In his music video for “Rockstar”, white rapper Post Malone, surrounded by Asian women, kills a group of Asian men with a sword while a snake crawls up his pants. Post is a man who’s built like an RV trailer, owns a large collection of guns, and has an anime schoolgirl tattooed on his calf. It’s not difficult to figure out what he’s compensating for by attempting to break into the rap game and making this video. Still, even if it’s impossible to take Post seriously, the image of a white man bathing in Asian blood is disturbing. It’s the latest addition to a long tradition of mass-produced racial fantasies, one which Post’s millions of fans have received with adulation.
Violence and provocation are the beating hearts of popular media, and attempts to censor them should be unilaterally condemned. Vicious fantasies allow audiences to enjoy suppressed desires, a vital counterpoint to the sedation most entertainment provides. They achieve widespread success by dredging an entire population’s fetishes out of the murk of imposed chastity, providing a window into a societal subconscious. A Clockwork Orange works not because Alex is repulsive, but because his uninhibited bloodthirst seduced a nation tranquilized by suburban ennui. Django Unchained allowed viewers to role-play in an idyllic history where black slaves could shoot up and torture their white oppressors at will. “Rockstar” won’t inspire anti-Asian violence in its viewers, but it will allow them to indulge in a pre-existing dream of butchering Asian men and controlling Asian women. It takes the white savior trope to the extreme. Here, a white man replaces Asian men not through heroic actions, but through the removal of their limbs.
Post ends up being a useful case study of the white mindset. In a recent interview, he professed that Bob Dylan is his go-to cry music and that he believes today’s hip-hop lacks lyricism and emotion. The interview suggests that Post, who describes himself as “emotional”, can make better hip-hop than black artists. Perhaps the swath of emotions whiteness occupies between narcissism and arrogance lends his statement some credibility. Nevertheless, Post’s apparent belief in the superiority of his music is a whitewashed hallucination, enabled by an imagination of a world where racial politics don’t exist. The only reason “Rockstar” didn’t portray Post slaughtering a group of black men instead is because no one needs to imagine anti-black violence, which occurs every day. Anti-Asian violence, however, represents an exciting, unexplored corner of the visual imagination.
“Rockstar” teaches its audience that, while assaulting Asian men in real life is against the rules, there’s nothing wrong with deriving pleasure from thinking about it. Accumulated media gives rise to national dogma: the amount of whitewashed media in America contributes to the belief that Asian men are expendable.
The shamelessness on display in “Rockstar” is a result not only of the normalization of racist media and ideology in America, but also the failings of a social justice movement that puts faith in the possibility of white redemption. There is a widespread belief that white people can be persuaded to abandon their ignorance and use their privilege for good. The invention and popularization of the term ally is the most visible artifact of this belief. It is the only reason that a “diverse” individual must be a person of color, but a “diverse” group must include white people. The excuses we make for our white friends — “he’s from the Midwest and hasn’t met an Asian before”, “her parents are kinda racist”, “he’s doing his best!” — are personal manifestations of this belief. As long as we remain patient, white people will surely get the hang of treating us with decency.
It’s hard to determine whether this fallacy came about because of naiveté or because white liberals are masters of deception. Regardless, the adoration someone like Ed Skrein receives for wrapping his head around the concept that he shouldn’t pretend to be Asian reveals the rarity of so-called white people who “get it”. Efforts at educating white people without attacking their whiteness are doomed to fail. We cannot reconcile whiteness with progress any more than we can reconcile thorns in our feet with running a marathon.
For Asian Americans, the response to anti-Asian media must be assertive, focused on self-empowerment instead of pointless attempts to educate others. In the movies and literature produced by Asian Americans, direct confrontations with white people are rarely, if ever, portrayed. Even in works as groundbreaking as John Okada’s No-No Boy and Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, which deal explicitly with race, conflict exists primarily between Asian characters. Condemnations of white characters are limited to streams of consciousness, or at most an angry, quickly fizzling tantrum. The works generally end on a note of positivity, as the protagonists fantasize about a future in which cultural differences are overcome and maybe, just maybe, they can belong in America.
Asian Americans in contemporary America are fully capable of realizing and struggling against their positions in the dark corners of the showrooms. Yet, even as Asian American literature and film blossom, they dwell on plots bogged down by overused tropes of intergenerational conflict and racial alienation. Such works fail to realize the potential of the artistic platform. Stories in which Asian American protagonists actively oppose the actions of white antagonists are rare. Stories in which Asian American characters get into violent conflicts with white antagonists are practically nonexistent.
This scarcity may be partly due to the difficulty of finding success as an Asian American artist. Still, much of the blame rests on the limitations of our imagination. American schools have hoodwinked Asian students, leading them to believe that Japanese internment and Chinese exclusion were only minor infractions on the nation’s record. The dominant belief is racism against Asians either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Any harm done against Asians has been too minor to warrant consequences. Even as Asian Americans are exposed to ever more explicit ridicule, our resignation to our lot prevents us from enacting anything like retribution. This mental block does a disservice not only to the likes of Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, activists who dared to speak of revolution and dissidence, but also future generations of Asian Americans, who need role models that do more than complain about their parents and their discomfort. While I don’t blame Asian Americans for their own oppression, progress will not be made until it can be imagined.
After all, it isn’t as if precedents for radical Asian media are nonexistent. The martial arts films of Bruce Lee are a notable example of how violence can be harnessed in Asian narratives. Though none of Bruce Lee’s films were set in America and none of them deal explicitly with race, they work as examples of Asian power asserted through attacks on foreign enemies. Bruce Lee’s ability to communicate controlled fury appealed to audiences across the world. Some saw his flying front kicks as an explosive rejection of foreign imperialism; others feared that the catharsis inherent in his powerful fists would incite chaos among urban audiences. Bruce Lee’s particular kind of aesthetic violence had never been seen before. No one imagined that a 5’ 7” Chinese man with a bowl cut could display such strength.
In Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon, two of Lee’s most well known and cheekily titled works, climactic fights pit him against white opponents. In both films, Lee takes the extreme step of ending his enemies’ lives. In Enter the Dragon, Lee fights his sister’s murderer, a bodyguard played by Robert Wall. During the fight, Wall crumples under a barrage of devastating kicks and crosses. Desperately trying to avoid utter humiliation in front of the fight’s audience, Wall’s character breaks a bottle and attempts to stab Lee with the glass. In retaliation, Lee unarms him and crushes his ribcage. The film, released a few days after Lee’s untimely death, achieved international success.
My own experience with Bruce Lee came in the form of frequent viewings of Way of the Dragon. The Chinese school I went to growing up doubled as a martial arts dojo, and at the start of every semester our instructors let us watch the movie as a kick-off celebration. As Bruce Lee beat waves of villains into pulp with his signature nunchuks, we flailed around trying to imitate his motions. We responded to every change in his posture with cheers. At one point, Lee flexes in a series of poses, showing off his outstretched arms and lats. The scene no doubt propelled the amateur bodybuilding careers of thousands of Asians across the world. For me, the scene became the inspiration for the first of many self-conscious cross-examinations in the bathroom mirror.
At the end of the film, Chuck Norris is sent to assassinate the seemingly invincible Lee. Meeting in the shadows of a coliseum, the two waste no words in beginning their duel. Despite gaining the upper hand at the start, Norris eventually succumbs to Lee’s superior speed and maneuvering. Lee circles and jabs in a storm of hands and feet. The scene is an exercise in controlled savagery: in one close-up, Lee lands six haymakers on Norris’s face in rapid succession. Subsequently, Lee breaks Norris’s jaw, arm, and leg, and is ultimately forced to kill his opponent when he refuses to surrender.
This final scene never failed to draw gasps from the audience. Our instructors told us to learn from the humility and perseverance Lee demonstrated throughout the film. But although we did practice hard, the source of our motivation was different: we simply wanted to beat our bullies up the way Lee did. Lee was repeatedly called small, weak, stupid, and useless, insults all of us had grown used to and internalized. Norris’s status as the pinnacle of white masculinity, especially as I grew up in the early 2000s, cannot be understated. Seeing him turned into a column of bruises by Bruce Lee was a cathartic exhibition of Asian bravado and machismo, something I never thought possible. Lee earned the respect of his community, always got the girl, and never hesitated to bring vengeance on those who would question his strength. For a generation of scrawny, awkward teenagers, weaned on myths and stereotypes about Asians’ genetic inferiority, Bruce Lee was more than just an inspiration. He was proof that an alternative Asian-ness was possible, that killer Asians existed outside of cartoons, that if we worked hard both physically and mentally, no white person would push me again.
In general, Asian Americans have underutilized narrative and fictional violence as a tool for empowerment. Instead, our familiarity with violence is self-directed. The history of Asian American literature and cinema is the history of how well Asian Americans can describe what it’s like to get beaten up and yelled at. You can watch a Korean woman woman get stripped down and beaten in Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven, or watch a Korean man get beaten up by everyone in Justin Chon’s Gook; these days you can even watch Dumbfoundead get pushed around by a bunch of Instagram models in his music video for “Water” and Patty Chang eat pieces of herself in her video piece Melons (At Loss). Individually, these pieces are fantastic works, able to speak to different aspects of unique Asian experiences. As a whole, however, they reveal a disturbing pattern of Asian Americans unable to think of themselves as anything more than punching bags, either for their own self-destructive ideations or their angry, xenophobic neighbors.
On some level, this trend makes sense. Asian Americans have been ignored and shoved aside for so long that it’s only natural to seek attention, to perform suffering so that someone might take pity on us. But by confining ourselves to this message, our ability to conceive of more has stagnated for decades. Calls for sympathy have never worked as a means of achieving justice. The safety provided by submission is toxic, and our children should not grow up thinking that it is a viable option for survival.
If our narratives continue to lean solely on Asian antagonists, we will remain the fragmented and unsteady community that the rest of America sees us as. If we cannot popularize stories of vengeance against oppression, the Post Malones and Steve Harveys of the world will continue using Asians as feedstock for their warped perceptions of reality. The laptop screen, the television screen, and the cinematic screen are the planes upon which America’s cultural architecture is built. Whitewashing’s never been more in vogue. Post and Harvey are representative of the pervasiveness of Orientalist thought in our society. Make no mistake: these men, among many others, are the true antagonists to our story. They are preachers of the ideology that would have us castrated, gutted, and tossed aside to rot, invisible. We cannot fight this ideology if we believe it ourselves, and our beliefs will not change until we dare to imagine ourselves fighting. The battle for the Asian mind is waged upon the screens of the nation.
Pick up a sword. We have to win.