Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver urges anti-Asian bigots to learn from history, stop being so predictably American

John Oliver and Vincent Chin (inset)
John Oliver and Vincent Chin (inset)
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

In his extra-long Sunday story on America’s long and all-too-predictable history of anti-Asian stereotyping, violence, and scapegoating, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver noted, right up top, “I fully recognize, the history of white people on TV generalizing confidently about this subject isn’t great.” How not-great? Cue montage of patronizingly “positive” news pieces citing the “model minority” myth while simultaneously stoking their white viewers’ fears that these culturally supercharged “overachievers” will displace them in everything from the workforce to the classroom. (Tom Brokaw peddling unfounded scuttlebutt about white students fleeing any college class with “too many Oriental face” isn’t the vaunted news-mumbler’s finest hour.)

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As ever, Oliver’s ensuing examination of the history, causes, and potential remedies for this once-more resurgent plague of anti-Asian bullshit is both assiduously and acidly reasonable—and depressingly doomed. That since it rests, as Oliver stresses, on “long-overdue, better-informed conversation,” and a “smarter, more nuanced” way of looking at the multifaceted Asian-American experience over America’s history. You know, like the sort of evidence-based, unflinching educational experience about America’s inborn and undeniable legacy of racism that Republicans are currently passing laws to prevent, lest its already-shrunken base of chest-thumping, hairtrigger-defensive white people are forced to deal with actual human reality.

Oliver did his level best to fill in the systemically intentional ignorance of some of his viewers, detailing such all-American, anti-Asian atrocities as 1882's Chinese Exclusion Act (touted in one campaign ad with the phrase, “Hip! Hurrah! The white man is on top!”), to the propaganda fueled (and then excused) WWII internment of Japanese Americans in barbed wire concentration camps, to the flashpoint for AAPI activism that was the 1982 murder of Chinese-American man Vincent Chin. In deference to the calculated omission of Chin’s murder from the (white) American cultural consciousness, Chin was murdered by two white men (Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz), who took out their media-whipped resentment over the supposed predatory capitalist practices of Japanese car makers on Chin, who was both not Japanese, and utterly blameless for these white assholes’ ignorant, murderous thuggery. Oh, and white judge Charles Kaufman eventually sentenced the convicted murderers to probation and a fine, because, as he put it, “These weren’t the kind of men you sent to jail.”

As Oliver went on, doggedly unpacking the complex but ultimately simple reasons behind American anti-Asian rhetoric and violence, the host, as is his way, made the appeal that actually facing up to the truth of easily anticipated white backlash against Asians has multiple causes, but one sure outcome. Noting that “a coalition is not a monolith” when it comes to Asian and Pacific Islanders in America, Oliver broke down how simply averaging out all AAPI-Americans’ attributes and accomplishments in all categories erases the culturally and historically disparate needs of different populations. (Oliver even singling out his one purported viewer from the listed 127 Maldivian-Americans out there, promising long-overdue recognition. Here’s to you, Karim.)

As Oliver put it when discussing the glib “model immigrant” stereotype, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t curse for many AAPI people. (He pointed to the alarmingly high suicide rate for young Asian-Americans, and the comparatively low number of such troubled young people who seek help.) Pulling readily available clips of smug white men like longtime presidential advisor Dick Morris, Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA), and gabbling podcast meathead Joe Rogan touting the model minority myth as evidence that American can’t possibly be racist, Oliver explained how the “kickass” (according to Rogan) Asian stereotype is used to bludgeon other, less-“culturally-industrious” minority communities for not just shutting up and being grateful. (White American bigotry is ignorant, insipid, and soulless, but you have to admit that its all-encompassing adaptability is at least ruthlessly efficient. Sort of like when Ash admires the Xenomorphs’ “purity.”)

As to how to combat this, well, Oliver (while making time to objectify Filipino fast food mascot Jollibee, whose gyrating bee-butt and distressingly fluttering eyes can “get it”), plugged away at the whole education and nuanced discussion strategy, bless him. Noting that even his impassioned and acerbic plea for the current mob of Trump- and GOP-inflamed sucker-punchers to wake the fuck up “barely scratched the surface” of American AAPI racism, Oliver noted patiently, “It’s a box. But the thing is, you don’t learn anything from it unless you bother to look inside.” Throwing to one final clip from a 1972 profile in which Mike Wallace (also not his finest hour) chides that his assembled group of Japanese-American interviewees “unlike the Black and the Chicano,” “has it made” thanks to the box white America has sealed them in, Oliver made way for one unidentified man’s summation. “It’s an infringement. It’s a violation of our human dignity because they don’t view us as individuals, as human beings.”

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.