We’re not done talking about Dr. Đào: A response to the United Airlines incident

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 6:42pm

This piece is by no means an all encompassing perspective on the “APIAs” experience*

On Sunday April 9, a few videos surfaced on the internet that shocked the country and the world. What they revealed was horrifying, tragic and wrong. The incident though, was nothing new.

Dr. David Đào, a Vietnamese-American doctor, was violently removed from his seat by airport security officers to make room for a United Airlines employee. Since the incident, United has released two statements along with public comments by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, hundreds of articles were written worldwide reporting on and interpreting the incident, and Dr. Đào’s lawyers and family held press conferences. In the aftermath, the media and the public seemed to agree on a few things: This incident should not have happened to anyone, it was horrific and United is pretty terrible at public relations and crisis management. What people also seem to agree on is that this incident was not racially motivated; legally, United did not violate any anti-discrimination laws. And most are happy to leave it at that.

But we’re not done talking about Dr. Đào, and the role that race played in this incident.

To emphasize this in no unclear terms: Race and identity were a key factor in how Dr. Đào was treated, and how the media continues to treat him.

Look at the way Dr. Đào is treated by the security officers in the video. When he refuses to leave, he is grabbed, ripped out of his seat, his head gets knocked on the armrest across the aisle and he goes unconscious as security drags his body down the aisle. Think about this: Who else have we seen treated this way by police?

The people you think of are probably not white.

Let us make this clear: What happened to Dr. Đào cannot, in any way, be equated to the systematic and institutionalized violence against Black people in America. However, the model minority myth would tell us that kind of brutality does not happen to Asians at all; especially not ones who have achieved the so-called “American Dream.” Despite the fact that this incident should not have happened to anyone, the model minority myth would suggest that, because Dr. David Đào is a doctor, he deserves this even less than someone else. He’s a “good Asian.” And bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people, right?

But wait, the media has more. Taking no time at all, news outlets have begun speaking and writing about Dr. Đào’s alleged criminal history. According to the New York Post, Dr. Đào sold narcotics for sex fourteen years ago. He was caught and had his medical license revoked.

Question: How is this relevant to his violent removal from a United flight?

Answer: It’s not. 

The purpose is to taint Dr. Đào’s status as an “innocent” or “good” person, to somehow justify his treatment. This tactic is nothing new — in fact, it is systematically used against Black and brown bodies daily to deny structural racism, not to mention used against identities that compound those experiences, such as Muslim or LGBTQ. If people can believe that action taken by security officers against Dr. Đào was in response to characteristics that Dr. Đào himself was exhibiting, then racial bias, language bias and foreigner bias were not part of the incident. It becomes an independent event, occurring in a vacuum.

But it didn’t occur in a vacuum.

And here’s another thing: Initially, many media outlets originally referred to Dr. Đào as a Chinese-American man, despite the fact that he is Vietnamese. However, his misrepresentation, just another incidence of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans being flattened under the same stereotypes, has led to a trend that has taken away the significance of the event itself. Many of those outraged by the incident have begun petitioning for a formal investigation of United Airlines under the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatter. Though the sentiments of the movement are not malicious, they are not innocent either.

Words matter. The wording of #ChineseLivesMatter obscures what happened to David Đào and other communities that face violence.

How?

Dr. Đào is a Vietnamese-American man. So if #ChineseLivesMatter was prompted by this incident, just crying for Chinese lives shouldn’t be the tagline of the movement, right? And yet, it is. But “Chinese” cannot cover the entire “APIA” experience, just as #ChineseLivesMatter does not address Dr. Đào’s life.

Beyond that, even if it were #VietnameseLivesMatter, imitating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag detracts from the fight to recognize Black lives in the face of mass incarceration and police violence. "APIA" lives are not systematically brutalized by American institutions in the same way that Black lives are. Using the wording of #BlackLivesMatter to highlight Chinese issues without acknowledging the movement’s origins makes the sentiment of #ChineseLivesMatter all too contrived. Words matter. And in this case, it impedes how people learn about Black issues, and how they understand the movement. It dilutes the significance of #BlackLivesMatter by redirecting its meaning to serve Chinese issues.

And the #BlackLivesMatter movement should be important to "APIAs.” How can "APIAs” stand by, watching another community face violence and abuse every day and say nothing? How can we remain silent bystanders until someone of our own community receives the same treatment? All too many "APIAs" do not speak out against the treatment of Black people in America. Many parrot the argument that it’s not a systematic oppression, that these events occurred in a vacuum; it was some other factor that led to Travyon Martin’s death, to Eric Garner’s death, to Tamir Rice’s death. Yet because Dr. Đào proved that "APIAs” are not exempt from the brutality against racial minorities in America, many "APIAs” are suddenly enraged about it.

So where do “APIAs” go from here?

"APIAs" are labeled too often as being silent and submissive on issues, only perpetuated by the model minority myth that dominates the "APIAs" story. Yet, as evident in the United incident, model minority status only benefits "APIAs" as long as we adhere to its stereotypes of not sticking out, of not “causing trouble,” of putting our heads down and being silent. It gives us a false sense of protection from the same treatment that other communities of color face every day.

As "APIAs," we cannot be silent on issues that affect people of color. We must speak out on violence against other communities, and not just when they directly affect our community. Some say this incident gave us the authority and the license to speak out against discrimination. We must sustain the practice of standing with other communities and work against the model minority myth that functions to divide us. We must be part of the collective, long-term effort of effecting real change.

What happened to Dr. Đào is absolutely tragic, and no human should ever be subjected to this kind of dehumanizing treatment. What United did is horrible and reprehensible; no one should ever be ripped out of their seat, knocked unconscious, bloodied and dragged off a plane. If "APIAs” agree with this, then we must also acknowledge that what happened to Dr. Đào is not new. This kind of violence happens to other communities of color on a daily basis.

"APIAs” at the University of Michigan have a shared history with other communities of color in the University’s history, such as in 1973 when East Wind joined a strike with the Third World Coalition during the second Black Action Movement. It’s time we continue that legacy.

To "APIAs": get engaged, address anti-Blackness in our community and be outspoken toward injustices everywhere. Our struggles — and freedoms — as people of color will always be connected and we must never forget that.

So fight on.

*We chose to use the acronym, “APIAs” in quotations because we believe that APIAs unity does not exist yet and that the current discourse of this acronym does not represent the breadth of experiences this acronym ambitiously embodies. By putting in quotations, we acknowledge that there isn’t a common understanding of “APIAs.” APIA stands for Asian Pacific Islander American that is a synonymous nomenclature to AAPI which is used on the US Census form.