So by now you’ve probably heard about this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and the offense that Asian Americans took at a couple of the jokes directed at Asians and the overall lack of Asian American representation during a ceremony where diversity took center stage, but most of the dialogue still centered around a “black-white” paradigm, effectively shutting out non-Black people of color.
Many have written about this issue already, including my fellow Offender Dominic, and there’s nothing I can add that those eloquent voices already haven’t. But like clockwork, this was soon followed by a backlash against the Asian outrage and that is a topic I would like to say something about.
Now, I’m not talking about the backlash from folks who didn’t think the jokes were offensive or bitched that Asians were being too sensitive, etc…–again, like clockwork, I expect those opinions in times like this and I largely ignore them. No, I’m talking about some in the African American community who took umbrage at Asian Americans and other non-Black POCs for expecting Blacks, in this case Chris Rock aka a Black comedian, to speak for their issues at the Oscars when non-Black POCs rarely support Black causes and/or acknowledge the hard work that Black activists have put in so that all POCs can benefit. #NotYourMule indeed.
Fair enough. This is a completely valid point especially in light of recent events like the blind, misguided support of ex-NYPD cop Peter Liang by some Asian Americans. But in the context of the Oscars, this point is largely bullshit.
Before I continue further, I do want to highly recommend that everyone read CJ Louis’ piece “Not Your Mule and Oscars So White Collide” as it’s a more nuanced argument about the topic of why African Americans “have been paving this road for over 200 years, (so) don’t expect a piggy back ride on it, too” than my simple description of the issue above conveys. Louis uses Filipino American journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas’ tweets as an example of how even someone who has “done a great deal of work on behalf of marginalized communities…does not exempt him from real mistakes such as this one.” And the mistake he’s referring to is present in this tweet that Vargas sent out during the Oscars:
As Louis explains: “One of the main problems with this sort of thinking is that it is incredibly myopic. Black activists have regularly made it a point to intertwine our struggle for liberation with other PoC and even Whites, but the same courtesy is rarely extended to the black community.”
Again, a completely valid point that I wholeheartedly agree with in general. The Asian American community has a history of not only not supporting the struggles of our African American brethren, but, as in the case of Peter Liang, actively being at odds with that struggle. I would also add that it’s not only Blacks our community has failed to show solidarity with at times, but Latinos, LGBT and other marginalized communities. And that is also bullshit.
But this issue doesn’t apply to the Oscars.
Firstly, if we’re just to examine Vargas’ tweets from that night, nowhere does he ever make the case that Asian Americans or other non-Black POCs are owed anything by African Americans. As Vargas himself had to clarify: “Though my question was posed in the spirit of ‘This is our struggle, too,’ it was heard by many in the competitive vein of ‘what about me?’/’what about us?’, exacerbated by the very real feeling among many Black people that Latinos, Asians and other people of color don’t care about them.”
But even putting this issue aside, it wasn’t just the invisibility of Asian Americans that was problematic, but the fact that when we were referenced during the ceremony, it was in the context of jokes that played to the stereotypes of Asians as the model minority, cheap child labor and men with small penises. I didn’t find those jokes particularly funny, though I probably wouldn’t have minded them so much in a different context. But this is the Academy Awards and therein lies my problem with all of this—both the original backlash to how Asians were or weren’t represented and the backlash to that backlash.
The Academy Awards are supposed to be about excellence in motion pictures. It’s supposed to be inclusive of all, not just white, not just black. It’s supposed to represent the best of Hollywood to the world and, might I add, a world where the biggest consumer of movies will soon be an Asian country. It’s supposed to honor the struggles of people like Chinese American cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was nominated for ten Oscars and won twice, but still had to overcome obstacles like the newspaper photographer who told him to shut the fuck up when he tried to offer advice on how to frame a shot because he was just a “Chinaman.” Or movie star Anna May Wong who was denied even the chance to audition for the Chinese female lead in The Good Earth and watched as Caucasian actress Luise Rainer was cast instead and won an Oscar for her performance.
Or as Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said this past January: “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was about recruiting younger members to stay vital and relevant. In 2016, the mandate is inclusion in all of its facets: gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We recognize the very real concerns of our community, and I so appreciate all of you who have reached out to me in our effort to move forward together.”
Nowhere in that statement does it say that the “mandate” to be inclusive only encompasses Black. In fact, Isaacs goes out of her way to define that inclusion more broadly to include all genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations. And that’s where the Academy failed on Oscar night. In this case, our community’s very valid concerns isn’t related to hitching ourselves to the back of other communities’ blood, sweat and tears or trying to be anyone’s mules. This is about holding the Academy up to its own self-proclaimed standards and ideals when it falls short of them like it did Sunday night.