Asian-Americans: The Void in Which We Live

Advocacy @ UNA-NCA
UNA-NCA Snapshots
Published in
10 min readFeb 5, 2021

By Julie Choi, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow

Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

“White’s love us because we’re not Black.” — Frank Chin

To white nationalists, the ‘Asian-American’ walks a fine line between being a beneficiary of white privilege and being a perpetual foreigner.

In late 2020, the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community was outraged by a document published by North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS) where Asian and white students were grouped together in a statistic showing students’ performance. This decision to group Asian and white students was based on the statistics demonstrating a high discrepancy in performance between Asian-Americans and other students of color. Therefore, in order to distinguish the performance of those students that “experienced persistent opportunity gaps,” (which school administrators name as Black, Indigenous, multi-racial, Pacific Islander and Latinx students), NTPS decided to group Asian and white students together.

After receiving immense backlash, NTPS released an apology and stated that their “intent was never to ignore Asian students as ‘students of color’ or ignore any systemic disadvantages they too have faced.”

While the sentiment is nice, these words did nothing to quell the many emotions that stirred within me.

How many departments — how many people — had reviewed this document, and yet not one person marked this act of white-washing an entire community as an issue? The fact of the matter is that my identity as a person of color is easily erasable, precarious, and — most devastatingly — out of my control.

It shakes me to my core with disgust that in times where Asian-Americans are successful, we are viewed as less foreign and almost quasi-white — like when NTPS grouped white and Asian students together. Then in cases where a scapegoat is needed, Asian-Americans are positioned as perpetual foreigners — a xenophobic conception that even American-born citizens are inherently foreign due to their non-western (or rather, non-white) appearance. This separation — this creation of ‘otherness’ — can lead to placing blame on an entire community for a pandemic (read more about this here).

Asian-American identity is created and reified by those who constructed the racial hierarchy — it rests in the hands of white nationalists and their agenda, but remains fluid based on where they need us. White nationalists are people who believe that the “white” ethnicity should be protected and hold a cultural hegemony in America.

Illustration via Getty || NAJEEBAH AL-GHADBAN

My identity is a measurement of success on a scale from ‘standard white’ to underachieving person of color (POC). Within the Model Minority Myth, Asian-Americans are seen as the example that all POCs should follow and as “white” as a POC could become — assimilation into the ‘norm’ is practically equivalent to assimilation into whiteness. The idea of ‘assimilation’ and even the possibility of becoming ‘more white’ implies that there is something wrong with not being white. And within this paradigm of thought, it is suggested that to be truly American is to be white, once again reinforcing the notion that Asian-Americans are foreigners despite the long history of residing in America or having an American citizenship. These biases emphasize a false link between whiteness and excellence — to be successful in America is to model whiteness, creating deeply racist connections which draw links between whiteness and wealth, whiteness and cleanliness, and whiteness and worthiness of life.

This proximity to white privilege that Asian-Americans experience can in turn silence AAPI issues, as they can thus be construed as non-POC issues and therefore outside of systematic racism. That is why whitening Asian-Americans is dangerous — it invalidates past and current discrimation. In his National Book Award winning novel Interior Chinatown, author Charles Yu refers to this as a “second-class oppression,” wherein Asian-Americans do not feel “justified in claiming solidarity with other historically and currently oppressed groups…[despite that the] community’s experience in the United States has included racism on the personal and institutional levels…” Yu also explains in his novel “…the original American sin — of slavery — ” makes other crimes against our ancestors feel insignificant and brings a sense of shame that discourages Asian-Americans from verbalizing any suffering.

Mainstream Hollywood = White Hollywood

Historically, “yellowface,” or the portrayal of East Asians characters by white actors typically accompanied by offensive makeup that exaggerates Asian features, largely contributed to the dehumanization of Asian-Americans. For instance, Mickey Rooney’s yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) made Rooney look like a caricature of a Japanese man for comedic purposes.

Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese landlord that Rooney played, is symbolic of the anti-Asian sentiment present in the mid-twentieth century that existed in the United States. Presented as an angry Japanese man with inhuman attributes, like exaggerated buck teeth and slanted eyes, he enshrined on the silver screen that Japanese people, and more generally Asian people, were “others.” Mr Yunioshi resembles the caricatures used in political cartoons and propaganda during World War II. Perceived as violent savages that attacked the United States, Japanese-Americans were grouped together with the Japanese and treated like the enemy.

Under the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration, people in the U.S. suspected of being an enemy or colluding with America’s enemies were incarcerated in internment camps. While Executive Order 9066 also affected the lives of German and Italian-Americans, it mainly targeted Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. Approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps and as a result lost their homes, businesses, and personal belongings. The executive order was made to address American’s growing uneasiness towards the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but instead it exacerbated the long-standing racism against Japanese-Americans that existed because of their commercial success in the region.

A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor, is pictured in Oakland, California in March 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information Collection/Library of Congress/Reuters

Only twenty years later, in the 1960s, Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi debuted while Americans were also in Vietnam fighting the Northern Vietnmese communists. During this time, Asians living in the United States were under major scrutiny for “looking like the enemy” and were facing discrimination based solely on Asian features rather than legitimate ties to North Vietnam or communism. Looking Asian meant looking like the enemy.

Even now, Hollywood continues this racial violence in more subtle ways through whitewashing.

In 2017, Scarlett Johansson was cast for the role of Motoko Kusanagi in the film Ghost in the Shell, a Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese anime and manga of the same name and follows the story of Motoko, a “cyberized reincarnation of a young Japanese girl.” Rather than being portrayed by an Asian actor, Motoko was played by the white Johansson, thereby effectively whitewashing a crucial part of the story through Asian erasure. Whitewashing is a toxic Hollywood practice that silences the stories of ethnic minorities, and it is not exclusive to the AAPI community.

Scarlett Johansson (right) in Ghost in the Shell (2017) and the original design for Motoko Kusanagi (left).

Whitewashing is excused by Hollywood because it makes characters and storylines more “palatable” for white audiences and therefore more profitable. However, this profit and palatability comes at a cost: the lack of AAPI representation and erasure of Asian identities.

Actor William Yu spoke out about whitewashing and said that, “With every instance of whitewashing, an (Asian-American) is subliminally told that they are not worth attention, not worth a place in this society.”

Hollywood’s practice of whitewashing and Asian erasure represents the fluidity of Asian-American identity as white actors portray Asian characters and lacking AAPI representation on the big screen.

Beyond the lack of representation, there is also an issue of Hollywood alienating Asian-American stories when they break away from the usual AAPI story that Hollywood enjoys, like ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

Fresh Off the Boat is a memoir written by Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-American chef, that was eventually picked up by ABC in 2015. Huang’s memoir explores his struggles with identity and candidly talks about growing up with racism in America. While his autobiography tackles race issues and the struggles of growing up as an AAPI, the TV show shied away from accurately depicting the life of an Asian-American family. Despite being one of the only sitcoms starring an all Asian-American cast, it received a lot of criticism because of its reliance on Asian stereotypes and reluctance to discuss complex Asian-American issues. One of the critics was Eddie Huang himself, who called the show a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan…” Huang was disappointed in the show’s inaccurate depiction of what it was like in an actual Asian-American home and has cut ties with the sitcom after season one.

There seems to be a pattern with major studios producing Asian-American stories: they’re all linear stories that lack dimension and serve as fake representation. And the reason behind the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans and other people of color is probably because Hollywood is extremely white.

In a diversity report put out by the University of California, Los Angeles, it was found that only 12.6% of film directors were people of color (POC); that means only 1.3 out of 10 directors are POCs. Furthermore, only 7.8% of writers in Hollywood are POCs which means less than 1 out of 10 writers are POCs. So it’s no surprise that any AAPI stories produced by Hollywood are inaccurate and focus on offensive stereotypes rather than the complexities the Asian-American identity has to offer. The bottomline is — white people cannot and should not write about AAPI experiences.

That’s why AAPI writers and directors have broken apart from mainstream white Hollywood and turned to independent production companies to make movies that reflect their Asian-American identities on screen. Unfortunately, this hasn’t exempt them from white Hollywood’s harmful manipulation.

In 2020, The Farewell (2019), by Chinese-American Director Lulu Wang, was labeled by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), an organization that is responsible for appointing rewards to films at the Golden Globe Award Ceremony, as a foreign film because of its “dialogue rule” where at least 50% of a movie’s dialogue must be in English to be deemed an “American film.” The HFPA stated that because 80% of the movie’s dialogue was in Mandarin, Wang’s movie was a foreign film.

The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell (2019) is about Billi, a Chinese-American woman going back to China to visit her grandmother, who recently was diagnosed with terminal cancer, for the last time. The film explores what the immigration experience was like for Billi (who emigrated to the states at a young age) as well as her journey navigating two cultures.

Wang’s movie couldn’t have been more American, but because of the language quota, it was received by Hollywood as a foreign film.

The question is, in a country with no official language, how could a movie about an Asian-AMERICAN not be accepted as an American film because of its language?

In December of 2020, Minari (2020), directed by Lee Isaac Chung, follows a Korean family’s resettlement in Arkansas, as they start a farm and pursue the ever elusive “American dream.” The film includes both Korean and Korean-American cast and takes place entirely within America. The film was labelled as a foreign film for the same reason as the Farewell (2019): the language quota.

Minari (2020)

These films were the first I had seen depicting a story so similar to my own, struggling between two different cultures and coping with what it meant to be a Korean growing up in America. To a Korean-American like me, these stories couldn’t be more American, but yet, they were labeled as foreign films by Hollywood. (And before you try to defend the language quota, consider Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) where about 70% of the film was in French or German dialogue and was not labelled as a foreign film.)

Farewell (2019) Director Lulu Wang spoke out on Minari being labelled a foreign film, by tweeting, “I have not seen a more American film than Minari this year. It’s a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize American as only English-speaking.”

The message feels clear — Asian-American narratives have no place in mainstream American culture, and our identity is only relevant if and when they fit within the standardized dichotomy of white America.

And it’s not just Hollywood sending this message to me or the rest of the AAPI community.

Recently, President Joe Biden revealed his cabinet that “looks like America” and yet failed to appoint any AAPI secretaries amongst the supposed “most diverse cabinet” in U.S. history.

In 2021, Asian-Americans continue to live in a void where our identity is silenced by our proximity to whiteness and ‘foreignness.’

My identity has been used as a tool for white nationalists to take control of the narrative of race and ethnicity, and I am tired of living in a void where I have no autonomy over who I am.

I am not white. I am not a foreigner.

I am a proud Asian-American with a complex and historically tragic identity, who refuses to erase any part of myself for the comfort of white nationalists.