The Commercialization of Asian American Stereotypes| Thursday Workshop | WPC-14

Note: These workshop notes are extremely in-depth. I had my tablet with me and I type fairly quickly at ~80/wpm. The original notes also utilize my preferred shorthand techniques, which I’ve obviously expanded into the full words/ sentences here. So these notes do cover the entire presentation, not just the highlights.


Notes & Copyright

For the Love of Money: The Commercialization of Asian American Stereotypes

Facilitator: John D. Palmer | April 11, 2013

The historical/ colonial relationship between Asians and the US was formed largely around three factors:

  1. Earning respect from Western powers.
  2. China and Japan as allies to the United States.
  3. Trade and opening up a market for American goods. (The tea at issue in the Boston Tea Party was Chinese tea.)

Japanese Americans were different from the  transient Chinese immigrant populations. The Chinese immigrants came to earn wealth, then took that wealth back to China. They did not want to stay in America and did not consider themselves American. Japanese immigrants, however, considered themselves American and wanted to not only build wealth, but become American citizens.

This is seen in the history of the “picture bride,” where Japanese men would choose a bride based on her photograph and either go pick her up to bring her back to America, or have her brought to America by ship. Chinese, on the other hand, wanted to return home to marry and build their lives.

[Personal Note: I am not sure how accurate this statement is. At the least, it strikes me as disingenuously broad.]

In 1910, the Japanese Imperial Army defeated the Russian Army. President Teddy Roosevelt negotiated the Japanese-Russian peace treaty, by specific request of the Japanese. President Roosevelt actually won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating this treaty. A key element of the treaty negotiations was improved treatment of Japanese Americans. Japan told Teddy Roosevelt that they would not sign the treaty unless America started treating the Japanese people in America as citizens. As a result of these negotiations, Teddy Roosevelt desegregated American schools for Japanese students almost 50 years before Brown vs. Board of Education. This allowed Japanese Americans advantages in education that other minority Americans did not have access to.

Early Chinese immigrants were gold miners, railroad workers, and laundry workers — low wage and exploited. Employers would pit the minorities against each other, claiming that Chinese were driving down wages (would work for $1 an hour, leading to accusations that they were driving down wages), so the Chinese immigrants faced threat and violence from the white minority immigrants like the Irish. The 1930 fire in San Francisco Chinatown was a result of the Irish hated and violence against Chinese, which was fanned by neo-liberalist design.

The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor erased the Japanese favoritism in America. The Chinese Americans were now favored, as the US and China became allies. The peace treaty favors negotiated by Teddy Roosevelt disappeared, completely gone. In 1942, Executive Order 9066 approved the internment of Japanese American citizens.

Image credit: PBS website – The Supreme Court | Law, Power, and Personality

[Further research:442nd Regimental Combat Team — the most decorated combat unit, because they were sent on the most dangerous assignments.]

During this time, the Japanese Seattle flower shop owners were evicted from their houses and shops. Their belonging were looted, their business stolen, and their homes occupied.

Example of a Japanese flower shop in Seattle, Washington, circa 1940s, owned by the Habu-Kabota family. Image credit: Dorpat SherrardLomont

One important thing to remember is that while the dominant reality was betrayal and theft by their government and neighbors, there were some happy stories.

There was a neighborhood in Seattle where the white neighbors of a Japanese family promised to look after their home and flower shop while they were gone. For the 4 years this family was in the camps, the white neighbors kept their promise. They maintained the house, yard, vehicles, and shop. They put aside the money earned from the shop for their return. When the enforced imprisonment of Japanese American citizens was lifted, many chose not to return to their former homes. This family did, however, and found everything as they had left it. Untouched, undamaged, unlooted — and a savings account of 4 years worth of earnings was waiting for them.

Stories like this are important and necessary to share, because they illustrate how white allies can utilize their privilege in times like these. They teach us how to act and respond in times of tragedy. Another example is the professors at the University of Berkley, who recommended and sent their Japanese students to programs on the East Coast in order to save them from the camps.

Asians In Cinema up through 1950s and 1960s

In Hollywood cinema, Asian women are shown as either submissive, delicate, obedient flowers or as prostitutes. The roles of Asian women onscreen are usually filled by Asian actors.

Frances Nuyen as Liat in South Pacific, 1958

The Hollywood portrayal of Asian men is problematic in a different way. They were usually portrayed as greedy, uneducated, and oversexed. White male actors were relied on to fill the roles, with the use of caricatured stereotypes (bad accents, buck teeth, squinty eyes) to convey the ethnicity.

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, 1961. Image Credit: EthicsAlarms

Rise of the Model Minority myth

After more than 100 years of immigration exclusion, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was passed, allowing Asian immigration to the United States. The first wave of Asian American immigrants were the wealthy/ upper class Chinese, Japanese and Korean. They were middle class, educated, and well off. They matched the values and education of middle class America, and fit in more easily than if they had been poor or uneducated.

Further, the first generation of immigrants did not want to make waves. They wanted to fit in, they wanted their children to attend good schools and succeed. They did not want their children to be “un-American” or different. They learned English, they taught their children English, and they insisted on speaking English even at home. They didn’t like to feed their kids traditional foods from at home — Palmer relates how many 2nd generation Asian kids recall their parents eating traditional foods like Kim Chi at the table, while providing a separate meal of American-style foods for the kids. They did not want their kids to smell different, or eat different foods, or speak a different language than their American peers.

They wanted their kids to fit in, not attract attention, and succeed. This led to Asian American immigrants and their children choosing to overlook racism and insults, both blatant and subtle. Aware of the sacrifices of their parents, the children preferred to pursue success rather than equality. They internalize the discrimination and remain quiet to it. They are told by their parents and culture that Asian American discrimination is not that big a deal. They are happy most of the stereotypes seem positive, not negative like the other minorities. They are not as bad off as the other minorities, and are okay with being held up as proof that racism is gone. They don’t want to get the negative racist attention.

The problem is, the Asian American youth were getting negative messages both at home and through the media about the value and character of Asians, and these messages created a lot of identification issues and internalized the cultural stereotypes about Asians. They wanted to succeed to pay back their parent’s sacrifice, but they also questioned the value of their culture/ history.

Asians In Cinema through 1970s

In the 1970s, more positive ideas began to emerge regarding Asian roles: Takei in Star Trek with his calm, logical demeanor and unaccented English, Bruce Lee and the rise of martial arts films.

George Takei as Lt. Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek.

Even the Calgon commercials popular in the 1970s showed a more positive view of Asians (apparently the commercial referenced involved a Chinese laundry with white patrons. The white patrons were exclaiming over the quality of the cleaning, and the Chinese business owners spoke in unaccented English and were clearly educated. At the end of the commercial, the punchline was the white patron asking how they got the shirts so clean. The Chinese owner looked into the camera and said the only line spoken in a heavy accent, “Ancient Chinese secret.” Then Calgon jingle and slogan, I guess). It seemed like the silver screen could go in a positive direction, but it ultimately did not.

Instead, Hollywood began casting white actors as the hero in martial arts films, while the few Asian roles cast were as the villain. Bruce Lee was even asked to hide his ethnicity, and the backslide in Hollywood representation of Asians increased even as the rate of Asian American immigrants was rising.

Persistent Social Myths about Asian Americans.

  • Forever Foreigner
  • Model Minority
  • Tiger Mom

Forever Foreigner — this is the idea that all Asians are 1st gen immigrants.

Palmer relates a common incident for him. He meets someone new, and they ask where he is from. In unaccented English, he responds that he is from Ohio. They then ask where he’s originally from, to which he responds (again), Ohio. Depending on the cluelessness of the asker and Palmer’s mood that day, this cycle of questioning can apparently go on for a while. Palmer points out that no-one approaches a white person and tries to find out when/ where their ancestors immigrated and from what country, or doubts their being raised in America. 

[Personal Note: Relevant YouTube video]

Model Minority — this is the idea that Asian Americans are an example of what all non-white minorities can achieve with a little effort.

It does not examine the disparate impact of the historical circumstances: In the case of Black Americans, they were forced to arrive in bonds of slavery, and then persecuted through Reconstruction, Black codes, and Jim Crow. Despite being citizens of America, they did not have a basis of wealth, nor were they provided means to acquire it. Institutionalized racism made progress and the acquisition of wealth and education difficult (if not impossible) for most Black Americans. In contrast, the bulk of the Asian American population arrived in the 1960’s already primed for success. They were from wealthy backgrounds, had the benefit of Western-influenced education, and arrived post-Civil Rights Acts. Disparate impact — situation do not compare.

Tiger Mom — the Tiger Mom idea starts in the 1980’s with the media focus on the “super minority.”

Magazine and newspaper articles celebrated the Asian moment. Pres. Reagan called Asian Americans exemplars of hope and inspiration. Top schools around the country had high rates of Asian American students. President Bush praised Asian Americans for their dedication to law, work, and education.

 Asians In Cinema through 1980s

1980s saw the silver screen emasculation of the Asian American male. Asian Americans were finally being cast in Asian American roles other than villain, but they were still not cast as the hero. Martial arts films cast white actors as the hero, and Asian American actors as the love interest (female) or the support system/ sidekick (male).

Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid, 1984. | Image Credit: The Guardian

Other films relied on Asian American characters for comedic value. Male Asian American characters were written for laughs — Long Duck Dong in 16 Candles or Takashi in Revenge of the Nerds. They were effeminate, harmless, silly. Not a threat. Asian Americans were not written or cast as jocks or masculine men.

Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in 16 Candles, 1984 | Image Credit: NPR

Women were still cast and portrayed as exotic and submissive or as prostitutes. Hollywood profits on the grief and tragedy of wartime prostitution, mocking their experiences and the decimation of their country by American-perpetuated wars and American troops.

“Black Blouse Girl,” My Lai, 1969 by Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle | The moment captured is the moment between sexual assault and massacre.

Side note: When Hollywood casts the female love interest as Asian, the white guy gets the kiss, while the Asian guy (if he’s even in the competition) does not. One of the only kisses on Hollywood silver screen given to an Asian American male was to Jackie Chan in one of the Rush Hour films — he gets a peck on the cheek.

1980s Stereotypes

  • Submissive/ Obedient Asian woman
  • Sexual/ prostitute Asian woman
  • Tiger Mom

Submissive/ obedient — Fetishization of Asian women as submissive/ obedient women who prefer to have a man in control.

Idealizes Asian women as exotic and delicate flowers.

Sexual/ prostitute — As portrayed in many war films, it is the stereotype of the oversexed Asian prostitute eager to please the white man.

Often also portrayed as amoral/ greedy/ duplicitous. The popular quote, “Me so horny me love you long time,” epitomizes this trope. Palmer notes this trope is particularly horrifying, given that wartime prostitutes are more often than not forced into that circumstance because of the war and the presence of soldiers. American troops come over, destroy their home which results in these women being forced into prostitution to survive, then go back to America and make movies about the devastation they wreaked on these lives.

Social Issues and Asian American Culture

1. Marriage:

Asian Americans have the highest rate of any minority for marrying out of their race. Part of it goes back to the Japanese internment. The Japanese wanted to be American; they considered themselves American citizens, but they were imprisoned anyway. The post-internment generation of Japanese married out of their race in extremely high numbers in order to confirm their Americanism.

Rate of Asian American miscegenation is rising in each generation, and more are marrying out of their race every year. Palmer stresses he’s okay with miscegenation and does not have a problem with marrying out of race, but adds that this trend shows the internalized beliefs Asians have about Asian Americans as partners.

All this detracts from the threat of minority and supports the cultural representation of Asian Americans as the model minority.

2. War on Drugs

Concurrently, in the 1980s, Reagan’s war on drugs was targeting Black and Latino men. The law said 5 grams of crack cocaine brought a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison. 5 grams is the size of a nickel, and was very cheap. Easy to acquire, easy to conceal, and easy to plant. Police would do exactly that — if 5 grams of cocaine were dropped on a minority during an arrest, it ensured their incarceration and removal from the street. Over time, the penalties increased, and prison sentences went from 5 years to life for possession of crack cocaine.

Cocaine was popular in the 80s and used by all classes, but powder cocaine was the realm of wealthy white kids. Crack cocaine was associated with poor people, especially poor minorities. When the elite white or Asian kids did powder cocaine, it wasn’t seen as a problem. Example/ life comparison: When college kids finish finals week, it’s an accepted tradition that they party. Everyone knows there will be alcohol, weed, maybe even a little powder. Everyone looks the other way, sees it as blowing off steam — a reaction to the stress of finals week.

One of 5 frat boys arrested at Columbia University in 2010 for allegedly selling over $11,000 worth of drugs to undercover cops. | Image Credit: Gawker

When Black and Latino people break under the stress of institutionalized poverty, unemployment and discrimination and turn to drugs such as weed or crack cocaine as a relief from their stress, it is seen as validating negative stereotypes about their race(s) as a whole, and is attributed to the flaws of their race.

Image Credit: Betches Love This

What was the benefit of the war on drugs to white America? Prisons. Building and maintaining prisons, hiring guards and housing prisoners saved the economy of upstate New York, and many other dying rural areas. Locking up Black and Latino men saved white communities. Raising prison sentences from 5 years to life created job stability as the Black and Latino men were warehoused into old age.

Accusations of racism in the policies were answered by holding up the success of Asian Americans — they were held up as a law abiding, educated, and successful minority; proof of America’s post-racism and the myth of individualistic merit. The claim was, “See — minorities can succeed if they want to.

3. Black Decline in America

Palmer also points out that low income schools in slum/ ghetto neighborhoods often have guards, guns, and wire. Says society is training and acclimating the students/ inmates to a life and future in prison. Compare with middle class/ affluent schools preparing their students for college/ workforce.

Palmer states that Asian Americans are the root cause of Black decline in America. Asian Americans immigrated in droves and set up new businesses. They hired within their racial communities, but didn’t hire Blacks. They drove down wages and overall employment, and their success in America allowed whites to cast Asian Americans as proof America was not racist and minorities could succeed. The contrast of Asian American success highlighted the struggles of the Black and Latino communities, confirming in many minds the existing negative stereotypes about Blacks and Latinos.

The tensions were fed and inflamed by the media, pitting minority against minority.

Example: Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du.

Latasha Harlins

Latasha Harlins was a 13 year old Black girl shot to death in 1991, shortly after the beating of Rodney King. Harlins had entered a Korean corner grocery owned by Soon Ja Du. She walked around the store but did not purchase anything. As she started to leave the store, Du stopped her and accused her of stealing a carton of orange juice. Harlins denied the accusation and turned to leave. Du shot the 13 year old child in the back of the head, killing her. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but did not serve a single day of prison time. Instead, Du served her sentence through fines and community service, but remained a free and active member of the community.

In the same time frame as Harlin’s murder and Du’s “sentencing”, the LAPD officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. The Black community began rioting in response to the news, but it is telling that they did not riot in the wealthy/ affluent parts of the city — the rioting broke out against Korean shop owners and in Chinatown. News coverage showed the race riots; and highlighted the violence Blacks and Latinos were perpetuating against the “model minority”.

There was no coverage of benevolence or assistance across race, such as when an elderly Black man stopped the beating of an Asian youth by stepping between the youth and assailants and telling the assailants they would have to go through him to get to their victim; or when a Latino priest warned and protected his Korean neighbors.

When the O.J. Simpson trials were televised, racial tensions were again exploited and misrepresented in media coverage. Judge Ito was portrayed as weak, indecisive, and emasculated.

Media coverage and representations also like to highlight the opposition of Asian Americans to Affirmative Action — the rejection of Affirmative Action by a minority is used by whites who reject the validity of affirmative actions as validation/ proof that it is unnecessary and not wanted.

The media coverage narrative that claims Asian Americans oppose Affirmative Action usually features stories and statistics claiming that Asian Americans are over-represented in higher education, and so “lose out” on Affirmative Action.

Palmer allows that there are many Asian Americans who do not believe they benefit from Affirmative Action, a perception fed and increased by media coverage representing this as the common opinion of Asian Americans. He thinks there is a philosophy of personal gain/ what’s in it for me? when considering Affirmative Action, which is the wrong way to approach it. It’s not about the individual situation, it’s about improving the community as a whole. The misrepresentation of the value and benefits of Affirmative Action is meant to pit minorities against each other so they won’t notice/ care about the greater inequities.

The Stained Glass Ceiling

 The glass ceiling is not just a gender issue. There is a glass ceiling for minorities; even Asian American minorities. Whites in America are making more. Only 29% of Americans get a B.A. degree. Of that 29%; 52% are Asian Americans and 32% are Whites. The remainder are Black and Latino — despite the higher rate of B.A.’s, Asian Americans still bring in less income than whites.

Asians In Cinema through 1990s – Present

In the 1990s the silver screen representations of Asian American culture is still casting white actors in the positive Asian-inspired roles. Asian Americans are still cast in the supporting roles of wise mentor/ sidekick/ comedic relief. 1990’s also sees the rise of the Indian American grocer stereotypes. The Asian women fall in love with the white hero and the Asian American male continues to be emasculated on the silver screen.

The 2000s sees both positive changes and the continuation of negative trends. On the plus side, Hollywood is breaking racial lines on the silver screen and casting more Asian American actors than ever, and in more positive roles. Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, Kal Penn.

[personal note: also Steven Yeun as Glen on Walking Dead; Harry Shum Jr. and Jenna Ushkowitz as Mike Chang and Tina Cohen-Chang, respectively, on Glee?]

There are rising representatives of Asian American culture in both t.v. and film, as well as in the world of sports. Palmer named a bunch that went over my head, but I did catch Ichiro something and Lin. Further, the current Asian American silver screen representations are less demeaning/ caricatured, more vibrant, and more diverse.

On the downside, there are still far more negative stereotypes represented in popular culture than positive ones. There is still an erasure of strong, successful male role models — in The Last Samurai, the protagonist hero was played by a white male. In 21, a film based on a real-life card counting event that was later recounted in a best selling book, the card counting crew of 6 was played by 4 white actors and 2 Asian American actors. In the real life event that inspired the book (and later, film), all the card counters were Asian American — a fact recognized by the book, but not the film.

In romance and gender dynamics, the Asian American woman are still most frequently cast as submissive/ shy/ nerdy/ sweet/ exotic, and the white male lead still gets the kiss and the girl.

Further, when blatant racism does occur, Asian Americans are told it is just a joke/ they are being too sensitive/ get over it/ get a sense of humor. Examples include an ESPN story about Jeremy Lin with the headline, “The chink in their armor?”; or a 2006 airing of The View in which host Rosie O’Donnell cracked a joke about the Chinese perception of Danny DeVito which included a string of, “ching chong chang,” to imitate Chinese people talking.

In sports, too, Asian Americans are praised for success — but not too much success. Examples include Michelle Kwan apologizing for her success when she beat out white competitors to represent America in the Olympics/ figure skating; and the media representation and coverage of Kristi Yamaguchi.

Q & A

Jess: Asks question about the immigration exclusion act, and whether in its historical absence, the result would be a far different version of American racial demographics.

Palmer: Doesn’t think so, because of the different immigrant cultures. The Chinese liked to come in, make money, and leave. The Japanese preferred to stay, but the numbers of immigrants do not support the theory that our racial makeup would look radically different.

[personal note:I don’t think this answer really addressed the question. I feel like he actually didn’t listen or maybe just didn’t “get” what Jess was asking.]

Older Asian American Female: On the ESPN/ Lin situation — she had heard the writer/ editor did not realize/ know the term “chink” was derogatory. She thinks this could be a good sign — the newer generations do not know the old insults and slurs, and surely that’s a sign of progress and improvement. Thoughts?

Palmer: The PC generation has grown up to be the “Hush” generation. They’ve been trained to distance themselves from racial questions through a lifetime of the adults around them saying, “Shhhh,” when they ask questions about a non-white minority, especially in public places. The result is a generation of youth who are uncertain about race and uncomfortable talking about it. They don’t know how to engage or how to address/ respond to racial differences. Even so, there is still clearly a subconscious cultural awareness about the racialized language of oppression — would that writer had chosen the headline, “The chink in their armor?” for Kobe Bryant? No. So there is a subconscious awareness of racial slurs and the power they have. The Hush generation has questions, but they’ve been trained to silence and the silencing of dialogues across racial lines. They are paralyzed by fear and guilt — fear of appearing racist and derogatory, guilt about their cultural heritage. They fear engaging in racial discussion.

[personal note:I’ve always termed the sort of clueless/ unconsidered questions that can arise from ignorance of racial issues “accidental racism”. I know there are probably better terms in my books.]

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