Often times the fight for racial justice and equality is painted with the brushes of black and white. Due to this binary, the role of Asian Americans in racial issues is obscured. Often Asian Americans think of themselves as neither the instigators of racial inequality nor its primary victims. They tend to drift between majority white culture and minority culture in a passive way, afraid to get their hands dirty by indulging too deeply with either side of the aisle.
That’s why, when my friends and I went to go see the film “Get Out” last week, I assumed that I would be seeing a film portraying the typical white and black race narrative for what seems like the umpteenth time. After all, the film was directed by Jordan Peele, an African-American comedian. But then came a scene about halfway through the movie that caught my attention.
[SPOILERS] During a cocktail party, a sole Asian man stands among the crowd, conversing casually with the white crowd around him. I held my breath. What was an Asian man doing in this movie? Wasn’t this supposed to be a movie satirically criticizing white people for their racism? The scene went on. When one of the white men in the crowd spots Chris, the movie’s protagonist and a black man, he invites him to introduce himself to the group. Awkwardly, Chris introduces himself, but then the unnamed Asian man steps up and asks Chris, “Is the black experience an advantage or a disadvantage?”
In the moment I did not understand the question, but as the film went on the reason that the man asked the question became clearer and clearer. The entire point of the film is that it doesn’t criticize the typical, racist white Southerner. It criticizes white people that fetishize black culture and black physicality and pay no regard to the actual black American experience. This in itself, is a form of anti-blackness. The movie’s way of portraying this is quite satirically gruesome: through a special surgical operation, a white person can basically transfer their mind into the body of a black person, essentially taking over the body that they have so long fetishized.
So, when the Asian American man asks Chris “Is the black experience an advantage or a disadvantage?” he is essentially wondering if he should go through with the operation to transfer himself into Chris’ body, because he understands that Asians are held in higher regard than blacks socially by white majority culture, but at the expense of being considered a “forever foreigner”. In doing so he is also participating in this anti-black acknowledgment that blacks are inferior, but also in this fetishization that devalues the African-American experience. Later, in a bingo scene that is clearly representative of slave auctions, the Asian man is there once again, bidding for the body of Chris.
Jordan Peele explained that the movie was inspired by the mind of Jordan Peele. So what are Asian-Americans/Asians supposed to take from this? Although one man can never represent the perspective of an entire group of people, it is telling of the effect of the Asian-American/Asian passivity that persists today. While many Asian-Americans claim to side with their fellow minorities and people of color, Asian Americans, in their inaction, passively tend to side with white culture, because it is the safe thing to do. Side with the African-Americans, and they may receive the same inequity and suffer the same effects of systemic injustice that African-Americans face. Not only so, but many Asian-Americans and Asians have adopted the culture of African-American music, fashion, and speech without fully understanding the complex history of oppression and overcoming that developed the culture over hundreds of years. They simply fetishize it, just as the Asian man did in the film.
Before you say to your brother, “Let me remove the speck from your eye”, first remove the plank from your own eye. I think it is imperative as Asian Americans, even before we call ourselves victims to anything, that we critically examine our own culture to see if we ourselves are victimizing people of other backgrounds. Are we calling out white privilege while at the same time running under its umbrella and keeping ourselves dry from the rain? Are we glancing at the cover page of the African-American narrative while ripping out the rest of the pages of the book? I think it’s about time that we answer those questions honestly.