“Hey what does your middle initial stand for?” was a question I got occasionally while growing up. I would respond casually that it was my Chinese name. But as I grew older, I questioned why I had a white name and why my parents and the rest of my family legally changed their Chinese names to white names as well. Enter the characters of Better Luck Tomorrow, who also bear white names, and adopt white customs, like playing sports or cheerleading to fit in high school. However, I contend that this desire to integrate into American society stems from the historical racial triangulation created by hegemonic whiteness. And while the characters of BLT try their best to ignore their race, they are constantly reminded of their foreignness in American society.
Historically, elements in American politics have habitually leaned towards dichotomy, such as left vs. right, public vs. private, or pro-life vs. pro-abortion. Although they may limit our perception of issues, these dualisms allow us to focus on where political tensions lie and how social relations and hegemonic power shape them. Particularly with race, America has historically seen itself as white vs. non-white(black), but the shifting demographics in recent decades reflect a more diverse population. Thus the black and white paradigm no longer holds and must expand to include other races. As victims of the model minority myth, Claire Jean Kim contends that Asian Americans today are both valorized for their successes and excluded from politics as inassimilable, which puts them in an awkward middle between blacks and whites. Although Asians were clearly discriminated against historically with numerous immigration laws and restrictions, white people saw Chinese immigrants as “bearers of a venerable (if not decrepit) culture while denigrating Blacks as infantile, imitative, and cultureless” (Kim 110). Furthermore, their status as immigrants ironically made them more desirable for work, as employers believed the Chinese laborers would be more docile and willing to work than Black laborers. If anything, Chinese immigrants were used by Southern elites as pawns of civic disenfranchisement to reassert white dominance over black people in the face of Reconstruction. As Chinese Americans began to receive gestures of acceptance from white people, they accordingly began to dissociate from blacks. As Kim points out, Chinese Americans in the Mississippi Delta during Jim Crow actively tried to distinguish themselves from black people by giving their children American names and partaking in church to become white.
And so, the characters of BLT are fundamentally driven by racial triangulation in order to become “whiter” and receive the privileges associated with whiteness. For example, Daric joins the varsity tennis team and proudly struts his varsity jacket as a symbol of traditional American involvement in athletics, as opposed to the stereotype that Asians aren’t athletic. Lin even uses Steph’s character as a symbol of whitewashing, as she is adopted by a white family and participates in a white-dominated cheerleading squad. Kim notes that “If the Black struggle for advancement has historically rested upon appeals to racial equality, the Asian American struggle has at times rested upon appeals to be considered white (and to be granted the myriad privileges bundled with whiteness)” (112). Additionally, I believe Lin uses BLT to illustrate how Asian Americans can fit the roles of a traditional white high school movie, yet at times the characters seem “colorblind” and disregard their Asian cultural influences outside of always working hard. The movie largely ignores the vibrant Asian community and culture in Los Angeles and sticks with a gated suburbia and white high school theme.
Unfortunately, even when the characters try their best to fit in and become “white,” they face constant reminders of their foreignness as Asians. Even though Steph lives in a white household, her scene with Ben in her room filled with Asian decorations ironically illustrates how her family does not view her as American. In addition, Ben makes the basketball the team, a huge achievement for himself, but Daric points out that Ben was only recruited as a token minority for the team. Finally, as Steve remarks at the party “So this is where the Asians hang out?”, Daric sarcastically responds “The library was closed.” These examples serve to illustrate how the model minority myth works in tandem with racial triangulation to acknowledge Asian American successes, but denies them from the same level of citizenship as white people.
Ultimately, I liken this situation to a carrot on a stick dangling in front. Asian Americans’ desire to become part of the white hegemony reinforces the racial hierachy in America. At the same time, civic ostracism of Asians, as illustrated by the underepresentation of Asians in modern media and corporate leadership perpetuates white dominance over Asians.
Kim, C. J. “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” Politics & Society 27.1 (1999): 105-38. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.