Ernie first brought our attention to the Mister Wong bookmarking site that used to employ as a logo a caricature of an Asian man with jaundiced skin and slanty eyes, reminiscent of the malicious political caricatures Americans drew once upon a time in history to support the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Mister Wong logo struck a sensitive nerve in many in our community and, in response, we voiced our concerns. Then, a tidal wave of unproductive and clearly abusive comments to Ernie’s post chastised 8A for “making a big deal out of nothing.”
At first blush, it did seem like Asians picked a rather insignificant fight in the much graver war against racism and discrimination. Recall the Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts depicting slanty-eyed Asians in cone hats and pulling rickshaws, accompanied by captions like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make it White.” College-level Asians in particular took up the battle and stomped up a storm about what A&F intended to be an innocent “multicultural” line of tees. Many communities here in the States felt that these Asian activists were overreacting and that, in short, Asian Americans are just hypersensitive about their image.
This accusation reminds me of a legal doctrine I learned in first year law school in a torts lecture: the Eggshell Skull rule. A person should be held accountable for the unforeseen even unusual injuries of another when that person intentionally or negligently causes harm to that other. Thus, if I clubbed someone in the head who had as a preexisting condition a skull as thin as an eggshell and his skull unexpectedly breaks, I would be liable for all damages resulting from my wrongful act, even if his eggshell skull wasn’t foreseeable to me, even if I barely knocked him on the head with my club and in fact had I done it to someone with a normally thick skull, nothing would have happened. You take your victims as you find them, the saying goes.
Here, Asians did NOT overreact. What appears to be our hypersensitivity really evinces our lingering pain from an enduring history of oppression, the subjection of our forefathers to coolie status, and memories of playground teasing when white kids pulled their eyelids taut and ran after the Asian kids yelling “ching chong ching.” We watch our immigrant parents struggle against unreasonable prejudice and discrimination. We hear repeatedly about hate crimes against our community. Almost every day, some otherwise minor occurrence ineluctably reminds us that Diasporic Asians are still second-class citizens. Mount all that together into what we’re forced to recognize as our cultural identity and maybe this will make it easier for others to understand why Mister Wong triggered, whether it intended to or not, a harrowing blast from the past.
I see the Mister Wong and even the A&F incident as analogous to the 2002 case at UVA where, during a lecture demonstrating a particular point, a law professor lightly tapped one of the students on her shoulder. He did this every year in this particular lecture to demonstrate his point, but this time, this particular student was hypersensitive to such touching. The tap flooded her with memories of being terrorized, raped and molested when she was 11 years old and living in her native land of Panama. In a similar constellation, for many Diasporic Asians, a seemingly harmless cartoony image of a yellow-faced man with slanty eyes floods us with memories of being ridiculed for how we look, who we are, and where we come from.
While I thank Mister Wong’s web team for taking substantial steps to alleviate and mediate, the overtly insulting responses to Ernie’s post were not constructive in any way whatsoever and only showed just how necessary it was for 8Asians to air our disturbance in an open marketplace of ideas.