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.