Indicting popular culture

In Orientalism (1979), Edward Said wrote:

Here I come to the third meaning of Orientalism, which is something more historically and materially defined than either of the other two…Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. I have found it useful here to employ Michel Foucault’s notion of a discourse, as described by him in The Archaeology of Knowledge and in Discipline and Punish, to identify Orientalism. My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and therefore always involved in) any occasion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question.

– Orientalism, p. 3.

In short, Orientalism is not simply about racism; it is the construction, perpetuation, and exportation of knowledge about the Orient by the West, that results in a power imbalance between the vocal West and the silent “Other”. This knowledge is a distortion, for it is created and maintained in a cultural context distinct from the very subject they are producing knowledge on. This blog has already discussed the works of Franz Fanon and the internalization of racism as a product of European colonialism and imperialism. The continuation the logic of imperialism and colonialism not only perpetuates a systemic unbalance, but makes it incredibly difficult to tackle due to issues of consent and  self-identification.

Although Said specifically focuses on the interaction between sociocultural contexts and politics, his points – coupled with Fanon’s – are particularly relevant today in the realm of Western popular culture. In Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (2003), Christina Klein examines how “middlebrow” popular culture (“educational” films, plays, and media) was a liberal construction that preached tolerance and inclusion. Seeing the America as the liberating force for East Asia, middlebrow intellectuals took it as their task to educate the American and Asian populace about global and inner integration. This task often corresponded with American foreign policy and the proliferation of philanthropic social movements such as transracial adoption. Much of the ideology that underpinned this movement was, of course, American capitalist liberal democracy and anti-communism.

Popular culture is a powerful tool. It is a tool that has insidious effects and the potential to be pernicious if remained unchecked, and historically this has proved to be correct (see film depictions of non-American “cultures” for example: Indiana Jones, the Green Inferno, or more recently, Silence), even if they ostensibly come from a place of goodwill. A plethora of examples can be seen in contemporary popular culture.

Take the recent hype around Disney Channel’s first Asian-American-Centered show “Andi Mack”, which features heavily both mixed-race and Asian American women. On the surface, it is a gesture of progress; it not only focuses on women but also Asian American minorities, and makes a point of tackling “taboo” subjects surrounding race, gender, and youth. However, there are two significant problems with this show. First, featuring it as a “majority Asian-American cast” seems to, once again, paint this diametrically opposed binary that is white versus Asian. Yet, this “Asian American cast” centres on a mixed-race family with a Eurasian lead. Once again, we can see the subtle “Othering” of anyone  even vaguely Asian and not “100%” white, despite the lead actress being, of course, half white. While it is true that this is a societal norm, as long as the status quo remains an adherence to some postcolonial variation of the “one-drop-rule”, discussions about the complexities of mixed-race identity will suffer. Secondly, the male characters in the show are virtually all white males. Not having a single Asian male lead in the cast raises all kinds of issues about Asian visibility, white masculinity, Asian femininity, and their effects on the desirability politics behind white men and Asian women relationships.

While it is understandable that not everything can change overnight and that society still has a long way to go, there is something extremely problematic about this show when we consider the notions of fetishization and exoticism. The byproduct of featuring mixed race (and half white, at that) individuals as “Asian American” coupled with an obvious disparity between white and Asian male leads perpetuates the gendered issues of Asian male emasculation, white male dominance, and the exoticization of mixed-race/Asian women, not to mention the anti-Asianness/desirable-whiteness that arise out of casually regarding a mixed race family and mixed-race Asians as just “Asian American.” Not only does this trivialise the dynamic of a mixed-race family, it causes some serious issues of mixed-race self-alienation. Without fleshing out the mixed-race condition, we risk perpetuating the pernicious tropes mentioned above. Subliminally, a show about attractive Asian/mixed-race women and white men, although seemingly trivial, in fact continues the already existing tropes of white dominance and Asian submissiveness. Moreover, it seems as though popular culture has already made the decision for how mixed-race Eurasians identify: as Asian American minorities. The silence of the minority and the vocal white majority (the producers are, of course, all white) drowns out the voices of what the show is really about – a mixed-race family.

It’s fine to make a show about a mixed-race family, and feature Asian Americans. Just don’t champion it as a super progressive gesture, because clearly it isn’t it many ways.

Interrogating desire

Are racial preferences in dating an exercise of individualism, or a byproduct of internalized racism created, maintained, and reinforced by global Westernised mass media and popular culture? Can we justify our human desires for certain types of people by appealing to freedom of choice, or should we strive to understand why we arrive at these “preferences”?

Hitherto discussion of heteronormativity has largely been confined to the realm of gender. Judith Butler’s seminal works Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (first published 1990) and Undoing Gender (2004) are articulate and thought-provoking exposés of the social construction of gender that are created and reinforced by society, acting as constraints on one’s personhood. Butler’s work has pried open pandora’s box, influencing a tidal wave of debates over gender, identity, and personhood.

Contemporary debates surrounding identity stunningly pays little to no attention to how the social construction of race, gender, and culture have immense ramifications in the realm of individual choice (which is inextricably linked to desirability politics). When we follow the logic to its conclusion, to speak of the social construction of gender we must also speak of the social construction of race, since these two categories of analysis are indubitably intersectional. Even though that in academic circles race has largely been accepted as a social construction, in mainstream popular culture and discourse this is clearly not the case. The constant backdrop of white (or other ethnocentric versions) supremacy and racial hierarchy can be seen, in all its subtlety, in Western (especially American) popular culture. Nancy Wang Yuen’s book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism offers a telling analysis of the reasons behind the Oscar’s extreme whiteness despite the proliferation of acting talent from people of colour. Interviewing over a hundred actors and actresses, she exposes the day-to-day racism actors of colour experience in talent agents’ offices, at auditions, and on sets. Yuen highlights the sexist hiring and programming practices and structural inequalities that actors of colour, especially women, face in Hollywood. Bloggers have also analysed the ways in which Asians are portrayed in popular culture (the blog I linked may be somewhat exaggerated in certain instances, but nevertheless make some vital observations that would otherwise go unnoticed to the average viewer.) Popular media and culture is arguably the most pernicious form of social conditioning in modern society. As Goran Therborn expresses in The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology, the influence of society and the social setting subtly guides our preference formation, from political views to moral values.

In my opinion, this lack of discussion is predicated on the taboo of “individual choice” that forms the foundation of Western society’s liberal epistemological framework. In reflecting and critiquing our own choices and desires, we inevitably reach the brick wall of interrogating just how “free” our individual choices are. The permanent dialectic of “freedom” versus “the good” renders it difficult for us, as creatures who undeniably desire freedom of expression and of individuality, to engage in self-criticism when it comes to choices of fulfilment (sexual partners, career choices, food, etc). This inequality as a result of hierarchical and prioritisation of individual choice and individuality over consequentialism (often deemed as inescapable products of the exercise of free will) – in many cases subconscious – can have unintentional yet dramatic ramifications, including the perpetuation of pernicious stereotypes, reinforcing white supremacy (such as Western standards of beauty; Euro-American modes of economic production; imposition of incompatible Eurocentric ideologies (ahem, IMF)) and, in our particular case, normalising a particular form of “objective” hierarchical desirability.

But choice has severe consequences. If we all agree upon the fact (as we should, in my opinion) that sometimes choice and absolute freedom must be second to some version of the good, then we must face up to these consequences and thoroughly interrogate our desires. Our standards of beauty surrounding body size, height, and race are all subject to the subjection and interpellation as described by Butler, Althusser, and Therborn. In many instances, people who desire particular “types” are unwittingly participating in subconscious discriminatory practices such as anti-Blackness, anti-Brownness, anti-Asianness, even by people of colour themselves. To offer a colloquial example, discussion over a person’s “tastes” in men and/or women and whether or not we agree with those tastes implicitly assumes that there is a “type” of man or woman that we can all “agree” to.

To tie all of the above together and relate it to the context of Eurasians, there exists a “darker” side to desirability politics that can have massive implications. This blog has already discussed Elliot Rodger and his psychotic killing spree. His particular case, as reflected in his chilling “manifesto”, is perhaps a symptom of problematic popular culture – he was extremely anti-Asian; believed himself to be a “beautiful Eurasian” (subscribing to the beauty myth); and he was extremely averse to being considered as “Asian” in any sense. This intense self-hatred is an extreme example of how complex identities within multiracial people coupled with an aspiration for the unattainable (in this case, whiteness) can have horrific consequences.

What is perhaps more worrying, is the recent phenomenon of white nationalists and supremacists marrying Asian women and having mixed race children, despite their racist and xenophobic views. Notorious founder of the Alt-Right movement Richard Spencer has publicly admitted that he has a thing for Asian girls. Controversial political writer John Derbyshire, author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and has publicly defended white supremacy, acknowledged telling his Eurasian children (he is married to a woman from China) about how to “handle” African-Americans, including information about IQ disparity, Black people being openly hostile, and advising them to refrain from helping Black people in distress. Alt-right conservative writer Mike Cernovich, who has openly supported the idea that “white genocide” exists, is married to an Indian woman. The very fact that PoC women even choose to be involved with men with views that are discriminatory to their very selves is problematic to say the least and mind-boggling to say the worst. If, like Andrew Anglin (founder of racist white nationalist website The Daily Stormer), frequently court women in places like Southeast Asia where many women strive to find white men to marry, this poses even larger problems. One thing is for certain: it is time to interrogate our desires, understand its potential relationship to global white supremacy, and begin a discourse on the morality of desire.

Multiracial families that are ironically and problematically founded on non-multicultural views by one or both parents definitely create potentially dysfunctional families. Given that biracial Asian American children are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, it is dangerous to avoid or dismiss these problems, particularly as mixed race is the largest growing population in the United States, with the next generation reaching adulthood within two decades. We must at least talk about these issues before problems reach a critical mass.