On April 9, 2017, David Dao was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after refusing to comply with a voluntary order to give up his seat for airline employees on standby. Dao was one of four passengers selected for “voluntary removal,” and of the four passengers selected, two were Asian American. And yet, according to The New York Times, Dao’s lawyer said what happened to him wasn’t an issue of racial discrimination.
This denial of race as a factor left me with a lot of unanswered questions: Why were half of the passengers who were selected for removal (Dr. Dao and his wife) Asian American? Why, when Dao exercised his right to refuse the order, was he violently smashed into the armrest of his own seat before being dragged, unconscious and bleeding, off of the plane? Why was he treated with such little dignity? The answers to all these questions are based on Dao’s race.
This story is a familiar one because I, like many other Asian Americans, have been in situations in which we’ve had to suffer injustices influenced by stereotypes of Asian Americans as weak and submissive. As an Asian American, I often had to choose between standing up for myself and my principles and subjecting myself to more abuse as a result, or shutting up and chalking it up to yet another person’s “innocent” ignorance. According to an article by Matthew Salesses published in “The Good Men Project,” Asian Americans experience subtle racism that often goes unnoticed and unchecked.
“The truth is, racism toward Asians is treated differently in America than racism toward other ethnic groups,” Salesses wrote. “This is a truth all Asian Americans know. While the same racist may hold back terms he sees as off-limits toward other minorities, he will often not hesitate to call an Asian person a c***k, as Jeremy Lin was referred to, or talk about that Asian person as if he must know karate, or call him Bruce Lee, or consider him weak or effeminate, or so on.”
Asian Americans are constantly disrespected in mainstream media. For example, while Chris Rock was hosting the 2017 Academy Awards, he made three Asian kids the butt of a racist joke, implying that they tabulated the scores to determine the winners. He also said: “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” Ironically, this happened in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, one aimed toward fighting for diversity and equality in Hollywood.
Hollywood also practices whitewashing practices that exemplify how little value the industry places on Asian American representation. Emma Stone played an Asian American woman in the 2015 film “Aloha” and in 2016, Tilda Swinton played the role of a Tibetan monk in the film “Doctor Strange.” In response to cries of outrage, Scott Derrickson, the director of “Doctor Strange,” responded that the casting of Swinton, a middle-aged white woman, was what he saw as a diverse choice. In this case, feminism was deemed more important than Asian American representation.
Asian Americans are seen as the “safe race,” the race people can sacrifice when they see fit, without having to worry about consequences. Why? Because usually there aren’t any.
Dao was chosen because he was Asian and his race was perceived to be an automatic indication of weakness. A computer did not choose these people; the people who chose Dao were looking for targets and they saw him as weak, submissive and an easy, safe bet.
Society stereotypes Asian Americans as submissive, quiet and weak but also punishes them for speaking up for themselves. A society that considers an act of self-defense to be an act of defiance is a society that will never allow justice or equality for Asian Americans. One way we can remedy this is by raising awareness about different types of racism and oppression. There isn’t just one form of racism. We need to start raising awareness for those who are invisible and giving them a platform for their voices to be heard.