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Brenda Wang
Frankly, My Dear

A recent confluence of events made me wonder whether the U.S.-China relationship affects how Asian Americans are viewed.

The first event occurred when I realized that the villain of Iron Man 3 was called “the Mandarin.” It doesn’t take Derrida to unpack some implications from that.

Iron Man, the all-American misunderstood hero, battles the Mandarin, the evil scientist and martial artist villain. Sound familiar?

The United States and China are in a time of ever increasing political tension, leading both Americans and Chinese to regard the other as a threat to their own way of life. Such fears are expressed not only through the characterization of fictional supervillains, but — more insidiously — through unconscious stereotyping.

I’m not accusing Iron Man 3 of racism, or even perpetuating biases. But I do think that pop culture can serve as a social weather vane that points to the direction of the collective national psyche, its fears and insecurities. And right now, it’s pointing east.

The threat of China’s growing economic power combined with the growing Asian-American demographic at home has created what Bob Suzuki, former president of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, describes as the conflicting stereotypes of the “model minority” and the “perfidious foreigner.” While the “model minority” stereotype was created due to Asian Americans’ (debated) success at “out-whiting the whites,” the “perfidious foreigner” stereotype has persisted due to Asian Americans historically being seen as “forever foreign.”

These stereotypes are not, for the most part, created intentionally or even consciously. Rather, they are a result of implicit biases, created by past experiences and socially generated assumptions. What I find to be most dangerous about this kind of prejudice is that it is completely innocuous. The perpetrators would likely never dream of being racist. They are simply telling the truth as they see it, never imagining that their vision might not be 20/20. And so assumptions are affirmed, stereotypes spread.

Which brings me to the second event — Vice President Biden’s commencement speech.

Much ado has been made over his comments about China, but the accusations against him have mostly come to nothing. Because there’s nothing wrong with the content of his speech.

Take two of his more inflammatory quotes: “You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free; you cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy,” and “[Chinese president Xi Jingping] is a strong, bright man, but he has the look of a man who is about to take on a job he’s not at all sure is going to end well.”

Biden’s not racist. He’s not wrong. It’s true that China stifles freedom of expression.

This led me to notice a few peculiar ideas in Biden’s speech.

First, the Vice President of the United States, at the commencement speech of a major university, chose to affirm the future success of its graduates by assuring them of the impossibility of success of the Chinese, as if they must be mutually exclusive.

Second, he specifically chose to criticize the Chinese as lacking the ability to 1) think “differently” and 2) lead successfully. This happens, coincidentally or not, to correlate with the negative side of the “model minority” stereotype: Asians as obedient workers but poor leaders.

These sorts of subliminal, unconscious ideas trickle down.

­­­A study by the nonprofit Center for Work-Life Policy found that Asians represent less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and corporate officers although Asians comprise about 5 percent of the U.S. population continue to be overrepresented at top universities.

There are different explanations for this, but I believe that because Asian Americans are stereotyped as “forever foreign,” the fear of China infects how Asian Americans are viewed. It is mentally easier to corral the threatening out-group into a collective identity, such as the “model minority,” leading to these widespread stereotypes such as “good at math,” and “quiet and submissive.”

Recognizing the presence and significance of these implicit biases is important in reducing discrimination. The results from a 2005 psychology study by Dovidio and Gaertner suggest that simply being aware of existing bias improves race relations, because people are more likely to attribute negative interactions with the other race as a result of their own prejudices.

But we must first conquer fear before we can battle ignorance.

Maybe we can learn from Robert Downey Jr.’s battle with the Mandarin, who — spoiler alert! — turns out to be a harmless figurehead. Director Shane Black reflected:

“And what was of use about the Mandarin’s portrayal … is … a message that’s more interesting for the modern world, because I think there’s a lot of fear that’s generated toward very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what’s behind them.”

So maybe it’s time we look what is actually behind our fear of China.

Brenda Wang is a rising College sophomore from Chandler, Ariz. Her email address is “Frankly, My Dear” runs biweekly during the summer.

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