Nuances of Combatting Old Stereotypes

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In recent weeks, college-age Asian-Americans have turned their eyes toward #BeyondTheStereotype, a photo campaign initiated by UCLA students in response to an anonymous, grossly misogynist and racist flyer sent to the school’s Asian American Center.

The campaign received supportive submissions from fellow UC campuses, universities and colleges across the United States. It follows the burgeoning trend of hashtag-driven activism conducted online.

The standard photographic concept depicts a subject baring her or his arms with a succinct resistive slogan written in black marker across them. Poses and messages vary, but they generally revolve around closed fists (à la preparing for a fight) and messages ranging from the campaign’s hashtag, assertions of feminine strength and  claims of solidarity.

Although meaningful and productive conversations can be generated when diverse and geographically scattered perspectives contribute to a digital narrative, the rapid pace at which political resistance is moving from the streets to the Web has left little breathing room for nuance to catch up.

Foremost, the outpour of images from the campaign belie an incohesive Asian-American dialogue. While committed to anti-racism, the project continues to marginalize the women who participate in it.

Evident early on in the campaign, images portray a form of resistance revolving around patriarchal concepts of bare arms and violence. It is a tragic irony that the original cartoon inspiring the message-across-arm motif is that of a man up in arms, appearing as if an imminent physical altercation is about to occur.

Organized by Anthony Pham and photographed by Derek De Los Angeles, UC Irvine’s contributions to the campaign are not without their problems. One of the most cringeworthy examples depicts a male student taking his photo in nothing but his boxers, holding up a sign reading “All Colors Are Painted equal.”

A decision probably made for laughter and shock value, the blatant maleness effectively trivializes the gravity of the campaign’s grievances and is complicit in creating a space dominated by male presences when the issue at hand also affects Asian-American women.

The litany of what-were-you-thinking photos continues with one student writing “Pride & Prejudice” across his arms. Is he proud of his prejudices? Or is he just an Austen fan? Whatever the case, it fails to relate in any meaningful way with a campaign intended to fight against sexist attacks on Asian-American women.

Responsible for the most egregiously offensive portraits are the organizer and photographer themselves. Pham’s arms bear the message “Fight & Break Your Chains,” one that grossly appropriates imagery inextricably connected to the United States’s history with chattel slavery. Meanwhile, De Los Angeles’s photo takes a spin on the sparse white background, replacing it with an underlay of racialized and gendered slurs, all displayed in their uncensored form.

His arms bear a hashtagged “Isang Bagsak,” a solidarity slogan derived from the Filipino farm workers’ movement intended to invoke solidarity between different communities of color. His portrait is contradictory, perpetuating violent language that cuts across communities of color that the campaign is ostensibly supposed to resist. These two examples point to how imperative it is to remember that an Asian-American campaign claiming to be anti-racist cannot work when it is complicit in perpetuating anti-blackness.

All this is not to take away from the anti-racist project that the campaign undertakes. Progress and social change and resistance to oppressive systems is fraught with complexities and nuance that are difficult to gauge when political projects are charging full steam ahead. It is imperative, however, that these projects constantly critically evaluate themselves and the images that they’re portraying. Many of which are inadvertently marginalizing the very communities they’re claiming to serve.

And don’t even get me started at how aesthetically horrible the photos are.

 

Phuc Pham is a fourth-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at pcham@uci.edu.

 

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