Successes and Shortcomings within the Fight for Racial Justice

In light of Chou’s final chapter about how to address structural oppression, I look to Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, which, though riddled with less than perfect characters who I hate to relate to, does some of this work. A couple of the characters in Shortcomings attempt to battle oppression at a personal level, with the graphic novel itself working to battle oppression at the structural level. It is important to recognize the work that Tomine does chipping away at structural oppression, even if no piece of art can be perfect.

In the scene where Miko confronts Ben about the type of porn he watches, Miko critiques the white racial frame. With the comparison that Ben makes to being stranded on a desert island and not dreaming about sun and sand, he suggests that he is stuck with Miko and simply dreaming about what he can’t have. This reveals deeper insecurities Ben has about being with white women, which we see later on, and his sense that being with a white woman prove some type of ultimate success. Miko points out his obsession with the “Western media beauty ideal” but she has a hard time getting through to him and introducing an alternative counter-frame. Chou might suggest that this is because of a lack of collective memory among Asian Americans, which makes it harder for Ben and Miko to connect since they’ve had such different histories with racial oppression. We don’t know much about Miko, but we do know that Ben doesn’t see himself as having faced oppression at all. Chou says that occupying the middle rung in the racial hierarchy sometimes complicates matters for Asian Americans because they are seen as being treated more fairly than other Americans of color, however they still face discrimination (186), and recognizing this can help build coalitions with other minorities within the “anti-oppression frame.” This strategic essentialism, as Lowe discusses,  can be a positive way to fight oppression. In one of the first scenes where Ben is talking to Alice, Alice tries to point out that he is refusing to see how he has been discriminated against, only for Ben to cut her off. Though he is right that he should not blame all of his problems on racism, maybe recognizing some of the ways he’s been discriminated against would help him understand Miko’s attempts to introduce a counter-frame.

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Chou also discusses the importance of working to construct your own identity and self-definition, as a way of refusing the messages of inferiority and inadequacy that the media throws on Asian Americans (186). Though Miko struggles within her relationship with Ben, Tomine portrays her as having some growth in the end. During the scene when Ben confronts her about her new relationship, we get her side of the story for the first time. When she first leaves Ben at the airport (36-37), we have no text. All we see is Ben walking her in and then walking out alone. We are made to feel a little bad for him as we see him sitting alone in his car and imagining Miko excitedly off on her journey. However, during the later confrontation, Miko tells her side of the conversation that we never saw. The act of giving her a voice when she didn’t have one before, gives her more agency and self-definition. In this scene, she also addresses what made her leave the relationship and closes the door on him without continuing to listen to his critique of her new relationship. To me this action shows that she no longer needs his approval and doesn’t rely on anyone else to define who she is or who she is allowed to love.

Of the frames that Chou discusses to fight oppression at the structural level, as a whole Shortcomings works within the “reformative movement” (178). Tomine doesn’t overthrow the entire artistic and literary world, but he works within it to bring stories of the margins to the center. He centers the experiences of the Asian American characters, and by framing the white characters as a “type” rather than the norm, he decenters them. Furthermore, he doesn’t allow for a color-blind reading of the text. It’s not just a story that happens to feature Asian Americans, but it forces discussions and reflection on their unique experiences as Asian Americans. At the same time, Chou points out using the law example, that though working within the system to change laws has had some success, there is little enforcement by whites of the laws that people of color worked within the system to gain (179). In this same way, there is no way to force non-Asian Americans to read Shortcomings and even if they did, there is no way to force a critical reading of it. Without analysis, many of the characters are shallow and all are flawed, which could be perversely used to ignore or explain away oppression of Asian Americans.

Though Tomine’s piece isn’t perfect, centering characters who struggle with subtle oppressions and imperfect ways of dealing with them made it a relatable text for many people. Even if the characters aren’t perfect, they add another representation of Asian Americans to the huge ocean of mainstream media that rarely includes Asian Americans as the protagonists, and that act alone can help provide courter frames and a building point for people looking for media to help them in their personal struggle to fight oppression.

 

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