The Trappings of Visibility

On inclusion and American myth in the PBS documentary Asian Americans
September 24, 2020

Asian Americans PBS Documentary Graphic

Courtesy of PBS

I learned about the Asian American Movement in 2012. It was my last year of undergrad and my first-ever class with all-Asian American peers. In the seminar, we got to the killing of Vincent Chin around the time of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

Chin was one of the first times I saw myself in the curriculum. A father and a son, both white, got away with killing someone who could have been me. That was recent history. In real time, another white man was getting away with killing someone I would have thought had nothing to do with me.

Before this moment, I’d never thought my race made me vulnerable. Growing up in a white suburb called Barrington, I’d internalized that racism was Black and white, a problem of the past. The coincidence of Trayvon and Vincent sparked a transformation in me, a change still taking shape today as la lucha sigue. The fact that Ebens and Nitz killed Chin in 1982 and got fined $3000 told me how little my life matters — language gifted me in 2012 by the Movement for Black Lives. The historical parallel was a bridge. I started to recognize the world as systemic and myself as a person of color.

At the same time, I distinguished the cases. Chin’s killing was, by the time of my life, a historical anomaly, but Martin’s was a fact of Black life. Slaughter occupies it still. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I knew not to claim anti-Black violence as either my experience or an equivalence.

Almost 10 years and two graduate programs later, that class remains my primary exposure to Asian American history. Thus, I came to the recent PBS docuseries Asian Americans with both hope for precious self-knowledge and shame that I hadn’t learned more sooner.

Then I got to the episode about the 1992 L.A. uprisings. This flashpoint usually comes up in Asian American historiography in terms of Black-Asian conflict and barriers to racial solidarity. A contributing factor to 1992: One year before, Korean store owner Soon Ja Du had killed Latasha Harlins, an African American girl, just 13 days after the police beating of Rodney King. The judge reduced Du’s conviction to probation, community service and a $500 fine. In the PBS episode, historian Jeff Chang draws a parallel: “Wasn’t the equivalent to Vincent Chin Latasha Harlins?”

There are so many red flags with this formulation, it’s hard to know what to do with it. People make this move sometimes, including Issa Rae: identifying an alliance between Asian men and Black women on the basis of our supposedly shared degradation. I trust Chang though — I’ve read his work; I’ve heard him talk about coming up in Hawaii and the Bay Area. I think he wants people who feel the injustice against Chin to recognize the injustice against Harlins.

I attribute the slippage to the series. The project as a whole — with its tendency to swap Black bodies for Asian ones and its programmatic choice to bury our indebtedness to other people of color — seems to distort, if not dictate, the reasoning of the individual people involved. 

The white gaze is that powerful. When centered, it can bring everything down.

The white gaze is that powerful. When centered, it can bring everything down.

A governing principle of the white gaze is scarcity: the assumption that resources are necessarily limited. The whole idea of white supremacy is that white people are superior and therefore deserving of the best and the most. White supremacy rests on the idea of scarcity. If resources were endless, there would be no need for arrangements that distributed such wealth to white people, turning the myth of their superiority into material reality.

Care is also a resource often treated as scarce. The recent (and seemingly ceased) outpouring of white concern for Black lives is just the kind of public pressure that legislators and corporations respond to. When the white gaze deems a problem worthy of solution, moving mountains is suddenly less Sisyphean.

At its core, Asian Americans is an earnest petition for inclusion. Its rhetoric reflects my own longing for recognition as an East Asian man working for racial justice. Operating under scarcity, the show casts Asian Americans in the roles usually reserved for “Black and brown people” — lest “their” historical reality lessens “our” worthiness as truly American subjects.

The five-part series uses four strategies to attract care: claiming precedence, substituting and erasing communities, cataloguing trauma and asserting American belonging. These bids for attention bear troubling consequences. They devalue other people of color, and they reduce the complexity of our shared struggle against white supremacy.

Strategy 1: Oppressed First

Asian Americans tells our history as if we were competing for the status of historical actor. Historian Erika Lee calls Chinese Americans “the original undocumented immigrants.” Fellow historian Alex Fabros, Jr. corrects the erasure of Larry Itliong and Filipinx farmworkers from labor history by reminding us “it was the Filipinos in September 1965 who started the grape strike, not the Mexicans.” This move reminds me of the ending of Minor Feelings: “We were always here.” The docuseries would add, “And we struggled first.”

Is something wrong with this? So what if Asian Americans puts aside other people of color to correct popular memory? We’re put aside all the time. Take this example. The episode about the Farm Worker Movement uses the same archival footage as the film Dolores, another PBS documentary about the Chicana union leader. Asian Americans names Dolores Huerta, but the Huerta doc omits Itliong.

This move — precedence, therefore priority — buys into scarcity. It supposes that the world is not wide enough for all of us (to echo Hamilton, another text of historical correction that’s still steeped in Americanness). This assumption — that recognition is scarce — lets us know that the show has aligned itself with the white gaze.

Strategy 2: Oppressed Instead

Here’s another tell of the show’s priorities: the ways in which it’s made to explain Asian Americans to the unaware rather than love those of us who already know. Within the first 20 minutes of the series, in the context of 19th century anti-Chinese racism, I saw myself killed. We see a drawing of a Chinese man’s lynching for seven seconds before lingering on a photograph of similar violence for seven more. Would a show intent on caring for us stage our murder in this way, to prove our vulnerability as if we weren’t living it?

To answer that question, let’s first acknowledge that any representation of lynching bears the shadow of anti-Black violence. Arguably, anti-Blackness is the negative by which most people in the United States develop an image of white supremacy. Furthermore, the Black freedom struggle is the frame within which many non-Black people of color struggle against racism.

That’s why I went to the Black Smithsonian: to deepen my understanding of the struggle for racial justice. What I noticed: a love for Black people guides how visitors move through the space. For instance, it prepares people for representations of lynchings. Small signs warn of slaughter. Red boxes frame the images themselves. These gestures are not trivial. They enact care. I felt it.

Asian Americans did not hold me with such tenderness. The show uses lynching for the morbid and pathetic purpose of proving to white supremacy that it’s wanted us dead too. But who doesn’t know that already? Asians who supposedly seek white adjacency? White people themselves? Whatever point those 14 seconds of lynching serve, they are not for me nor are they mindful of people still terrorized by spectacles of violence.

Indeed, the project appeals continually to the white gaze by displaying shadows of Black death. All the while, it refuses to acknowledge the legacy of the Black freedom struggle. Journalist Helen Zia describes Lily Chin as the “spiritual leader” of the movement to seek justice for her slain son Vincent. This phrase echoes the vocabulary of the Black civil rights movement. The archetype it denotes — the grieving, powerful mother — calls to mind Mamie Till, mother of Emmett. Asian Americans does not say her name. Even as the text shows Jesse Jackson embracing Lily Chin before delivering a rally speech, it decides to leave implicit the influence of Black struggle on Asian American people.

The choice to leave Black history off-screen is especially confusing in light of this comment by the producer Renee Tajima-Pena: “For Asian Americans, the Vincent Chin story is often this touchstone, but you can't invoke the name and the story of Vincent Chin when there are Ahmaud Arberys happening to [B]lack and brown people.” How strange: to recognize Chin as a person with a story but to reduce Arbery to a shorthand for slaughter.

Stranger still: how the show minimizes anti-Black violence. It leverages the legibility of lynching without acknowledging its specificity against Black communities. The series resurfaces the first episode’s lynching photo in the final one. It does so to situate Chin’s 1982 murder. To make viewers care. Yet in setting up the L.A. uprisings, specifically Du’s killing of Harlins, the text goes out of its way to frame Asian immigrant antipathy of poor Black communities as understandable, even reasonable. With these two moves — the careless use of lynching and the favoring of Asian immigrants — the text takes advantage of Black pain while disregarding Black people.

Strategy 3: Oppressed for Good

Scarcity is one explanation for this harmful rhetoric. The premise of not enough shapes the series and the publicity around it. Most of the press sounds like this New York Times headline: “‘Asian-Americans’: Ugly History, Relevant Again.” So few words say so much about how little we are worth. Were it not for “China virus” and the spike in our racial denigration, our history would not have mattered to the nation. Asian American irrelevance is such common sense that this withering logic frames just about every article. What’s worse, those of us Asian Americans eager for recognition in racial justice struggles often play into this economy of care, one in which people of color matter only upon our murder. Case in point: In Time, tangentially to publicize the PBS docuseries, Andrew R. Chow catalogues “the most notable, yet often overlooked, incidents of racist attacks toward Asian Americans.” Using a timeline of our killing to prove we’re worth remembering — what a sign of social death.

There’s another reason for the trauma porn. The white gaze has taught us to think that episodes of prejudice and harm catalyze people’s awareness of systemic racism. A recent example: anti-Asian targeting at the start of the pandemic, the supposed racial awakening that such violence precipitated in Asian Americans and media interest in both narratives. By showcasing so many racist incidents, the Chow article is saying no to the novelty; we’re not all foreign, we’ve been a part of this nation all along and we’ve suffered enough from white supremacy to know how it works. In short, the article uses anti-Asian violence to topple the pillars of our place in this country: forever foreigner and model minority.

Like the Time article, the PBS docuseries establishes our track record of racial trauma. This MO explains why it lingers on lynching. Why it claims Asians as the original victims of racist immigration legislation. Why it dedicates a fifth of the series to Japanese American internment. Even why it omits the more militant or radical aspects of the Asian American Movement. By telling our history as a catalogue of racist episodes, the show narrows the plurality of our pasts to fit within the white gaze.

In exhibiting racial violence, the article and the show are each doing two things: defending Asians from people who would write us off as model minorities (“You think we’re not down? They’ve killed us too!”) and instructing Asians not to write ourselves out of the struggle for racial justice (“You think we’re not brown? They’ve killed us too!”). Either way, the texts seek to correct. We’re not who you think we are.

All of this rhetoric puts me ill at ease. It’s almost embarrassing: foregrounding trauma to secure attention. At the same time, I get it. When you’re routinely denied attention, you feel unseen, even unseeable. Desperate and in despair, you might even sacrifice agency and dignity for understanding — and for a people, what’s a more obvious form of validation than the PBS treatment?

Strategy 4: Oppressed, So American

“Usually people know very little about Asians, and this is a song about our movement, about our people’s plight in America.”

That’s how Yellow Pearl, an Asian American folk duo, set up their performance on The Mike Douglas Show. The lyrics:

            We are the children of the migrant worker.

            We are the offspring of the concentration camp.

            Sons and daughters of the railroad builders

            who leave their stamp on America.

This was 1972. The coda of the supposedly unprecedented PBS series uses the same figures. The train, the railroad, the Chinese workers who built it — those persistent figures of modernity — fill the final three minutes. The rest is footage of protesters, veterans, farmers, baseball players and politicians. In case the Americanness wasn't obvious enough, historian Erika Lee makes it explicit: “The Asian American story is such a quintessential American story because we as Asian Americans have represented the polar extremes of the American experience. … That is the story of America, and that is the story of Asian America.”

This is how PBS concludes our history: the positing of Asian America as synecdoche, a representative part of the national whole. This move exemplifies the show’s mission and the PBS project writ large: membership. Recognize how much we have sacrificed and contributed (strategy 1), sit with how you have wronged us (strategies 2 and 3) and finally let us in (strategy 4). Perhaps it’s misguided to expect the series to deviate from its genre. To leave behind the American family and critique the desire for national acceptance.

But as a historical project, the series is supposed to prioritize accuracy and objectivity. However, bent on American belonging, it ends up skewing history. Take the portrayal of Buddy Ito. After his family’s internment, Ito moved to Japan to get out of U.S. imperialism. In turn, he bought into Japanese imperialism. The show characterizes him as a baffling, even terrifying figure — a noticeable choice. It’s not hard to imagine a radically different telling, one that presents Ito as a hero, however fraught, a Killmonger of a different race and generation. The insistence on vilifying Ito distracts from the narrative, calling attention to itself like a blur in a flawed photo.

The mandate for inclusion does a disservice to Asian American history. It distorts and erases people who opt out of the American project, which spans anti-Blackness and imperialism. At the same time, it gives a pass to those who match the rubric for any patriotic subject: conformity, compliance and reality-bending pride.

Oppressed — Now What?

As I write this, my cell phone blares an announcement: another night of curfew. I live in Little Tokyo, downtown L.A. LAPD headquarters crowd my apartment window. Around the clock, helicopters thrum. Cop cars stain the streets. Trying to drive home, I get stuck in a police barricade two blocks from home. To get around it, I follow another car up a one-way street. National Guard trucks drive the other way.

Thanks to Asian Americans, I recognize the resemblance of these warring days to that other L.A. uprising. But I understand what’s happening as state terror from studying other histories, those of other BIPOC, the ones this series leaves out, the ones who rarely see me.

Our histories are often as segregated as our bodies. I want better, fuller, a history of the present that tries to understand the whole. Not only the anti-Asian vitriol in response to COVID-19. Not only the immigration quotas and the family separations that preceded it, the infringement of sovereignty that persists during it or the police killings that surround it. I want a narrative in which we’re all integral and invaluable.

I’m used to picking and choosing which myths of America to uphold and live out. But now, when privilege protects even fewer from state violence, such belief feels even more untenable. By seeking our legibility as American subjects, the show buys into the whole arsenal of American projects, even those it critiques. By playing the part of the Good American, even one updated to insist-resist-persist, Asian Americans reinforces the fantasy of American goodness. Outside, that lie is falling per night. How will we all rise?


Brian Lin


Brian Lin is a Ph.D. student in the creative writing and literature program at USC. He has participated in the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Napa Valley Writers' Conference. He is a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars fellow and a 2021 Ragdale resident. Fiction editor for Apogee Journal and community outreach coordinator for The Offing, Brian is also working on his first books of prose.