“You’re damn right, Hollywood is racist!” proclaimed host Chris Rock at the Oscars Sunday night to an overwhelmingly white audience. After a year of high media visibility surrounding issues of race, the complete absence of minorities nominated in any acting category was all the more unforgiveable. Rock’s demand that the film industry account for its longstanding failure to represent people of color set a powerful tone for the rest of the show.
But what should have been a historical, empowering moment quickly unraveled into a devastating confirmation of just how racist Hollywood is. Between diatribes about the Academy’s racial exclusivity, Rock invited three Asian children onstage — one of whom he gave a Jewish surname — all dressed as accountants. With the world looking on, he upheld a racist stereotype of Asians, mocked child labor and then attempted to pass it off as satire.
I didn’t realize what had happened until a day later, when I unearthed a video of the shameful anti-Asian joke from beneath the Facebook clutter of Leo memes.
I felt as though I had been punched.
How can it be that in 2016 a man widely praised for his incisive critiques of racism can reproduce the appalling bigotry that he was denouncing in the same breath? How is it that after months of solidarity protests and Black Lives Matter, we have proven unable to criticize racism without that criticism coming at the direct expense of another minority group? How is it that so many have framed this year’s Oscars as a triumph, when it was a tragic setback for all people of color?
As much as I wanted to believe that Rock’s joke was an anomaly, the reality is that this problem persists everywhere — including Yale. Even my well-meaning liberal peers frequently trip up — friends compliment my diligence by calling me “a machine,” and acquaintances react with surprise when they learn I’m a Classics major. A few months ago at a conference, I listened to an Indian student refer to the “bamboo ceiling” in an argument, only to be greeted with disbelieving laughter. “It’s real!” he cried.
But of course, few believe that the oppression of Asians is “real.” The limitations Asians face in communicating their experiences are substantial, even here. This past semester, Yale struggled to hold critical conversations about race in an urgent, intense political environment. Asian and Jewish students, monolithically perceived as “more privileged” than other minorities, were called upon to acknowledge their privilege and stand behind other people of color. Slifka hosted a discussion about “confronting Jewish privilege”; the Chinese American Student Association urged Chinese-American students in an emailed statement not to verbalize their narratives because they are part of a “privileged minority group.”
But these conversations implicitly enforced an inaccurate and unfair division among minorities. They contributed to the disturbing erasure of the economic struggles and discrimination faced by Asians and Jewish students singled out for their “privilege.” The unfortunate result was that these groups were pressured to forget their own interests in order to promote other narratives. I faced an impossible moral imperative to compromise my identity as an immigrant from a family of agricultural and industrial laborers, to overcompensate for a model minority myth I had rejected my whole life and to silently accept from strangers the judgment that I could not really be oppressed. That I was even complicit in my peers’ oppression.
And I wasn’t allowed to be offended.
What happened last semester and this past weekend clearly demonstrates how bereft we are of a vocabulary to sufficiently articulate the various types of marginalization that minorities experience. Yale cannot claim to be an anti-racist space when its solution to racism is to homogenize the struggle of multiple minority groups and to prioritize the interests of some over others. Diversity is far too complex, between and within groups, for such reductive discourse.
Asserting that a given ethnic group is “less oppressed” and demanding that it remain silent so that the political interests of others can succeed is insulting and unproductive. Each experience must be recognized on its own terms, without being invalidated or forced into competition with others.
The solidarity that so many are trying to cultivate at Yale will never exist as long as we perpetuate the very alienation we oppose. We cannot diversify our spaces or our discourse by shoving minority groups into an outdated black-and-white dichotomy. We cannot advocate for one another as long as we are being subjugated by each other, as long as it is acceptable to deliver anti-racist lectures while stomping on the faces of other minorities.
Otherwise, solidarity will remain nothing more than a myth.
Sherry Lee is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Her column
usually runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .