Do you remember 2018? If not, let me jog your memory. That summer, the movie Crazy Rich Asians exploded onto into the cultural scene all around the world. As my colleague (and wife) Miliann Kang and I wrote in our review of the book and movie:
This is a potential game changer, as the mainstream U.S. entertainment industry has had a long-standing Asian American problem. . . . In a world where Asian Americans are still seen as perpetual foreigners and often marginalized as outsiders, this portrayal of them (or at least of Singaporeans) as wealthy and powerful might be seen by some as a welcome change. . . . The movie deftly captures the struggles of feeling accepted in Asia and the U.S. that resonates with millions of Asian Americans, particularly those who are second generation and higher. . . . We should see Crazy Rich Asians for what it is — a fun romantic comedy that provides an escapist snapshot of one slice of the Asian diasporic experience. And we should celebrate its commercial success and hope — even insist — that it leads to more movies and creative works that center the Asian American experience, each of which brings us closer to ultimately resolving the Asian American problem in the entertainment establishment
Many people, including many Asian Americans, heralded the movie as a sign of change, an indication that Asian Americans were making real, tangible progress in terms of becoming more integrated into the fundamental fabric of mainstream U.S. society. Many of us hoped that its success would be the impetus toward greater acceptance into the everyday practices that come with cultural citizenship, or along the lines of multiculturalism and pluralism, being in a position to insist for not just for legal equality across race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and sexual identity, but also for recognition that our historical and ongoing experiences and contributions should be fully, legitimately, and centrally embedded within mainstream societal institutions.
Unfortunately, the situation since the start of March 2020 has shown us that once again, this hope remains an elusive goal and that instead, Asian Americans remain a long ways off from even sniffing that goal of greater acceptance and full cultural citizenship. As I previously wrote and has others have described and elaborated on (including excellent pieces by Adrian de Leon and Brittany Wong), the CoViD-19/Coronavirus pandemic has provided cover for various people in U.S. society to act out their racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans, with such examples ranging from verbal harassment, cyberbullying, physical assaults, and even attempted murder.
These incidents have shattered the optimism (symbolized by the growing popularity and success of such Asian- and Asian American-centered media/cultural products such as Crazy Rich Asian or K-Pop/BTS, to name just a few) that many Asian Americans had that U.S. society was making progress in reducing racism and moving toward greater inclusion and equity. Instead, these examples of anti-Asian discrimination have illuminated how Asian Americans are still considered as “perpetual foreigners” and the “yellow peril” and are used as convenient scapegoats whenever there is some kind of conflict or crisis that directly or indirectly involves China or some other Asian country or society and that results in Americans feeling more economically insecure or that the U.S.’s superiority around the world is being threatened or is in decline.
Some, most prominently former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, have suggested that Asian Americans can respond to these incidents by trying to demonstrate even harder that we are just as patriotic, loyal to the U.S., and “American” as anybody else. But as Jenn Fang at Reappropriate writes, we as Asian Americans have nothing to apologize for. If anything, taking this kind of “colorblind” approach and trying to pretend that race or racial distinctions don’t matter, or that race is not a clear dividing line in U.S. society, is naive, unrealistic, and ultimately counterproductive because it just reinforces and perpetuates White supremacy.
In the same way that it is not the responsibility of women to “fix” or eliminate sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny, Asian Americans should not be expected to somehow ignore our history, renounce our culture, or discard our identity in the hopes that the majority population will more closely embrace us as a “true” or “legitimate” member of U.S. society. Instead, the U.S. (including its leaders and its social institutions) need to recognize that hate and racism are viruses that continue to infect and reinfect our society and that the only way to address this disorder to recognize and treat the underlying source of the illness, namely the cancer of White supremacy.