Going Beyond “Representation” in Fighting Racism

By Dyske    May 30th, 2019

Professor Sara Sutler-Cohen kindly shared with me her students’ thoughts on All Look Same and on a short documentary by Jeff Adachi entitled “The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film & Television.” I was moved by the seriousness of their thoughts and was inspired to contribute mine on the topic.

The Slanted Screen contains many scenes from Hollywood movies where Asian men appear sexless, emotionless, ridiculous, and/or foreign. Interestingly, I vividly remember the majority of those scenes that most people would barely remember as they were simply thrown in as side jokes. For instance, the awkward Asian man who tried to seduce Marge in Fargo was a puzzle to many people and is often discussed (like here), but the point of contention isn’t about why the character is Asian but what function the scene serves. I thought I was the only person who felt humiliated, not puzzled, by that scene. I quickly tucked away that feeling and had never talked about it or thought about it since, until I just saw it again in Adachi’s film, realizing for the first time that there were other people who saw it the same way I did.

Professor Sutler-Cohen’s students generally agreed that the stereotyping of Asian men in the media is problematic. Everyone interviewed for the documentary also agreed that we need to fight the stereotypes, but, before we get into how, let’s think about why they are problematic.

Sessue Hayakawa featured in the documentary was a Japanese actor who “was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s” and “became one of the first male sex symbols of Hollywood,” as described on the Wikipedia page about him. That seems almost unthinkable today. How did that happen? It’s likely because there was no established image of Asian men in the media back then. He was free to be whatever. That is, no representation in the media is better than limited representation.

This is true even for your online identity. Think about how you are represented in Google search results. If your name is John Smith, this would not apply to you but if it’s relatively unique, what do you see on the result page when you Google it? What if you have never contributed anything on the Internet? If nothing turns up, you are safe but it’s likely that you would find texts that other people have written about you. Hopefully, they align with your own idea of who you are, otherwise, you have a problem. When other people Google your name, their impression of you would be predominantly shaped by the small number of contents they find, which effectively function as stereotypes of you.

If you are an active contributor of content on the Internet, you would likely see a variety of texts and images you have posted. Because it was you who posted them, they would likely align with how you want to be represented. And, if there are hundreds of pages about you, a few people saying something negative about you wouldn’t make much impact on how others think of you; they simply get buried.

In other words, no representation is safe, limited representation is dangerous, and broad representation is ideal. Sessue Hayakawa was in the first phase, Long Duk Dong was in the second phase, and Asian men have not reached the final phase yet.

It’s tempting to accuse Gedde Watanabe who played Long Duk Dong of promoting negative Asian stereotypes but at the end of the day, actors are supposed to play all sorts of characters. A white actor could play an equally ridiculous character and be praised for his performance. The problem with Long Duk Dong is that it came when there was very little representation of Asian men in the media. That is, the timing was the problem. Hopefully, in the future, Asian actors would be able to play any roles and not be criticized by their own community.

In The Slanted Screen, Frank Chin said, “Bruce Lee is a stereotype, unfortunately.” To be more precise, Bruce Lee became a stereotype because of the shortage of representation in the media. It doesn’t matter what the character was; it would have become a stereotype as the representation of that social group was limited. In this sense, for actors, any deviations from the established stereotypes are helpful in reaching the final phase of media representation.

But ultimately, to combat racism, we need to think beyond race and identify the underlying structure of prejudice in general. Otherwise, it’s a neverending fight. Because our attention is limited, it’s not possible for every social group to receive an equal amount of representation in the media. Asian men are relatively fortunate when compared to, say, albinos. Just because the group is small, does not mean that they only deserve a small percentage of our attention.

So, what do I mean by “structure”? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described the structure of prejudice in this way:

Consider the pronunciation of a word as its spelling presents it. How easy it is to persuade oneself that two words—e.g. ‘fore’ and ‘four’ sound different in everyday use—because one pronounces them differently when one has the difference in spelling directly in view. Comparable with this is the opinion that a violin player with a fine sense of pitch always strikes F somewhat higher than E sharp. Reflect on such cases. —That is how it can come about that the means of representation produces something imaginary. (Zettel, remark #446)

You may wonder, “What does this have to do with racism?” but if you compare these examples closely with racism, structurally speaking, you’d realize that the problem is the same. How we are represented in our society produces something “imaginary” about ourselves. That is precisely what racism is, something imaginary.

If we look at racism, sexism, ageism, etc., in isolation, without seeing the underlying structure common to all of them, we would unconsciously inflict the same injustice on other groups that fall outside of those categories. Ironically, we become prejudiced against the marginalized forms of prejudice that we may not have any words for yet. It’s not just Asian men who can’t get leading roles in Hollywood; what about short bald men? It’s not their fault that they were born with those traits. In Japanese films, there are many short bald men playing heroic lead roles. It’s not the shortness or the baldness that makes them fundamentally unsuited.

Although I was moved by Professor Sutler-Cohen’s students saying they were inspired to learn more about Asian cultures after taking the quizzes on AllLookSame.com, the problem in the end has nothing to do with Asia. It’s about realizing that the problem is structural. Some problems in life are a matter of degree while others are structural. An example for the former is some dish being too salty or spicy. Saltiness in and of itself is not a problem; it’s the degree that can cause problems. Prejudice, on the other hand, is a structural problem. As Wittgenstein’s examples illustrate, even something imperceptively subtle can become a problem. Racism is just a specific manifestation of this problem.

In today’s milieu of political correctness, it’s tempting to adopt an identity as a victim because it can make you feel more powerful. That may sound self-contradictory but power ultimately is about your ability to get attention. In the world where everyone and every social group is fighting for attention, the one who can command the most attention is the most powerful. From that perspective, identifying yourself as a victim can be a powerful experience, but this too is a trap like an actor playing a stereotypical role; you won’t be able to get out of it. You will create a conflict of interest in trying to fight against your own identity.

To fight racism or any kind of identity problems, you have to first disidentify yourself from that problem. In that process, you are not ignoring the problem but simply stepping back from it, so you would be able to see it more objectively and disinterestedly.

I like Slavoj Žižek’s explanation about the difference between “idiot” and “moron,” (although I don’t think he originated the idea). Idiots cannot “read the air,” like what other people in the room are thinking and feeling, what’s trendy, how they are expected to behave, etc.. Idiots are always committing faux pas. Why? Because idiots are oblivious to social and cultural conventions. Foreigners by default are idiots for that reason. In contrast, “morons” are experts of cultural norms. They are keenly aware and on top of them. They dedicate their whole life to what other people desire. They are like mindless automatons.

Fashionable people who are at the cutting edge of trends may appear like rebels and living outside of the social conventions but, ultimately, they too are morons; they simply know where to stand, different but not too different. They know where the sweet spot is on the spectrum of social conventions. Their preoccupation is still the cultural norms.

If you want to solve social problems, you are better off being an idiot. If you are a moron, you would be blind to the source of the problem. Don’t be afraid of saying embarrassing things. Make social mistakes often. That is the only way you can begin to identify the underlying structures of these problems. I originally created AllLookSame.com because I wanted people to air out their idiotic ignorance, not be ashamed of it. Learning something begins with accepting your ignorance. If you can achieve the latter, you are already a step ahead of the morons.

Racism is not a problem but a manifestation of a problem. By studying racism, we can learn to see the structure of prejudice. In fact, you can study any form of prejudice that is more personally meaningful to you. If you are a woman, you might choose sexism. If you are a foreigner, you might choose xenophobia. But, what I hope you would do at some point is to go beyond it and, more importantly, yourself. If each of us was preoccupied with what makes us inferior in the eyes of our society, we would all be competing for attention and nobody would be paying attention to anyone else. At some levels, we are all victims and victimizers. Through studying racism and sexism, we can go beyond race and sex.

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