The following is a reflection on a few of the issues raised in the recent Gavin McInnes satirical article “Tackling Asian Privilege,” published on the libertarian magazine website Takimag.
Upon opening the webpage for McInnes’ article, the viewer is confronted with the image of an Asian male with black sharpie scrawled across his face. The most prominent phrase written on his forehead declares, “WE’RE LUCKY WE’RE ASIAN.” McInnes claims Asians are more educated, more privileged and richer, among other things. The article rests on the assumption that unlike the narratives of other minorities, who are oppressed and living in a system that isn’t to their advantage, the Asian American narrative is the opposite. He is saying that, as Asian Americans, we don’t experience this minority struggle and are actually the ones doing the oppressing.
McInnes executes satire in the article by equating privileges usually attributed to whites to Asian Americans instead. He tries to demonstrate that white people aren’t the only ones who are “privileged.”
He lumps all people of Asian descent into the convenient stereotype of being conventionally successful and educated by the markers of American society without any regard to how many different nationalities and experiences are ubiquitously labeled as “Asian” by this country’s census.
Asian Americans overall have a poverty rate of 12.6 percent compared to the national average of 12.4 percent. This is compared to the national averages for blacks and non-white Hispanics living below the poverty line, which are 26.7 percent and 25.3 percent, respectively. By these numbers, Asians are disproportionately less poor than other people of color in this nation. For context, whites in America have a poverty rate of 9.9 percent.
However, these statistics and McInnes’ analysis do not show the strife of Asian Americans of Southeast Asian descent that came to America as war refugees in recent decades. The poverty rate among the Hmong is 37.8 percent, the highest in the country for any one ethnicity. The rates for Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese follow close behind at 29.3 percent, 18.5 percent, and 16.6 percent, respectively. Clearly not all Asians are wealthy. Furthermore, on top of this harsh economic reality, these demographics have also had their fair share of difficult experiences: war, civil unrest and immigrating to a culturally unwelcoming place where they don’t know the language.
Additionally, I take issue with the assumption that racial oppression is only measured through wealth and education. Many Asian Americans appear to be as successful as their white counterparts because East Asian cultures incidentally value education by virtue of Confucianism. This emphasis on education often translates to monetary success in American society, since higher education here provides access to well paying jobs in the medical field and beyond, as mentioned in McInnes’ article when he complains that “though they comprise less than 4.8% of the American population, they make up 8.3% of all doctors.”
Instead of understanding the cultural conditions that lead to economic and academic success for many Asian Americans, American society rewards Asian Americans with “good” stereotypes and expectations.
On a personal note, every math class I took in middle and high school was marred with the expectation that being good at math was an inherent skill. I actually struggled with this tremendously, and it’s a large factor in why I was never fond of mathematics.
When I did well, I wasn’t worthy of acknowledgement or reward because I was just displaying my “natural abilities as an Asian person.” When I performed poorly, I would get taunted twice as much as my white peers, because not only did I make a bad grade, I simultaneously was a disgrace to all other Asians for going against my own “nature.” What “good” is this stereotype that “Asians are smart and educated” when it never lets me win?
In fact, I still feel these pressures in a different way from my friends in college. I have friends who periodically invoke caricatures of Asian people to tease me about studying a social science instead of a hard science. “Dishonor upon your family,” they’ll exclaim when I bring up politics or talk about social issues, as if it makes me an inferior to care about something outside of math and science. In the eyes of many, it makes me a less authentic Asian person in some way, because they have a very stifling view — that is ultimately dehumanizing — of what it means to be Asian.
McInnes goes on to say that “when asking for a loan or writing a check, an Asian never has to be concerned with how he or she will be perceived. Asians can say swear words or wear secondhand clothes without anyone assuming it’s due to poverty or illiteracy.” This is completely untrue and is clearly written by someone obtuse in regard to racial experiences. When my mother goes to the bank and talks to the representative, do you think she isn’t worried about how her broken, accented English will come across to the banker? When my entire immigrant family of more than six people lived in one tiny house after they came to this country, do you think that they didn’t worry about the poverty they were living in? Do you think that my aunt and uncle didn’t feel self-conscious about wearing Goodwill clothing to school when they came to the U.S.?
And how is it that I don’t have to worry about how people perceive me when my entire life I’ve had to deal with bullying and various dehumanizing stereotypes about Asians? For example, my eyes have been the subject of both subtle and blatant ridicule for as long as I can remember. “Slanty eyes, chinky eyes, gook, flat features, snake-like eyes, open your eyes, Linda!” — the list of hurtful terms that I’ve accrued from others over my lifetime to describe my face is lengthy. These terms and phrases have been piling up from kindergarten to my freshman year of college. No matter how well-intentioned the speaker means them to be, they are nothing but dehumanizing. Coupled with the subversive functions of Western advertising, movies, television and the make-up industry that all constantly reinforce the worth of large dark eyes with long eyelashes and deep lids, how can I be anything but self-conscious of my “slants-for-eyes?”
This isn’t an attempt to garner the reader’s pity, but rather an example in showing just how inconsiderate and ignorant McInne’s article is. How can I read something as satire when it asserts that I don’t have to worry about other people’s perception of me, when so much of the pain I’ve had growing up has been because of how people perceive my Asian features and identity? And this is not even mentioning all of the racially targeted catcalling that I’ve experienced. The earliest occurred when I was 12 and walking home from the bus stop, and someone yelled from a car window, “sucky sucky five dolla.”
While Asian Americans are a privileged minority group on the spectrum in many ways, McInnes’ article deserves all of the fire that it receives for how shallow his interpretation of “Asian privilege” is. Any Asian person can tell you about all of the racial oppression they experience in this society. McInnes’ implication that Asians are as privileged as whites as a joke is very unfunny to anyone who actually is Asian and understands the nuances of the Asian American experience. You don’t get to silence an entire group of people and get away with it unscathed just because you’re writing “satire.” Writing satire about an entire race of people that disregards their actual input and opinion is at least a little bit reflective that you don’t value their worth, so what does that say about McInnes as a white male writer? How is he innocent of any racist criticisms waged against him?