On the Asian Guy in Get Out: Beyond Complicity
By Catherine Fung
In the year since the release of Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, the film has grossed more than $250 million worldwide and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Peele. Even after a year, my friends and I are still buzzing about the film. I don’t think another piece of popular culture in recent memory has sparked as much conversation about the workings of racism. As a person of color, I found the particular kind of fear and horror that the film produces all too familiar. Watching it with a predominantly Black audience and in the company of a friend/colleague who is also Black, I also sucked my teeth when the African American protagonist, Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya), broaches the question of whether his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) has told her parents that he’s Black, only to have her assure him that they’re not racist. I shook my head as Rose blithely put Chris in more danger when she self-righteously challenges a police officer’s request for his driver’s license. As Chris is literally and figuratively poked and prodded at an all-white cocktail party, I also smacked my forehead and muttered, “White people…” And as it is revealed that Rose’s seemingly liberal parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are running an operation to kidnap Black people and steal and inhabit their bodies, I was also yelling at the screen, “GET OUT!”
But at the same time that I was participating in a collective experience of watching and feeling this racial horror, I was also confronted with my awareness of the body that I occupy and my own position within our American racial landscape, particularly in a scene when one lone Asian character appears at the cocktail party. In the sea of white, this character, named Yasuhiko Oyama (played by Hiroki Tanaka), asks Chris in a heavy accent if being African American has “advantages or disadvantages.” He is later shown also making a bid for Chris during the bingo game/modern day slave auction.
As an Asian American, I cringed at this moment. Not only is an Asian character tokenized and portrayed so predictably as perpetually foreign, but moreover, he is portrayed here as participating in white racism. A few critics have contemplated why Peele would insert this Asian character in such a conspicuous way. Philip, writing for You Offend Me You Offend My Family, reads the scene as making a point about how Asians are just as culpable as whites in perpetuating anti-black racism. Olivia Truffaut-Wong, in a piece for Bustle, notes that the character’s foreignness points to the wide reach of racism and broadens the discussion of anti-blackness to an international scope. Ranier Maningding from NextShark gives a more detailed discussion of Asian participation in anti-black racism, citing both historical examples and contemporary ones, such as the crimes of Asian American police officers Daniel Holtzclaw and Peter Liang.
I applaud and echo these writers’ call for Asian Americans to recognize our complicity in anti-blackness. As a counterpoint to the civil unrest of the 1960s, Asian Americans have been designated the “model minority.” This construction, which is indeed a myth, is both a product and lever of white supremacy, so much so that even neo-Nazi dickbags will dub Asians “honorary whites.” Asian Americans must absolutely reject being placed in such a position. Instead of internalizing such exceptionalism and buttressing systemic racism, we must aggressively fight for racial justice and equality.
That being said, I find it curious that I’ve not found a single Asian American-penned review of Get Out that mentions examples of Asian Americans doing exactly that. It’s as if even the most “woke” of us forget that, historically, Asians have participated in fighting racism, not only for ourselves, but also alongside other people of color. Yuri Kochiyama is completely left out of the film Malcolm X (1992). Filipino American leaders like Larry Itliong are absent from the biopic Cesar Chavez (2014). The film Loving (2016), which dramatizes the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, makes no mention of the fact that the Japanese American Citizens League filed an amicus brief in support of Mildred and Richard Loving or the fact that the attorney serving as the JACL’s general counsel, William Muratani, gave an argument to the Court. I don’t take Jordan Peele to task for not including, say, an Asian American ally for Chris to serve as a counterpoint to Mr. Oyama; Black-Asian relations are not the point of the film. But I do wonder if the legibility of an Asian colluder in particular—and not, say, a Latino one, in spite of the existence of anti-blackness in Latinx communities or examples like George Zimmerman—is symptomatic of a larger refusal to see Asian Americans as anything but siding with whiteness.
Such a refusal also erases the ways in which Asians have also been victimized by white supremacy. I would suggest humoring another reading of the character of Mr. Oyama in Get Out, which is the possibility that he, too, has been kidnapped, and that, like the Black victims in the film, he is actually a white man in an Asian man’s body. The fact that, unlike the white participants in the bingo game/slave auction, Mr. Oyama’s card appears to be empty, suggests that there is something different about his positionality and investment in the bidding. After all, like Black bodies, Asian bodies have historically been exploited as a labor force. After the abolition of slavery, Chinese labor was imported to the American South as cheap labor to replace freed Blacks. A 1879 cover of Harper’s Weekly, which contains the dual title, “The Chinese Must Go” and “The Nigger Must Go” illustrates how anti-Black and anti-Chinese sentiment went hand-in-hand, as both Black and Chinese labor were seen as threats to white labor. Chinese men and boys were also subject to lynchings, and one of the worst in US history was the Chinese massacre of 1871.
This isn’t to say, of course, that African Americans and Asian Americans have been racialized in the same way; nor do I want to make any false equivalence between the kinds of racism that both groups face. That it seems unlikely or unfeasible that Mr. Oyama is a victim speaks to the particularities of how Black and Asian bodies are treated. Get Out addresses how Black men have long been fetishized in scenes where a white man grabs Chris’s arm to admire his musculature and a white woman asks him if it’s true that Black men have larger penises. Asian male bodies (penises included) are assumed to be smaller and weaker, not desirable. As such, in the scheme of the film, Mr. Oyama’s body would not be viewed as a purchasable commodity. Had the character been an Asian woman, however, her victimization would have been more plausible. Asian female bodies are routinely objectified and sexualized, not only in film and popular culture, but also in reality: Nearly two-thirds of human trafficking victims are from Asia, and victims of trafficking are predominantly girls and women. The insertion of a lone Asian female character in the cocktail party would read very differently; she could be a white man’s wife or mistress or a white woman inhabiting an Asian woman’s body for its exotic desirability. She could have also been on the auction block.
It is perhaps for this reason that I felt the horror of Get Out deep in my bones in spite of my occupying a different body from those represented in the film. I never presume to know what it feels like to be Black or to be subject to anti-Black racism. But I do know what it feels like to walk in a white-dominated world that seeks to both erase and exploit me, that will deride my culture and appropriate it. I love that the film has prompted me and my friends (of various racial/ethnic backgrounds) to continue conversations about what we felt and identified with in our viewing experience. I’d like to think that beyond acknowledgement of the differences in what we have to navigate, this shared experience is what solidarity begins to look like.
Catherine Fung is a former college professor-turned-English teacher at Lick-Wilmerding High School. She has published in the journals MELUS, SocialText, College Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and is working on a monograph on refugee narratives and interethnic/interracial solidarity. Based in Oakland, she is active in the group Asians4BlackLives.