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Time for New Dreams: Lessons from Techno-Orientalism and Afro-futurism

What Techno-orientalism and Afro-futurism can teach us about America's racial future

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When the mainstream news started covering the violence against Asian US-American elders a few months ago, I immediately thought about Vincent Chinand the work that had been required to have it recognized as a hate crime. When the Atlanta shootings happened, activists once again had to demand a basic acknowledgement that race was a factor in the violence against Asian US-Americans. Within the Asian-US American  community, there are still so many fears. Are we safe? Why does it feel like our stories are never the focus of news reports? All the while, I find myself yearning for something beyond a basic acknowledgement that anti-Asian violence is real. I want to know how to understand these attacks in the context of Black Lives Matter and calls to defund the police.

To answer these questions, I propose a little bit of time traveling and a deep dive into the genre of science fiction. There is a lot we can learn from a genre that both reflects and shapes our expectations for the future. Part of what has made this moment for our community even more painful is the persistent erasure of Asian experiences in the United States in general. Right now, it manifests through the invisibility of the racism and violence that has always been part of that experience.

But in mainstream science fiction, the very predicament of Asian invisibility is reversed. In a genre where the future could look like anything, it has consistently looked like a grimier, dystopic version of Tokyo. On the flip side, in that same genre where anything is possible, where people can be cloned and cars can fly, it has historically been hard to find a single Black lead. What can these dynamics teach us about our present moment? While the mainstream news thrives on perpetual narratives of crisis that keep us disconnected from the past and unable to imagine a different future, let us instead travel back in time to understand our possible futures.

By Jess X. Chen

Techno-Orientalism? What’s that?

On June 23, 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man in Michigan was beaten to death by two white men who mistook him for being Japanese and blamed him for the decline of US automobile factories. The militaristic fear of a Japanese takeover during World War II had turned into economic anxiety about Japanese cars taking over the US automobile industry. Three days later June 25, 1982, Blade Runner was in theaters across the United States. Set in an imagined 2019 Los Angeles that is clearly Orientalized, the set of Blade Runner was filled with ever-looming images of Japanese corporations. This anticipation of an overwhelming Asian future has continuously been reflected in science fiction films like Cloud Atlas, Big Hero 6, Arrival, Ghost in the Shell among many others. It’s important to note that while not all these films have a purely sinister view of Asia’s rise, they do reflect an image of the all-consuming Asianess of the future.

Asian US-American scholars like David Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta Niu have coined the term Techno-Orientalism, to explain why Asian aesthetics are so commonplace in science fiction films. Beyond films, it is a way of understanding how traditional Orientalism which painted the imaginary “East” as backwards, anti-progressive, and primitive has morphed to Techno-Orientalism which suggests the opposite, that the East is too forwards, too technological, too robotic. Either way, there is something uniquely dangerous about the East. Something that threatens to infect the United States if left unchecked. Yellow peril turned yellow technological peril. The past fears of Chinamen dwelling in opium dens spreading moral decay passed through the model minority filter and turned into Chinese spies slithering their way into US labs. In other words, despite the significant economic and technological achievements of certain East Asian nation-states like China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore, the future cannot belong to them. Their progress cannot be considered legitimate human progress because they are not “real” humans. The implication is clear. If we allow the “East'' to continue advancing, there will be no future at all. Earth itself will become uninhabitable, not because of Western capitalism, but because of Eastern capitalism. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the US public had already been exposed to years of rhetoric from both the left and the right painting the cheap and relentless labor from Asia as the main culprit of their economic woes.

There are a few key lessons that Techno-Orientalism illuminates. While the fear of the Orient (and even what the Orient is) can consistently change and adapt, it never loses its dehumanizing core. And that dehumanization will always be linked to the US Empire. No matter how many times we continue to chant “We are Americans too!”, the next time there is a World War II, a 9/11, or a COVID-19, Asian US-Americans certainly won’t be treated that way. Implicit in those signs trying to claim our “American-ess” is a recognition that to be truly “American” means something so much more than citizenship. It means to be worthy of care and consideration. Someone who is fully human. A unique individual rather than just another avatar for an entire race or ethnicity. Someone who, even after murdering eight people can live on to have his own narrative amplified. Someone for whom the future should belong to, even while the future becomes engulfed in this all-consuming Asian-ness.

If Asian aesthetics and bodies are hyper visible as robotic and alien figures in the imagined future, then Black bodies are often invisible in science fiction productions. If Techno-Orientalism reveals white anxieties about Asia’s technological and economic rise, Afrofuturists argue that the invisibility of Black actors in science fiction reveals the inability of the white imagination to conceive of the survival of Blackness into the imagined future. While Asian aesthetics have recently become somewhat of a style manual for the future, African aesthetics have been persistently linked to the past. Professor and author Alondra Nelson points out that the active destruction and violence against Black people is connected to a kind of fatalism which impacts how or even if black bodies are portrayed in science fiction. In other words, the logic of Black elimination exists in both the police violence we have consistently witnessed and the artwork that betrays our collective imagination about the future.

Back to the future: Afrofuturism’s gifts

But this dance through time travel that Afrofuturists live for is as much about soul retrieval as it is about jettisoning into the far-off future, the uncharted Milky Way, or the depths. Of the subconscious and imagination.

— Ytasha Womack

If mainstream science fiction has always featured imaginations of the future that center whiteness, there have also always been Black writers, musicians, and philosophers pushing back. While the term Afro-futurism is largely credited to a 1994 essay, the intellectual and artistic project of imagining a place for Black people in modernity has a much richer lineage. As Octavia Butler put it, “[Sci-fi is] a wonderful way to think about possibilities. It’s a wonderful way to explore exotic politics…it’s a freedom. It’s a way of doing anything you want.” Nowhere is this sentiment more present than in a recent episode of Lovecraft Country called “I Am.” The second half of this episode features the intergalactic, inter-dimensional travels of Hippolyta, a recently widowed woman who is unexpectedly transported to another dimension while investigating the suspicious circumstances of her husband’s death. What follows is an extraordinary exploration of both the limitations and radical possibilities of Black womanhood and motherhood. At first, she finds herself trapped in a sterile white room, greeted by a tall Black being in a white spacesuit with a large Afro. The figure (named Beyond C’est) keeps repeating the same phrases: “You are not in a prison,” “Where do you want to be?”, “Name yourself.” At first, Hippolyta is terrified and not quite understanding this new place of possibility. But as she acclimates, she hastily utters the first idea of freedom she can think of: “I want to be dancing on the stage in Paris with Josephine Baker.” Immediately she transports to that very place, surrounded by the hazy joy of the burlesque scene. The taste of this freedom prompts her to reflect on the life she had been living back in Chicago:

“All those years I thought I had everything I ever wanted, only to come here and discover that all I ever was was the exact kind of Negro woman white folks wanted me to be. I feel like they just found a smart way to lynch me without me noticing a noose … Sometimes I just, I wanna kill white folks. And it’s not just them … I hate me, for letting them make me feel small.”

After her time with Josephine Baker, Hippolyta then transports to a female warrior camp presumably in Africa, her old bedroom with her dead husband, and traveling through space to new planets. Hippolyta’s journeys through space, time, and reality represent the exploration of the confined pieces of her being that previously had been stifled by a white supremacist world. Her story, as a whole, explores the incredible possibilities of a reality where Black people may be free while simultaneously being a mirror to the ways our society has failed to imagine Black futures.

Afro-futurism seeks not only to answer the question, how do we stay safe but also, how do we get free? What would the future look like if technology and science were not only the hands of the wealthy few bent on militarizing it all? In the midst of overwhelming violence, both from the police but also from budget cuts to education, art, social welfare, it can be seductive to believe that surviving must come before thriving. Living before dreaming. In Afro-futurism, both are explored.

What now?

Recently, with the release of Black Panther, Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, Afro-futurism is more popular than ever before. Perhaps it is because we are collectively tired of watching the same old futures play out over and over again. Aliens land on Earth and immediately demand to talk to….the President of the United States? A lone, white man walks the streets of an Asian-ish looking landscape, the last true human in a city of cyborgs. Perhaps the time is long past due for a new future.

Techno-orientalism teaches us that fear of the Orient can always adapt, change, morph to fit the enemy of the day. If we were once dirty backwards immigrants coming to pollute the United States, today we are easily seen as robotic, sinister viruses coming to steal the future away. Our invisibility allows each new wave of attacks to feel like a new crisis, disconnecting us from our past. After all, how many of us know about the history of Vincent Chin?

Afro-futurism can inspire us to rethink our own futures. If we understand that our acceptance into the United States can only ever be conditional, why should proving our “Americaness” be a priority at all?  As there are calls for Afro-Asian solidarity, it is important to remember that solidarity based on fear and survival can only bring us so far. We have to get specific about what dreams and what visions we want to be in relationship with. What values and imaginations inspire our dreams of the future? The truth is, each of these attacks may hold much more complexity than the mainstream news has the capacity to cover. Our solidarity may be sparked by the shared experience of violence under white supremacy, but it should not end there. We should also be inspired by each other’s strategies towards liberation. I think that art and films and music represent such a beautiful potential to imagine one’s own freedom and exploration into the future.

Last summer, when public attention to the Black Lives Matter movement was once again at an all-time high, calls to defund the police began to grow nationwide. Many argued that this was not a smart move, it wasn’t realistic, it was utopian, it was dangerous, it was radical. But in a way, it was an Afro-futurist move. Organizing and imagining into being a world without police altogether. Visibility for visibility’s sake was not the goal of those organizers. Rather, it was the push for a radical imagination of a world where human life was precious, and abolition was central. In this moment, when Anti-Asian attacks are gaining more coverage, we must ask ourselves: What kind of world are we willing to build together? Beyond this crisis, what dreams do we have for the kinds of communities where our elders are not only safe, but honored, cared for, and loved? Artists like JessXChen are already asking themselves the same questions, just like filmmakers working with the Movement for Black Lives.

adrienne maree brown wrote back in 2015 during the first surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, “what we are all up to, this changing the world willfully, is science fictional behavior. because all organizing is science fiction. we are creating a world we have never seen. we are whispering it to each other cuddled in the dark, and we are screaming it at people who are so scared of it that they dress themselves in war regalia to turn and face us. because of our ancestors, because of us and because of the children we are raising, there will be a future without police and prisons.” The future we have in this country and on this Earth is ours to imagine. I imagine a future firmly rooted in an appreciation for and honoring of our past. Many of us may live far from the land of our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been ancestors here fighting for our ability to thrive. Ancestors like Fred Korematsuand Grace Lee Boggs. Elders like Yuri Kochiyama and Helen Zia. The question now remains, what world do you want to be ancestors to? What futures can we actively plant today, knowing that we may not see the fruits of our labors? What futures are worth imagining and working towards together, in solidarity with Afro-futurists and all those who imagine a world where white supremacy and domination does not win?

Further Sources:

Black Futures Edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Worthan

Who killed Vincent Chin? Documentary

Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture By Ytasha L. Womack

Coronavirus Crisis And Afrofuturism: A Way To Envision What's Possible Despite Injustice And Hardship


[CL1]Do you mean “Asian American”? Is this an alternative term?


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