"What Type of Asian Are You?" (And Other Problems)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

This is part three in a series of posts on Asian Americans, inspired by and in concert with a charity event being put on by the Columbia student group, Asian American Alliance. Click here to read the first and second posts in the series: "Who is an Asian American?" and "'Will All The Asian Americans Please Stand Up?': The Politics of Self-Identification" and make sure to join in the conversation!

So, we've found our Asian Americans. They are on board to identify as people that are politically and culturally distinct, but who want to organize and represent themselves as a group. Where do we go from here?

Take a moment, first, to envision who you view as an "Asian American" based on just the term alone. What does this person look and sound like? Where are they located? What type of job are they doing?

Once you've got it, think about how many times you've seen one of these people highlighted in the media as it is today. Did you get a Chinese tech worker or an Indian cabbie? Did you get a man or a woman? Did they speak English well? In the US media today, easy stereotypes are still the most common portrayals of Asians, let alone Asian Americans (with some notable exceptions, such as John Cho).

Asians in the United States are generally viewed as a) apolitical, b) greedy/well off enough to take care of themselves, c) effeminate/delicate/needing of protection, and/or d) passive to the point where they need others to stand up for their rights.

The stereotypic viewpoint bleeds from our popular culture into how we treat others in our day to day lives. Feeding into the "good" or "model" minority category, Asians are generally said to be one of the privileged American communities. But the sword cuts both ways - privilege is still only given to those Asians that preserve the status quo, the ones that are middle class and stay quiet about their politics or the hard-working ones that are viewed as just a few more cogs in the machine. There are gradations of class and ethnicity within Asian communities that makes it extremely difficult to generalize based off of what-we-think-we-know about Asian peoples.

Think about how many people these images are representing. The problem is bigger than fighting for limited "minority" spots in casting. The problem is that we consume media that is pre-packaged with stereotypes coming from our own ignorance. Our world is a colorful one, and our media has of yet refused to admit it.

To end on a happier note, Youtube and independent media has taken up where formal media has slackened in representing Asian Americans and their broad differences. Stay tuned for this Friday's post for a list of my favorites.