Content Warning: mentions of racially motivated crimes against Asian people, sexual violence
Bright Sheng, a University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance professor, temporarily stepped down from teaching after he played the 1965 version of “Othello,” in which the actor Laurence Olivier wore Blackface, without an advance content warning. While students expressed rightful concerns regarding Sheng’s normalization of racism in what they had perceived to be a safe space, outlets and spokespeople rushed to Sheng’s defense. They (as well as Sheng himself) cited his survival of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, comparing the wave of campus “cancel culture” to a decade-long sociopolitical movement that resulted in the deaths, suicides and everlasting trauma that haunts generations. This was not the first time the Cultural Revolution has been exploited by mainstream American media as of recent years. In a viral video from June 2021, Xi Van Fleet, a Chinese woman “who survived Maoist purges,” stands before a Virginia school board and dubs the introduction of anti-racist pedagogies (in her words, “Critical Race Theory”) as “the American version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” After her brief speech, the predominantly white hall bursts into cheers and applause. Fleet was later interviewed on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” and the speech was propagated by conservative media and viewed by millions.
The Cultural Revolution was a failed movement launched to reassert Mao’s political control over the Chinese Communist Party, which is vastly incomparable to progressives’ attempts today to advocate for a more inclusive, accurate curriculum for American history. Nevertheless, these comparisons reveal, more importantly, the inadequacies of a U.S./Euro-centric history and its deeply ingrained anti-China biases. In these rhetorics, Chinese suffering is trivialized, tokenized and exploited to defend American exceptionalism. As Fleet opened up about her childhood in 1960s China, her voice relegated the spectacle of violence and death to a distant, timeless “orient.” As scholar Yang Yang Cheng wrote in her column, The Grieving and the Grievable, “The safety of distance maintains (the American audiences’) innocence. When they feel genuine sorrow or outrage for the (Chinese victims of political oppression), the emotional response absolves them of further obligations or the need for self-reflection.” Gasping and pointing at these horrific histories, white Americans bask in their own freedom and liberties while sitting on land stolen from Indigenous communities, cultivated by Black people.
The propagation of sinophobia isn’t exclusive to conservative spaces. Many Americans fail to understand that sinophobia is not limited to blatantly racist remarks or acts of violence against East/Southeast Asian Americans and Chinese people. More commonly, it manifests itself through a socially constructed ignorance about China and Chinese people, reproduced by all segments of society.
The Page Act of 1875 prohibited immigrants from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” from entering the United States for “immoral purposes.” This act targeted specifically Chinese women, who were widely profiled as “prostitutes” and considered “lewd and debauched.” Rhetorics that depict East and Southeast Asian women (or any woman who racially presents as “Chinese”) as provocative yet submissive persisted through the 20th Century. As the United States established military bases in South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan (namely Okinawa) and other Asian countries, women from poverty-stricken and war-ridden families were forced into sex work to serve the sexual needs of occupying American troops. U.S.-led military violence in Asia thus contributed to the fetishization and hypersexualization of East/Southeast Asian women within the United States, rendering their bodies subjects of white male gaze, sexual violence and mockery. The ways in which Asians in the United States are racialized are inseparable from American foreign policy, and during a time when politicians are advocating for increasingly aggressive policies towards China, East/Southeast Asian Americans are targeted as a result of rhetoric that instigates violence.
Mainstream “liberal” media is also responsible for perpetuating the racial paranoia surrounding East/Southeast Asian Americans and Chinese people in the United States. Reporting on China is often over-politicized to serve a sinophobic political agenda, rather than depicting Chinese society in a nuanced manner. The coverage of the recent Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics by Western media outlets exemplifies such prejudiced reporting. Eileen Gu is a Chinese American athlete who has been called an ungrateful traitor to her country for representing China in the Winter Olympics. Despite the at least 15 other American athletes who represented non-U.S. countries for the Winter Olympics, Gu was the only one who endured intense scrutiny for her decision. Tucker Carlson commented on Gu’s action, saying “young people do dumb things” and called for a “collective revulsion” of her choice to compete for China. The Economist published an article about Gu titled “Cold Warrior,” paired with a now-deleted graphic of chopsticks lifting the skier into the air.
In addition, Western media has also rushed to draw attention away from the game and hyperfocus on political issues, specifically regarding the mass detention and cultural genocide of Uyghurs. While some activists expressed rightful concerns, most critics attempted to frame this issue of political repression as uniquely Chinese. Uyghur suffering thus becomes a spectacle for Americans to decry oppression in non-Western countries as they dismiss the human rights violations committed by the United States and its allies. Furthermore, those who call for political intervention by the United States must interrogate the sense of American exceptionalism that belies their demand. “The leader of the free world” is not free from its own problems — rather, Americans ought to ask themselves what they can do for the marginalized people in their own community before redirecting their unwanted saviorism toward other parts of the globe. Supporting these media narratives contribute to anti-China biases (which extend beyond people of Chinese origin) that will ultimately harm East/Southeast Asian people in America.
A year ago in Atlanta, a white man purchased a gun and drove to three Asian-owned spas, where he killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Their names were Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Hyun Jung Grant. Three other victims’ families requested for their deceased loved ones’ names to remain private. During a press conference on the shootings, the sheriff’s captain attributed the shooter’s motive to him having “a really bad day.” Later, it was discovered that the captain also allegedly shared an image of t-shirts via Facebook with the slogan “Covid 19 imported virus from Chy-na” printed on them.
I write this one year later as the first anniversary of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings approaches. In the past year, anti-Asian hate crimes have increased by 339% nationwide (even though they are often underreported). In the past two months, Yao Pan Ma, who lost his job as a restaurant worker due to the pandemic, was attacked while pushing a grocery cart of bottles and cans and later passed away in a coma due to his injuries from April 2021; GuiYing Ma, remembered as “outgoing, friendly and kind,” passed away after spending three months in the hospital for getting struck in the head when sweeping a sidewalk; Michelle Alyssa Go just celebrated her 40th birthday the month before she was shoved onto the subway tracks in New York City, an attack which law enforcement officials are claiming to have no underlying racial motivation; Christina Yuna Lee, who “radiated positivity, joy, and love,” was followed to her apartment in Chinatown after her night out with friends and fatally stabbed over 40 times.
Ever since the sharp increase in racially motivated crimes against East/Southeast Asians, I have become more aware of asking my femme-presenting friends of Color to text me when they get home or FaceTime when walking late at night. And as a diasporic Chinese woman who currently resides in the United States, I have been ruminating on how my body is perceived in this country. To be a Chinese woman in the United States is to simultaneously embody a culture, a racial identity, a sexualized fantasy, a threat to be exterminated and a helpless victim to be saved. But when, can we be viewed as humans?
Correction: A previous version of this piece was published without final edits from the Editor-in-Chief.
MiC Columnist Lola Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.