When Pro-Asian American Feels Anti-Black

Writer Latonya Pennington says that as a Black Asian person, she can't enjoy the racist undertones in many prominent Asian American films

For many years, the relationship between Black American communities and Asian American communities has been complicated, to say the least. On the one hand, there have been historical and current examples of solidarity, such as the activism between the Asian American Political Alliance and the Black Panther Party. On the other, some of the Asian American community has also perpetuated anti-Blackness during incidents such as the murder of Cyrus Carmack-Belton. As a result of white supremacy, some Asian Americans end up being anti-Black in order to fit into American ideals that divide and harm people of color.

In fact, the shaky relationship between Black American and Asian American communities is amplified further in recent Asian American media, which is so strongly supported by the AA+PI community for its representation, but has an undercurrent of anti-Blackness. A recent example is the Netflix show Beef, of which acclaim has been overshadowed by anti-Blackness displayed by supporting actor David Chloe. The actor recounted raping a Black female masseuse on a 2014 podcast, but passed it off as shock humor. Writer Soliel Ho remarks, "To uncritically embrace 'Beef' for what it gives to the Asian American community shows that we’re on board with rape culture and with misogyny, especially against Black women. To embrace it shows that we’re willing to let others pay the price for our feelings of validation and belonging."

For people like me with both Black and Asian heritage, anti-Blackness in Asian media is especially difficult when we already must deal with anti-Asian and anti-Black racism from white Americans, as well as anti-Blackness from the Asian American community. It is also worth mentioning that among the Black community, I have mostly seen calls for solidarity with the Asian community, as seen in places like Van Jones' op-ed on historical Black-Asian collaborations. However, there are some Black Americans who are exasperated with the Asian American community for their failure to address anti-Blackness.

For people like me with both Black and Asian heritage, anti-Blackness in Asian media is especially difficult when we already must deal with anti-Asian and anti-Black racism from white Americans, as well as anti-Blackness from the Asian American community.

I’m generally hoping for any reprieve in anti-Black sentiment in Asian American mediasometimes it’s the most popular films that I’m shocked by the most. Such was the case in the 2020 film The Paper Tigers and the 2022 film Turning Red, both of which had an element of anti-Blackness that made it hard for me to fully enjoy the stories.

Directed and written by Bao Tran, The Paper Tigers is an action comedy-drama about three middle aged former kung-fu prodigies: Danny (Alan Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykkel Shannon Jenkins). When their old master is mysteriously murdered, the three titular characters must reunite, resolve old grudges, and balance their jobs and dad duties while figuring out the culprit.

At first glance, this seemed like a harmless fun film in the vein of the Rush Hour movie series starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. A major reason that the film piqued my interest is because there aren't a lot of kung-fu movies that feature middle-aged lead characters (or characters with kung fu skills as well as everyday jobs). Although there is heart in the film when it comes to the interactions between the lead characters, the character arc for Danny, and some comedic scenes, these are hindered by the somewhat problematic portrayal of Jim, the film's Black character.

While Jim is one of the titular Paper Tigers and a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu trainer, his martial arts skills aren't given a lot of screen time. In fact, his most notable scenes are when the Three Tigers confront a group of young Asian punks who took a picture in front of their master's portrait during his funeral. Not only does Jim barely manage to defeat his opponent due to being out of practice, but he also gets called the N-word by one of the punks beforehand.

Although Danny and Hing also barely win their fights due to different circumstances, seeing Jim do this felt bittersweet after seeing him get called the N-word. There was no need for Jim to be called the N-word, because there are other ways to trash talk without resorting to anti-Blackness. Given how all the Tigers have aged, it would've been better for Jim to be mocked for this rather than his race.

There was no need for Jim to be called the N-word, because there are other ways to trash talk without resorting to anti-Blackness. Given how all the Tigers have aged, it would've been better for Jim to be mocked for this rather than his race.

Another issue that Jim's portrayal had was how the character seemed to only be there for comedic relief and moral support. One scene captures this when Hing and Jim eat out at a diner and reminisce about what their master gave them. Jim asks, "Danny got kung fu, you got healing skills, and what did I get?" Hing replies something along the lines of, "The best piece of chicken." which refers to how their master was a good cook. Even though the film primarily focused on Danny in terms of character arcs, Hing was still allowed to shine as a healer and as a former kung fu prodigy. However, Jim doesn't receive the same treatment, with the only other prominent scene occurring when he acts as referee for the final fight in the film with Danny and the main antagonist.

Given how Hing is incapacitated before the final fight of the film, Jim being in good condition seems like something to be grateful for. However, when considered alongside past depictions of Black Americans in Asian American martial arts films, this is the bare minimum. Jim could've had more comedic moments and kick butt moments like the character Carter from the Rush Hour movies. Instead, Jim feels more like a background character than a lead in The Paper Tigers, making the happy ending of the film feel somewhat unearned.

Jim could've had more comedic moments and kick butt moments like the character Carter from the Rush Hour movies. Instead, Jim feels more like a background character than a lead in The Paper Tigers, making the happy ending of the film feel somewhat unearned.

Yet anti-Blackness isn't solely found in certain live action Asian American films. Even animated films such as the 2022 film Turning Red can contain anti-Blackness through their characters. Directed by Domee Shi, the film is about a 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee, whose family curse causes her to turn into a giant red panda whenever she experiences a strong emotion. While the film does a great job at depicting intergenerational trauma, puberty, and female friendships, it also unintentionally perpetuates anti-Blackness through two of its characters, Tyler-Baker Nguyen and Miriam Mendelsohn.

When we are introduced to Tyler, he is a bully to Mei Ling and her friends Priya, Miriam, and Abby. He first calls her an "overachieving dork narc" and gets worse as the film progresses. After Mei Ling's mom humiliates her in front of her crush Devon, Tyler spreads gossip about the incident and puts up posters about it at their school. However, a more insecure side to Tyler is shown when Mei Ling's red panda form makes her popular. In order to get people to come to his birthday party, Tyler blackmails Mei Ling to come as the red panda.

At Tyler's birthday party, his ethnicity is shown to be Black-Asian when his Black dad and Asian mom arrive to shut down the party after Mei Ling attacks him in panda form. To have one of the only Black-Asian characters bully the lead female character for most of the film is distasteful.

The only other Black-Asian character is 4-Town boy band member Aaron Z, who doesn't have a lot of screen time. While Tyler does eventually befriend Mei Ling and her friends when he is revealed to be a 4-Town fan, he deserved more than redemption.

In fact, Tyler's role could've been swapped with that of Miriam Mendelsohn, the singing tomboy white girl character who is one of Mei Ling's best friends. Miriam frequently uses phrases associated with Black American culture, such as when she says to Abby, "Hook a sister up." Even if she is just using words she heard from Black kids, it feels uncomfortable to hear as a Black-Asian person because it feels like she is using Black slang as a prop to sound cool.

Having a Black-Asian character be a bully for most of the film and a white girl as one of the lead characters closest friends is anti-Black. It unconsciously sends the message that a Black-Asian person isn't good enough for a non-mixed Asian person to befriend, but a white person is.

Moreover, having a Black-Asian character be a bully for most of the film and a white girl as one of the lead characters closest friends is anti-Black. It unconsciously sends the message that a Black-Asian person isn't good enough for a non-mixed Asian person to befriend, but a white person is. Having Tyler be one of Abby's best friends and Miriam be the bully would fix this by teaching kids the importance of mixed gender friendships and confronting racist bullying in addition to the power of female friendships.

Although they are two different films, The Paper Tigers and Turning Red are reflective of the ongoing anti-Blackness displayed by some Asian Americans due to white supremacy. White supremacy and anti-Blackness cause the ongoing violence between Black and Asian communities. It's not always blatant as an Asian person calling a Black person the N-word either. It can also be subtle, such as what I've personally experienced with having my accomplishments questioned or being made to feel like my natural hair was something to be scared of.

In order for anti-Blackness to be eliminated from the Asian American community, we must acknowledge how white supremacy impacts Asian Americans and Black Americans while pitting us against each other. One way that this occurs is through the exclusion of Black-Asian people like myself, who must deal with anti-Blackness from Asian Americans and anti-Asian racism from white Americans. A recent example of how Black Asians are mistreated in multiple ways is Robert Peterson, the Black-Korean son of Yong Ae Yue, one of the victims of the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings. By acknowledging the experiences of Black-Asians in the Asian American community, we can start difficult conversations about anti-Blackness and celebrate our cultural diversity.

In order for anti-Blackness to be eliminated from the Asian American community, we must acknowledge how white supremacy impacts Asian Americans and Black Americans while pitting us against each other.

Another method to combat white supremacy’s influence on Asian and Black Americans is to support causes that aim for cross-cultural solidarity. One of the causes that I follow is Blasian March, the solidarity movement for Black, Asian, and Blasian communities founded by Rohan Zhou Lee, who is Jamaican-Chinese-Indian. Another valuable cause is Asian for Black Lives, a resource part of the Asian American Advocacy Fund that aims to inform and educate about Black-Asian solidarity.

While white supremacy attempts to divide Black and Asian Americans in Asian American media and everyday life, it doesn't have to succeed. By recognizing the flaws in specific films, as well as white supremacy's systemic impact, the Asian American community can move forward towards a better future.

Published on November 21, 2023

Words by Latonya Pennington

Latonya Pennington is a freelance contributor and poet. Their work has discussed pop culture through the lens of race, gender identity, and queerness and can be found online at Into More and Popverse, among others. Check out more of their work on their website Words From A Penn.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.