On Sunday, March 12th, the Oscar for Best Picture of 2022 went to “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” I credit the win not only to the Asian and Asian American actors that brought to life the film’s genre-defying story of an immigrant family tasked with saving the multiverse but also to Black Twitter, the Oscars-So-White hashtag, and woke politics in general.
Whatever it meant before it became mainstream, “woke” has now become a racial dog whistle that serves as code for “Black” in the same way the words “urban” and “ghetto” do. Attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT), ethnic studies, and affirmative action are not just anti-Black, however—they are also anti-Asian.
In basic terms, CRT exposes the invisible structures of white supremacy and proposes methods for dismantling those structures. As a framework for understanding how racism operates, CRT offers a language that makes sense of the complex lived experiences of Asian Americans. CRT explains how Asian Americans are racialized and discriminated against by being seen as a perpetual foreigner, no matter how long our families have been here.
Last Sunday, Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian woman ever in all the 95 years of Oscar history to win the Best Actress award. The moment speaks to Yeoh’s undeniable talents, but also to the profound cultural exclusion of Asian and Asian Americans in mainstream U.S. culture that led to the groundbreaking nature of the awards.
The success of “Everything Everywhere” is an allegory for the cultural role Asian American communities are playing in the United States. While we remain largely excluded from mainstream cultural narratives, current events are shoving us into to the limelight.
In January, Chinese American men were responsible for two mass shootings. The plaintiffs in a case which will likely allow the Supreme Court to end affirmative action, just as it did to the constitutional right to abortion last year, are Asian American.
The same week as the mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, Florida rejected an Advanced Placement course in African American studies. This move is part of the Florida governor’s unapologetic campaign to gain national attention by adopting so-called anti-woke rhetoric.
Like the everything bagels, hot dog fingers, and butt plugs of the “Everything, Everywhere” multiverse, at first, these seem to have very little to do with each other. That is, until you start connecting the dots.
Did stereotypes about perpetually-foreign Asian Americans impact the shooters Huu Can Tran (Monterey Park) and Chunli Zhao (Half Moon Bay)? Did owning guns give them access to a part of American culture that was otherwise unattainable? How did U.S. participation in the Vietnam War shape the migration of Chinese ethnics to the United States? These are the types of questions studied by CRT scholars. These are the questions anti-woke politicians don’t want answered.
Importantly, CRT also critiques the ways Asian Americans participate in settler colonialism, a term that references ongoing cultural, social, and economic practices that continue to subordinate the indigenous peoples of the United States and the Americas. CRT gave a name to the model minority myth used to stereotype and homogenize Asian Americans, a strategy that subordinates Black and brown people while cynically touting the successes of Asians. CRT challenges simplistic understandings of seeing the world as merely oppressor and oppressed and lays bare the multi-layered and complex roles that groups play in the racialized hierarchy of wealth and power in this country.
The cases challenging race-conscious admissions practices at Harvard and UNC is an example of this complicated dynamic. The lawsuits allege that the colleges unconstitutionally discriminate against Asian Americans by considering the race of applicants as a factor for admission. What the lawsuits do not say is that most Asian Americans support affirmative action.
Ending affirmative action would mean a sharp decrease in the number of Black and Latinx college students but it would harm Asian Americans too. Racial identity, family traditions, and culture are fundamental aspects of an applicant’s character and profound indicators of the contributions that prospective students will make to the campus. Race-neutral admissions policies would force universities to ignore these stories.
The spotlight is momentarily turned towards the Asian American community, a large and diverse group which contains an enormous variety of viewpoints that are not always given platforms to be heard. Our community’s concerns are not limited to education, and include gun violence, mental health services, abortion, the economy, and even the nominees most deserving of Academy Awards. We have stories to tell and opinions to share and you should fight for a front row seat to hear our complicated truths.