Discrimination Against Asian Americans
History and Origins
The term “discrimination,” in one sense, refers to prejudiced behaviors, policies, and practices that treat groups of people in unfair or biased ways. From immigration and labor laws to policies regarding citizenship, education, and interracial marriage, people of Asian descent have experienced diverse forms of discrimination in the United States for over 150 years. Since their arrival in the United States, people from Asian countries have been treated unjustly as forever foreigners, economic rivals, sociopolitical threats, and exotic creatures who are incapable of being true Americans. Sadly, many of these stereotypes still exist today, but their roots can be traced back to the 1800s.
The first large wave of Asian immigrants arrived in the United States from China in the mid-1800s. Initially searching for gold and new economic opportunities, the Chinese immigrants became an important part of California’s workforce, especially its mining, farming, and railroad industries. The next large wave of Asian immigrants came to the United States from Japan, followed by people from Korea, India, and the Philippines. Each group of Asian immigrants played an important role in U.S. cultural and economic development. Unfortunately, anti-Asian sentiment and discriminatory policies prevented many immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens and realizing the American Dream.
The U.S. government established a series of discriminatory immigration policies that restricted or banned many Asians from entering the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 essentially prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for 61 years. The 1917 Immigration Act banned immigrant laborers from South Asian counties such as India, Burma, and Thailand. Several years later, the Immigration Act of 1924 stopped all immigration from Asia with the exception of Filipinos, who were part of a U.S. colony at the time. However, the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 reclassified the status of Filipinos and limited their ability to immigrate to the United States. Collectively, these anti-Asian immigration policies prevented many Page 255 | Top of Articlepeople from settling in the United States and perpetuated the forever foreigner stereotype.
Asian immigrants who were able to successfully enter the United States faced many forms of discrimination in their professional and personal lives. Asian workers were frequently paid less than their white counterparts. For example, California’s state government imposed special taxes and fees on Asian laborers, such as the foreign miner’s license tax. During rough economic periods, many Asian workers were forced to leave their jobs and pursue careers in less desirable occupational areas such as laundries and restaurants. In the 1854 case People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court ruled that testimony from Chinese people would not count in a court of law; the decision was based on the faulty grounds that people of Chinese descent were part of an “inferior” race. In 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education advised its district to require all children of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean descent to attend an “Oriental School.” Fortunately, the Board of Education reversed its school segregation recommendation after receiving pressure from President Theodore Roosevelt and political leaders in Washington, D.C.
Moreover, discriminatory policies prevented Asian immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. The Nationality Act of 1790 only allowed free white people to apply for naturalization. Two cases (Ozawa v. United States and Thind v. United States) challenged the country’s anti-Asian naturalization policies; unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them. Therefore, Asian immigrants were not allowed to become naturalized American citizens until the 20th century. The strict anti-Asian naturalization rules further reinforced the forever foreigner stereotype. In addition to casting Asians as unassimilable outsiders, the discriminative naturalization policy prevented Asian immigrants from owning land in the United States and participating in fundamental democratic processes such as voting. Asian immigrant farmers could not own orchards or fields, and first-generation Asians were not considered a viable voting block among local and federal politicians.
Finally, Asians were the target of antimiscegenation laws, which aimed to ban and stigmatize interracial romantic relationships. Across the nation, state legislators established laws that prevented or punished marriages between white and Asian partners. For example, Mississippi once prohibited marriages between white and “Mongolian” partners. In 1922, the U.S. Cable Act stated that any female citizen who married “an alien ineligible to citizenship shall cease to be a citizen of the United States” ( Takaki 1998 , 14). Given the country’s specific naturalization laws, Asian immigrants were ineligible to become U.S. citizens; therefore, any American woman who wished to marry a first-generation Asian man would have to forfeit her citizenship status. Although the Cable Act was reversed in 1931, the initial policy revealed underlying prejudice about interracial relationships.
Clearly there is a history of discriminatory policies, practices, and behaviors that targeted people of Asian descent in the United States. Collectively, these policies affected Asian people’s ability to immigrate to the United States, apply for citizenship, earn equal pay, vote, own land, and freely select their marital partners. Although many policies, laws, and practices have changed since the 1850s, acts of discrimination still remain.
Since the civil rights and Asian American movements, social norms regarding the expression of anti-Asian prejudice have evolved. While racial supremacists and other extremists continue to target Asian Americans in blatant, public, and direct manners, many everyday acts of discrimination have become more subtle, covert, and insidious. For example, some people explain that they like Asian Americans but prefer to spend time with or date people from other racial groups Page 257 | Top of Articleinstead. Some people tell racist jokes about Asian Americans. Regardless of their intent to make others laugh, some jokes can be downright offensive. Other messages of discrimination are articulated in the form of microaggressions, which are subtle insults and insensitive messages (e.g., “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”; “You speak English very well!”; “What are you?”).
In erroneous attempts to avoid seeming racist, some people bracket their offensive comments with disclaimers and excuses. In 2013, someone on Twitter started with “I’m not racist, but . . .” and went on to say that he didn’t like “Indian or Pakistan people” due to their “weird smells.” While advocating to keep a Japanese racial epithet in the official name of a country road in Texas, a local resident asked, “How can I be considered a bigot and a racist when I got a Puerto Rican son-in-law?” ( Romero 2004 , 2). Despite the use of disclaimers and explanations, statements such as these can still be perceived as hateful, insensitive, and offensive messages of discrimination.
Interestingly, another form of discrimination stems from the notion of color blindness. In an attempt to sidestep the issue of race, some people try to ignore others’ Asian American identities. For example, a person might say, “When I look at you, I do not see an Asian American person. I just see you.” Although this statement might seem supportive and idealistic depending on the context, it can be perceived as an offensive statement because it dismisses and invalidates that person’s Asian American identity.
Discrimination against Asian Americans is pervasive in mainstream films, television shows, theatrical productions, and radio broadcastings. Historically, Asian American actors and actresses have been absent from the scripts and filming of major media productions. A recent example is the 2015 movie Aloha, directed and written by Cameron Crowe and starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, and Alec Baldwin. Set in Hawai‘i, it was roundly criticized for its lack of Asian American actors and actresses, especially for casting Emma Stone, a young actress with no discernible Asian heritage, as a character named Allison Ng. Crowe apologized after the criticism appeared widely online and in the news media and maintained that the character had been envisioned as a woman who was one-fourth Chinese and frustrated by not appearing Asian. Aside from a few movies and television shows that prominently feature Asian Americans (e.g., Joy Luck Club, Enter the Dragon, All American Girl, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Hawaii Five-0, Fresh Off the Boat, and Star Trek), most mainstream movies and television shows fail to portray Asian Americans in leading multidimensional roles. In fact, when Asian Americans parts are included, they often feature stereotypical roles such as martial arts masters (e.g., Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, Jackie Chan as Lee in Rush Hour, and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill), villains (e.g., Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow in Page 258 | Top of ArticleThe Hangover, Dev Patel as Prince Zuko and Anna May Wong as Princess Ling Moy in Daughter of the Dragon), exotic seductresses (e.g., Ziyi Zhang as Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha), asexual men (e.g., William Hung and Sanjaya Malakar in American Idol and Matthew Moy as Han Lee in Two Broke Girls), doctors (e.g., Sandra Oh as Kristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy and Ming-Na as Jing-Mei in ER), nerds (e.g., Masi Oka as Hiro Nakamura in Heroes and Kunal Nayyar as Dr. Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory), and untrustworthy characters (e.g., Grace Park as Boomer in Battlestar Galactica, Chin Han as Lau in The Dark Knight, and Naveen Andrews as Sayid in Lost). Asian Americans are rarely depicted as complex protagonists. By depicting Asian Americans in overly simplistic, predictable, and marginal ways, many mainstream movies and shows reinforce Asian American stereotypes and anti-Asian prejudice.
In their book on Asian American media representations, Ono and Pham describe a different type of discrimination in media contexts: yellowface (2009, 45–62). Analogous to the offensive practice of blackface, yellowface occurs when a person who is not of Asian descent plays an Asian or Asian American character. Usually, yellowface manifests in caricature representations of Asian identities. Stage makeup is applied to distort the shapes of performers’ eyes, and stereotypical Asian accents are used. Several notable actors and actresses have performed in yellowface, such as Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in Dragon Seed, Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in Ironman 3 (2013), Jonathan Pryce as the engineer in the original musical production of Miss Saigon, and Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu in Grindhouse (2007). Ono and Pham argue that yellowface is a problematic form of discrimination because it perpetuates false representations of Asian Americans, asserts white dominance over Asian identities, and further marginalizes the careers and limited job opportunities of Asian American actors and actresses.
Whitewashing is another type of discrimination that has targeted Asian Americans in mainstream media productions. Whitewashing occurs when casting directors, producers, and writers revise a movie or television show’s original script to feature white actors and actresses instead of racial or ethnic minorities. In 2009, Michael Le from Racebending.com and a group of people publicly protested the whitewashing of the leading protagonists in the film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010). The original story was based on the adventures of four Asian and Inuit characters. As the story transformed into a screenplay, Le and fans expressed concerns over the casting of white actors in the movie’s leading roles: Noah Ringer as Aang, Nicola Peltz as Katara, and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka. The lead villain was played by Asian American actor Dev Patel.
In recent years, the rapid growth and adoption of new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have revolutionized the ways that people connect, communicate, and express messages of discrimination. Unlike traditional forms of face-to-face communication, people can use new media to share messages instantaneously with millions of people over vast geographical distances. Instead of venting to a close friend or relative, people are ranting to thousands of strangers on YouTube and Twitter. Also, people can hide behind pseudoanonymous identities by creating fake profiles, posting comments with generic usernames, and hacking into the accounts of other people. Taken together, the instantaneous, virtually irreversible, highly popular, and pseudoanonymous characteristics of many new media have opened the door for a new era of anti–Asian American discrimination.
In 2011 Alexandra Wallace, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, majoring in political science, posted a video rant where she shamed Asians for talking in the library, expressed frustration about the “hordes of Asian people” at her university, and grossly imitated Asian students’ dialects by saying “Ohhh! Ching chong ling long ting tong!” ( Fisher 2011 , 1). The video went viral and was viewed by thousands of people around the world. Members of UCLA’s community and beyond protested the student’s insensitive comments and demanded justice. Protected by the First Amendment, Wallace responded by offering an apology and withdrawing from the university.
In 2013 a white former college student from Indiana posted a video on Facebook titled “Why I Hate Asians (Totally Not Racist).” In less than five minutes, the amateur rapper offered a list of reasons why he did not like Asians, such as “most Asians look alike,” “I don’t find Asian women attractive,” and Asians who smoke marijuana would get “double chink eye” ( Stuart 2013 , 1). When confronted about the video, he initially claimed that it was supposed to be a joke; however, he eventually issued an apology over Twitter.
As the 2014 Miss America winner, Nina Davuluri made history by being the first woman of Asian Indian descent to earn the crown. Davuluri was born in New York, and her platform focused on celebrating diversity and enhancing people’s cultural competency. A storm of anti–Asian American messages flooded people’s social media feeds after the pageant. Many comments stemmed from the forever foreigner stereotype. For example, one person tweeted “Do you not have to be American to win MISS AMERICA anymore?! #whatisthis.” Other Twitter users called Davuluri a terrorist and “Miss al Qaeda” ( John 2013 , 1). Clearly, messages of hate flourish on new media sites, where people can quickly make any unedited and not well-considered comments.
Individuals and organizations have developed innovative ways to use new media to take a stand against anti–Asian American discrimination. Some Page 260 | Top of Articleadvocacy organizations such as APIA Vote, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Organization of Chinese Americans, and the National Association of Asian American Professionals use social media to educate others about social issues, send action alerts, promote rallies, and publicize events focusing on preventing and stopping racism.
Grassroots groups, such as the Real Oxford Asians and Not Your Asian Sidekick, have used new media to speak out against discrimination. In 2013 Sam Kornau, a Miami University of Ohio student majoring in strategic communications, was discovered as the infamous creator of an offensive Twitter account titled @OxfordAsians. With a following of 1,000 Twitter users, Kornau had posted anti-Asian tweets on his account for six months. Miami University students responded to Kornau’s tweets by creating a website titled The Real @OxfordAsians. The website features Miami University students from diverse backgrounds holding signs that correct, refute, and reimagine Kornau’s offensive statements. For example, one student holds a sign that reads “If I get an ‘A,’ it’s not because I’m Asian. It is because I work hard.” Another student displays a sign that reads “It’s NOT okay to insult my friends” (The Real @OxfordAsians 2013, 1). Since its launch, the website has been shared hundreds of times through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. Similarly, Suey Park generated a large amount of buzz on Twitter by encouraging Asian American Women to tweet #NotYourAsianSidekick and use social media to challenge patriarchy and racism in their everyday lives.
For over 150 years, people of Asian descent have faced discrimination in the United States. From institutional policies regarding immigration, labor, and intermarriage to offensive media representations and hateful messages on social media sites, discrimination against Asian Americans has taken many forms. Although messages of hate and ignorance continue to develop, it is important to recognize how people can use communication to prevent and take a stand against discrimination.
Lisa K. Hanasono
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