“It Wasn’t Written for Me”: A Conversation About Asian Americans and the Media -The Toast

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Editor’s Note: The following is an email discussion that took place between Sarah and Nicole on October 20. Nicole Cliffe saw our tweets about some of the articles discussed below and the challenges of writing about Asian Americans, and asked us to write up this conversation for The Toast. 

Nicole: Hey, Sarah. Before we get into Jack Linshi’s Time article (“The Real Problem When It Comes to Diversity and Asian-Americans”) and Julianne Hing’s response at Colorlines, I just wanted to acknowledge something you said about cringing in anticipation before you read the original piece. Because I had that same reaction when I saw the headline, and I admit, I immediately checked the byline to see if the writer had an obviously Asian name. Not that that’s any guarantee you won’t dislike something you read on this subject, but it’s the first thing I do when I see any story about Asians. Like you, I was relieved that the Time article wasn’t worse.

Sarah: I think this point is actually super important to the discussion. A lot of the stuff we see written about Asian Americans and race is just plain bad. And that totally colors our perception of Linshi’s Time article, and our reaction to Hing’s critique.

Let’s review our initial reactions to Linshi’s piece in Time. I think I said something like, “It’s fine, I just really didn’t have to read that.” It’s pretty basic stuff, information that circulates fairly regularly among people who take an interest in Asian American issues.

Nicole: My reaction was nearly identical to yours: this is okay, but it wasn’t written for me. And that’s okay, it doesn’t need to be written for you or me; it can be aimed at mostly white readers of Time and/or people who don’t read much about race.

But I feel as though many, many articles we read about Asian Americans and diversity never move much beyond the “Asians are being left out of the conversation!” point, and that always makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes we are “left out” because we don’t face the same racism. I think it’s rather disingenuous to claim to be “left out” of the black/white framing, and then conveniently ignore or not talk about the ways Asian Americans benefit from not being seen as black.

Sarah: I find it really hard to phrase my next point (which might indicate that it’s just not a good point). But mainstream media has an allergy to talking about (current, existing, everywhere-in-society-not-just-in-the-South-or-Neo-Nazi-circles) white supremacy. That idea that white supremacy and anti-blackness are at the foundation of American society is a very familiar notion to people who spend time reading about race. But for everyone else, “post-racial” rhetoric is the dominant mode of thinking.

Yes, talking about racism and discrimination against Asian Americans is extremely weird without broaching how the model minority myth has been used as a weapon against both black and brown people (and, let’s not forget, non-East Asian AAPIs). But it would also be weird, in such a mainstream outlet, to not only broach the unfamiliar (to its audience) topic of Asian American discrimination, but also simultaneously throw this bomb about how all races and ethnicities in America are defined relative to anti-blackness.

Can a 101 piece about Asian Americans, aimed at a mainstream white audience, actually successfully encompass the issue of anti-blackness? …I want to say yes, but the thought of actually trying to write that piece makes me want to run away screaming.

Nicole: Right, and there is a reason sites that explicitly focus on race exist – otherwise we don’t get the kind of coverage and criticism we want. One hopes someday that will change and these issues will move into the mainstream.

You’re definitely right that white supremacy is not a comfortable topic, and might be an especially challenging one for a mostly white media to cover well. But it also doesn’t make much sense to talk about race or the model minority myth at all without acknowledging white supremacy and the anti-blackness at its root. You could even argue that Asian Americans are uniquely positioned to talk about this because that stereotype means we are used as leverage against other people of color. We do benefit (even if we don’t want to) from anti-blackness, so it’s on us to speak out.

Linshi, I would guess, has read many of the same articles you and I have. There’s little chance he is unfamiliar with these issues. This is when I really wonder about the editorial process he went through. I could see Time or another publication just asking for a readable article on Asian discrimination and representation, and then being thrilled with this. Time probably thought this was an edgy piece, because Asian American experiences are often rendered invisible, so by default anything that’s written about us seems novel. And I think our frustration with that fact makes articles like this appealing to many of us, even though we might notice some places where it falls short.

Do you ever feel grateful when a reasonably thoughtful, not-terrible story is published about Asians? And if so, isn’t that way too low of a bar?

Sarah: You remember that my initial reaction to the Linshi piece was kind of dismissive and brusque. You know, one of the reasons why I reacted the way that I did is that I was angry about having to feel relieved or grateful that it was reasonably thoughtful. It’s way too low of a bar.

The thing is, I can totally see myself sending this article to white friends who ask me about these issues. It’s well-written, it’s non-terrible, it has a lot of interesting information (even if the information is not novel to me). A world in which the Linshi piece exists is better for me than a world in which it doesn’t.

Nicole: So we both read that article and shrugged, then felt relieved it wasn’t worse. Julianne Hing at Colorlines had a different response. She wrote this, which I really appreciated:

People who shape the dominant political narrative in this country…have little use for substantive conversation about any group of non-white people unless it’s to uphold, in stark terms, notions of black inferiority and white supremacy. To that end, Asians have actually been the subject of quite a lot of public fascination, mainly as props used to denigrate blacks and Latinos and programs designed to support them and other people of color—including segments of the Asian-American population. All too often, Asians are willing to play along.

This is exactly what was missing from Linshi’s article, and it needs to be said, and often. But I didn’t read Linshi as “angry at the ‘diversity’ conversation,” as Hing did. What did you think about that response? I’m also curious to hear what you thought of both takes on Asian American representation in tech, because I know you write about tech law and are embedded in the tech feminism world.

Sarah: I agree, that point was dead on. But there was an interesting slip in the two preceding paragraphs:

Linshi’s right about the discrepancy and that relative lack of discussion. But he interprets the “silence” as “say[ing] this: Asians and Asian-Americans are smart and successful, so hiring or promoting them does not count as encouraging diversity. It says: there is no such thing as underrepresentation of Asians and Asian-Americans.”

It’s a provocative point. But he doesn’t fill that silence with meaningful context or stories of actual tech-sector workers’ personal experiences. Instead, Linshi posits that this modern-day exclusion of Asians from the diversity discourse fits in with a history of negligence beginning in 1965, when the nation functionally repealed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law to exclude immigration on the basis of race.

time-asianamwhizkidsShe then goes on to make her point that it’s not so much tied to a long narrative of anti-Asian discrimination as it is to a model minority myth that is inextricable from the ideology of white supremacy/black inferiority. But the progression of Linshi’s article isn’t meant to explain away “silence” with things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, it’s meant to flesh out the historical dehumanization of Asian Americans. Asians are made out to be a faceless force to feared, whether in foreign relations or in the jobs market. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the Red Scares (which continue today), to Whiz Kids. Asian Americans might be Whiz Kids, but they just don’t have enough “personality” to make it into the upper echelons of management, or the ranks of founders, or venture capitalists.

I think it’s incredibly important to point out this discrepancy. See Marc Andreessen in New York Magazine just this week. He says:

All the diversity studies say that the engineering population is like 70% white and Asian. Let’s dig into that for a second. First, apparently Asian doesn’t count as diverse. And then “white”: When you actually go in these companies, what you find is it’s American people, but it’s also Russians, and Eastern Europeans, and French, and German, and British. And then there are the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Indonesians, and Vietnamese. All these different countries, all these different cultures. To believe in a systematic pattern of discrimination, you’d have to believe that we’re discriminatory toward certain people without being discriminatory at all toward an extremely broad range of ethnicities and religions.

He’s using Asian Americans in tech as a shield against accusations of discrimination! And yet compare Paul Graham’s words on what kind of founders he funds:

One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can’t if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it’s a strong pattern we’ve seen.

Another quote from Paul Graham:

I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: “How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!”

21_movie_posterThis goes to really deep-seated, unconscious myths about who gets to be exceptional, who gets to be a prodigy. Asian Americans are “good at math” but they’re not creators. They’re not heroes. They don’t get the funding, they don’t get the IPO, they will always be the sidekick. I’m reminded of the movie 21, which is based on a true story about Asian American MIT students. The cast is all white. Harvard and MIT geniuses are supposed to look like Mark Zuckerberg. Yes, there are notable people of color who’ve made it big in tech! But the racial discrepancies in the different elite classes of Silicon Valley (engineer, founder, venture capitalist) should not go unnoticed.

And obviously, being the robotic second fiddle is greatly preferable to being smeared the way that black people are: the problem minority, instead of the model minority. Being a huge part of Silicon Valley and partaking in its wealth, even at the “lower” levels, disproportionately benefits the Asian American community compared to other minorities. I take issue with Andreessen’s remarks, but there’s something to it: Asians and Asian Americans are part of the 70%. We are locked out of the top, but we are also complicit in a larger diversity problem in tech. It’s a hard thing to talk about – how Asian Americans have a problem, and are a problem, all at once.

Nicole: Speaking of conversations about diversity, sometimes the the discussion is driven by numbers – inaccurate, underreported or under-analyzed numbers – that don’t necessarily give us the entire picture. I mean, companies are making up their own definitions of “diversity.” What do calls for diversity even mean if anyone can go and interpret it however they choose, leaving out pesky little things like “race” and “gender”?

When we do try to insert Asians into the conversation about representation, there’s always a tough balance to strike between “things could be way better” and “things could be way worse.” The representation gap versus the leadership gap is one that Hing mentions in her response: “What seems to be true across the board for the tech companies that shared their demographic data is that Asians make up large percentages of tech workers, but make up smaller portions of those in leadership ranks.” This is also the point Linshi wanted to make, and the reason why Time probably thought his article would be informative, even provocative for many readers. Again, I think it’s a point many of us take for granted, but perhaps it would be news to some of your white friends, because…

notyourmodelminorityYears ago I was trying to explain to a white colleague what the model minority myth is and why it’s harmful to Asian Americans, not just the people of color it is regularly used to bludgeon, and she said: “So people think you’re smart and good at math and respectful of authority, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that it contributes to this overarching, universal and flawed idea of what it means to be Asian American, and makes our challenges, our problems, the wide range of our stories harder to see. We can be book-smart, but we can’t be leaders, we can’t be problem-solvers, we can’t be creative, as you point out – and in pop culture you see few instances where we are allowed to play the lead or even the villain, roles with real power and agency. I feel as though being an Asian American means a lifelong battle against being viewed as an outsider, though that might be changing somewhat. So I did appreciate that Linshi tried to point that out, and by the way he did so rather carefully, even optimistically, with a lot less anger/frustration than I feel.

Before we close, I want to talk about some of the wider media coverage of Asians. There’s a reason both you and I preemptively cringe when we see a new story about Asian Americans. Too often people try to tell stories about Asians and Asian Americans only in contrast to the white “real American” norm – so even discussions that are focused on us, supposedly, are in fact all about the all-powerful white gaze. (Yes, this is our chance to talk about those cosmetic surgery pieces and why they’re so horrible.)

Sarah: Oh GOD the cosmetic surgery stories are the BANE of my existence. “Look at all these women getting surgery it’s so terrifying Asian societies are terrifying look at the terrifying sameness of their faces.” And then of course no one writes up about The Scourge of American Orthodontist Procedures And What It Says About American Society. Over the summer there was this piece in The New York Times about how wonderful it is to go platinum blonde, with nary a word about how everyone getting their hair dyed blonde or platinum blonde are all trying to look the same.

And then there’s the thing where “all look the same” is the same racist bullshit we’ve had to put up with all our lives, surgery or no surgery. I have an Asian American friend here in the Bay Area who runs in similar circles. She has glasses and sometimes dyes her hair (my hair is bright red/pink right now). We otherwise look really different, have different haircuts, are different heights, talk really differently. So many people have mistaken us for each other. I got congratulated on my wedding once, in a bathroom – that’s how I found out she’d gotten married in Vegas. Just. Ugh.

To make things even more complicated, I do think that many elements of the plastic surgery craze are sexist and racist and colonialist. It’s just that we – as Asians – never get to talk about it on our terms. It’s just white people gawking at the weird foreigners.

Nicole: That is so maddening. I mean, what Asian hasn’t been mistaken for a totally different Asian, but still. Last time it happened to me I was at a wedding – I was the only nonwhite person in attendance – and this lady kept insisting that she had seen me at the golf club. (ME AT THE GOLF CLUB, SARAH.) She would not let it go, and wouldn’t stop asking if I knew so-and-so from the club, and I could not escape without losing my spot in the buffet line.

(I would also be happy if Facebook would stop asking me to tag myself as one of my Korean friends. #alllooksame)

Like you, I find the cosmetic surgery trend extremely troubling for lots of reasons. But it drives me batty that we can’t, as you say, talk about it on our own terms. A very serious issue is being set up for what amounts to concern-trolling at best and an exploitative means of entertainment at worst. And it also seems remarkably simplistic and convenient to claim that all of these poor Asian women must be doing it because they want to look more “Western.” Of the Asian women I know who have considered plastic surgery, not one has ever told me it’s because she wants to look white. And yet somehow that’s how these stories are framed, again, in an overwhelmingly white media.

When I saw this article in New York Magazine earlier this year, it was another one I thought I should brace myself for. I was all ready to hate-read it. But it was one of the most thoughtful pieces I’d ever read on the topic. And this part made me want to cheer: “No matter what white people say, this isn’t about them. Plastic surgery doesn’t have to be a sign of deference to some master race.” And this, too: “the more you talk to people who have actually undergone these procedures, the harder it becomes to view their choices as simple racial capitulations.”

Let’s be real, WHITE PEOPLE: THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU is something that should really make its way into more articles on race.

Sarah: Oh my god, Facebook keeps trying to tag me as my Asian friends too. The worst.

As someone whose aunt offered to pay for her eyelid surgery at the age of 12 (no, I didn’t take her up on it), I do think a lot of those surgeries in particular are driven by something racial/colonial. Plastic surgery is complicated and I don’t think many people do it specifically to “look white.” But there’s something to be said about how the entire cosmetics/beauty industry is set up to accommodate Western beauty ideals. Sometimes surgery seems necessary just to engage with basic feminine routines.

I didn’t learn how to do my eye makeup until a couple years ago, because it was just too hard to deal with my monolids. There’s nothing intrinsically trickier about my eyelids. But the beauty industry – the availability of tools, the kinds of properties that products have, the tutorials that get printed in magazines – is designed for double fold eyelids. That’s why you get stuff like eyelid glue and eyelid tape and eyelid surgery. It’s “easier” to do your makeup – meaning it’s easier to conform to tools and products and rituals that were designed for other people.

Nicole: I would never have made that connection with cosmetics if you hadn’t pointed it out. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but literally everything is rigged, isn’t it?

Growing up adopted and without a strong connection to any other Koreans, for a long time my racial/cultural identity was reduced to the simple fact that I knew damn well, and was not allowed to forget, ever, that I was Not White. I’ve spent so many years – as I think a lot of Asian Americans have – trying to climb out of that Not White box. Trying to define myself in more positive terms: not “I’m not this,” but “I AM this.” Which is why I frankly tire of stories about Asian Americans that seem to be largely focused on what white people think about us, and how they do or don’t understand us, and how they do or don’t “include” us.

And I think this is one of the reasons I write, and maybe it’s one of your reasons, too – because from media portrayals to beauty standards to workplace representation to the kind of commentary that gets published about us, we see a clear need to create that necessary space for ourselves. We aren’t all that well represented in a lot of areas, and even when we are represented, we’re not necessarily seen as or allowed to be whole people. So we need to find ways to represent ourselves.

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