Lucy Liu: “I don’t know what it means to be ‘Asian’ because I am a person.”

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With the increasing attention being given to racial dynamics in the United States, it is likely impossible for People of Color to avoid discussions on race. In my experiences, a common case for these discussions is a white person spurring conversation (whether positively or negatively) by making it clear that they lack experience and/or knowledge on the topic. When encountering this agency, People of Color have an infinite spectrum of possible responses. According to Leslie Bow, however, the majority of these responses leans toward either a deconstructivist or a minoritizing approach (21). The overwhelmingly white media in the US has the same agency in bringing about responses. When Artists of Color make it into the mainstream media, their responses to spurs from the white majority are especially important because other People of Color are able to see them and because the media typically assumes their opinions to be representative of all other People of Color.

Image result for lucy liu elementary

This article from New York Magazine is a great example of the hegemonic media exercising agency to discuss race. The article discusses Lucy Liu’s reaction to a question she received while on a panel for the CBS show Elementary. The moderator, Mike Hale of the New York Times, provided what I would consider a relatively positive spur of the discussion on race; he asked how Liu felt “about the ‘whitewashing of Asian characters and stories,’ and her relationship to the show as an Asian actress.” I consider this question as only relatively positive because it doesn’t impose any ideas about Liu based on identity, rather it simply asks about her ideas based on identity. Of course, Hale should have recognized that Lucy Liu is Asian AMERICAN and not just Asian, but it is clear that this mistake was due to ignorance and not malice (I believe most of the negative spurs from the media, as mentioned before, are rooted in ignorant malice).

Liu starts her response by saying that she doesn’t appreciate always having an adjective before “artist,” whether the adjective is “woman” or “Asian-American.” As she elaborates, she states, “That disturbs me a bit. It’s never about the art itself, it’s about the adjective…I want to be acknowledged for my work, not for my ‘fill in the blank.’” These ideas from Liu align with a deconstructivist approach, as she seems to have a desire to dismantle the concept of difference through race. If she were to have stopped here in her response, I would understand her perspective, despite disagreeing. However, Liu goes even deeper and says “I don’t know what it is to be ‘Asian’ because I am a person. I am a human being.” I literally laughed out loud when I read this, then I had to read it a couple more times to be sure I read it correctly. Liu’s decision not to acknowledge race from her own perspective was surprising to me. She also doesn’t comment directly on being a woman in the television/film industry, let alone being a woman of color. This may have been caused by the moderator’s word choice in his question, though, as he prioritized her race over her gender. I view her perspective as a step past the deconstructivist approach, as a deconstructivist at least understands the effect that racial (and other) identity currently has on our experiences because the social system still values numerous constructs. Liu seems to be disillusioned, implying that racial (and other) differences in social identities do not have a permeating effect on every aspect of our lives. Her response can be connected to Bow’s Betrayal even further.

By refusing to acknowledge/embrace the idea of being Asian American, Lucy Liu betrays both the Asian American community and the hegemony. The former is the more obvious betrayal, as Liu has an extremely valuable position as an actor with the ability to reach a large number of people. Rather than speak on the blatant racism and sexism exhibited in the American media, Liu essentially renounces her Asian American identity. She also betrays the hegemony, however, by refusing to be presented as a token. I believe that by simply existing in the overly white, masculine-dominated spaces Liu exists in, she is liable to fall victim to tokenism. Instead of accepting the identities that the media imposes on her, she refuses to even identify as Asian American. This response likely stifles any attempt by the hegemony to discuss race when Lucy Liu is involved. Despite slightly hindering the hegemonic agenda, I still view Liu’s response as problematic.

When Artists of Color are presented with an opportunity to discuss any social construct/inequality, I typically expect them to acknowledge issue and give some form of commentary on the larger social system. Knowing this, one can be sure that I am disappointed with Lucy Liu’s response (and likely her racial lens as a whole). The only major issue I have with her response is that she seems to ignore the effects of having an identity that isn’t hegemonic. This ignorance can lead people to believe that we are already in a post-racial society, or at least that race doesn’t have the potential to cause detriment to some people and privilege others.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Ying says:

    I also found Lucy Liu’s repudiation of her Asian-American identity to be jarring, especially given her history of roles in Hollywood movies, as we saw in the documentary with her in Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill. Although her character in Elementary is more complex and her Asian-American identity is treated more respectfully than the aforementioned movies (we’re not seeing her in the arms of and yelling “Daddy” to an old white man nor do we see the caricature of the katana-wielding dragon lady), her character development and friendship with Holmes depict a post-racial society we, as you say, do not yet enjoy.

    Coming from a more severe Chinese mother who expected her to become and stay as a prestigious surgeon, by countering this familiar background by becoming a detective in a curious, non-romantic, alternatively intellectually stimulating relationship with a semi-hunky British man, it seems to be a productive move towards exploring Shimizu’s “infinity”, showing how this classic white male sidekick can become so much more dynamic and interesting as an Asian-American female equal. However, the fact that Joan Watson, in subscribing to this new lifestyle doesn’t really ever interact with others of her racial cohort, even having the surname “Watson” as a product of her mother’s remarriage to a white man, totally isolates her as an anomaly of Asian-American culture (of course, this is limited to my viewing of only the first two seasons).

    As someone who is used as an “audience surrogate” with a “point of view for women and people of colour” (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Characters/Elementary), her unrealistic character becomes a dangerous incentive to become complacent for the peoples she is seen to represent, especially if she believes in it herself.

    Liked by 1 person

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