U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan posted a photo on Instagram Saturday, a selfie with a large number of interns. The caption reads, “I think this sets a record for the most number of #CapitolHill interns in a single selfie. #SpeakerSelfie.” The snark (I’m avoiding words like “outrage” and “furor” because they seem like hyperbole in a realm where hyperbole is the default, and I’d rather not play along) was swift and cynical: comments on IG included “Everything wrong with the Hill,” “Republican = zero diversity,” and “Smile if you like Nickelback.”
That last one’s only peripherally relevant, but I thought it was funny.
The snark was followed, of course, by people combing the photo for people of color, in order to come up with anti-snark. One person in my social stream reports there are “a few Asians and one African American” in the photo. Depending on how many “a few” is, the actual numbers might be enough to counter any charges of privilege or whatever. Our eyes can deceive us, and maybe the Asians in this photo are like that dropped iPhone nobody can locate on the carpet, or maybe they’ve humbly taken their positions near the back, where they’re difficult to spot, because that’s what we do.
I understand that we have all kinds of representation issues across many realms of culture and society. I understand that some effort should be made by influencers to give us a more accurate picture of (and a more active role in shaping) the America we know. I understand that there’s something to be said about the difference between Ryan’s photo and this photo of interns serving Hawaii’s Congresspeople, tweeted by Senator Mazie Hirono two and a half years ago:
— Senator Mazie Hirono (@maziehirono) December 11, 2013
I understand that I grew up in a state whose last five governors were Japanese, English-Irish-German, Jewish, Filipino, and Hawaiian, and that I don’t know what it’s like to be the only Asian in school, or to be excluded from stuff because of the color of my skin. But I know what it’s like when people incorrectly assume stuff about me because of my appearance.
I’m hapa, and while hapa has a look, the way Asian has a look, just about everyone I know agrees that I don’t have it. I look like my mom, who is from a small town in southern Japan, not like my dad, whose parents are Italian, German, and Irish. My sister looks much more like my dad, and I hate to say it, but in a place like Hawaii, that’s proven to be an unfair disadvantage once in a while.
I would like to remind us all that we cannot tell how many Asians, Africans, or hapas are in that Paul Ryan selfie, and although a reasonable conclusion might be drawn, that conclusion is shorthand for an issue that’s too important to be bolstered by convenient assumptions based on appearance when convenient assumptions based on appearance are the very thing Asian Americans hope to end. That photo could be filled with Asians and Africans, and snarkers wouldn’t know it because it’s easier to judge others by the color of their skin than by the content of their family trees.