The controversy regarding Day Above Ground’s new song and video Asian Girlz has turned them into an internet sensation. Sigh. The video and song are based in the worst kind of juvenile, exploitative, dehumanizing sexism and racism. Worse, they’re selling it as a joke because, well, every body knows that racist exploitation is absolutely hilarious, right? That is, of course, unless you’re the brunt of the joke.
By the way, in case you think they’re alone in their idiocy, try doing a yahoo search of the term “Asian Girl” when you get to the end of this post. Go ahead, I dare you.
It’s pretty clear that a whole lot of people simply cannot resist the urge to reduce Asian women to exotic playthings. And men don’t have it much better. We continue to be as inscrutable to much of America as Hop Sing was to television audiences as he served “flied lice” to the Cartwright family on Bonanza in the 1960s. The stereotypes may have been updated, but they are just as widely believed and damaging.
Yet, our diversity defies stereotyping. There are 45 distinct ethnic groups speaking over one-hundred language dialects in Asian America. We vary in when we came and how we entered, with the first among us having arrived in the U.S. in the 19th century. Some came as migrant workers escaping poverty abroad. Others were recruited to fulfill American shortages of highly skilled workers. Still others came to America in order to escape war and political persecution. And even within our different generations and ethnic enclaves, each of us is different. There are 18 million ways of being Asian American and the variations are growing greater by number and diversity every day.
I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s having no idea I was Asian American. I understood myself to be a member of ethnic groups, cultures, a religious tradition, and a family. But Asian? I didn’t even attach my ethnic identity to “American.” But being cast as Asian American means that I eventually learned to accept the idea that I belong to the Asian race, even while simultaneously learning that race is just a political construct. Being Asian means calling myself by a name I was given in order to denigrate, exploit and exclude me, and even to justify wars against people who look like me.
There is no Asian language, ethnicity, culture, or tradition. There is no country called Asia from which my people hail. Asia wasn’t even invented by Asians. Yet being Asian American means that most non-Asians see me as a product of “Asia,” and not the product of a rural agricultural community in Hawai’i I never left until my early adolescence.
Being Asian American meant being passed from grade to grade throughout my school career, assumed to have more “potential” than my class performance indicated because of my Japanese surname. It meant finally realizing in high school that I’d been passed without actually learning what was necessary with such frequency that I knew less than was necessary to graduate. I’d spent years on a college track leading nowhere.
Being Asian in the 1980s meant accompanying a needy white family to the food stamps office in a rural Oregon town to help them apply for assistance, only to have the eligibility worker turn to the prospective recipient for language translation. And all while I was speaking English and the applicant was speaking Russian.
It also meant being blamed for the U.S. auto crisis in the 1980s by frat boys who pelted me with empty beer cans while calling me a “Jap” and yelling at me to “go home.” I was going home, to a basement apartment I lived in at the end of fraternity row.
Being Asian American still means having to bear rude, invasive, dehumanizing speculation concerning everything from my eyesight, to the size and shape of my brain and genitalia. It means being regarded as the other, as foreign, mysterious, and exotic. It means being profiled as a terrorist if you are South Asian, and rich if you are East Asian. It means being objectified as if you are no more than a doll if you’re a woman, and emasculated by ridiculous stereotypes if you’re a man.
But regardless of all of these slights, I call myself Asian because being Asian American also means much more. It means being part of the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. We are 18 million and rising, part of a turning tide. In defiance of stereotypes we are increasingly more progressive with each generation. Being Asian American means standing on the precipice of change in America – a change we can be part of, if only we stand on the side of the color line that leans toward justice.