Yesterday, an Asiana Airlines passenger jet crashed at the San Francisco International Airport. Upon impact, the plane was smashed to pieces and then caught fire. At least two passengers are reported dead and 181 more were injured among whom at least 26 are children. Hilarious, right?
What, you don’t think so? Then you obviously haven’t been following twitter where a bunch of people heard about the crash and then laughed so hard their racism popped out. Some cringe worthy examples of the kind of
ranting joking going on are on the Public Shaming tumblr. Here’s a taste:
That last one is a classic. I mean, who hasn’t busted a gut when Asian children are tormented by other kids jabbing crap in front of their faces with the question “can you see?” But, really, the hash tag #toosoon? in the first screen shot is what really got me.
Note to @littleslav. I’m not even going to call you racist because I only do that when I think the person to whom I’m speaking is educable. Your asking if it’s “too soon” to turn tragedy into bad comedy erased that notion from my mind in no time flat. There’s a cure for racism that can be found in education, but the prerequisite for learning is empathy.
This Week in Blackness Managing Director Elon James White was one of the few playing for our side, exposing the racist tweets via @elonjames because “I’m just not in the mood for the bullsh[*]t. When I saw it I knew folks were gonna be asses. I figure lets air them all out.”
In the interest of airing them out, let’s take this down. I’m not wasting virtual ink on the whole stereotype of Asians as bad drivers. Suffice to say that people walking around with images in their minds of Asians as near sighted, cultural Mr. Magoo’s on our roads are beyond innocently ignorant. They’re mean spirited, not to mention aggressively racist.
But, what I think needs further examination here is how easily racism allows people to reduce Asians and other people of color to mere objects. And then, once we’ve been objectified, to use us to leverage everything from humor to profit to public policy, with those last two often going together, btw.
For instance, the model minority myth is a form of anti-Asian racism. It reduces Asian people to a stereotype created in order to make us into an ideological crow bar designed to leverage backlash against the black Civil Rights Movement. And it’s been used that way ever since, even if we’ve been doing it for so long that, anymore, we don’t even know what damage it does.
The myth started in the 1960s with the first targets being Japanese Americans. J.A.s rise to middle class status just twenty or so years after mass internment during WWII was explained as a result of industriousness, and a group-think commitment to being cooperative, self-sacrificing, and, most importantly, under-represented among felons and keen on succeeding without government assistance. The not-so-subtle subtext of the myth, popularized through the media against the backdrop of black urban uprisings, was that black people were impoverished because of deficient work ethics and a tendency toward criminality. If you buy that, you’ve already bought the idea that government programs like affirmative action and busing are no solution for those weaknesses.
The jujitsu of stereotyping is that, regardless of whether the stereotype is “positive” or not, it still turns its targets into objects that can be used for other purposes. For instance, a variation on the model minority myth was used to deflect anger over the lay offs resulting from the slow down of the U.S. auto industry in the 1980s onto Japanese industry. Instead of blaming U.S. auto makers’ hubris and over-confidence, we explained lagging sales on Japanese workers who were cast as self-sacrificing drones who were more industrious and cooperative, and therefore more productive and cheap, than American workers. The all too predictable outcome was a rapid rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, with perhaps the most famous example being the murder of Vincent Chin.
And, as racism is, after all, a pack of lies made up to justify a horrifically oppressive political system, stereotypes can change to suit the political needs of those who invented them. Asians used to be the sneaky, inscrutable, disloyal and forever foreign “yellow peril.” In this role, we were the justification for nationalist economic policies, espionage and war, like the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The model minority can easily morph back into the yellow peril as the political climate shifts against Asia. In the case of South Asians who have been targeted for Islamophobia, that’s already happening.
And, finally, as the Asiana crash jokes on twitter demonstrate, objectifying us also makes us useful for a good laugh. Even in the face of the unimaginable grief of the families who lost loved ones, the equally unimaginable trauma of those who lived through the terror of the crash landing, and the horror of survivors’ guilt the pilots must be suffering, some folks make jokes. After all, objects don’t have feelings, do they?