When we tell our own stories, we’re told they’re not “relatable”. Relatable to whom?
Joshua Luna is one half of the Luna Brothers — a duo responsible for writing and illustrating best-selling comics Ultra, Girls, and The Sword — and the creator of Whispers. But he’s also known for making more openly political comic strips that center the Asian American and Filipino-American experience, from celebrating queer Asian love to challenging anti-Asian racism:
Because of its emphasis on decolonization, this is combat art — what Franz Fanon calls “combat literature” in The Wretched of the Earth¹. Luna’s work encourages self-love and community healing while deconstructing racist behaviors and ideologies with sharp social critique. This made his publisher, Image Comics, uncomfortable.
He recently pitched a collection of his Asian American comics to Image for publication, but was treated so poorly during the process that communications broke down and he decided to go public with his ordeal.
For details, see the following Twitter thread:
It’s much easier to point the finger at the Richard Spencers of society than to turn inward and examine one’s own implicit racial biases. So Image Partners gave various excuses for their reluctance to publish AMERICANIZASIAN: it was too “angry” and needed to be “more positive”; it tempted legal action for parodying trademarked characters; and it had “no story for people to relate to”.
One white male Partner even implied that Luna could make the Asian American experience more relatable by taking inspiration from the Hulu show PEN15, which is about a half-white, half-Japanese protagonist (he also mentioned that his wife is half-Japanese)². Luna is Filipino, and it makes no sense for him to center white characters in strips that focus on his own experiences.
According to a keynote speech from last year’s Image Expo, Image Comics has a reputation for publishing content that “no other publisher would dare take a risk on… because we believe every one of those weird and wonderful series represents a new opportunity to capture a new audience.” In that same speech, Publisher Eric Stephenson proudly claimed that “fortune favors the bold”, implying that their commitment to publishing controversial content is what made them a successful company.³
The fear of copyright infringement sounds disingenuous when Luna’s previously published work at Image parodied trademarked characters (Ultra), and former Partner Erik Larsen’s own Savage Dragon character is heavily inspired by The Incredible Hulk.
Larsen, by the way, has previously drawn Internet outrage for making tone-deaf statements about women wearing practical costumes in comics⁴, as well as inserting gratuitous sex scenes in Savage Dragon that feature an Asian woman drawn to look underage. (Unsurprisingly, he is married to an Asian woman, yet has no problem hypersexualizing Asian women in his own comics.)⁵
And in 2017, when Howard Chaykin released inflammatory “Divided States of Hysteria” covers that featured gratuitous violence against men of color and transwomen⁶ as well as a hijab of the American flag, Stephenson defended Image’s decision to publish them, saying, “If The Divided States of Hysteria prompts just a single productive conversation about the present state of our society, then it has succeeded in its goals and is a story worth sharing.”⁷
But when real marginalized voices like Luna speak about equally contentious and political topics like racism, they’re asked to water down their work. This tone policing double-standard implies that provocative content is only welcome when it comes from white male authors.
When we tell our own stories, in our own words, we’re told that they’re not “relatable”. To whom?
Since going public, Luna has received an outpouring of support and solidarity from his diverse fanbase, who all expressed their desire see this book made:
Collective action is the backbone of every civil rights movement. By making private issues of inequality public, it demands accountability for discrimination that would otherwise be kept hidden and unaddressed while granting power in numbers to those who would not have it individually. Larsen, who condemned Luna for speaking out about his consistent mistreatment by Image staff, tried to further dismiss and shame him for choosing to go public and draw on the support of his own fanbase to get AMERICANIZASIAN made with a POC-run publisher.
When creators of color challenge their white male employers to go public with the discrimination they face in the workplace, they risk losing a lot: their source of income, their industry connections, and their following. In a recent interview with The Beat, Luna expressed concerns about being sued by Image or blacklisted by other publishers or creators in the greater comics community:
“Within hours of going public with what happened, I received an email from the partner describing my post as slander, libel and outright lying…I think comics and the media industry as a whole has been dragging its feet in acknowledging the history and severity of anti-Asian narratives and imagery, to the point where it’d rather kill the messenger than acknowledge the message.”⁸
We at PAV are not here to placate or pacify those who willfully silence POC for talking about their lived experiences under structural racism. As our political climate marches in step with racist ideology, harming marginalized people at the institutional level through imperialist policies both foreign and domestic, it’s important for us to support creators whose works challenge the false narratives spread by white supremacy.
Please help Joshua Luna continue to make a living and get his comics published by a POC-run publisher by sharing his content and donating to his Patreon or PayPal.
J Maraan edits all the things and sometimes writes. She co-hosts Journey to the West, a podcast that centers Asian women’s views on diaspora issues and current events. Find her on Twitter at @j_maraan and @JTTWPodcast.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
*Note: this article contains major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
In a world where Green Book is lauded for its “white savior” approach to race¹, and its director Peter Farrelly decides to team up with Brian Currie and Pete Jones (an unholy trinity of white men) to write a dramedy set during the Vietnam War era about a beer run², we’d hope that POC who are conscious of their racial identities would have something to look forward to watching in theaters these days without shaking their heads.
Enter blockbuster-maker Marvel, which recently vowed to commit to making their cast of heroes more inclusive after the unprecedented success of Black Panther and Captain Marvel³. While young Asian Americans nervously await the release of Shang-Chi, which is slated to feature MCU’s first Asian lead, Avengers: Endgame premiered last week.
Despite earning a 95% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Endgame has also received criticism for its cinematic flaws. From the fatphobic treatment of Thor’s PTSD⁴ to the use of women as props during what little screentime they were given⁵, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were quick to point out the film’s missteps. But for some reason, Endgame’s low-key racist scenes are noticeably missing from these critiques. A recent AV Club article that rightfully called out the film’s lackluster women’s character arcs (glossing over ScarJo’s legacy as an honorary Asian) even praised Tilda Swinton’s appearance as the whitewashed Ancient One⁶. So a number of viewers took to Twitter to speak out about Hawkeye’s disturbing scenes, which are much worse than hinted at in the official trailer:
has anyone written about irritating it is that [redacted] went off and murdered a bunch of poc in other countries when there's PLENTY WRONG IN AMERICA for [redacted] to deal with in #AvengersEndgame#Endgame? (will likely delete this tweet p fast lol)
The MCU has continually treated POC as props, particularly Asians, but what they did in Endgame was over the damb line. How the hell are you going to have an Asian character (& an actor of Sanada's caliber), just to be used as a tool for a white man to vent his rage on? pic.twitter.com/uzQgK7VgEm
Unsurprisingly, none of Earth’s heroes are Asian. The only Asian men on screen are either brutally murdered or played martial arts sidekicks for the white Dr. Strange. Even Mantis, who is played by an Asian woman, is dismissed as “that girl with the antennas”, taking the same abuse on screen as she did throughout Guardians of the Galaxy 2⁷.
Since Endgame is about the trauma of war, we at PAV can’t help but draw a connection between Hawkeye’s actions in the film and American imperialism. There is a multitude of U.S. military bases in Japan, with 34 occupying ¼ of all the space on the island of Okinawa alone. The presence of over 50,000 U.S. military personnel and 40,000 of their dependents have taken a toll on the long-exploited locals, who have suffered countless thefts, burglaries, arsons, assaults, rapes, and murders over the last four decades⁸. Along with the lack of proper convictions for these crimes⁹, bases are killing the surrounding coral reefs and destroying marine habitats¹⁰.
In Marvel’s Endgame, Japanese lives are portrayed as disposable, as they have been since WWII.
(Anti-Japanese WWII propaganda)
Guest writer Jason Thinh expounds on this orientalist trope as he shares his thoughts on the film.
Hawkeye is the MCU’s version of Jeremy Renner: someone who nobody can really find any use for, yet he still gets chance after chance.
From his seat-filler role in the original Avengers movie to Captain America: Civil War — where even the other characters verbally expressed that they didn’t care about his existence — Marvel has tried and failed to make this character even remotely compelling.
(Yet we can still root for a talking raccoon.)
Now, with Endgame out in theatres and everyone online taking turns dissecting their piece of this puzzle that’s been ten years in the making, let’s talk about what the hell they did with Hawkeye.
When the initial teasers for the film came out, we saw the original Avengers in various stages of grief due to Thanos’ snap. Our first glimpse of Clint Barton is him adopting his new Ronin persona, standing somewhere in Japan after he’s laid waste to countless faceless Japanese extras. Upon my first viewing, my racial spidey-senses were already tingling.
“Ugh, here we go again. Generic Japan. Dead Japanese men everywhere, likely yakuza. Great. But who knows, maybe I’m in for a surprise,” I foolishly thought.
The first scene of Endgame starts off with Hawkeye losing his entire family. So how does Legolas deal with this traumatic experience? Well, he certainly doesn’t go to his second family, The Avengers, who have been experiencing their own share of losses. Instead, he randomly decides to invent the identity of Ronin — which is vaguely based on Japanese culture — and proceeds to go on a mass murdering spree, going after some not-so-obvious targets.
Does he track down any remaining supervillains? Does he prowl the streets of New York for random, lowlife scum? Surely with such a sudden drop in the world’s population, crime would increase, right? And aren’t there more than enough white supremacists in the U.S. alone?
If you’re thinking that Barton went Nazi hunting during these first few years post-snap, then you are severely overestimating Hawkeye’s abilities when even generations of activists have been trying to rid the U.S. of one of its main exports.
Instead, he travels all the way to Mexico and Japan to kill people he deems unworthy of living for…reasons? The justification for these executions is that these people are members of drug cartels and the yakuza, therefore their lives must mean less. But like, how random is that? That’s like being upset that the waiter screwed up your order so you go home, see someone deliver a pizza to your neighbor down the street, and walk over to harass the delivery driver. Or something like that.
(Sounds eerily familiar, actually.)
What made watching this movie, and specifically the yakuza scene, even more uncomfortable was that I was watching it in a theatre in Japan. Granted, the audience wasn’t too loud to begin with, but the scene really didn’t go over well. Imagine watching a foreign film, being excited about seeing not only your country but also one of your country’s most well-respected actors (Hiroyuki Sanada) in it, only to see everything reduced to stereotypes by some 3rd-tier character. Hawkeye is a guy who just randomly took pieces from Japanese culture to empower himself, motivated by his white man trauma to somehow both learn Japanese and beat the Japanese at their own game.
Look, I know that coping with grief can take on different shapes and people go down different paths, but this soured me for most of the movie. It doesn’t help that we’ve seen things like this play out in real life: someone who once served in the military, with little to contribute, spends the next phase of his life taking out his aggression on the “enemy” (aka random POC) under the false pretense of trying to “stop crime”. Maybe I’m being generous. Often times the incidents that make the news are committed by pitiful, directionless white men who have bought the idea of this power fantasy and have taken upon themselves to clean up the streets and go after POC who just so happen to commit all of the crime, all in the name of “freedom”, nationalism, or some other disingenuous garbage.
(Slicing up those evil, faceless, Asians. Top: Kill Bill, Bottom: Wolverine)
It’s the same tired trope. We’ve seen it in Kill Bill, Netflix’s Daredevil, The Wolverine, and countless other Western movies and shows. When we do see any AAPI representation, our bodies are treated as disposable and our deaths are used for comedic effect (e.g. the gratuitous deaths of Nobu in Daredevil and a character’s ex-boyfriend in Agents of SHIELD). Now here we are, in a time where media, and Marvel specifically, is supposed to be doing better in terms of providing better POC representation. But instead, we get…this.
While we’re already talking about Hawkeye and his inability to cope, let’s briefly look at Black Widow, someone who has had “red in her ledger” and has done everything to atone for her sins. Throughout many of the MCU films, we’ve witnessed Ms. Romanoff’s transformation from a lone spy with questionable ethics to someone who has found a family and would do anything for them. She deserved to be in that final fight. But instead, her pain and eventual death are used for an arguably less-deserving character’s motivation.
Throughout Endgame, all of Hawkeye’s “redeeming” moments felt unearned. And even Black Widow’s response to his murder-spree, “I don’t judge you by your worst mistakes”, sounded more like complicity than consolation. He learned nothing from his toxic coping methods but he still managed to get the soul stone and some scenes of man-pain. He also got to run around the battlefield with the gauntlet and…that’s pretty much it. As the story wraps up, the past is restored and he gets his family back. Clint’s arc throughout the movie and the past 10 years of the MCU is a peak example of white mediocrity: just add a little bit of racism and that character will still be deserving of a 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th chance at redemption. Just slap on some tattoos and a vaguely ethnic-inspired aesthetic and you’re good to go.
While this is not necessarily an indictment of the movie as a whole, it’s unfortunate that with all the development we’ve seen over the course of the past 10 years, the writers continued to put white men first regardless of the quality of the character and their story, but that’s a whole different article.
As Marvel’s Endgame ties up loose ends from the beginning and plots come full circle, I hope that old, stale practices like these — elevating white men and using the slaughter of POC as a plot device — will finally be put to rest while we get ready for a more diverse main cast. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.
Jason Thinh is a Bay Arean currently living in Tokyo. You can find him on Twitter at @JasonThinh.
All of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively
The production or creation of something
Generation Z: Those born around 1995 and onwards
As a Los Angeles native, I really felt the recent passing of local hip hop artist and community activist Nipsey Hussle. Not because I was a big fan — in fact, I had never heard of him before, despite briefly being a hip-hop dilettante in high school — but because of how people, especially Black folks, reacted when he was shot to death in South L.A. At school, a Black classmate of mine who spends her free time helping the inner city homeless expressed her agony about the tragic news, telling me how Nipsey was “one of the good ones”. He had been a positive role model for the youth in the majority Black neighborhood of Crenshaw, his hometown, where many Japanese Americans once settled in post-WWII incarceration camps and developed close relationships with the African American community due to a shared sense of discrimination. At the gym, I saw two Black men taking breaks between sets to solemnly watch a live TV broadcast of a Celebration of Life for Nipsey, which was held at the Staples Center and packed with over 21,000 people on a weekday morning. Online, social media was teeming with emotional tributes to him from primarily Black actors, athletes, and musicians. Although I was very unfamiliar with Nipsey and his impact on the Black community, reading about him and witnessing first hand how he was regarded by everyday people helped me realize what it meant to “rep” one’s community — and more importantly, what a strong collective racial consciousness looks like.
Nipsey Hussle, immortalized by his community.
As a contributor to ProAsian Voice, I thought about potential parallels to my comparably lacking Asian American community. Was there anybody in the Asian American community, or greater Asian diaspora, for whom we would collectively mourn upon their passing and thereafter show our appreciation by filling stadiums and painting murals? I’ve personally met some “famous” Asian Americans, ranging from celebrities such as Ali Wong (was invited to her private gala) and Randall Park (helped organize a panel for him), to athletes like Jeremy Lin (randomly ran into him and his brother at school), writers such as Jay Caspian Kang (recorded a podcast with him), and online community figures like Albert Hur. Despite how talented and/or intelligent these people are, do they stand a shot at being truly remembered? Jeremy Lin, maybe, because of the incredible international hype Linsanity¹ was able to generate back in 2012. But even Sessue Hayakawa, the Asian man who was literally the very first Hollywood sex symbol², is now nothing to most Americans but an obscure, hard-to-pronounce name while Ken Jeong’s small penis graces our movie screens.
The problem is our lack of collective racial consciousness. If we are to be something more, and not some hodgepodge of fictitious racist caricatures in the popular imagination — which is already rigged against us via centuries of deliberate erasure and dehumanizing stereotypes — who’s gonna “rep” us but us? As an Asian American who has no plans to “go back to my country”, I say it’s time to make a stand. We are here to stay, and in this struggle to be treated fairly and remembered properly, us Generation Z Asians can make all the difference.
“They say every man is defined by his reaction to any given situation Well who would you want to define you? Someone else or yourself? Whatever you do, homie, give your heart to it And stay strong.”
— Nipsey Hussle (1985-2019), from “I Do This”³
Generations: Natural Shifters of the Overton Window
Every generation demands its own unique voice, which is often shaped by meaningful and impactful world events. Some that come to mind include the Apollo 11 moon landing for Baby Boomers, the fall of the Berlin Wall for Generation X, and the September 11 attacks for Millennials. These events shape the very worldview of these generations, especially when they happen at a formative age. As a result, newer generations can deviate quite a bit from the status quo established by the previous generation, thus shifting the Overton window — the range of acceptable political discourse — when they develop a voice or come to power.
Shifting opinions across generations⁴
To illustrate this phenomenon, one can observe current-day American politics. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, two outspoken millennial women of color, have dominated the headlines ever since their inauguration as freshman congresswomen earlier this year. Ocasio-Cortez, with her progressive platform including Medicare for All and a 70% marginal tax rate for the ultra rich, resonates deeply with her Millennial cohort as they are increasingly pushed out of the middle-class⁵ and saddled with extreme student loan debt⁶. Omar’s criticisms of American foreign policy, especially with regards to U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drew much ire and even death threats⁷ from the conservative and racist Fox News Boomer crowd while gaining support from Millennials, of which 87% don’t believe the United States is the greatest country in the world, according to the Pew Research graphic above.
Generation Z, sometimes affectionately referred to as “Zoomers”, has developed a political consciousness and voice of our own, too. The cataclysmic event that radicalized us was the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (I was 20 then). To say his presidency has been nothing short of disastrous for us as young people of color would be an understatement: appointing a former coal lobbyist and climate change skeptic (or greedy immoral cretin) as head of the Environmental Protection Agency⁸, calling literal white supremacists “very fine people”⁹, stoking hatred and resentment towards minorities and immigrants¹⁰ … and these aren’t even the illegal things he’s done. His actions have had enormous consequences, enabling white supremacists to commit hate crimes and deadly mass shootings both at home and abroad.
In the face of evil, Gen Z has refused to be silent. Following the heartbreaking events of the 2017 Parkland high school shooting, in which a white supremacist was the shooter, a group of student survivors became gun control activists and organizers of the nationwide March For Our Lives rally. Their sustained efforts, led by now household names such as Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Sarah Chadwick, directly led to over 25 states passing some form of gun violence legislation.
Sarah Chadwick aptly responding to the president
Greta Thunberg¹¹, a 16-year-old Swedish activist, single-handedly started Fridays for Future, an international student strike demanding action to prevent further global warming and climate change. Taking Greta’s lead, Isra Hirsi, the 16-year-old daughter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, organized an American iteration¹² of the student strike with two friends. As a result, hundreds of thousands of school children have participated in the protests worldwide, sending a strong message to the old white ghouls in power.
From a Fridays for Future protest in Germany
But where are my rebellious, politically conscious Gen Z Asians? Whenever I visit various Asian-specific online spaces, all I see are posts defending racist white men dating Asian women and hateful comments denigrating all Asian men as undesirable, misogynistic and patriarchal. Whenever I engage with students majoring in Asian American studies or participate in Asian “activist” training (you can read about my experiences here), the conversation always seem to punch down on Asians for being “anti-black” and “privileged”, two notions that have been debunked over and over again if you’ve been paying any attention in good faith. The most prominent Gen Z Diaspora Asians today include Rich Brian, an Indonesian rapper who refuses to call out his colleagues such as Wiz Khalifa¹³ and Lil Pump¹⁴ for their anti-Asian racist lyrics, and Chloe Kim, a self-professed “banana”¹⁵ dating a white man. A meek cowardly Asian boy and a “yellow on the outside but white on the inside” Asian girl: this is our representation today, as it always has been.
In the face of white terrorism and global warming, two great existential threats, how is this behavior from us Asians acceptable? The first gun control measures against assault weapons¹⁶ in the United States were passed in reaction to the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School Shooting¹⁷, where Patrick Purdy, a white supremacist who resented Asian immigrants for taking jobs from “native-born” Americans, specifically targeted Southeast Asian refugees, killing 5 schoolchildren and wounding 32 others. Just last year, the white supremacist shooter at Parkland murdered 15-year-old Peter Wang¹⁸ as he was helping his classmates escape. I still boil with anger when I remember how none of my over 1500 Facebook friends, most of whom were Asian, had anything to say about their fallen Asian brother and hero. Rest in Power, Peter.
What about global warming? Climate change scientists have deduced that the Apocalypse is coming, and four out of five of those worst affected are living in Asia¹⁹. Major Asian cities such as Shanghai and Osaka, along with several Southeast Asian countries, will be swallowed by the sea. As our history, family, and culture are in danger of being slowly drowned, thanks to the reckless and preventable actions of just 100 greedy corporations²⁰ backed by mostly rich white men, how come I don’t see any young Asian faces in the climate change protests?
It's clear that climate change disproportionately effects many developing countries. South-East Asian may well be uninhabitable in the next 30 years. The constant denial-ism from Australia and the US, among others, need to stop. https://t.co/AOSZ0tFOq2
As the Asian diaspora, and as those fluent in the lingua franca (also the language of our white oppressors), we are in a unique position to bring about political and social change relevant to all Asians worldwide. Issues such as gun control and climate change disproportionately affect us, especially us young folk, posing very real existential threats to us and our future; yet there is no collective Asian voice — which requires a collective consciousness — able to articulate anything on our behalf. What could we do to develop it?
The Answer: Legislation
As Dr. Erika Lee once noted, racism is the sole unifying factor of Asian America²¹. Our different countries of origin may have feuded in the past, we may have the largest income inequality amongst all racial groups in the US²², and we may even have wildly varying perceptions and preferences of “Asian” cuisine, but we are ultimately all “chinks” in the eyes of a racist. Thus, it only makes sense to use racism as a general flashpoint for developing our common consciousness and voice.
But there are effective and ineffective ways to use racism as a conjoiner. Writing tepid articles about our grievances as a “polite front” to mask the severity of our situation and recording podcasts with deliberate contrarians to “see both sides” of racism does nothing other than virtue signaling how “woke” one is and frustrates those who want to see true change. There is no collective call-to-action in this bland form of liberal activism, which only serves to inflate some egos.
A much more effective method to utilize racism as a bridge would include having achievable short-term goals as an incremental means of establishing robust community bonds. ProAsian Voice has created an Agenda, a legislative platform that posits tangible solutions to problems that all good-willed Asians would like to see addressed. Several spokes of the wheel of anti-Asian racism can be eliminated with the following legislation proposals: passage of an AAPI Film Diversity Tax Credit as a remedial measure for centuries’ worth of Asian male emasculation, reintroduction of the Paycheck Fairness Act to address wage disparity for Asian women, institution of racial quotas to remove the Bamboo Ceiling, establishment of a social safety net to rectify income inequality among our diaspora, and an explicit guarantee of our reproductive rights.
While passing these proposals into law seems like a tall task, my experience with activism at the K.W. Lee Center taught me otherwise. As a small group of college interns, we focused on fighting for criminal justice reform, specifically from the AAPI perspective. A major goal of ours included helping secure the passage of Senate Bill 1437²³, a reform of the outdated felony murder rule which disproportionately affected women and young men of color. Through social media collaborations with like-minded organizations and people, visiting local congressmen, and holding a public panel, we were able to amass hundreds of unique signatures and petition letters in support of the bill. Our efforts were not in vain as the bill was finally signed into law by the state governor just one month after the internship was over.
With the interns after the panel. Fun Fact: one of our guest speakers was Kirn Kim, on whom the Justin Lin directed movie Better Luck Tomorrow was based.
Imagine if millions of Gen Z Asian Americans began clamoring for the bill proposals listed on the ProAsian Voice Agenda: no more having to see Ken Jeong’s penis, no more income inequality, no more bamboo ceiling, and a happier, unified Asian diaspora ready to properly take down the forces of white supremacy.
We are the Asian Diaspora generation who grew up in the age of Trump. White supremacist evil runs amok and the global Apocalypse heads right towards us. But it’s not too late to change things, as long as we band together and collectively be an unapologetically ProAsian Voice.
Our Facebook group is now active and applications are open for anyone who wishes to contribute.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We discuss the pseudo-whitewashing of Ludi Lin’s character, Murk, in Aquaman and the news about the Hammer Attack Murders in Chinese buffet in Brooklyn which killed Fufai Pun and Kheong Ng-Thang and has left Tsz Mat Pung in critical condition. We touch on the relationship between direct, cultural / symbolic, and systemic violence.
It all began with an Asian American Fiction class.
A young Korean American college student, I eagerly awaited my first-ever Asian American Studies course. Class-required readings included very representative and completely unproblematic Asian American classics such as Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. My South Asian instructor was especially adamant about discrediting any criticism of Joy Luck Club or Amy Tan, citing the novel’s role in empowering Asian women like herself. Knowing Joy Luck Club was consistently criticized for its orientalist tropes¹, white savior narrative², and negative portrayal of Asian men³, when Celeste Ng’s ridiculous tweets suggesting she found Asian men “unattractive” because we all reminded her of her “cousins” resurfaced online, I started to question my instructor’s logic.
During one lecture, she made it a point to dismiss author and pioneering playwright Frank Chin as nothing more than an angry misogynist. Already skeptical of her views, I looked up Frank Chin and eventually stumbled upon “Racist Love”, an essay he co-wrote with Jeffery Paul Chan.⁴ Nearly half a century later, no body of work more plainly lays out the current state of Asian America. This 1972 paper answered the question I asked myself in 2018:
If novels and authors that claim to uplift Asian women while disparaging Asian men are lauded and deemed mainstays of an Asian American curriculum, then what does that mean for me as an Asian man living in America?
“[Most Asian American authors] confirm the popular stereotypes of Chinese-Americans, find Chinese-America repulsive, and don’t identify with it… The white stereotype of the Asian is unique in that it is the only racial stereotype completely devoid of manhood…The mere fact that [most] American-born Chinese-American writers are women reinforces this aspect of the stereotype.”
— Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, “Racist Love”
The seminal essay introduced me to white supremacy’s harmful and persistent machinations and explained Asian America’s decision to sell out through its “acceptance of white standards of objectivity, beauty, behavior, and achievement as being morally absolute”. These revelations violently woke me from a lifelong mental stupor. I suddenly realized that each racial micro- and macro- aggression I experienced throughout my life was intimately connected to and deeply rooted in my country’s toxic relationship with Yellow-ness. Energized by a mix of anger, curiosity, shame, and — ironically —relief, I scoured the Internet for more meaningful discourse to further develop my racial awareness. Browsing Asian subreddits, I sifted through a number of “how to get white girls and be an alpha Asian bro” posts but eventually found some older, informative threads as well as Tales from Mangri-La, a wonderful podcast dedicated to critically examining the Asian male experience.⁵
One thing led to another. I discovered #AsianTwitter, and without even realizing it, I learned about a broad array of topics concerning Asian America, like the prevalence of white men-Asian women romantic pairings, how Affirmative Action fails to accommodate Asian Americans, the lack of non-racist media representation, and the systemic oppression Asian Americans face under white supremacy, among other things.
I hoped this type of content would inspire the birth of a true Asian American racial consciousness. But after a couple of months, I realized they were echo chambers. Sure, current events and recent developments generated fresh conversations, but the comments and reactions started to look too familiar. Becoming aware of the historic and continued oppression my people face inspired me to engage in activism beyond preaching to the choir. If I did nothing with this knowledge, then I would be complicit with injustice and therefore one with our oppressor. An opportunity presented itself when my mom told me about the Koreatown protests against the undemocratic executive decision to build a homeless shelter in the heart of Koreatown, which was made without consulting local residents.⁶
The Korean news media swarmed me, asking for my perspective as a Korean youth. I must have been one of the youngest folks there, and all the 할머니s (halmeonis) and 할아버지s (hal-abeojis) excitedly expressed how comforting it was to see a young Korean on their side of the protest. I began to understand what they meant as I ran into some mid-to-late Millennial counter-protesters handing out Herb Wesson-issued “myth/fact” sheets designed to curb protest efforts. This pattern of younger Asians dismissing the value of community input extended to social media, where I found some of my Asian American Studies peers peddling the same dishonest, one-sided takes. They accused all Koreans of NIMBY and vilified us as anti-black while regurgitating other anti-Asian liberal talking points (that we are “Crazy Rich” and more privileged than white people), and suggested that denying Asians a voice in how policy is implemented in their own communities is necessary collateral damage to solve homelessness.
Although I refuted their untenable positions (with the help of some random Korean dude I ran into at the protest named Albert), they had greater numbers and stronger optics. My decision to defend Koreatown from an exploitative city council was met with hostility from the same Asian American Studies students who are supposed to be the educated voices and leaders of my community.
“The [acceptable, AKA sellout] minority’s reaction to racist policy is acceptance and apparent satisfaction.” — Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, “Racist Love”
In the end, we won. Koreatown residents were able to choose a new location for the shelter a half-mile away from the originally proposed site. The opposition was never to aiding the homeless, but to the city council’s decision to build structures in Koreatown without asking the locals where these shelters would be placed — something that did not occur in wealthier, whiter cities, whose actual NIMBYism shifted their burden onto communities of color.
Despite my disgust with Asian American Studies majors churning out pseudo-intellectual word salads, I spent the next few months listening to lectures for an introductory Asian American Studies class. Unlike the Asian American Fiction seminar, which primarily consisted of non-majors, this class was a requirement for all students enrolled in Asian American Studies. It was a history course, covering everything from Asians emigrating from China to escape the Opium Wars to how we became the present day “model minority”. But though the material covered a wide variety of topics, the tone of the lectures did not correspond with the truly grim Asian American history I knew; the massacres, lynchings, and ethnic cleansing that terrorized the first wave of Asian Americans were all missing. I had to feign ignorance and interject mid-lecture with questions for the professor to briefly discuss the emasculation of Asian men, Chinese bachelor societies, and the genocide of Asian men through the pincer effect of the 1875 Page Act and anti-miscegenation laws. After class, I even approached the professor to point out what I believed to be notable absences from her lecture material, only to be lavished with unwanted praise about how “smart” I was while she completely ignored my questions.
I knew another Asian American Studies professor, whom I previously befriended at some networking event. This woman was the director of the Asian American Studies center and her name is well known across academic circles. I dropped by her office one day, where we struck up a conversation that eventually led to the topic of race. Shockingly, she concluded that we must even sympathize with white nationalists for the sake of racial progress. She tried to justify her idea by making some vague reference to Malcolm X becoming an internationalist late in his life, which still bewilders me because Malcolm X turned to the international stage to build a pan-African movement that would dismantle white supremacy, not to sing “Kumbaya” with racist white people.
Still wanting to explore real-world Asian activism, I secured a summer internship at the K.W. Lee Center, a Koreatown-based non-profit, before the end of the school year. Unlike my previous engagements with Asian activism, which were often frustrating, my time at the K.W. Lee Center was an overall positive experience. I learned what community organizing was like first-hand with fellow Korean-Americans and developed a good relationship with the president, who deeply cares for Koreatown. I even enjoyed interacting with the high school interns, whose (terrible) freestyle rap battles, oily teenage faces, and excessively noisy conversations over girls, music, and sports made me think of how obnoxious I must have been at their age.
But things were not always so rosy and nostalgic at the K.W. Lee Center. One of the trainers was a Korean American woman who constantly bragged about going on dates with white men, and the other was a Korean American man who constantly lectured me about my “light-skinned Asian male privilege”. Unsurprisingly, his college major was Asian American Studies.
While interning there, I spent a weekend at the Pilipino Workers Center in Downtown for Summer Activist Training (SAT), a 3-day program that serves as a boot camp for aspiring Asian American activists. A motley group of folks was present — men, women, queer, dark-skinned, light-skinned, rich, poor — but all were Asians in their 20s. I went in with high hopes based on a friend’s recommendation but I was sorely disappointed by the end. Our days were filled with workshops led by spokespeople from fairly prominent Asian non-profits. As I sat through these presentations, which consisted of trivial and irrelevant activist training activities such as learning storytelling to garner sympathy and playing games to develop “teamwork”, I quietly observed these self-proclaimed activists.
One woman, a representative from some Asian American labor advocacy organization, shared unsolicited details about her aspiring modeling career. Another woman passionately informed us about the poor working conditions of Thai women and how we must “do something”, not specifying what exactly that something would be, and then left after being picked up by her white husband. Someone from the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) tried to enlighten us with ideas of a new utopia in which Asian Americans, with their reprehensibly enormous wealth (pushing the Model Minority myth by citing highest average income while ignoring how many Asians live in abject poverty⁷) would partake in a massive redistribution of wealth to support Black and Brown communities.
I didn’t know any other Asian activists who led activist training on Saturday mornings to shamelessly promote themselves, who came home to their oppressor’s loving arms every day, or who recited fantasy tales and insisted they were true. What are these people…?
Activism is not some side gig. It’s not an opportunity to virtue-signal for your white friends, nor is it a platform to spread lies. I saw true activism with my own eyes at the Koreatown protest, where anyone could feel the collective energy of a people resisting oppression and fighting for change. Their dedication is so passionate because these issues endanger their homes, their families, and their livelihoods. Until demands to recognize these essential rights are met, activism is nothing but a lifestyle.
When I saw those “activists” leverage activism to promote their ulterior motives, I started to question my own. Why am I here?
I am not sure what the right answer is, or if there even should be a right answer. But as Socrates said, “there is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance”. To do nothing with the knowledge I gained would be a victory for ignorance, and thus evil.
But it is very difficult to accomplish anything in Asian activism, even when armed with the necessary knowledge. One fellow participant literally argued with me that Asian American men outmarry more than Asian American women, some bogus or at best very outdated statistic⁸ he apparently learned in his multi-ethnic studies class. Some other guy, a pre-law student, defended Justice Lewis F. Powell for his supposed “good intentions” towards Asians, despite the justice’s lone opinion on the Bakke case shifting the justification for Affirmative Action from remedying societal discrimination to the appearance of “diversity”, which has since harmed Asian applicants.⁹
During a dinner, the SAT program leaders designated four tables for caucuses. Each table would host a topic for conversation, these four topics being “Anti-blackness in the Asian community”, “Asian male privilege”, “East Asian privilege”, and “Mental Health Awareness”. I sat there kind of dumbfounded as the 25 or so aspiring Asian activists collectively began to criticize Asians for xyz reasons over dinner, which by the way was catering from some horrific “Asian fusion” abomination of bibimbap, an embarrassment to one of my favorite Korean dishes. After literally and figuratively taking a deep breath, I moved over to the table devoted to discussing “Asian male privilege”, an already festering conversation condemning Asian American men’s rampant “misogyny and patriarchy”, to throw in my two cents. Put simply, I loaded my knowledge cannons and fired away. In the end, only one person remained: a fellow Asian man named Anthony, who after initially showing signs of cognitive dissonance started to finally grapple with the truth of Asian male oppression. For everyone else, there was no such process. What should have been an opportunity to question the prevailing narrative became a race to run away from the truth. Anthony and I were ostracized to the “losers table” for the remainder of the program.
My internship at the K.W. Lee Center, which was more pleasant than SAT, inspired me to apply for a position at the Korean American Coalition (KAC). At the time, I assumed that Korean American activism was more praxis-oriented and thus superior to the disappointment that is the rest of Asian American activism. The Korean activists I met did not talk endlessly about checking our mythical privilege and apparently inherent anti-blackness; instead, they took to the streets and rallied with the people against the undemocratic building of a homeless shelter. Additionally, I was familiar with KAC’s role in protesting the shelter¹⁰ as well as their work to prevent more than half of Koreatown becoming subdivided into Little Bangladesh.¹¹ Surely this had to be one of the “good” Asian activist organizations!
The interview, which I had with the KAC executive director himself, was terrible beyond imagination. As most people are raised to believe, I thought job interviews were an opportunity for employers to determine if someone would be a good fit as an employee, not an occasion to bully and insult potential candidates. When our interview moved on from sharing formalities to discussing racial issues, the director flat out denied there ever was an ethnic cleansing of Asian Americans¹², calling me “extreme” for asserting well documented¹³ and widely accepted¹⁴ historical facts. In addition, my perfectly justifiable idea of punishing racists through social ostracization was shut down because empty words¹⁵ are more “strategic” (AKA least inflammatory to the status quo).
You can read more details as well as the angry letter I sent him in the following Twitter thread:
Last month, I applied and interviewed for a position at Korean American Coalition @KACLA1983. The executive director, @joonbang213, wronged me and my Asian American community on numerous occasions throughout the interview. Here are some highlights:
Looking back now, I am not sure if he was simply dim-witted and ignorant or deliberately malicious. In my opinion, these are two sides of the same coin.
My 6-month foray into Asian American activism is best encapsulated by my conversation with that guy at Summer Activist Training who tried to argue that Asian men statistically outmarry more than Asian women. He literally tried to refute empirical data from the Pew Research Center.¹⁶
How is this any different than reciting “two plus two equals five”? Am I living in some Orwellian dystopia?
46 years ago, “Racist Love” declared that “the best self-contempt to condition into the minority has its sources seemingly within the minority group itself. The vehicles of this illusion are education and the publishing establishment”. Both this article and reputable scholars have exposed the illusory “Facade of Leadership”¹⁷ which has already instilled self-hate into the minds of many young Asian Americans.
In order for true Asian American activism to flourish today, the only logical option is to abandon the simplistic frameworks that cultivate a false consciousness and instead rebuild our pool of knowledge. A new Asian American movement must pursue actionable solutions based on history, facts, and evidence-based politics.
When I was in my teens, one of my favorite films to watch was The Forbidden Kingdom, a Chinese-American film produced in 2008. Starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, and Li Bingbing, it was a film seemingly gift-wrapped for me. It featured two of my favorite actors—Jackie Chan and Jet Li, both of whom I idolized as a child for their proficiency in martial arts—and an almost entire cast of Asians, which was something I had never seen before. The key word, however, is “almost”. Though the faces of two renowned Chinese actors were plastered on the theatrical release posters, DVDs, and Blu-rays of the film, the protagonist was a white man. As one might have guessed, the director and writer were also white men. Continue reading →