Last week we had a rather lively Facebook debate around white privilege. Now while a few FB friends acknowledged their privilege, it seems that a handful of folks still don’t quite get it. Which is fine and we’re not going to lambaste anyone for their hard earned views. But, given that we are an educational site this unresolved online interaction does seem worthy of re-sharing this post. A post that sheds light on what so many can’t seem to see in their everyday lives–racism. Or as in the case of this post (and the topic of Hipster racism that’s lighting up the interwebs) what’s called Retro Racism.
The other morning after a grueling 45 minutes at boot camp, my fellow campers (all white women ranging in age from 23 to 60) and I grimaced as we stretched our stiff muscles on the grass. We talked about the following week and how we were allowed to bring as many guests to class free of charge for “guest week”.
Peggy, a sweet and lovable actress excitedly rambled, “Ooooh, perfect. I’m going to bring my friend Jeff. He’ll love it. We’re gonna have so much fun. He’s staying with me for a week. He’s just a friend, not anything else, he’s really nice, but just a friend…He’s Asian.”
Just as quickly as the words escaped her mouth, Peggy turned bright red. “Uh, er, um…not that he can’t be more than my friend just because he’s Asian, it’s just…I don’t know. I feel so stupid. I don’t know why I said that. That was just dumb…” And she continued on as the whole crowd chuckled as if to say, Don’t worry, honey. We’re with you and we get it.
What I found interesting about her unintended confession was that what she said rings true for so many progressive women. In general, there is agreement in our media driven culture that Asian men are not romantic or even sexual options for white, Black, Latina and even some Asian women.
I’ve known Wendy since high-school. She’s Korean and very much bi-cultural. When I first met her in 10th grade, I remember her speaking Korean to her parents. I was in awe of her two refrigerators—one for what my white privileged @ss called “normal” food and the other for Korean food which was stocked with jars of home made Kim-Chee.
A few months ago Wendy and I were talking about men. The subject of interracial dating came up. Both of us have consistently dated outside our race. But while I have dated some white men, she has never dated a Korean man.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’d feel like I was dating my brother,” she matter-of-factly replied.
Her response saddened me, because like me, Wendy was impacted by growing up around very few Asian men, and relied on white TV and movies stars to inform her views of romance and men.
A few year’s ago, I was led to look deeply into my white privilege and challenge my own bias as I realized I didn’t find Asian men attractive. Admittedly, this acknowledgment was mortifying, but necessary, for it demolished a big blind spot I hadn’t seen before. My idea of Asian men had been completely constructed around what I saw in the media—not by my personal experience.
Ever since, I notice how my views were completely informed by three prominent stereotypes of Asian men.
1) The Evil Master Criminal
Based on the Fu-Man Chu character, this evil conniver is always scheming to rip someone off, sell innocent women/girls into slavery, and profit from the sale of drugs and guns. He’ll do anything for money and power, even kill.
2) The Asexual Friend/Sidekick
Like his predecessor, Charlie Chan, Long Duc Dong is the modern version of the perfectly harmless asexual immigrant. He has a thick accent, often mispronounces l’s and r’s, and is short with round cheeks. His is laughably silly and stupid. Despite being a man, he acts like an immature boy whose super horny and sexist remarks serve to strip him of masculine sexuality.
3) The Wise Old Man
Spouting fortune cookie wisdom, he is an oracle with a deep, and often mysterious message. He too is asexual, with a thick accent probably because he’s been sitting, meditating and waiting for the past century to give the white hero sage advice.
It is the ‘Asexual Friend’ stereotype that negatively impacts our view of Asian men the most. (When I say ‘our’ I’m referring to Western culture’s view in general, and my friend Wendy’s, the bootcampers’, and my former view specifically.)
I recently viewed DirectTV’s commercial starring the latest incarnation of asexual and immature Long Duc Dong and was horrified. The caricature of the Asian man is too over-the-top and absurd to be taken seriously, yet at the same time it is sooo wrong. Not being able to name what I felt, I’ve turned to Adios Barbie friend and colleague Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency who explains this phenomena as Retro Racism.
“Retro Racism (and Retro Sexism) uses irony and humor as a way to distance [media portrayals] from the false representations and stereotypes they perpetuate. We see it a lot in ads, when advertisers and marketers create a scene where they want the audience to know that they are aware of their racist (and/or sexist) content, but since it is masked in irony it’s supposed to just be a funny joke that we are all in on together.
In the case of the DirectTV commercial, [the producers] are invoking an age-old stereotype that emasculates and desexualizes Asian men. The commercial drives this point home by demonstrating that this man is so impotent that he can’t even perform for the willing women that are by his side and instead would rather watch TV. Invoking a phony and exaggerated Asian accent and “Asian” symbolism such as bamboo, a huge koi fish and a giant panda is supposed to be ironic humor. Just because we may recognize the joke, doesn’t change the fact that [the commercial] is still making fun of Asian culture and Asian men.”
The key to understanding the true meaning behind the message is to look at who created it. It’s kind of like telling a joke about being bitchy during PMS. As women we can tell the joke, but if a man does it, it’s not so funny. So given that this commercial is made by people who are mostly anything but Asian, we have a problem. To make the example even more clear, it’s like complaining about your mother. You can do it, but the minute a “your mamma” joke is thrown your way, heads will roll. Some Asians find this commercial funny. To explain this my friend Daniel thoughtfully noted that you have to be in the tribe to tell jokes about the tribe. I agree.
Accurate and diverse portrayals of Asian men (including sexy Asian men) are completely absent from mainstream media leaving only fictional caricatures to paint our view. We know the damage hyper-sexual portrayals of women have on women and girls, so I can’t help to think how these asexual portrayals negatively impact the self-esteem and identity of Asian-American men.
Mainstream media has recently crowned Godfrey Gao as the first Asian American male super model. I wonder, if he were around when I was coming up would I have dated more Asian men? Should we celebrate the expansion of representations of Asian men in the media? Or will portraying Asian men in the same Eurocentric mold of masculinity and sexuality really make a difference in how they are seen?
All I know is that since fessing up to my own bias, I see Asian men for the complex and varied individuals that they are. How about you?