By: Celia Le
Warning: this includes spoilers for the films Us and Get Out by Jordan Peele.
It was a Tuesday: my boyfriend and I just got out of the AMC on 84th street, raving about Jordan Peele’s latest movie Us. With its striking images of metallic shears and scary red-jumpsuits-donned doublegangers, Us is a compelling horror about the inequality present in America produced by the talented Jordan Peele, who is also known for the comedy series Key & Peele and Academy-Award-winning film Get Out, which is arguably the better film. A 2017 film about the horrors a young black man encountered upon visiting his white girlfriend’s family, Get Out has undoubtedly sparked the conversation about racism like no other media has recently. The film immediately had me on my heels the moment it was revealed that Chris’ white girlfriend is directly participating in her family’s auctioning black bodies to have white brains implemented into them, directed at white liberals for their history of using black American struggles for gain as well as fetishizing black American culture.
Then the scene happened – a single, lone Asian man appears in the party. “Do you find that being African American has more advantage or disadvantage in the modern world ?” the character named Hiroki Tanaka asked, his voice thick with an indistinguishable Asian accent. Just like Catherine Fung describes in her op-ed, I was uncomfortable. If moments before I was actively participating in a safe space for people of color to vent their anger on white supremacy, I was now being put in the spotlight of actively participating in anti-blackness. I later read Olivia Truffaut-Wong’s op-ed that alleges Peele, via Tanaka, wants to portray the international scope of anti-black racism.
As Ms. Fung did, I applaud writers who have pointed out the anti-blackness presented in the Asian community. During my time at Columbia University, I’ve heard way too many Bay Area Asians using AAVE (and worst of all, the n-word) as a part of their speech. In my family and the neighborhood I grew up in Vietnam, anti-blackness is directly tied to colorism and classism long presented in Asia, with the connotation of dark skin equals poor and fair skin equals rich.
But Peele’s method of portraying global anti-blackness raises a question. There is one singular accented Asian male used to portray non-USA racism, despite the vast diversity outside North America, despite the anti-blackness also presented in the Latinx community, and despite Yuri Kochiyama and Larry Itliong being absent from the media’s portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, the one token Japanese individual without a romantic partner is chosen to represent us all. If we’re going by the representation of the most influential and richest country in the world, it’s Qatar (which also has an anti-black problem), not Japan. The accent, a long-standing stereotype of Asian-Americans used to indicate foreignness, was and is an obstacle for Asian actors trying to land a role in the acting industry, with actors recalling being requested to perform outrageous stereotypes, among them the accent which renders the speaker a certain inability to speak English. Even in recent memories, I remember reading about Miss USA mocking Miss Vietnam and Miss Cambodia for their English, completely ignoring that the name of the beauty pageant is Miss Universe.
To be clear, I’m not criticizing Jordan Peele for calling out Asian anti-blackness – it is a pressing issue which desperately needs to be addressed, as we minorities are not exempted from perpetuating racism ourselves; I’m questioning Peele for his method. Given that Get Out’s audience is mainly an American one, what is Peele telling his Asian-American audience as he uses a singular representation of “globalism,” utilizing a demographic that has historically had their rights taken away from them because they’re not “American” enough à la Japanese internment camps?
The Asian-American experience in America has always been defined by successful stories and erasure of unsuccessful ones. We’ve come from being associated with gang activities since the refugee waves from the Vietnam War to being associated with International Mathematical Olympiad winners. In a way, Asian-Americans have embraced the model minority myth – it is easier to distance ourselves from the current refugee crisis if we preserve a self-image that consists of getting into Ivy League schools and being good at science. In a way, we like to think of ourselves as the “good” refugees and children of refugees, not the “bad” ones that this administration is actively trying to get rid of. By doing so, we have ascended the American racial hierarchy with whiteness at the top. By being stereotypically smart, we’re no longer people of color but “honorary whites.” And by doing so, we have dismissed the struggles of the in-betweeners, those who do not fit in the race politics of black and white. With lack of nuance consideration comes the erasure and whitewash of dark-skinned Asians, of poor Asians, of undocumented Asians, of Asians who cannot afford to spend 70k per year to go to an exclusive private university, of Asians who cannot afford mental healthcare and education.
In a more optimistic interpretation, perhaps the choice of an East Asian and particularly Japanese character in Get Out could be subtle commentary on how white people are actively appropriating and inhabiting Asian bodies, from transracial weeaboos (looking at you, Tumblr users and Scarlett Johansson) and Koreaboos creepily fetishizing any remotely Korean-looking person to the pain of imperialism and colonialism still felt in modern-day Southeast Asia. But until we can be sure, until there is adequate representation of a conglomerate Asian voices in the media – raise your kids to be mediocre. What better way to combat the model minority myth other than being the direct opposite example of it? Instead of successful neurosurgeons with T-14s law degrees, let there be starving artists living in their mothers’ basements in the next generation, doing slam poetry and telling typical and weirdly-made-to-be-inspiring stories. Because you’ve earned the right to suck and tell your unsuccessful story, baby, just like any other Americans who have to rely on mommy and daddy to bribe their way into college. You do you.
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Celia Le is a first-year student at Columbia University who hails from Saigon, Vietnam by way of Mississippi. A freelance artist and translator, she is passionate about transnational Vietnamese identity, disparity within Asian-American groups, as well as preserving languages and cultures of ethnic minorities. When she’s not occupied with school, Celia spends her time being obsessed with transit systems and playing the harmonica in marching band.