Asian American Men in a Colorblind World

Living in a supposedly colorblind world can be hard on Asian American men because we have to be the kid who has to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

In speaking about racism, we inevitably point to the media — not because that’s the only or even most important sphere in which we contend with it, but because it is a conveniently shareable reflection of pervasive social attitudes — albeit cleaned up for family audiences. On TV you rarely hear racial slurs like jap, chink, gook, slant, etc, which are sometimes overheard in real life, but you do see something of the role to which American society would like to relegate us.

Media racial stereotyping has become more subtle and perhaps more insidious. These days it’s hard to complain without coming across as being paranoid and nitpicky. What racism? We have a Black president!

Truth is, we still see very few Asian male faces outside of local TV news in major metro markets like Los Angeles. The Asian men who do get roles on TV drama series or the movies tend to be obviously non-threatening — short, uncharismatic, not very masculine. We seem to have been assigned the role of being the one race that is not allowed to be threatening with sex appeal, machisimo or even personality.

I say this without denigrating the very few good parts that have gone to Asian males. John Cho in FlashForward was a notable exception to Hollywood’s marked tendency to keep Asian men in marginal roles. Daniel Dae Kim in Lost was allowed flashes of masculinity, but playing a Korean-speaking foreigner limits the stereotype-countering impact.

This Hollywood tendency to keep Asian men literally or figuratively invisible reflects several impulses. One may be the desire to escape a world in which Asia is emerging as an economic rival and even as a possible alternative culture. Another is the desire to deny the disproportionate representation of Asian American men in real-life positions of authority as bosses, doctors, lawyer, professors, supervisors, competitors, clients, classmates, landlords and even glib, skillful sushi chefs or virile martial arts instructors. Especially for Americans living in California, it’s hard to avoid the Asian male presence in assertive roles. But where are the Asian male doctors on shows like ER or Scrubs? Or the Asian male lawyers in shows like LA Law or Boston Legal?

The fact that Hollywood still shows so much resistance to fair portrayals of Asian men may be the best indicator of America’s resistance to accepting us in the roles we actually do occupy in real life. That underlying racism translates in our daily lives to the subtle and gross racism we encounter, including racial slurs muttered just loudly enough for us to hear as we walk away and deliberately overlooking us when it comes time for a plum assignment or the next open chair at the barber shop.

I hope to see the day when America will be a truly colorblind society both on and off screen. Meanwhile it’s important not to let ourselves be made to feel that the racism we still encounter in our day lives are merely figments of a paranoid imagination.