Aziz Ansari is Not Emmett Till, Nor the Straw Man of Asian American Masculinity
Let’s interrogate the politic of comparing Aziz Ansari to Emmett Till.
A storm of articles has appeared over the last 48 hours regarding the account published by Babe magazine on the disturbing encounter between Aziz Ansari and a young woman who, in the account, is simply called “Grace.” A large majority of these articles, particularly the ones published in mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times and the Atlantic, have rushed to Ansari’s defense, accusing “Grace” of enacting “revenge porn,” and merely “exaggerating” an episode of “bad sex,” which, they claim, she should have had the foresight and/or common sense to resist.
Among the arguments put forth in defense of Ansari — surprisingly by many whites, perhaps in an eager bid to prove themselves NotRacist™ — is the one that claims Grace used her status as a white woman to damage and discredit the career of a man of color (Ansari is a Brown south Asian man). Although no reference to Grace’s racial identity was given in the original account, many subsequent articles have assumed Grace to be white because of Ansari’s history of dating mostly white women. Regardless, though no facts are known for sure about Grace’s racial identity, this has been the narrative: a white woman played up her helplessness in order to disempower a man of color.
So let’s begin with the phrase “man of color.” This encompasses a rather large and diverse category of people who, at least in the United States, have historically had quite distinct relationships to both masculinity and whiteness as such. It is true that there has been a long and painful history of white women wielding their whiteness in violent ways against Black men and boys specifically. Throughout the history of the American south, there were countless documented cases of white women fabricating or exaggerating stories about being assaulted or harassed by Black men or boys, which resulted in tragic and fatal consequences for the latter.
The case of Emmett Till is perhaps the most well-known and egregious example of this phenomenon, in which a white woman lied about a 14-year old Black boy whistling at her in public. As a consequence, Till was murdered by two white men in the most brutal way imaginable. Because Blackness as such is hyper-masculinized within the U.S. racial order, Black boys and men have historically been portrayed by white people as dangerous, violent, or criminal, and white women have capitalized on this trope by exaggerating their own “innocence” and “helplessness” in order to skew the balance of power further in their favor.
Meanwhile, Asian American men have had a different relationship to masculinity. If Black men have been hyper-masculinized in our culture, Asian American men have been hypo-masculinized—that is, feminized or seen as less masculine than the desirable (i.e. white) standard.
Constructions of Black and Asian men’s masculinity as either “too masculine” (i.e. dangerous/violent/criminal) or “not masculine enough” (i.e. unthreatening/weak/compliant) are both racist because they are framed only in reference to white masculinity as the middle standard. Not surprisingly, Asian American men’s critiques of racism have often amounted to protesting the way in which they are constantly “emasculated” under white supremacy. The problem with this appeal is that it still frames white masculinity as the desirable standard into which they (Asian American men) should be rightfully included.
But since white masculinity is an inherently violent and misogynistic construction, when Asian American men appeal for inclusion into white manhood, they also enact the same kinds of violent and misogynist tendencies that white men have been socialized to enact. White masculinity is a set of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes based on the idea that one is inherently entitled to or deserving of things—including and especially women’s bodies. What, then, does it mean for Asian American men to complain about being “emasculated,” when the very notion of American masculinity itself is so steeped in violence against women’s bodies?
Thus, when Asian American men are given public platforms from which to speak on racial issues, they have often failed to include Asian American women in their general discussions of racism. Although numerous examples could be drawn here, one could point to online platforms such as Love Life of an Asian Guy, or Angry Asian Man, both of which have mounted remarkable forms of misogyny against Asian American and Black women despite their professed “feminist” and “anti-racist” positions.
On TV personality Eddie Huang, Mark Tseng-Putterman has noted that “in working to counter their racial emasculation, some Asian American men may seek to reaffirm their own masculinity in problematic ways – namely, by conflating masculinity with misogyny, and practicing “manhood” through the objectification, violation, and conquest of women.” He continues: “the popularity of pickup artist/dating coaches amongst Asian American men and the unfortunate tendency for some Asian American men to shame Asian American women who choose to date non-Asian partners…are examples of how attempts to counter Asian emasculation can become oppressive forces themselves.”
So let’s return to Aziz Ansari and the argument that when Grace, a (presumed) white woman, reported her encounter with Ansari to the press, she was attempting to enact the same kind of “damage” against Ansari as white women have historically done to Black men. Let’s interrogate the politic of comparing Ansari, a 34-year-old Asian American celebrity with a multi-million dollar net worth, to Emmett Till, a 14-year old Black boy in mid-20th century rural Mississippi whose body was mutilated by armed white men. What exactly are we saying when we lump these two cases together under the phrase “men of color”?
Considering Ansari’s own history of espousing anti-Black views, both in his stand up comedy sketches and in his TV series, where does this comparison leave us? Oh, right: it leaves us with the co-optation of Black trauma by non-Black people, yet again, for the purposes of protecting those in power. It leaves us with the racist assumption that all “men of color” must be the same. It leaves us with a twisted application of intersectional analysis to a situation of unambiguous violence against another victim of sexual assault.