Bang! … Bang! Bang!
The gunshots rang out, one after another. Horrified, I watched as the Asian man crumpled to the ground, and his wife began to scream, shrill bursts of sound that drilled into my ears like bullets.
I, of course, did not witness a murder; I had watched the opening scene of the movie “Menace II Society.” I was 16, studying the Black diaspora at a summer seminar. I was one of two Asian Americans in a cohort composed mainly of Black students: a relevant detail. That evening, we had decided to hold a movie screening.
The movie opened with two Black men sauntering into a convenience store and, under the cold surveillance of the Asian couple who owned the store, rifling through the fridge for beers. Something caught in my throat when I saw the wife shadowing the men with a feather duster, her dark eyes glittering under carefully penciled brows. Before I could swallow past the dry lump, the husband spat out a condescending remark about feeling sorry for the men’s mothers, and the camera focused on the first of the Black men as he took gulp after gulp of his beer, while gunshots pounded and glass shattered. Deflated and doll-like, the Asian man lay dead as his wife screamed hysterically, unintelligibly, in the background. Moments later, she would be killed too, but we would know it only from the abrupt marriage of her silence and another gunshot.
As the camera panned over the Asian man’s drained, waxy body, I felt an immense pressure settle over my lungs, crushing my chest. I jumped to my feet. In the blue-lit blackness of the living room, a multitude of dark, featureless faces turned toward me, and instantly I had the feeling that I was caught on barbed wire, frozen and wide-eyed under the stark spotlight. But even as I struggled to find my balance, the wrinkles in my vision snapped into crisp, defined lines, and I finally put a name to my discomfort.
I am, as aforementioned, Asian American: a South Korean. Furthermore, I’m a first-generation immigrant; I was a first-grader from an ethnically homogeneous country when I was transplanted into a rural Iowa town, ironically also homogeneous, but in hues paler and colder than those I was accustomed to. This flip in the color spectrum was reflected in my television screen and picture books, and I slowly began to adapt my behavior to what I saw around me.
The media holds frightening influence over us: like a circus mirror, it can simultaneously reflect, amplify and distort society’s prejudices and broadcast them to a malleable, vulnerable audience. Navigating a foreign media that often perpetuated Asian stereotypes, I learned through wavering confidence in my ethnic identity just how powerful even the most minor background character could be. The rare times someone who looked like me appeared on the screen or page, they were fetishized, or were blindingly intelligent but blind to social cues. I knew they were horrible, inaccurate misrepresentations, but each one was a blow, not a soft breath but the heavy strike of a stick, beating me again and again.
It took me years to learn how to straighten my spine against the onslaught. This lesson in posture was hard-learned, yet my newfound pride in my cultural heritage ended up hindering my full understanding of the media and its implications for our cultural heritage, the cultural heritage of America.
When I stood up in that room, I had a dizzying shift of perspective. As an Asian American, a member of the so-called “model minority,” I held relative privilege. I could resent caricatures of socially awkward, nerdy or fetishized Asians; those representations have led to ignorant hatred and violence directed toward Asian Americans, but my experience could not compare to those suffered by other minorities. I was labeled as “submissive” or “human calculator” but Black, brown and Indigenous communities struggled with “criminal,” “slave,” “savage,” “terrorist”— the stereotypes they are forced to face every time they consume a form of mainstream media. I hadn’t realized that while the Asian store owners had died, the murderers had been the Black men, and I had been made uncomfortable and angry by the harsh truth “Menace” had made me face: the racist and hateful aspect of the Asian American community. The fact that I had never had to face such an ugly representation of myself pointed to my privilege as a member of the model minority.
The opening scene of “Menace” is a criticism of Black teenager Latasha Harlins’ murder in 1991 by a Korean convenience store owner and the subsequent Los Angeles riots, during which the minorities of L.A. drew arms against each other in racialized hatred. That is what can happen when we fail to recognize our responsibility to “punch up,” or push up against those in power, when we Asians internalize the model minority myth and believe that we are somehow closer to the white ideal, higher up on the hierarchy than other people of color. The more we minorities drag each other down; the more we allow the concept of white supremacy to live on. That is why it is so crucial for Asian Americans to give their privilege back, to lend their platform to Black, brown and Indigenous power.
So let’s punch up. It can be as simple as recognizing and denouncing stereotypes or more difficult, like standing up to a friend or family member who perpetuates those stereotypes. There is always someone you can give a hand up, always someone with a voice quieter than yours. Reach out to and support people you may think have been affected by a joke or comment made in a space you share.
Because while we are the audience, we have the power to reject and thus shape and influence the media we consume.
HYERIM BIANCA NAM is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.