Watching NBC’s Fresh Off the Boat feels like a gulp of oxygen in a suffocating television landscape. Whereas so much of our media privileges the white gaze, here is a show that holds at its center the unique experiences of an Asian-American family. Undoubtedly there is an element of “translation” going on — that is, the need to explain things to its presumably non-Asian audience — but there is a real joy in simply watching an Asian-American family exist on television.
That said, there was a moment in the pilot that struck me as indicative of the problems that many Asian-American communities face in trying to carve out a space for themselves in the wider American culture. The moment that everyone is talking about is when a fellow middle school student calls Eddie Huang a “chink.” This moment is all the more provocative because the student that lobbed the racial slur at him is black.
However, I was much more interested in an earlier moment in the pilot in which Eddie, faced with the possibility of having to sit at the lunch table with that same (uncool) black kid, works his way to a seat at the cool (white) kids table. He does this by bonding with the leader of the cool kids over the rapper, Biggie. As Eddie gets up to leave the black kid sitting alone at his table, the black kid says, “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude. This cafeteria is ridiculous.”
That line might not seem like much compared to the word “chink” but I think this speaks to a deeper problem with how many Asian-Americans see themselves in relation to other racial minorities — specifically the black community. So much of black cultural expression is rooted in the experience of being the quintessential underdog. Black creativity has profoundly investigated the question of how to live when the system is against you.
Asian Americans face many of those same realities. However, we cannot mistake racial solidarity for the actual lived experience of black people in this country. To do so is to confuse empathy with appropriation. But that is precisely what Eddie Huang did at that lunch table. For all of the racialized suffering that Eddie Huang has endured, he can never truly know what it is to be black. The character of Eddie derives much of his personal identity from hip-hop and black culture in general but without any of the racially-specific stigmas or disadvantages. What the black student said at that lunch table reveals that, in that moment, Eddie was no better than those racist white students who listen to hip-hop to feel cool, but would still shun a black kid from their lunch table.
This appropriation is all the more damaging when you consider how much anti-black racism there is within Asian-American communities. Thus, Asian Americans face an interesting predicament. On the one hand, we too face systematic discrimination. But let’s not kid ourselves. At the end of the day, there is still one group that America reserves a special kind of hatred for — black people. To put it bluntly, Asian Americans have the privilege of not being black. This grants us access to all sorts of cultural and economic privileges that black people are still denied.
So, as a wobbly first step in the right direction, Fresh Off the Boat is an exhilarating experience. The show even attempts to repair the rift between Eddie and that student by finishing a recent episode “Phillip Goldstein” with the two of them bonding over the Beastie Boys: “An Asian kid and a black kid bonding over music by white Jewish rappers. America’s crazy.”
But in making those steps, we cannot resort to the same forms of physical, cultural, and political violence that white people have perpetrated against black people. We have to better than that. We cannot focus solely on integrating into an oppressive system. We have to radically transform, deconstruct, and overcome it.
Dakota Hadfield attended the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in film. He spends most of his time in front of a computer trying to turn words into screenplays. Being a Korean-American adoptee, Dakota has a unique perspective on what it means to be a child of this house called America and how we cannot understand the present conditions of our existence in this country without examining our past.