On the Token Asian in Get Out: a Look at Model Minorities and Conditional Tolerance

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Sink into spoilers: on the supplementary racial conversation.

In Jordan Peele’s hit horror Get Out, a minor character arrested my attention: a token Asian among the white cast in a narrative on black and white tensions. He’s deliberately planted at the not-so innocuous cocktail gathering in a crowd of hyper-amiable well-to-do whites uncannily and vocally fixated on the Blackness of the protagonist, Christopher.

Although Hiroki Tanaka (Yasuhiko Oyama) does not emerge into plot prominence, his fleeting appearance is like an asterisk planted in the conscience that grows into a full-fledged post-viewing speculation (along with the symbolism of the buck head and the tea cup). Disclaimer: Will I be right on the money about Peele’s directorial objectives? Maybe not. But if every shot calls for racial dynamic scrutiny, I will present my own interpretation.

Yasuhiko Oyama does not play a silent extra to fill in crowd shots. Peele affords him one scripted line. In a heed-able accent, Tanaka probes, almost philosophically, “Do you find being an African American an advantage or disadvantage?” It’s just one of the uncomfortable conversational quips aimed at Chris, but there’s less forced positivity and backhanded flattery than the white patrons’ over-complimenting of Chris’s specific features. Surrounded by probing white folks and unable to call out on their micro-aggressions, Chris is engulfed in a situational disadvantage. By contributing to the uncomfortable environment, an Asian man imposes a social power over a Black man.

Perhaps we can flip the uncomfortable question to: Is the Asian (American) experience an advantage or disadvantage?

The answer: complicated. And it’s linked to Chris’s disadvantage.

A token Asian man is reminiscent of the stereotyped model minorities.

Dressed well-off, Tanaka is integrated among the smiling cocktail-sipping pack as Chris glances apprehensively at his social surroundings. Unlike the U.S. population of Black people and Latinos/Hispanics, Asians Americans are considerably ingrained into the sphere of the model minority, those with financial and occupational achievements, sometimes exceeding the Whites’ income worth.

This model minority status granted Asian Americans paradoxical privilege that co-exists with racial disadvantages.

The Asian man is not an outsider to the white circle, but Peele visually cues in the man’s otherness status. During the bingo-auction scene, a keen viewer will discern that his bingo markers are yellow. Tanaka may be welcomed into the “In” crowd, but he doesn’t quite blend in.

Don’t let the model minority myth fool you. The high-income success narrative façade shrinks the repulsive aspects of Asian American experience, ranging from inequality in the workplace, hate crimes, and historical persecution.

The paradoxal privilege has enabled significant portions of the Asian American community a lack of empathy toward the plight of African Americans.

The Asian man is not a complacent bystander in the proceedings. Holding up his own bingo card at the bidding, he’s a participant without qualms.

African Americans and Asian Americans have endured racism, though their narrative history differ. Their experiences may contain parallels but are not identical on the whole.

Unfortunately, due to the privilege they have on the racial hierarchy, Asian Americans have displayed lack of responsiveness toward the plight of African Americans to the extent of complicity. One major example is the shooting of Akai Gurley by Chinese American NYPD officer Peter Liang. Instead of supporting the Black Lives Matter protest solitary, 10,000 Asian Americans took to the Brooklyn streets to defend the officer as a “Scapegoat.” The reality of the Asian American community’s motive is muddied. By defending Liang, they perceived themselves as fighting persecution against Asian Americans, which is all too-existent, yet they don’t prioritize the denser tragedy of an African American victimized by the faults of the police institution. In the end, they valued “justice” for an accountable living man over justice for a dead man and the victim’s bereaved family.

“Model minority” Asians get a sliver of white privilege (with conditions). But whites benefit more.

He may not 100% fit in, but the Asian man is morally blended with the white crowd and affluent enough to bid for a Black man.

Shoving the Asian American community atop an idealistic pedestal to valorize them as the minorities “who overcame it all” has festered this toxic assumption: If the Asian American minorities excelled to the top of the middle/upper-class American Dream without those damned excuses about systemic racism, why can’t the Black minorities be as hard-working and less complaining as those minorities? Such belief is attributed to the condescending op-ed of a Duke professor accusing social justice-active Black people of not integrating enough like the Asians.

Frank Wu, an Asian American law professor and author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, sums up the concept of the model minority: “[It] denies the reality of Asian American oppression, while accepting that of other racial minorities and poor whites. Model minority is a poisonous prize, because the stereotype will only be wielded in defense of the racial status quo.”

Declaring Asian Americans as the “white success bar” for minorities is conditional tolerance. It’s an indolent substitute for empathy and favors common qualities that align safely with viewpoints: As long as you behave within our comfort zones of what’s acceptable, as long as you don’t complain about social justice, we will tolerate you and claim you as “one of us.”

Here’s the hypothetical: If Tanaka won the auction for Chris, what would an Asian man have to gain in the body—the shell—of an African American man? Whatever the personal motive, the result would be this: an African American man loses his body, his autonomy, his life and dreams, but the Asian man benefits from a corporeal transaction orchestrated by a white culture, that will in turn, profit.

(image via Universal)

Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she enjoys acting in cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, and hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. She lends her snarky/scholarly mouth to Birth Movies Death and The Script Lab.

Come visit her blog and check out her no-nonsense writing and screenwriting services. She’s also lurking in the shadows waiting for you to follow her on Twitter or Tumblr and read her Star Wars fanfiction.

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