- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Andrew Yang’s recommendations for combating anti-Asian racism have united the Asian American community.
The former presidential candidate penned an op-ed for The Washington Post on Wednesday about the rise in anti-Asian attacks amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, calling for Asian Americans to “show [our] American-ness” in response.
“We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis,” Yang wrote. “We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
Yang’s take was widely reviled online among Asian Americans, including celebrities. “At a time where Asian diaspora from around the world are experiencing massive racism and discrimination, Andrew Yang basically just told us to suck it up, eat a cheeseburger and buy an American flag,” tweeted Shang-Chi star Simu Liu.
“Don’t perform nationalism out of fear,” Steven Yeun wrote, while George Takei critiqued Yang’s glowing invocation of Japanese Americans volunteering for the U.S. military during World War II “to demonstrate that they were Americans.”
“Yang is way off the mark here,” the Star Trek star wrote. “During WWII, Japanese Americans often felt we had to prove our loyalty because of others’ racism. Japanese American soldiers fought bravely and died in huge numbers for our nation. We don’t have anything we need to prove.”
Comedian Jenny Yang (no relation to Andrew Yang) went a step further. The Last Man Standing writer has a background in politics, working as a labor activist before going into stand-up. She has a penchant for commentary via satirical video, such as responding to Fox News host Jesse Watters’ racist 2016 Chinatown video with a man-on-the-street segment of her own, in which she interviewed white people in Beverly Hills.
She’s done the same with Andrew Yang’s op-ed, taking his words to heart in a video shot on the streets of L.A. Clad in red, white and blue (plus a medical mask and latex gloves), Yang holds up a “Honk if you won’t hate-crime me” sign, gives out Clorox wipes and distributes her “American résumé” with a six-foot pole.
hey @andrewyang, consider this me showing my “AMERICAN-NESS” pic.twitter.com/ENfs9wnF3G
— Jenny Yang (@jennyyangtv) April 3, 2020
Underlying the parody is Jenny Yang’s critique that Andrew Yang’s recommendations actually undermine Asian Americans. She spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the serious message behind the humor.
What was your first gut response to the op-ed?
My stomach sank. He is arguably the most prominent Asian American face in American media and politics today, and he just came out with a Washington Post opinion piece saying, “We can’t expect saying ‘Don’t be racist’ to work. So instead my message is, ‘Asian Americans, try to be more American,’” whatever that means. And even that was very ill-defined, to the point of comedy. It’s funny that he would mention wearing red white and blue, or Natalie Chou wearing a UCLA basketball uniform. Are we just going to walk around wearing UCLA basketball gear every day to make sure we’re not a target of anti-Asian racism?
The most disappointing part is that he said the word “ashamed.” He referred to himself feeling the prying eyes of someone in a supermarket and feeling somewhat ashamed of being Asian in that moment, which is very honest and vulnerable, and that’s good. But instead of taking that problem of feeling ashamed in response to negative anti-Asian perception and going against that, he doubled down on it by saying, “Let me reinforce that logic of why I should be ashamed of being Asian, and let me reject being Asian so that I can try to accommodate the majority culture and make them feel more comfortable so they don’t hate crime me.” What he’s saying is, “Let us reinforce any sense of shame you have about being Asian or your identity by saying you need to lean into not being that, because being American is different. It means you’re actually helping each other, wearing red white and blue, trying to donate supplies.”
Individuals living in our community take a lifetime trying to undo any sense of shame about who they are as Asians, because they grew up feeling like they had to be less than, feeling like they had to accommodate other people’s needs in order to survive, and he just in one fell swoop tried to argue that that’s still the way to go.
It seemed like Yang was implying a dichotomy between being American and being Asian. He described Americanness in fairly reductive terms, and by doing that, what is the implication about what “Asianness” is supposed to be? He didn’t say, “Lean into your Asianness by helping other people.”
If I read this as a first draft and I was on his team, I would have said, “Andrew, you need to make sure that we don’t imply that being American is antithetical to being Asian and that Asian Americans are not currently doing their best to help others.” Because that’s what is being implied in the way that he constructed his opinion piece. I get it. I write. It’s hard to write short opinion pieces under a word limit. But if I was on his internal team, I would have said, “We need to change some of this language, get rid of some of these confusing examples about the basketball uniform and referencing Japanese Americans fighting in World War II without any context.” I expect him to be smarter. If I was putting eyes on his draft, which truly should not have gone out like that, I would say, “Aren’t you trying to say, ‘In this moment of crisis, Asian Americans, despite the fact that it might be hard or even harder because of anti-Asian sentiment, let us continue to lead and serve as Asian Americans.'” Could we not have said that? It still inspires a little of that West Wing feeling.
What’s the historical context about Asian Americans proving their American patriotism?
That has not worked! There is no amount of “American behavior” that a non-majority group can do in order to protect themselves from racism and hatred and being othered. It is literally the definition of living in this society as the minority. Our power and our status is always conditional according to the people who are in power.
Yang’s recommendations invoked the model minority stereotype that he leaned into during his campaign. Some people still think of that as a compliment. Why is it problematic?
He leaned into being a math guy, playing the stereotype as an un-threatening, smart accountant. The one that you don’t have to worry about but can still work side by side with. What he’s trying to do here is to double down on it. Any kind of shame I feel because non-Asian people feel threatened by me, I’m going to be responsible for it. I will do everything in my power to make you feel comfortable. What the model minority idea says is that you could be seen as the problem, but maybe there’s some action you can take to do “good” in the eyes of the majority culture so that you’ll be afforded more respect or access or opportunity. Which is very harmful because the idea of being a “model” minority implies that someone else therefore is not a good minority. It is inherent there might be another minority group that is therefore a “bad” minority.
And that is harmful because one, the designation of being a model minority is completely conditional and does not bear out in our lives consistently. And two, when someone is seeing your face and all they’re feeling is racist anger toward you as a representative of China because they think China is the one that caused the virus, what are you going to do? Are you going to pull out your SAT score? Are you going to go, “Look at my report card. I was a 4.5 student. Don’t beat me up with your bat”?
Other than the basic necessities of not trying to harm people in general, there’s really nothing much we should do other than exist as humans in order to deserve and be afforded any measure of common decency and dignity. The term that people like to use is respectability politics: the idea that if we just do certain things that would please the majority culture, it would keep us immune from the negative effects of racism. And that’s just wrong. It’s not wrong because my politics say it’s wrong, it’s wrong based on the fact that it doesn’t work.
So what would be your message about what’s happening to Asian Americans? What should be done, and who should be doing it?
Just because someone has an Asian face doesn’t mean they’re responsible for the global pandemic that has disrupted everyone’s lives. If I were to rewrite Andrew Yang’s messaging, it would say: “It is a scary time right now, and everyone has a lot of reasons to be scared. One of the things that we shouldn’t do is lash out against those of us who are associated culturally with the disease, because Asians overall are not responsible for the pandemic. And for all of us to truly be better Americans — including Asian Americans, who might be facing increased anti-Asian harassment right now — we should lead by exercising a deeper level of compassion and support for each other.” That’s it. That’s all you needed to say.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day