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QUESTION: Why do you think advertisers and retail companies think it’Äôs okay to put out demeaning racist images of Asian Americans, like Abercrombie & Fitch, to name one example? So much stuff that passes for humor would never be acceptable if it depicted other groups that way. And what is an appropriate response by Asian Americans? A lot of times, protest campaigns aren’Äôt taken seriously. They’Äôre seen as proof that Asian Americans have no sense of humor.
MONAMI: I’Äôve heard this complaint a lot, particularly from young Asian Americans who were really angered by the Abercrombie & Fitch marketing campaign. I’Äôve also heard this argument a lot, that the racist images that pass as acceptable against Asian Americans wouldn’Äôt pass if it was about African Americans or the Latino community. I don’Äôt know if I agree.
There are different ways that racism and images play out in the media. Historically and to the present day, the community most racialized and criminalized by the media has been the Black community (more recently it’Äôs been the Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities). That’Äôs a huge form of media racism that needs to be understood because it happens every day. But it’Äôs become normalized to see an evening news rundown of ten African American male faces identified as criminals. Or to watch the most recent list of FBI-wanted terrorists who all happen to be Muslim, Arabic or South Asian men. Those are also racist images that are being perpetuated on a daily basis.
For a lot of working-class Asians, what happened with Abercrombie & Fitch wasn’Äôt such a huge fight or issue. Most working-class people I know aren’Äôt shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch because they can’Äôt afford it. But more importantly, in our communities, many of our parents, many of our family members are working in the sweatshops and factories making clothing for Abercrombie & Fitch and all of these large corporations. For us, that is a real daily struggle. So what about the millions of Asian immigrants, undocumented and documented, working in sweatshops or in horrible, exploitive conditions with little or no wages and long hours? Why isn’Äôt that also seen as a real and serious example of racism that would enrage and anger people to the same level that they would launch a campaign to close down Abercrombie & Fitch or these other corporate sweatshops? Again, it’Äôs really important to connect racial justice with economic justice for Asians in the U.S..
RINKU: It is profoundly futile when these racist things happen to say, ’ÄúIf it was another group, this would not be acceptable.’Äù Everybody gets picked on at some time or other, usually in the interest of making a buck. So if we’Äôre looking at other groups, it’Äôs likely that they have experienced the same, if not far worse, cultural insults and stereotyping and being shut down. If we could build an argument against demeaning racist images that pointed to the real problems that our communities face without feeling the need to contrast ourselves with our perception of the benefits that some other community has gained, I think that would be a real step forward. Most often I think when we say that these things that pass for humor wouldn’Äôt be acceptable if used on other minority groups, that statement shows a lack of historical and even contemporary knowledge about those other groups. So better to just not show our ignorance in that way.
However cultural change is important. Images are important. I certainly agree with Monami that whenever possible it’Äôs good to link them with economic and also political problems that we’Äôre facing. But I think that Abercrombie & Fitch advertising that is demeaning to Asian men is a legitimate site for responding and doing something, for community action. The whole range of responses is appropriate - from protests, to satire, to letter writing, to asking for apologies, to boycotts. Very often protest is blown off by people or said to be ineffective mostly because that’Äôs a good way to minimize its effects. But protest is really important to keep in our arsenal of tactics and we should be good at pulling it off, in quick and effective ways.
It’Äôs really our foreignness that makes us vulnerable to these kinds of things happening. It’Äôs our position as members of the unknown in American society that makes it easy to stereotype and make jokes about us, because the vast majority of people who see that ad, see that movie, or hear that music, are not going to know any better. So again, it’Äôs always going to be a question of priorities and wherever we can link up different kinds of struggles, that’Äôs a good thing. But I think if this is what gets some people active in racial justice work, then that’Äôs okay too. And these are important kinds of events to pay attention to.
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