Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fresh Off the Boat Is Not Science Fiction

I have always known that moment of disappearance and the even uglier truth is that I have long treasured it. That always honorable-seeming absence. It appears I can go anywhere I wish. Is this my assimilation, so many years in the making? Is this the long-sought sweetness?     Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker
Lost amid the well-deserved fanfare accompanying the premiere of ABC's new prime-time comedy Fresh Off the Boat was the launch of another major-studio show featuring an Asian American family. Like Eddie Huang's brainchild, it is a big-budget vehicle as well, with stars such as Olivia Munn, George Takei, Bill Nye, Mark Hamill, and Adrian Grenier lending their talents to its production. However, unless you are like me, a parent or caregiver to a preschool-aged child, you may not know what I'm talking about. Miles from Tomorrowland is an animated series for Disney Junior that made its debut only a few days after that of Fresh Off the Boat. (Disney-ABC owns both titles.) In this blog entry I will discuss these new shows, particularly how they represent extant and potential relationships between Asian Americans and other racial groups, particularly white people. What does it mean that traditional and social media have christened Fresh Off the Boat as the "Asian American" show, while the publicity for Miles from Tomorrowland makes no mention of race? The latter is a "postracial" narrative while the former is decidedly "racial" in its intent and reception.

Miles from Tomorrowland chronicles the planet-hopping adventures of a family of four, members of an institution familiar to anyone who has visited the Magic Kingdom--the "Tomorrowland Transit Authority." The star of the show is Miles Callisto, an intrepid young boy who learns about science while solving problems with his creative use of technology. His mother, Phoebe, is the captain of their spaceship. Father Leo and sister Loretta round out the foursome. With the exception of Leo, who is white, the other Callistos are of Asian descent. To be clear, nothing from the official publicity for Miles from Tomorrowland overtly states that Phoebe is an Asian American. The voice actor for Phoebe is the well-regarded Olivia Munn, whose mother is Chinese. Just to be sure, I contacted the creator of the show, Sascha Paladino. Paladino told me that Miles is Chinese American. Moreover, Paladino revealed, later episodes of the show will explore Miles' Chinese heritage. Targeted at preschoolers, the show is a developmentally-appropriate multicultural narrative: the star is a mixed-race boy who maintains a connection to his ethnic identity, and the Asian American characters do not exhibit any stereotypical behaviors. It promises to honor cultural diversity while understanding it as no barrier to social potential. My mixed-race son loves it, and I'm glad that there is once again an animated protagonist who shares his heritage.

This blog entry compares Miles from Tomorrowland with Fresh Off the Boat to illustrate a core concept of antiracist education that still generates much confusion, the difference between ethnicity and race. These terms are often used interchangeably, without much precision, at almost every level of discourse. Like most modern children's programming, Miles from Tomorrowland is not interested in exploring the meaning of the Callistos' racial identity, as doing so would entail representing how their social station--where they live, what the parents do for a living, where the children go to school, etc.--is related to the value assigned to the color of their skin. Rather, to the extent that the show finds meaning in Miles' diversity, that meaning will be located in his ethnicity--the language that he speaks, the holidays he celebrates, the food that he eats. However different Miles is from other people in his life, those differences will say nothing about the relative power each of them has in society; this is because young children don't need to know about the world in that way yet. (Sadly, this innocence dissipates more quickly for some than others.) This isn't to say that Miles from Tomorrowland doesn't signify in unintended ways--impacts I will address later--only that its handling of racial alterity is age-appropriate. When you are four or five years old and see and honor differences in others as non-hierarchical cultural differences, you are right where you need to be.

Fresh Off the Boat also features young Asian American siblings, the oldest of whom is the ostensible star of the show, Eddie. Like the childhood of the show's creator, Fresh Off the Boat is set in a mid-1990s, predominantly-white community, the domain of gangster rap and Lunchables, we discover. As the eldest child, eleven-year old Eddie is just now beginning to gain awareness of his racial identity as an Asian American. Racialized diversity in the world of Fresh Off the Boat is different from the cultural diversity of Miles from Tomorrowland in how it becomes a source of tension after it runs headlong into white supremacy culture. Eddie's teacher is relieved when she doesn't have to say a Chinese name; Cattleman's Ranch restaurant needs a white host to attract white customers; Eddie's homemade Chinese noodles humiliate him among the cafeteria crowd. The Huangs are racialized in Fresh Off the Boat, as they should be in any production whose primary audience is, well, adults. Their social power has everything to do with the dominant meanings of "Asian," which include the stereotypes of the "perpetual foreigner" and the "model minority." Additionally, the show reveals how even Chinese culture is unstable. Early observers have focused on Eddie's adoption of hip-hop culture as an oppositional stance, but less-overt practices, such as his flaunting of his pizza Lunchables, reveal how Chinese culture transitions into Chinese American culture--culture that is aware of and responsive to white supremacy.

Fresh Off the Boat's decision to foreground the Huangs' racial identity over their ethnic identity explains the generally-positive responses from Asian American viewers. On the whole, Asian Americans' collective sigh of relief after viewing the first few minutes of the show turned into a deep cheer after it became apparent that it was not interested in pandering to racist audience expectations. White viewers tended to be supportive as well, although a Facebook group was created to log unfavorable responses to the show from white people. Some of these posts objected to the portrayal of white people, but others seemed to want to advocate for Asian Americans by calling out the show's stereotypes of them. There are a few familiar stereotypes in the narrative, but it's worth remembering what Chimamanda Adichie said about stereotypes in her TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story." "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue," Chimamanda says, "but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." Fresh Off the Boat can sweat a stereotype here or there because it offers so many other stories of what it means to be an Asian American family, many of them encounters with racism and white supremacy. Like Miles from Tomorrowland, it is developmentally-appropriate for its age group, regardless of race.

The danger of popular multicultural texts such as Fresh Off the Boat eschewing racism as a part of life is the perpetuation of ethnicity as the only story of what is "diverse" about non-white people. When I teach Asian American literature to my students, I explain that each text says what it "means" to be Asian or Asian American, whether its author intended it to or not. How does a TV show signify what it "means" to be a Chinese American kid then? It can mean that you call your grandmother Nai Nai or that you get little red envelopes full of cash on Chinese New Year's. Or it can mean that your black classmate calls you "Chink" (a powerful moment in the pilot) or your middle school teacher doesn't think you're any good at the language arts. Being the target of racism is also part of what it means to be "diverse." I suspect that those viewers who are offended by portrayals of white people have a problem with talking about racism in general. Their desire is for a show to represent the possible relationships between white people and Asian Americans without the mediating tension of white supremacy. For them, I can recommend a fine work of science-fiction, Miles from Tomorrowland.

Miles from Tomorrowland avoids potential controversy because the Callistos live in the future, off Earth, a setting that obviates any role for racial identity. As imagined by the show, the future is as notable for the absence of race as for the ubiquity of whiz-bang technology. Venerable is the hope that racism will eventually burn itself out, unable to sustain itself amid unstable phenotypes brought about by mixed-race marriage and its issue. In 1909, the writer Sui Sin Far, born Edith Eaton to a Chinese mother and English father, published "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian," an autobiographical essay questioning the social meanings of her ancestry:
Fundamentally, I muse, people are all the same. My mother's race is as prejudiced as my father's. Only when the whole world becomes as one family will human beings be able to see clearly and hear distinctly. I believe that some day a great part of the world will be Eurasian. I cheer myself with the thought that I am but a pioneer. A pioneer should glory in suffering.
Sui Sin Far, recognized by scholars as the first Asian American fiction writer, understood the problem of racism as a problem of perception. Sui Sin Far may not have envisioned the future as otherworldly, but a terrestrial society dominated by mixed-race people would have struck her as no less remarkable. For Sui Sin Far, if perceptions of Chinese and mixed-race people were ever going to improve, the transformation would have to begin with the body--because institutional change was a lost cause. But attempting to procreate or adopt racism out of existence won't necessarily transform any of the structures that maintain white supremacy and may even support them, especially in the case of Asian Americans.

In the Fresh Off the Boat pilot, Eddie's mother, Jessica, somehow allows herself to be conscripted by a neighborhood gang of rollerblading mothers. The joke is that all of these white women look alike to Jessica. "Are you all sisters?" she asks them. (Jessica's posse still one-ups Disney-ABC's Fresh Off the Boat blogger party that failed to invite any Asian American bloggers.) It's true that the white characters don't have much more than a single story so far. But they are in no danger of being negatively stereotyped, stereotypes existing only to justify the place of a group within society. Plus, it's nice to see the Huangs have so many stories that speak of their status as non-white people, including Jessica's "tiger mom" approach to learning, sure, but also her threat to sue Eddie's school for its lack of a proper response to hate speech. Unlike the Callistos, the Huangs are racialized because they are a part of our world, albeit twenty years ago. For Jessica and Louis, who are immigrants, whiteness is cowboy suits and dog waste bags, necessary masquerades that may help get you a "nut" but never threaten who you know yourself to be. For the kids, who grow up in America, the negotiation is trickier. They are apt to believe the story of whiteness and so hope to merge into it. Groups like Edward Blum's The Project on Fair Representation want to write Asian Americans into that story by conscripting them to join white people in its fight against affirmative action. In ignoring the impacts of institutional racism, The Project on Fair Representation already believes that we live in Tomorrowland. I'm just thankful that Jessica and Louis Huang know that a school needs to get its ass sued off for an entirely different reason.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts…

    I was looking for thoughts on the film "Tomorrowland" and ended up here.

    I appreciate much of what you said, distinguishing between racial and ethnic identities, the problems with stereotypes as incomplete narratives, and the age-appropriateness of the various conversations.

    I do however, wonder about your use of the terms 'white supremacy' and 'racism' as descriptors for american society. Those terms seem less than accurate, and (given their historical definitions and uses) somewhat inflammatory. That has been, in my experience, counterproductive…

    I'd love to hear your response.


  2. Thanks for your comments. You're right that the words/terms "racism" and "white supremacy" can be somewhat inflammatory because of the ways that most Americans are socialized to understand them. In the mainstream, "racism" means an act of willful prejudice or hatred, and "white supremacy" is associated with hate groups. I would ask people to consider which institutions have socialized them to assign those meanings to those words and which groups those meanings serve. So, if a person walks away from a discussion of racism because he or she doesn't want to stray from those dominant meanings, then the situation might be counterproductive if the goal is a conversation. But it might not be an authentic conversation. I would also say that it is in that person's best interest to think about why other people believe that there are other meanings, and why it matters that many of them are not white people. In the end, the person who walks away can think at least a couple of things, "Well, I tried having a civil conversation" or "Maybe I'm wrong about racism." I believe that a white supremacy ideology makes the latter a lot less likely to happen, unfortunately.

  3. You asked, "which institutions?" Up until the last few decades, all of them. Thats kinda my point. What you are pointing at when you use the terms 'racism' and 'white supremacy' are things that we ought to be pointing at and talking about. The problem is absolutely about semantics. I am saying that we ought to be using words in ways that help people to understand what we are saying, instead of using words that intentionally obfuscate what we are saying.

    This is where it goes far beyond semantics.

    I recognize that those who have been hurt are less concerned about the reasons behind why someone hurt them, they just want the pain to stop. It does matter, however, the impetus behind those doing the hurting. I parent my children differently when they act with malevolence than when they act with ignorance. Often their ignorance is much more destructive than their malevolence, but I punish the malevolence, whereas I educate the ignorance.

    Again, I believe that there are a lot more people out there who are willing to have their ignorance educated, but aren't doing so because of the rhetoric involved. As you point out, the way conservatives think/act/talk is also problematic, and the white cultural privilege (a term I prefer to white supremacy) is a real barrier to this. I would just ask that those on the other side of the aisle consider the opportunity costs of the rhetoric they use.

    I know many honest, fair-minded, white people, who would likely engage in the process of learning, but have been turned away by the way they feel labeled. Of course, they are being silly. When I talk to them, I point this out. But when I talk to you, I say, "let's try to win as many friends as possible."

    Thanks for engaging. I'd love to continue the conversation if you are willing.

  4. Appreciate the engagement, Steven. The genre of this blog and its overall rhetorical situation determine what words I use and how I use them, and so I would take some extra care explaining what I mean by "racism" and "white supremacy" when I talk to a group I've never met before. But I would still use the words because I believe that they clarify rather than obfuscate, in the end. In fact, I've written an entry about how dominant words/terms do obfuscate ("Racist Euphemisms") and another one on why even the term "white privilege" has more potential for confusion than "white supremacy" ("What Happened to White Privilege").

    I would say that entering discussions of racism with semantic sensitivity for the feelings of white people is an appropriate role for white antiracist allies at the start of a relationship. (Much less so for POC because of the additional burden and pain it can cause when others deny your experiences.) But we would hope that it wouldn't take long for white people who are genuinely interested in learning about racism to stop caring so much about their feelings as white people. The reason why this doesn't happen as often as we like is that white people do not often see how racism damages them, how it wrecks their own humanity, only in different ways than it wrecks the lives of POC. I think that we'd be in a different place if white people could effectively communicate that point to other white people.

    I may not get to your comments as soon as I would always like to, but I will get there eventually!

  5. So…

    It seems like your rationale for not using 'white privilege' is the same rationale that I have for avoiding 'white supremacy.' Namely, it has historical connotations that allow people to hide behind half-truths, and it is a less-than-accurate way of describing what is going on.

    'White supremacy' simply doesn't mean (in popular parlance) what you use it to mean. This doesn't help you communicate, it actually hinders your attempts at clarity.

    You are essentially saying the same thing to me about my use of the term 'white privilege.' Fair enough. I am fine dropping that. Often times in complex conversations it becomes helpful to avoid using words that have a history for this very reason. I will start using the term 'white superiority.'


    To clarify, I am not really all that concerned with the feelings of white people (or black, or asian, etc, for that matter). I am more concerned with healing the brokenness in human persons, human relationships, human communities, and ultimately the world as a whole. Having our feelings hurt (regardless of the color of our skin) is a necessary part of the process of healing. Its therapeutic pain. I am, however, deeply concerned at how rhetoric can confuse people, and push people in directions that they might not choose of their own accord.

    It concerns me to see a generation of white people who fought for civil rights being pushed in the direction of apathy and even antagonism toward the plight of the poor and marginalized by rhetoric. Should they allow themselves to be so pushed? No, shame on them. But it still doesn't help the situation to push them!

    It also concerns me to see a generation of youth embrace an antagonism toward those who are their potential allies. This too, while understandable, is not helpful.

    I am concerned with helping people enter into the process of healing for themselves, our communities, our nation, and our world. Being able to share our pains, confusions, frustrations, experiences is a part of that. I am sensitive to issues of rhetoric because of how it pushes people apart instead of brings them together.

    For what its worth, I get to have the same exact conversations with those on the other side of the issue. I am not so much a 'white antiracist ally at the start of a relationship,' as I am a 'friend to people on two sides of a feud.' And this is a feud that nobody alive today started, and very few people (including myself) totally understand in terms of its effect on our collective psychology.

    So, to your last point, I am actively engaged in trying to help white people see how their attitudes and postures towards issues of race effect them, and our world as a whole. I just don't think the terms 'racist' and 'white supremacy' are either helpful or accurate for most situations…

    Again, I appreciate the dialogue. I, of course, am engaged with those I am close to about these things, but it is helpful to also talk with someone I don't know at all!

  6. PS

    Feel free to continue the conversation here on this thread, but below is something that I wrote recently, it is perhaps, a helpful way of understanding the heart I seek to have, and would hope that all of us engaged in this work would have. In many ways, these are the reasons that I bristle at certain words.