East of Human, Less Than Man

Examining Asian America's position in the too often accepted binary of race in America and its implications.

6 years ago

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Attempting to articulate Asian American positionality in the linear space of American racial politics is a defeating task. On the one hand, our experience isn’t particularly similar to the experience of being black in America, and it has long been the project of white supremacy to point to it’s own construction of the ‘model minority’ as a talking point against systemic racism against black people. On the other, any suggestion of our successes implicates us as being closer in proximity to whiteness, which creates an intellectually comfortable road map where race in America is clearly defined by colorism. After all, it is undeniable that complexion plays a huge role in work place discrimination and criminal conviction rates. Arguing against this point is a fool’s errand, and by accepting this foundation, this is precisely the lane Asian-American identity often accepts when it advocates for itself in the broader discussion of race in America.

With this accepted framework, it is a natural progression to see the interplay between race and gender within Asian-American identity to play out much the same. By building off the work of black feminism and intersectionality, it is possible to imagine a new critique that centers the experience of Asian women as below Asian men, but above black women in their access to power. And while data on Asian women’s experience is limited when examining broader reports on intimate violence such as the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by The Center for Disease Control, the little information there supports this framework. This logic is sound, and shouldn’t be conflicting. But it is.

Asian America’s contentious positioning isn’t some nascent imagination birthed from the Netflix specials and Reddit threads that Asian-American identity is too often relegated to. In 1991, playwright Frank Chin penned the essay, Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake. In it, he critiques the literary works of Maxine Hong-Kingston and David Henry Hwang among others who fall in the rhetorical trap of attempting to articulate and combat racial and gender stereotypes while simultaneously reinforcing them. These ‘fake’ literary interpretations of Asian (specifically Chinese) culture are contrasted with the ‘real’ folk tales and myths Chin points to that are, “founded in history, the ethic of life that is war, and the belief that all men and women are born soldiers…The individual in the Asian moral universe trains to fight. Living is fighting. Life is war.”

It’s hard to miss the white-centering and racial tropes presented in, say, Hwang’s M. Butterfly. However Chin’s essay moves beyond critique and attempts to construct a Chinese identity, which is then adapted and re-imagined into Japanese identity, and through this acculturation, assumes a greater Asian and Asian-American identity. This perception of “Asianness” found in the militarism of “life is war” is critiqued by Viet Thanh Nguyen in his essay, The Remasculinization of Chinese America: Race, Violence, and the Novel, citing, “the fundamental importance of violence in constituting racial and masculine identity within the conflicted territory of American identity.” Spanning decades of literature, generations of writers, the intersection of race and gender for Asian-Americans has been nothing short of contentious.

The pluralizing of Chinese myth to present a larger Asian identity entrenches the counterpoint Chin tries to combat. Though he points back to Asian history (The Real) in contrast with American fiction (The Fake), he leans towards an indisputable and material history that accepts a narrative in which a Confucian ‘East’ is in staunch contradiction of a Christian “‘”West.” Racism and sexism are somehow contradicting, competing, and static sites of violence to measure the authenticity of Asian-American literature. The Asian man is inherently in opposition to the West, cementing race as a biological, fixed position that is in complete distinction from gender. ‘The East’ is what the West isn’t, a presumption that erases the history of genocide, imperialism, slavery, and colonization that define this power relation.

It is not impossible to identify how racism is enacted and hold that misogyny is both a form of violence that targets Asian-American women and that Asian-Americans can simultaneously uphold; in fact it is entirely necessary to articulate how heteronormativity is a weapon of white supremacy to understand how racialized violence — and thus Asian racial identity — is enacted and formulated. However the current understanding of our positionality is predicated on the notion that we are a ‘wedge’ that fits some where between the gradient of black and white. It’s a mistake, and exploring the history of intersectionality and the trappings of structuralism eliminates the opacity of ourselves in this constricting and limited vision.

In1989, The University of Chicago Legal Forum published Kimberlé Crenshaw seminal work, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. In it, Crenshaw examines a series of hiring discrimination cases during the 1960’s in which the State denied claims that employers refused to hire black women. The courts argued that in spite of the fact that black women were largely not represented in the work forces of these employers, discrimination could not have been possible due to the presence of black men and white women in these populations. The prospect of introducing a new class of protected minorities under the banner of black women was absurd, as it would, in the words of the court, open a “pandora’s box” for litigating protections.

Crenshaw on stage at her TED Talk
Crenshaw at TED

Crenshaw centered black women’s experiences in this analysis because there was a clear crossing of two identities that, at their intersection, created new biases against black women that black men and white women were immune to. And while this idea was central to the analysis of black feminism, it raised alarming questions regarding the opening of ‘pandora’s box’, beyond which the intersection of these two identities could not account for. This was the foundation for her theory of intersectionality. It’s framework hoped to articulate and illuminate the various ways in which differing identities are targeted based on how they overlap in various populations, and how these demarcations become the target of specifically state sanction and inflicted violence.

The acceptance of this framework speaks to the broader experiences of black women, specifically because it hopes to see them beyond the terms of the two vertices of blackness and womanhood. And because it aspires to open and broaden that definition, Intersectionalism succeeds in opening feminism as an analysis that is not limited in its breadth to only white women. The limitations of 2nd wave feminism and anti-racist movements in the sixties meant that women who weren’t white were largely misrepresented and/or forgotten, and 3rd wave feminism paired with Intersectionalism aspired to bring these perspectives to the negotiation table for the eighties and nineties.

The successes of these movements are important, but there is still much to be illuminated. National statistics on racial and gender-based violence are limited and are often reported in isolation of each other. This problem is particularly pronounced for Asian American communities, as shown by the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey cited earlier. The few times that data was collected on race in the report, Asian/Pacific Islander communities are either left out or noted as under-reported to meet data collection standards. This is further complicated when examining the diverging experiences between, say 4th generation East Asians and 1st generation South Asians. The question is not which of these communities are more impacted by gender-based violence, it is how can we adequately represented them in our analysis if the cultural and racial experiences are ultimately not the same while being presented as such, and the data speaking to these experiences is woefully limited?

Luckily, The Asian-Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence has amassed a great wealth of data on intimate violence that focuses on API communities. However the relevance of this data is less so that it provides aggregated numbers on the over-arching Asian-American experience to compare against other ethnic minorities. Rather it exposes that within the subset, there is a huge discrepancy from community to community on report rates for intimate violence. Between 21–55% of Asian women report experiencing intimate physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes; over a 30% gap. The task burdening Asian Feminism then is not only deeply complicated by the large and diverging populations it hopes to represent, but also that aggregating these ethnicities into a larger web of “Asian American experience” risks obfuscating a great deal when it is equated and contrasted within the racialized “diversity” we’ve come to measure gender and class experiences by in this country.

And yet, despite this large gap, attention should not be moved away from how alarming that 55% is. Representation in the #MeToo movement features little to no voices who are Asian or Pacific Islander, and as the Japanese American Citizen League suggested earlier this year, reporting rates among Japanese-American women are significantly lower not because a lack of intimate violence happening, but because of a socio-cultural silence that is necessitated by racial groups assimilating to what is a predominately white culture (both Asian and latino survey populations exhibit a lower report rate than black and white participants.) The severity of intimate violence against Asian women is reified when those that are targeted speak out, as demonstrated by Mia Matsumiya’s Instagram account.

Collection of screenshots where a woman is sexually and racially harassed
Mia Matsumiya's Instagram

This experience is not an externality. It is a consistent pattern and damning receipt that paints a bleak portrait of how intimate violence is both gendered and racialized. When we characterize how racism impacts Asian-Americans, the reaction should not be to lean-away from these gendered experiences; rather it should be allowed to true our analysis and accept them as a lived experience of what it means to be Asian. The importance of this crossing between Asian-American identity and intimate violence is that they are both too often defined by their invisibility, which makes the process of obtaining empirical data on them both fragile in action and limited in conclusion.

This divide within intimate violence is often characterized between men and women, and yet the plurality of these genders often erases the lived realities of queer Asian-Americans. A survey put out by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force revealed that the overwhelming majority (85%) of queer Asian/Pacific Islander participants had experienced discrimination based on race/ethnicity, with 78% of that coming within the LGBTQQI community. In that very same community, nearly 70% of trans survey participants reported experiencing discrimination for being transgender. A lawsuit was filed against the gay dating app, Grindr by Sinakhone Keodara for repeatedly encountering profiles that stated, “no Asians” in their preferences. This instance falls in line with analytics produced by the dating app, OkCupid in 2014. Again, the preference of Asian men is presented as low.

This experience of “sexual racism” experienced by gay Asian men is articulated by the video artist, Richard Fung. His early work living in Toronto, Canada speaks explicitly to his time of living through the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. The few voices representing queer experience at the time were white gay men, and with the persistent stereotype that Asian men were not sexual beings (thus not homosexual), gay Asian men were falling victim to HIV. This imagination of Asian male sexuality persisted in the pornography and media that represented queerness, isolating a population that had already faced rejection (or fear of rejection) from predominately Asian spaces that centered family, and reflexively, heterosexual relationships.

Photo of Richard Fung
Richard Fung

As demonstrated by Fung, the marginalization of queer Asian-Americans within the experience “Asianness” in the United States is not new. This action of trying to affix Asian identity with heterosexuality is is intrinsically tied to the concept of heteronormativity, an idea first coined by professor Michael Warner in 1991. In it’s prescription, sex and gender are placed in rigid and intrinsically linked binaries where women and men’s roles are clearly defined in opposition of each other. Parallels between femininity and weakness, masculinity and strength are reinforced. Those that do not adhere to theses expectations face social, political, and economic repercussions for not toeing the line.

Heteronormativity was introduced into queer theory to articulate the coded ways in which LGBT individuals were discriminated against, and it’s invocation has expanded to include the inherit imbalances between masculinity vs. femininity. The question then becomes what happens when these terms and conditions are racialized to ascribe heteronormative ideals to white identity? Fung writes in his essay, “Looking for My Penis”, “The contemporary construction of race and sex…has endowed black people, both men and women, with a threatening hypersexuality. Asians, on the other hand, are collectively seen as undersexed.” He elaborates,

“[The Asian man] is sometimes dangerous, sometimes friendly, but almost always characterized by a desexualized Zen asceticism. So whereas, as Fanon tells us, “the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis,” the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there. And if Asian men have no sexuality, how can we have homosexuality?”

And while the point put forth is that the Asian man is denied homosexuality, the rhetorical flip of him being denied heterosexuality also stands. It is this precise association that becomes buried when the Asian man’s humanity is centered around his “fuckability”; it is not about the outward extension for him to gain sexual access to others, rather it’s the inward allowance for him to define his own sexuality, and then have it be seen and affirmed externally. The representation of having buff and hunky Asian men in movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” is not the end goal, nor can it be about rejecting masculinity all together or redefining as a more feminized alternative. In either expression, the Asian man is still a target of heteronormative racialized violence.

At the beginning of this year, Bitch Media put out a piece that responded to the Aziz Ansari “Grace” call out. The scope of the article focuses less so on the allegations and more on how Ansari’s show, “Master of None” exposes his water-down, ‘white’ feminist perspective, in which he consistently gives the most prominent, romantic foils for his character to white actresses. The critique of the show is solid, and it doesn’t even require rebutting Caitlyn Flanagan regressive take on Grace’s call out ‘going too far’ to notice that something is off about Ansari’s feminism. However the article continues by pointing towards the, “frustrations of cisgender, heterosexual Asian men who chafe at being racially oppressed. They frequently vilify and demonize Asian women, trans people, and nonbinary people for oppressing Asian men.” The connection to Ansari is dubious alone, but the inclusion of this vitriolic and trenchant base in this article paints Asian American masculinity with the broadest brush possible.

Screenshot of Aziz Ansari in "Master of None"
Ansari’s White Feminism (NY Times)

Asian men are very capable of enacting misogyny, and this includes gay and trans Asian men. The question begets is what is particularly unique to the patriarchy that Asian men reinforce that white men are incapable of enacting? Often in the utilization of intersectionality, there is a desire to place identities in a intellectual topography together where proximity is measurable. This more tangible (but obscuring) visualization suggests that a person’s identity alone can give a quantifiable, distant view into how separate but ‘geographically close’ positions can understand each other. The materializing of identity in this fashion forgets that not only is sexism and racism actionable, but so is empathy. Instead of existing in passive state, it requires active work to take on a perspective that is not your own. Identity is not in innate, static, or biological state of being; it’s a social reinforced and politically fluid position.

The statistic that stated “21–55% of Asian women report experiencing intimate physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes” pulls the 55% margin from data collected from a report by Mieko Yoshihama that focused on domestic violence prevalence of women of Japanese descent in Los Angeles. The same report notes that 22% of respondent’s partners at the time of the study, and 43% of the partners at the time of abuse were of non-Japanese descent. Further, a report conducted by The U.S. Bureau of Justice found that 91% of perpetrators of violence against Asians were of non-Asian descent, with whites being the the most represented. The take away from these figures cannot be that Asian women must seek the refuge of Asian men to be safer (indeed pursuing absolution in this limited data set would suggest abstaining from men all together), but rather that the attribution of patriarchical violence as a unique feature of Asian American identity misunderstands not only the prevalence of gender violence in the entirety of American identity, but erases a history that has entrenched racial and gender violence as two complimentary and reaffirming forces. Holding these difficult truths are perquisites for understanding the shifting and contentious grounds that Asian American identity holds in the gaze of white supremacy.

Our tendency to lean on intellectual structuralisms as mechanisms for positioning identity is a two way trap. On the one hand, it creates the unfair and impossible expectation that ideas like intersectionalism are applicable to all measurements of power imbalances, and that the metrics used are broadly accepted. On the other, it forgets the context and history that inspired their inceptions. Instead of a tool to illuminate systemic imbalances that are too often ignored, they’re both abused and accused of being universally applicable, governing principles for any and all lanes of identity. Crenshaw herself is often quoted reflecting on this expectation, “I’m amazed at how [intersectionality] gets over and under-used; sometimes I can’t even recognize it in the literature any more.”

Asian American perspectives on race are precise in naming what being Asian-American is not; whether it’s racial stereotypes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or M. Butterfly, or appropriated interpretations of our cultural artifacts in Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj’s musical performances. The inverse proposition of articulating what we are is ultimately the problem that underpins our internal conflicts. In Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, professor Lisa Lowe states, “The grouping ‘Asian American’ is not a natural or static category; it is a socially constructed unity, a situationally specific position, assumed for political reasons.”

The etymology for “Asia” traces back to Greco-Roman semantics, prescribing a single term to encapsulate the unknown tract of land and foreign peoples that were east of Europe. It is no wonder why we struggle to name what we are; to accept the term Asian is to accept the white creation of a socially constructed unity. Our relationship to each other is not defined by some biological underpinnings, the shape of our eyes, the tone of our skin — nor is it a series of achieved cultural benchmarks, the chainlink fences and holding cells we escaped, the figures of our bank accounts and the movies we star in. By all metrics, we have little in common. Rather it is our shared imagining by whiteness, and it’s dehumanizing image of us that is the basis for our unity.

It is this reason that following the work of black writers and intellectuals often resonates deeply with Asian American discourse. White supremacy’s discrimination of people who aren’t white is painted in broad strokes pushed by its own inertia. However the problem becomes that the application is equal parts broad as it is inconsistent. By leaning on black thought to center our own relationship with whiteness, we accept the position of the wedge in the binary of American racial politics. Intersectionalism can be an entrance, but is not a finish line.

White supremacy does not follow its own set of rules. When Christian fundementalists put their weight behind the state of Israel, there is no contradiction when neo-Nazis condemn the Senior Advisor to the President for being Jewish. When the founding fathers of the United States deemed it self-evident that “all men are created equal”, there was no contradiction that the country they founded was built on the back of slavery. When Chinese and Japanese immigrants were branded “Yellow Peril” at the turn of last century, there was no contradiction that their grandchildren would be referred to as the “Model Minority”. Attempting to pin down a common thread that unites Asians, we underestimate the shifting and changing grounds that white supremacy founds its identity politics upon.

By observing whiteness’s adaptive and stratifying positioning, we give Asian-Americans a window to be viewed as complex, contradicting, and varied as whiteness grants itself. However acquiescing to heteronormativity means accepting that Asian women are limited to the hypersexualized and ‘muturally beneficial’ fantasies of white men and that Asian men are impotent heterosexuals seeking equal opportunity to control women. Both of these expressions exist, and neither are remotely adequate for representing the population white supremacy calls “Asian.” To be more than “not white” requires having a vision of ourselves that goes beyond what feels affirming and familiar. But to accept these tropes, we guarantee a future screaming into the void as we denounce “The Fake”, forever seeking “The Real”.

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C.S. Taniguchi

Published 6 years ago

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