I might’ve become one of those people who buy into the whitewashing hype that race no longer matters in America. Having grown up in the environment in which I did, if I ever commented on racism, people would typically dismiss it with, “Don’t be so touchy.” Racism was a thing of the past. The End. As I wrote in an earlier post, as a young person, I had few tools to understand my own racial oppression as anything more than a hangup that I needed to get over. If I hadn’t met the remarkable racial justice organizers that I did in college, my politics today could’ve been very different.
Don’t get me wrong. Middle-class privilege has never protected me from the psychic damage of invisibility and misrepresentation, or from the humiliation of anti-Asian racism – especially that fetishistic sort that Asian women routinely experience. These things matter. The ugly Twitter posts in the wake of the Asiana Airlines crash are nothing new. They’re simply today’s version of something that has always been part of western culture, descended from WWII anti-Japanese propaganda, and before that, Chinese exclusion, and before that, Marco Polo’s adventures in Asia.
These are the popular, domestic expressions of Orientalism, the us-versus-them mindset that drives American hubris and militarism not just in Asia, but around the world. It’s at the root of anti-Asian violence, and of U.S. wars and foreign policies that destroy the lives of people of color, both here and in the Global South.
But I digress.
Middle-class privilege doesn’t shield me from any of that. But it does protect me from the kind of day-to-day criminalization that young people like Trayvon Martin, and women like Marissa Alexander face. Alexander is a Florida woman sentenced to prison for 20 years for firing warning shots at the ceiling, because her husband was threatening to kill her. Apparently the Stand Your Ground law applies to everyone in Florida, unless you’re Black. Trayvon’s middle-class status, and Marissa’s concealed weapons permit were not enough to overcome their fate as exceptions to the rule.
I’m not pointing out the things that middle-class status fails to afford people because I think it should serve as some kind of shield against harm. I’m pointing out the hypocrisies, the lies in white supremacist culture. There’s a difference between what we’re taught about America and what actually happens. And it’s about race – a system of differentiation that allows for brutal exceptions to the prosperity that America promises.
After WWII, America rose to global power. As the champion of the war against fascism, it declared itself uniquely suited to the lead the world as the example of a free, egalitarian, and democratic nation. There was just one problem. How could America trumpet itself in this way, when public officials were turning firehouses and setting dogs upon black children and other peaceful protesters in the South, to protect a system of racial subjugation? White elites had to find a way to marginalize the most egregious forms of racism, like lynchings and fire bombings and segregated lunch counters, while also preserving the black-white hierarchy. And they did so remarkably well, by falsely equating blackness with criminality, and law enforcement with security.
From a certain perspective, it might seem like things have gotten better. Take Asian Americans as an example. In addition to being seen as mathletes and villains, today we are also represented as regular Americans (like gun-toting heroes in the zombie apocalypse!). That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, when Asian American actors were forced to fake accents in demeaning roles. But by and large, today’s improved representations reflect a certain kind of Asian American – East Asian, English-speaking, well-educated, middle-class. You don’t see narratives that center the experiences of poor and working-class Southeast Asians in mainstream media. That would require telling a very different story, one where it’s possible for a Hmong youth like Fong Lee to be shot eight times and killed by a police officer in Minnesota. In that story, the officer is cleared of all wrongdoing by an all-white jury. It is a tragedy that isn’t about the model minority myth, but about the racial logic that the myth justifies. Poor and working-class Asians don’t have the same kind of access to model minority status, and are more likely to experience forms of criminalization rooted in anti-Black racism.
Anti-Asian racism endures. It matters. But we are not all racialized in the same way, and as some of us advance, others get left behind. We need to remember that race, like technology, adapts in ways that can feel normal, as long as you have the privilege to keep up. It’s like going from a flip phone to an iPhone. You don’t notice the leap because it happens incrementally – as long as you can afford the upgrade. Behind the excitement over the demographic changes afoot, white supremacy is changing. It feels like improvement for some, but not for all. As Asian Americans, we need to see past the mere inclusion and uplift of those of us who fit pretty neatly into the the American Dream, to transform the systems that dehumanize and criminalize those of us who don’t.
Racism is expert at dangling the bribe of advancement before us, tempting us to turn a blind eye to those getting thrown under the bus. As Asian Americans, the coming of a browner America demands that we take stronger stands against war and criminalization, and refuse to mistake those racial bribes for justice.