A Yellow Face in a Black and White Movie: “Dear White People” and Asian Americans

As an organizer and educator working with students of color, when Dear White People came out I had to watch it. From the various trailers, and the tagline of “being a Black face in a white place,” I was excited to see a film center the often invisible experiences of Black college students at a predominantly white institution. Overall, I enjoyed watching the movie. The trials and tribulations of Black students, ranging from the trivial to the dangerously violent, rang painfully true. I could relate to the struggle of a handful of students of color to respond: the confused passion of Sam, Lionel’s perpetual search for community, the idealistic and pragmatic activist embodied in Reggie.

Despite its redeeming qualities, I left the theater feeling deeply unsettled by the film’s portrayal of Asian Americans. [Spoiler alert.] Towards the end of the film, Lionel informs the Black Student Union that there is a party being organized on campus based on stereotypes of African-American/Black students. In short, white students are required to perpetuate blackface in all of its forms at this event. After Lionel alerts the BSU, Sungmi, the one Asian American character in the film who has a speaking role, encourages BSU members to join with the Asian American and Latin@ student organizations on campus to charge into the party and shut it down.

In theory, this is great – students of color in the broadest sense should all have a vested interest in protesting campus parties based in dangerous stereotypes. However, in Dear White People‘s portrayal, Asian Americans and Latin@ students are literally rendered voiceless.(1) The viewers don’t see their decision to join BSU members in shutting the party down, and simply see angry Asian faces, and a single Latino face, confronting white partygoers. These angry Asian faces have no names, no history, no context—and literally no voice. Is there a more typical Asian American stereotype than an Asian without a voice?

Screen shot from "Dear White People."

Scene from “Dear White People.”

Despite Naomi Ko (the actress who plays Sungmi) and other voices celebrating the progressive portrayal of Asian Americans in solidarity with Black folks, I’m not convinced. There is a more nuanced racial politic at play here. Asian Americans often have the racial privilege of being seen as a ‘model minority,’ a stereotype that can be used as a shield against the anti-Blackness that undergirds the most brutal forms of American racism. Asian Americans need to do internal work to build a racial awareness that locates and places ourselves on the racial hierarchy of the U.S. If you aren’t able to speak to the long and arduous process of building solidarity across these racial differences – don’t show a half-baked version. The dark side to the Model Minority Myth is a portrayal of Asian Americans as timid and voiceless, hard-working minions without a mind of our own. If you can’t portray Asian Americans as multi-faceted, don’t portray us at all. Instead, show the equally powerful story of Black students standing up for themselves, and pushing back against a party with a centuries-long history of racism.

If you want to prioritize a demonstration of cross-racial solidarity, including Asian Americans, take the time to build it, on or off screen. It’s not enough to demonstrate Asian Americans standing in solidarity with Black folks; you have to show the internal and cross-community work that leads to that coalition. Solidarity and coalitional politics aren’t achieved overnight (or simply through “having better snacks”). It’s a long, drawn-out, painful process, a constant assessing and re-assessing of our shared struggles, our radical possibilities, and our contradictions. Without that process shown, or even gestured towards, on screen, Asian Americans are reduced once again to racial props, ready to step in when necessary but without names or voices, issues or agendas. If we don’t grapple with the hard questions of how we truly shape our issues as interconnected, and how we arrive at the always tenuous conclusion of solidarity, we risk losing the potential to truly build—while simultaneously reifying age-old Asian American stereotypes.

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(1) The role of Latin@s in this film, while in some ways similar to that of Asian Americans, needs another analysis – and one that I will not attempt to undertake here. (I do look forward to reading it, though!)

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Against a “Culture of Success”: Asian Americans, Affirmative Action and Immigration

From LGBTQ Hyphen: http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2014/08/against-culture-success-asian-americans-affirmative-action-and-immigration

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The Project on Fair Representation, a legal defense fund backed by self-professed “charity” organization Project Liberty, Inc. is running smear web campaigns against the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Harvard University over charges of “racial discrimination.” On the campaigns’ web pages, Asian faces are prominently displayed next to the tagline: “Were you denied admission? It may be because you’re the wrong race.” These campaigns claim that Asian Americans are subjected to racial quotas in college admissions and are unfairly rejected from some of the nation’s top universities. They play off the popular and yet unfounded idea that affirmative action hurts not only white students, but also Asian Americans.

The campaigns are funded primarily by one man: Edward Blum, founder and one-man staff of Project Liberty, Inc. who is determined to end so-called racial discrimination in university admissions. The Project on Fair Representation is not Blum’s first foray into the politics of affirmative action. Blum was also a driving force behind the most well-known challenge thus far to affirmative action in this generation: the notorious Fisher vs. University of Texas case, starring Abigail Fisher, a white woman, as the plaintiff. Though Blum claims that he is not using Asian Americans as a racial wedge, this new campaign relies on the racially charged idea that Asian Americans in the U.S. have attained a “culture of success” that has led to racial discrimination against them in university admissions.

Creating a “Culture of Success”

The argument of discrimination against Asian Americans based upon their perceived “culture of success,” whether that phrase is used or not, relies on a coded form of racism that pits supposed Asian American success against the false trope of a Black “culture of poverty.

Recently, there has been a surge of media coverage focused on the “success” of Asian Americans spurred by author Amy Chua. By sensationalizing “tiger moms” and a cultural “triple package” of traits, Chua has revived the model minority myth. As Chua would have it, Asian Americans’ “success” is based upon the strong work ethic of Asian migrants, in contrast to Black and Latino “laziness,” allowing Asians to quickly accumulate wealth in this country. Unfortunately, this false idea of an inherently superior Asian work ethic has informed our national conversations around Asian Americans and affirmative action.

The power of racism lies in its ability to shift form; similarly, the enduring power of the model minority myth depends upon its ability to perpetuate itself by ignoring the role of immigration policy in shaping Asian success stories. An Asian American “culture of success,” which fuels Blum’s anti-affirmative action arguments, ignores history and fails to account for the role that the U.S. immigration system has played in creating stratified classes of migrants. Most notably, following decades of Asian immigrant exclusion solidified by the Immigration Act of 1924, US Cold War fears spurred the passage of the 1965 Hart Celler Act. This Act instituted immigration preferences for “highly skilled” or technologically skilled migrants, along with options for family reunification. As a result, a great number of highly skilled, highly educated new Asian immigrants joined the US population, carefully screened for their skills and, often, for their economic status. This influx of Asian immigrants with political, social and educational capital fueled the model minority myth, and resulted in the higher economic status of certain Asian immigrant groups that persists through the present day.

The idea of “success” as a cultural trait erases both the role of immigration legislation and the historical and social struggles of those who did not have the advantage of having economically privileged forebears. In order to perpetuate the false myth of an inherent Asian culture of success, it thus behooves Blum, Chua and their supporters to undermine Asian American battles for affirmative action, along with any Asian American working class struggles.

Strange Bedfellows: Immigration and Affirmative Action

It is hypocritical for those of us who have economically and socially benefited from migration to deny access to others by undermining affirmative action. Even in the U.S. political left, affirmative action is framed as a system designed to increase access and circumvent discrimination, while immigration is understood to exclude and discriminate in the name of “protecting borders.” Upon closer examination, however, these systems are strikingly—and disturbingly—similar.

Both affirmative action and immigration are usually presented to communities of color as points of access: to institutions of higher education and to the “American Dream.” In reality, both these systems grant access only to a select few without challenging broader power systems or creating true structural change. Affirmative action is lauded as a system of access, but is only beneficial for those few allowed past the gates. Immigration provides access and the illusion of “success” for those handpicked by the U.S. government, while leaving the majority of those who wish to migrate, often due to U.S. influence in their countries of origin, without the means or permission. While affirmative action and immigration both allow conditional and limited access, neither of these systems provide any avenue for structural change — in higher education institutions or immigration policy.

Affirmative action and immigration function as band-aid measures, providing temporary and incomplete “solutions” to the racism that pervades education and global inequity. True reform would necessitate a reworking of both higher education and immigration legislation from the ground up, opening classrooms and borders, and allowing for a free flow of knowledge, capital and people. Instead, institutions of higher education remain steeped in whiteness (despite a few brown faces) and immigration policy continues to ignore the power dynamics and policies that so often necessitate migration.

Despite a long history steeped in xenophobia and discrimination, immigration has acted as a form of affirmative action for many Asian Americans, providing an entry point into historically white male fields for a few, while excluding the majority. For certain Asian communities deemed worthy by U.S. immigration laws, the result of migration policy often has been access — to education, to visas, to high-paying jobs in this country that have previously seemed unattainable. While any form of migration is inherently traumatic, this access has set up certain Asian American groups to become a so-called “model minority” credited with a supposed “culture of success.”

Refusing the False Promise of Whiteness

As Asian Americans, we need to reframe our histories and stand in solidarity with all marginalized peoples looking to increase their access — whether through immigration or through affirmative action. It’s time for us to decide where we stand in this latest attack in the war against affirmative action. Asian America: can we please not be the face of the Project on Fair Representation’s new campaign?

We need to raise awareness about how Asian Americans have struggled to institute affirmative action, not to abolish it. We need to acknowledge that we have been part of an immigration strategy designed to create a “culture of success,” providing conditional access on the back of mass exclusion. We need to stand in solidarity with all people looking to increase their access through the flawed systems available, whether affirmative action or immigration. And of course, we need to refuse to be a prop in white America’s plan, used and then discarded when we’ve outlived our racial value.