Is there such a thing as 'Asian privilege'?

Designer Alexander Wang at the Fall 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

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.

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?

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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 <i>New Yorker</i> story.

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

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.

 

44 comments

  • All's fair in love, war... and fashion business.

    Commenter
    c1ee
    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 8:38AM
    • Hmmm, being able to reach Chinese consumers is a logical and savvy reason to hire Alexander but come on other appointments in the fashion industry also have reasons other than talent. Didn't anyone notice that Stella McCartney can't design her way out of a paper bag? In fact a paper bag is usually her inspiration. And hey, in the Australian film industry you don't need talent to get funded, just a mediocre track record will do it or a mate at a funding body who also works at your production company. And so on it goes. I haven't seen Alexander's work but if he's got the goods then it is just plain rude to go on about his ethnicity.

      Commenter
      Aloysia
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:01AM
      • Jeez Aloysia, that's a bit rough - do you own any Stella McCartney pieces? Sure, her vegan-friendly shoes aren't quite my cup of tea, but she tailors a mean pair of pants, and she's got the pattern-making chops to back it up- graduated from Central St Martin, a pretty impressive little institution where even daddy's cash can't buy you a degree. At the end of the day i do agree with you though, fashion is a serious business that make a lot of money, and so, like any other corporation, it makes sense to hire strategically- why do you think Dior got rid of enfant-terrible Galliano so quickly after his anti Semitic comments?

        Commenter
        sophie
        Location
        melbourne
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 2:57PM
    • A though-provoking read. I must admit I had noticed how many Asian background females are so incredibly stylish / into blogging, and had not realised it could be thought of as almost reverse-racism to collectively note this; the other day in a bakery I saw an Asian girl in a gorgeous blouse in a style I cannot find yet have been looking for, and I thought she is so stylish, I guess she bought the blouse overseas. I had genuinely thought it was a compliment, yet I can now see how this line of thinking can also enhance stereotypes.

      Commenter
      SJ
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:06AM
      • I'd not necessarily agree SJ. I occasionally see women around Melbourne dressed in the classic Shibuya style. It suits Japanese women in particular as they have a certain gentle manner, colouring and sense of style which allows them to carry it so beautifully. They are soft and feminine, and look innocently pretty. Put a Caucasian woman in the same clothes and the look is totally different - sadly tarty, mismatched, and it makes them look rather pasty. I don't see that perception as stereotyping, rather as recognising the ability of a certain cultural group to developed a style that suits their colouring, physical build and manner. Same could be said for the elegant Sudanese women - spectacular flowing and brightly coloured dresses and headwear. Same dress on a Caucasian woman would likely look silly, as the physical build and colouring are so different that it would not suit.

        It's diversity and there's nothing wrong with recognising each for their sense of style which works beautifully for them.

        Diversity should be celebrated, rather than worrying about feigned political correctness and harboring guilt for admiration of someone who is simply delightful. Cosmetic companies are not accused of racism because they provide shades for skins of different colour. Perhaps we should apply that same logic to everyday observations and realise that recognising difference is not always racism.

        Commenter
        Shibuya girl
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 2:15PM
      • Hi Shibuya Girl, you have actually written thoughts very similar to mine very eloquently :). What I was trying to say was not that what I personally have perceived as paying a compliment to a group of people with gorgeous style was meant as anything but this, however I can see where Dr Rosalind Chou above comes from when she said "this kind of racial framing – in spite of the ostensibly positive spin – still supports racism". It is interesting how different minds interpret statements differently!

        Commenter
        SJ
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 2:33PM
      • @Shibuya girl February 18, 2013, 2:15PM The colour of your skin does not affect style. There is no relationship between the two. Japanese girls are more commonly seen in Shibuya but you don't have to be Japanese to wear it or, as it happens, Asian to wear something Asian - inspired. I hate to tell you but Japanese girls don't have a monopoly on being "soft", "feminine" or "innocently pretty". I've seen Caucasian girls rock this look.

        Commenter
        Ronni23
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 4:29PM
      • @ Ronni23 ... giggle

        Commenter
        Shibuya girl
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 18, 2013, 7:12PM
    • It's sad how people don't see an individual for their raw talent but only see their backgrounds to judge. Asians have always been a quite achiever but at the same time have been underdogs for so many years and now these young asians who have built their own identity is still been stereo typed. It's about time people realize the racial background is no longer an excuse or reason for anything. With all these racial mixed marriages that's been happening over a century who knows how many of us have Asian blood or caucasian blood.

      Commenter
      AC
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:38AM
      • @AC - "Asians have always been a quite achiever", "these young asians who have built their own identity is still been stereo typed"

        Sounds like you're indulging exactly the same behavior, stereotyping all Asians as 'quiet achiever(s)'. A stereotype is a stereotype. Full stop. You can't criticise someone for negatively stereotyping a group when you defend that group with a positive stereotype.

        I saw the same thing in an SMH article about India where the writer was disputing the stereotype that Indian men were sexist by providing her own stereotype that Indian men went out of their way to be very nice to traveling women and were, by-and-large, perfect gentlemen.

        It's the same with any kind of racism or prejudice. It's always assumed that there is racism and sexism towards anyone who isn't a white male but the idea that an Asian person or a female could be given special, advantageous treatment is thrown out as being racist itself. It seems that if a white male is successful then it is because society is favouring white males. If an Asian or female is successful then it is just because of raw talent and experience and nothing else. Or more, they are assumed to be even MORE talented and hard working as they broke through the supposed white-male club.

        While it is be wrong to assume that any kind of racial privilege exists, it is equally wrong to assume that it doesn't.

        Lastly, but most importantly, there is no such thing as 'reverse racism'. Racism is racism, end of story. You don't have to belong to a majority group to be racist. Likewise sexism.

        In fact, this affair is quite similar to the Nova Peris circus. Selected for being indigenous over the top of someone with more experience. That's racism.

        Commenter
        Reg
        Date and time
        March 01, 2013, 12:11PM

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