Designer Alexander Wang at the Fall 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.
There's a lot to love about being Asian. At least that's what my parents liked to say when my sister and I ever complained about doing anything culturally strenuous. We were lucky to be different, they'd remind us. Not everyone got to watch Chinese cable, enjoy exotic crisps or experience sarcasm in a different language.
But even as a child, I knew it was a bitter-sweet kind of luck -- like surviving a bad strain of typhoid or saying “at least we have our cousins” when we’re yet to befriend anyone. At school, our teachers did their best to be kind. They kept a straight face when I expressed my confusion over a TV show I thought was called “Married... to children” and simply nodded when I said my favourite hoppy was table tennis. Still, it was an awkward time. And I was both grateful and embarrassed by any special treatment.
One of the interesting things about living a cultural double-life is the relative fluidity of your identity. As author and philosopher Alain de Botton once wrote, “Everyone returns us to a different sense of ourselves, for we become a little of who they think we are.”
Designer Alexander Wang and Carine Roitfeld attend the 2012 CFDA Fashion Awards at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Getty Images
I was reminded of this when I read about Alexander Wang’s recent appointment as Balenciaga's new creative director. Given the high profile position, it's no surprise that Wang has been thrust into the media spotlight. But instead of his high fashion accolades (of which there are many), the conversation soon switched to the 'real reason' he was hired. According to seasoned reporters, things simply didn't add up. How could "a young designer of street smart clothing" be chosen to head up a luxury brand like Balenciaga?
Eventually, Suzy Menkes of New York Times thought she might have cracked the mystery: "The real secret behind Mr Wang's appointment may lie in his ties to China. He speaks Mandarin, and Balenciaga has expanded rapidly in China in recent years."
Indeed, the consensus is that Wang has somehow been given a career boost because of his Asian heritage. Despite the fact that the 29-year-old was born in San Francisco and lives in New York city, suddenly all that mattered was his ethnicity.
Celebrated Asian-American designers, Thakoon Panichgul and Jason Wu, featured in a 2009 New Yorker story.
Was this some kind of reverse racial privilege? Were other designers being sidelined because they lacked the so-called "Chinese connections" that every high end retailer so badly needs in order to protect their bottom line?
Fashion blogger and academic Minh-Ha Pham dissected the media's reaction in a brilliant piece on Huffington Post". In all of these speculations about Wang's appointment, neither creative talent nor business acumen are offered as possible explanations."
Media analysis of the rise of Asian American chefs. Source: The Braiser
“It seemed that no one in fashion remembered that just a few years ago Wang and his cohort of Asian-American designers were being praised as the new face of American fashion. Instead, racially-motivated suspicions about Wang's appointment had become the accepted truth.”
Perhaps more tellingly, race is rarely brought up as a reason to justify the success of designers of other cultural backgrounds. “There was no mention of Michael Kors' "Swedish connections" when he was named creative director of the legendary French fashion house Celine. Likewise, the ethnic backgrounds of Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford were never made issues when they took over at Louis Vuitton and Gucci, respectively. Anyone suggesting that ethnicity was a factor in these American designers' appointments as heads of European companies would have been rightfully laughed off as joke,” writes Pham.
So why is the fashion world so hung up on Wang’s ‘Asian privilege’? Turns out, there is a (surprisingly) logical explanation for this. Dr Fiona Barlow, social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at University of Queensland, explains that it’s a way for a dominant social group to rationalise the success of newcomers.
“When someone from a cultural minority succeeds in a domain where they traditionally haven’t – be it an Aboriginal Australian, an Asian Australian, or a woman – it’s easy [for their achievement] to be quickly and effectively explained away as some sort of special advantage.”
According to Barlow, the belief that members of minority groups are given special privileges is an example of what’s called “modern racism”. “These days, people are strongly discouraged from voicing overt, racist believes and so [any discrimination] must become more covert. Saying that certain [ethnic groups] are given privileges that they don’t deserve is one of the ways of voicing negative race-based attitudes.”
This selective focus on race is problematic, not least because it robs people of their individual identity but also because it invalidates real achievement by anyone who isn’t considered to be in the social ‘in groups’.
Think of the myriad reports on Asian students “overtaking” the education system; or the rise of trendy FABs (Female, Asian, Bloggers) covering the ins and outs of international food and fashion scenes. Not to mention the spate of stories last year about the “hipster Asian chef” phenomenon.
According to Dr Rosalind Chou, sociology professor and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, this kind of racial framing – in spite of the ostensibly positive spin – still supports racism “because people in those groups don't get to be individuals, they are seen as externally imposed stereotypes.”
And while there are definitely valid sociological and historical factors behind the prominence of certain cultural groups in different industries (some fascinating examples can be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers), bundling individual success as a “cultural trend” is ultimately damaging – as it implies that like all fads, it’s merely a passing phase.
The fact is, race-based inequality exists. As writer Tina Nguyen points out in The Braiser, while there are a growing number of non-white faces at the top of the food and fashion industries, there is still a “woeful” under-representation of Asian-Americans in areas like politics and entertainment – a pattern that’s mirrored in Australia.
“People assume that there are things like ‘reverse racism’ or ‘reverse racial privilege’, but frankly the power dynamics have not been reversed,” says Chou.
“In this era, we have myths that we are "post-racial" and that racism no longer exists... So, any attempts by people of colour to highlight racial inequality occurs, the current political climate has little tolerance for it and the [assumption] is that they are playing the "race card" or are "too sensitive."
There's no doubt that having an open and honest dialogue about race is both important and necessary. But as the recent reports on Alexander Wang show, sometimes it's just as crucial to question why we’re talking about it in the first place.