I was being introduced to someone once, several years ago, when the person introducing me made an offhand comment along the lines of, “Oh! And she’s Chinese!” (‘isn’t that COOL?!?’). Which is fine, I guess, except that I’m not Chinese.
When I pointed out that I was actually Japanese, they replied with (and this is the part that I remember very clearly), “Same thing.”
Even all those years ago, as a kid, I was livid. It made no sense to me why someone would think that Japanese people and Chinese people were ‘the same.’’ Making the mistake itself wasn’t completely unreasonable, but thinking it wasn’t a mistake at all? And the way they responded, as if I were being unnecessarily nitpicky… it all made me furious.
A user-generated meme about interracial confusion. Not Sure If satirical or genuine.
But when a word like ‘Asian-American’ describes 17.3 million people, should I really be surprised when people think we’re ‘the same thing?’ And when so many of us face similar racial stereotypes and prejudices (thinking all Asians are good at math, believing that we’re all obedient and demure, inappropriate comments about our anatomy…) does it really matter all that much?
Frances Negrón-Mutaner wrote that monolithic labels like ‘Latina’ or ‘Asian’ can, in a way, increase the agency of individual communities. But monolithic labels force us to balance on one hand the diversity of all the communities involved and on the other the shared needs and experiences of the whole. It minimizes the complexities that connect and separate them, while expanding the visibility of all. Negrón-Mutaner uses the casting of the Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez as the famous Chicana singer Selena and the ensuing controversy in the Latina community as a case study to explore this tension.
A comparison of Selena (left) and Jennifer Lopez (right). Even their shared make-up artist was struck by their similarity.
The case study was particularly interesting to me because something similar happened within the Asian community very recently. In the original 1967 “Star Trek” series, Hikaru Sulu was originally played by George Takei, a Japanese-American. In J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, John Cho, a Korean-American, was cast in the role.
In interviews, Takei shared that Abrams had been looking for a Japanese-American actor, and asked him what he thought about casting Cho. Takei answered, “To me, so long as the character remains Asian-American, that would be all that matters.” Which is very similar to something Lopez said about her own casting as Selena: “Selena and I are both Latinas and both had the common experience of growing up Latina in this country. This was good enough.”
George Takei (left) and John Cho (right) as Hikaru Sulu. Gene Rodenberry envisioned Sulu as a representative of all of Asia, hence his nondescript surname.
And that common experience that Lopez talks about? The agency found in monolithic labels that Negrón-Mutaner writes about? I don’t think either of those things has anything to do with how all Latina cultures are ‘the same.’ I think the power of monolithic labels like ‘Asian’ or ‘Latina’ isn’t derived from similarities between cultures, but from similarities in the way we’re treated. Our common experience isn’t some universal constant of ‘Asian-ness’ or ‘Latina-ness,’ but a common experience of racial oppression. When people see your eyes or skin or butt, they judge you ‘ASIAN’ or ‘LATINA,’ and treat you accordingly. I can argue about how different my experience growing up as a Japanese-American is from someone else growing up as a Chinese-American, but when you’re starting from stereotypes and prejudices about Asian people as a whole it’s hard just to get there.
And ironically enough, these monolithic labels, when applied to positive portrayals of people of color in the media, can get us there. Hikaru Sulu was envisioned as a representative of all of Asia – a direct result of the monolithic label ‘Asian.’ Yet from that we were given a talented, brave, humorous, and compelling character that could stand as an equal with the rest of the bridge crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Cho, who would later reprise Takei’s iconic role as the Enterprise’s helmsman said, “When I was a kid… I didn’t see any Asians on television. And you turn on Star Trek and there’s this Asian guy, not chopping anybody up. He’s honorable, a helmsman of a space ship, and it was a big, big deal for me to see that and have a role model.”
(And of course all this made me wonder why they would work so hard to cast a Japanese-American actor as Sulu but didn’t think it was important to keep Khan Noonien Singh a man of color??? But that’s a rant for another day.)
A gif summarizing my feelings about Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting as Khan.
 Frances Negrón-Mutaner, “Jennifer’s Butt,” Aztlán 22:2 (1997): 180.