“What Kind of Asian Are You?”

I’m getting really tired of seeing that “What kind of Asian are You?” video. I might be the only Asian American (mixed race Filipino/Chinese/White) who doesn’t find it hilarious, even though I get asked that question on a daily basis.

First, the whole set up seems ridiculously middle class (not to mention dominated by Asian American SoCal politics): jogging along a road, a woman who has “progressed” so far beyond the “humble” roots of the diaspora now gets asked questions that seem to only point out that, despite her success, she’s still not white. She’s still treated like someone who doesn’t quite belong in a white supremacist nation…and that’s horrible?

To quote Malcolm X:

No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

The video angers me because it seems to buttress all those liberal assumptions that we live in a truly multicultural state (and we’re all truly just as American), so anyone who disrupts it (by asking our race) should be conditioned to do otherwise (by seeing how offensive it can be). White students are already too nervous to even mention race out of fear they’ll offend or ostracize someone, so they learn nothing.

The white man in the video, after his own stereotypes are pointed out to him, doesn’t learn much. Yes, he will learn to be more tolerant, to not voice his (naive) questions about difference ever again for fear of being ridiculed. He’ll be more successful in business and/or service work. He won’t embarrass his company, and maybe he’ll even fit in at parties. But he learns nothing about how the globalized lifeworld (with its reliance on exploitative manufacturing and imperial projects) really works. He’ll still bust out his I-phone to call and woo whatever Asian American woman his yellow fever directs him to at the time, not caring how many Asian women’s hands went into assembling that phone.

Because if there’s anything about naive young white men, it’s that they really need to learn to talk to Asian women in a way that veils rather than exposes their prejudices.  There’s just not enough of that.

Is this really where Asian American politics is now? As Peter Bacho recently pointed out to me, we’ve somehow moved from “why are our communist and anarcho-syndicalist unions being targeted by the FBI/CIA and from dictatorships in our own homelands?” to “why are we still not treated just like white people?”

Not to mention most Southeast Asian Americans or Hispanics or African Americans (especially males) would never even get asked this “what are you?” question. We’d just get stared right off the jogging path.

In other words, “What are you?” is a frustrating question only for certain Asian Americans. As this video might reveal, the chance for an Asian American woman and a cute young white guy to flirt along the jogging path gets stymied by that embarrassing and offensive concept of race. Would the video be just as funny if it were two queer men? Would it be just as funny if it were a black man in a suburban white neighborhood? Probably not, because the question would have a completely different tone in those contexts.

Do we really want to live in a world where we never get asked this question? When we, just like Irish/German/Scandinavian/French/Scottish Americans, meld in so well with American whiteness that we forget our ancestors, our own histories, so that in the rare occasion we get asked about our migration history, we simply scoff “I’m just American,” and they nod in agreement?

Growing up mixed race, with a white family who doesn’t seem to care about their history before arriving in the U.S., and with a Filipino family who cares immensely about their ancestors, has taught me one thing: I DON’T WANT TO BE “JUST AMERICAN.” It’s a violence and an erasure, a death that doesn’t even haunt. Having my racial differences pointed out to me, for all its difficulties and “offensiveness,” has kept me from totally obliterating my own interest in my past.

The question “what are you,” rather than being just offensive, also opens doors to observing the structural racial hierarchies that may be even worse today than in the past. When someone asks me about my race (as they do) it serves as a reminder that America is ultimately Anglo-Saxon supremacist, which seems more of a structural fact than an individual offensive gesture. When I go abroad, I get asked this question even more, but usually supplemented with “No, you couldn’t really be American. Let me see your passport.”

The question reminds me of our troubling past and our violent present, and I would like it to also remind the speaker. So I use the question as Robin Kelley suggests in his fabulous essay Polycultural Me –to put people through a “long ass lecture” that disrupts their own historical narratives of the U.S. What am I? Well first we need to begin with the coolie trade, the Filipino American War, incarceration, etc.

Here are some of my answers to the question:

“My family is from the East and the West. I’d guess by your Urban Outfitters T-shirt, you must be pure Native American.” Then launch into long-ass rant against cultural exploitation…

“My family was Christianized and came to live in a white, Christian nation, where every political leader has to acknowledge God in every speech” Then launch into rant about how homogeneously religious U.S. culture is.

“Do you really want to know?” Then launch into memorized lectures on the Filipino American War, the massacre at Balingiga, and the (in)dependence of the “homeland.”

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8 thoughts on ““What Kind of Asian Are You?”

  1. Slight disconnect here. The U.S. is so PC these days that minorities cannot help but feel offended when some white dude asks them “what they are”. Furthermore, the problem with this v-clip isn’t his inquiring about the female’s ethnic background (the way he asked it was borderline though), but rather all of the stereotypical commentary that followed it I don’t think too many minorities are going to offended at the simple question of where are you from…..

  2. Good point DJ, but I felt that the video was using the exaggerated tone and style to emphasize how offensive the question was, rather than to show that the question is only offensive when asked as disrespectfully as it is here (which very rarely happens, or never happens).

  3. Also – on the subject of “how minorities react,” I should point out that the video’s director/writer, “Ken Tanaka,” is a white guy who could be 1) adopted by a Japanese family, or 2) faking his adoption in order to perform a very silly American-returnee raised in Japan and to capitalize on Japanese cultural “coolness.” Not to say that Asian Americans have no history of faking Japanese (see Onoto Watanna).

  4. Ken Tanaka is indeed faking it as his real name is David Ury who studied in Japan. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ury
    As a black woman, I have never gotten this question and will admit I do ask about ethnicity but have never gone through the same lengths as the guy in the video. It’s interesting that with Asian Americans and in some circles of the Black American community the need to distance oneself from their culture while we can see various white people celebrating their Irish or Scottish ancestry. Sometimes I believe there’s acceptable cultures to celebrate in the U.S.

  5. Good points raised, however, I’m still struggling to agree with how AsAms are supposed to react to the “What are you” question. I understand the classist, white liberal assumptions framing the intentions of this video, and I understand how situations like in the video just raise the facts of white supremacy to to one’s attention, but at the same time, I connect with this message regardless because it brought to light the obvious other-ing of white-passing Asian Ams.

    But beyond the messaging of offensiveness as shown in the video and beyond the AsAm obsession of just “wanting to be like every other white person,” it’s the blatant questioning of my identity and the self-entitled expectation of the white person to receive an answer that really throws me off. Asian Ams meld easily with white supremacy, but unlike the Irish/German/Russian/etc. of the past, our visual racial differences prevent us from falling into the physical definition of whiteness. And our racialization under white supremacist structures continues to place our identities in the margins (though to varying degress), continues to allow white people to show up to our personal space and question/expect answers to “figuring us out” by accepting or denying presumptions about our racial identity.

    We aren’t invisible despite how much we attempt to be is just what I’m saying, and while I agree with you that AsAms tend to desire invisibility by defining themselves as “standard American like every white person,” I think you’re overlooking the fact that there still exists a certain injustice to having one’s racial identity predefined by whiteness, and having it freely open to be questioned by any white person.

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