Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Because I'm Asian!

It should go without saying that racial stereotyping of Asians in American culture remains a significant issue that promotes negative attitudes and behaviours, and is a prominent factor in maintaining our cultural invisibility and marginalization. One way that negative stereotypes work is by promoting the idea that personality characteristics can be applied to an entire group so that members of that group are no longer viewed as individuals but as people whose character can be largely deduced from their racial grouping. In other words, stereotypical thinking overlooks individual qualities and promotes a simplified and dehumanized conception of a given group. The results of this simplification enables prejudicial behaviour on all levels, ranging from petty racism and harassment to violence or genocide.

For Asians in 21st Century America, this process of de-individuation is especially pertinent because it has become an axiom of modern American thinking that Asians are a fundamentally "group-oriented" - which is the acceptable way of saying that Asians lack individualism. The reason for this is tied up with decades (centuries even) of xenophobic thinking, fears of growing Asian global economic and political clout, and notions of Asian inferiority lingering at the core of western philosophical thought. Asserting that Asians are a "hive" - that is, submissive to and unquestioning of authority, as well as void of personality and creativity - serves to alleviate these fears by factualizing racist stereotypes; yes, Asian economies are strong, but Asians can't think, or Asians can't innovate, or Asians aren't creative, and so on.

The results of this process are starting to slowly reap an increasingly confident harvest of voices that seem to promote a kind of liberal institutional racism affecting Americans of Asian descent. For example, at all levels of education the "Asian Question" is being debated. Under question is the legitimacy of Asian-Americans' academic achievements - the increasingly general consensus being that the Asian lack of creativity and personality nullifies their high test scores, thus, making their high college attendance rates a kind of unfair obstacle to the rightful attendees - Latinos, blacks and whites - whose creativity and personalities are more deserving of college places, even though testing might show that many are not up to scratch academically.

Of course, entertainment provides us with a wealth of examples of how the notion of lack of individual personality qualities in Asians are both reflected and propagated through the medium of popular culture. Representations of Asian people (particularly Asian men) in America's media are heavily restricted to just a few limited types; enemy, arch-villain, side-kick, nerd, loser, yet almost never an individual with human or even humane qualities. The extent of this extreme limitation in imagery is so acute that it could be said to resemble censorship in its scope and practice. Naturally, these commonly accepted truths about Asian people leads to negative behaviours that have become socially acceptable modes of interaction for mainstream America with its Asian minority. Such is the acceptance of stereotypical thinking towards Asians that racial harassment of Asian at all levels of American society is openly and gloatingly reflected (and perpetrated) in film and television.

Yet, for me the worst aspect of this process of de-individuation is that many Asian-Americans themselves seem to adopt this way of thinking. For example, I watched a reality show recently - Hell's Kitchen if you need to know (don't judge!) - in which an Asian-American contestant was talking about a mistake he had made cooking a dish with fish and miso. His comment was that he shouldn't have made the mistake because "he was Asian" and he should know how to cook miso and fish. Yes, I know it was supposed to be light-hearted and cutesy, but this manner of expression actually reinforces de-individuation - in truth, the Asian chef should have known how to cook fish and miso because he is a chef with years of experience, not because he is Asian.

This way of thinking and expressing one's experience seems to be common amongst Asian-Americans. You see it on internet forums, you see it on blogs, you even see it coming from our "intelligentsia". Any number of qualities, characteristics, or experiences are explained (in whole, or part) as being, fundamentally, the result of "being Asian". Expressing our experience in this way is an implicit denial of individuality and, thus, a reinforcement of stereotypes. In a  fairly recent infamous example of this - as I wrote about here - Tiger Mom's brief flirtation with child-bullying infamy was littered with agency and individuality denying caveats - her action were implied to be somehow pre-determined by her culture or Asian-ness, and therefore mitigated by factors outside of her control. Yet, it is the expression of our individuality that we need to be nurturing because that is the predominant way that stereotypes dehumanize minorities.

This may seem like a minor peeve and an ungenerous criticism of a casual or playful way of expression, yet it could be seen to be a measure of the degree to which Asians are racialized in American culture. The first and most significant aspect of this process reflects the one-sided representation, and fundamentally hostile, manner of the cultural marginalization of Asians. Culture provides individuals with a reinforcement of their sense of inclusion and belonging to a society. Thus, culture reinforces (as well as propagates) beliefs that individuals have about themselves, their group, and their society by depicting recognizeable qualities and characteristics of society via archetypal characterizations and heroes with whom viewers can identify and hopefully recognize those qualities and characteristics within themselves.

In America, this avenue of identification doesn't exist for those of East Asian descent - in fact, the very opposite occurs; Asians (particularly Asian men) are explicitly excluded from identifying with America's cultural and social identity either via invisibility or racial-baiting. And perhaps it might be that with this very limited racialized frame of cultural self-reference for Asian-Americans becomes the only means through which they know how to view themselves - thus incorporating the very language and thinking that is the means of their exclusion. And this highlights the second aspect of of this phenomenon; Asian-American culture itself.

If it is true - as I've suggested - that culture promotes a kind of identity-consciousness of a society by presenting ideas, and language which enables individuals to explore, and develope their personal sense of individual identity, then the implication is that Asian-American culture still has a way to go before it can be said to have a similar influence on Asians' self-perceptions that mainstream culture has on the mainstream. Is our burgeoning Asian-America, and the culture it reflects, providing a language of self-description, that we can then recognize in others like us, and find community through the means of the language of individuality?

This obviously a loaded question and one to which I will say that I don't know the answer. But casual observation of Asians interacting with mainstream America suggests that many of us have adopted the language of stereotype and de-individuation, as opposed to the language of personal empowerment, and individual agency. This is a form of self-censorship - one that may even be unconscious most times - and it illustrates the power that demeaning imagery can exert on the mind.


  1. You nailed it again, Ben. The dehumanization through constant negative media portrayals are bound to create a negative stigma. The question we should maybe ask ourself is - what can we do? How can we counter this?

    There are many Asian heroes out there. Probably more so than the blatantly exaggerated white counterpart. The only problem is these Asian heroes are being suppressed in the media, or as you put it, "censorship" of positive Asian males' portrayals.

    Personally, I find that the negative portrayals of Asians are there to ease the fragile ego of the insecure "targeted audiences". Just have a look outside and you find that Asians doesn't even slightly look like those portrayed in the white media. Reality a different story, so to speak. This undoubtedly causes insecurities among others, and as a result, by portraying Asians negatively (ie effeminate, stupid, ugly, etc), it allows them to be complacent and eases their own insecurities. I'm curious about your opinion on this, Ben. What do you think about it?

    1. Hi Wolf

      I agree 100% - I see America's cultural denigration and marginalization of Asian men as a socially acceptable backlash against the advances made by minorities (especially African-Americans) post civil-rights.

      As I wrote here - - I think that white male self-perceptions took a beating with civil-rights, and the feminist movements. It is no coinicdence that the so-called "Men's Movement" (predominantly amongst white males) emerged in the 1960's and 1970's and emphasized issues of masculinity and the eroding rights and identity of men, meaning of course, white men.

      So, America's cultural racism against Asians is a part of this process of "reclaiming" white masculinity, and is a backlash against minority rights. Of course, another factor is the unique geo-political situation in which we live in a Pacific power country whose culture views itself as fundamentally incompatible with our countries of origin. Because influence and control of the Pacific Rim is still a work in progress the theme of Asians as enemies, opponents, and competitors, is a heavy influence in marginalizing us.

  2. Id agree with the dehumanisation of media - it has two goals - to weaken our mental state, and to give permission to non-asians to mock our supposed 'lesser'state.

    First thoughts is that one reason is the freedom of the net allows us to create our own programming. Another is exactly as that we are tough cookies.

    Until that agenda-led media decides to change its mind, we can just continue an individual basis to support our pro-Asian voices.

    Asian culture is both individual and communual. Thats fine for now.

    1. Hi anonymous

      Agreed. The media normalizes racist behaviour towards Asians, making racism the default mode of interaction between mainstream America and its Asian minority.

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  4. It's funny that I'm reading this now; I've had three (3) incidents of racism happen to me in the past 3 months. 1 in January and 2 within the past few weeks. They're on my Facebook.

  5. Hi dragonriderone

    I'll look that up - I hope it wasn't anything violent.

    1. Sorry for the double post; keep the second comment. The stories are on my personal Facebook, so you would have to friend me. I'll put them up on my Wordpress.

      Btw, in place of my full online name, you can use my personal name, Drew.

    2. Alas! I am not on Facebook!. I'll read them on your blog.