ill will, is necessarily distinct from them. If this is true, then what taboo bars enjoyment of blackface comedy? The derision inherent in blackface, like that in “Gay or Asian?”, helps acclimatize audiences to a lower level of esteem for a racial minority. In the case of Asian Americans, unkind regard is often accompanied, paradoxically, by a myth that they are a “model” minority that is not being victimized; consequently, events of violence and denigration are ignored as exceptional. Ironically, the result has been a pattern of sub-standard treatment that is as old as the 1854 California Supreme Court ruling of People v. Hall, which abnegated court testimony from Chinese Americans on grounds of their “inferiority” to whites, and as alive as the indefensible lenience recently shown to the white murderers of Vincent Chin and Thung Phetakoune, who were never prosecuted for homicide despite staggering evidence of hate crimes. The way is paved for future violence, professional discrimination and even wholesale human rights violations akin to the internment of Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1946. Thus, instead of asking, “Can’t Asians take a joke?”, one should ask, “For how long must Asian Americans continue to take this joke?” Just as all jokes contain grains of truth, this one carries the seed of long seasons of coercive subordination and discrimination.
Yet some apologists for “Gay or Asian?” may stand by the second rebuttal, which attempts to draw its authority from the First Amendment. The sight of protestation before an organ of the press can easily set in motion kneejerk polemics about freedom of speech. But such a debate, while academically interesting, would only mask the most important issue: the phenomenon of systemic, unacknowledged racism surrounding Asian Americans. For our part, we neither seek amends from Details nor wish in any way to see their right of expression curbed. We aim instead to draw attention to the assumption pervasive in the larger readership that the definition of an “Asian” American includes homogeneity, foreignness and incomprehensibility. The Asian American has been imagined less as a person than as a caricature: like a person, but without comparable depth of personality, and with exaggerated features. This perception has been called a “generalization,” as if it were almost true but for a few exceptions; in reality it is a categorization, an unwelcome foisting of identity through epithets, and an essentialization, a fixation upon supposed differentness. It is precisely because so many belittle the seriousness of this prejudice that it persists, and that escalation, even to murders like those above, is a short step away. Too many have to question whether or not to find nakedly race-based defamation offensive. Too few are chagrined to see their peers overlook stereotypes so untenable and unconscionable. As long as the public continues to turn a blind eye to the imposition of inferior status on their countrymen, the collective goal of Asian Americans—to be respected as Americans, as citizens and as people—will not be achievable. Should this goal be more incompatible with their heritage than with others’?
Robin J. Tang ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Leverett House. He is a member of the Asian American Brotherhood.