By Li Jun An
A Vietnamese-American doctor, David Dao, was brutalized by United Airlines on April 9. He lost two front teeth and suffered from a concussion after being beaten and dragged off the plane like an animal by airport security. But many people fail to recognize the degree to which Western culture, or Western “soft power,” played a role in the beating.
Western culture emphasizes the grandeur of whites and bolsters what can be called the “White Brand.” From their youth, American children read fairy tales such as Snow White with white male heroes; the trend continues in adulthood with larger-than-life leading men in Hollywood, many of which are white men. The American population – white, black, Hispanic, and Asian (non-whites make up 40 percent of America) – are trained to see whites as virtuous and of higher status.
In contrast, Western soft power dehumanizes Asians and Asian men, in particular. It’s not uncommon for American movies to depict Asians being killed en masse and for it to be shown as justifiable since they are portrayed as villainous, abusive, or misogynistic. Examples of this include The Wolverine and Lucy. In Lucy, the white female lead shoots a Taiwanese driver for not being able to speak English; this was meant to be comedic and some reports say that audiences laughed at the scene.
The steady stream of disparaging depictions leads to a subconscious dehumanization of Asians in the public mind. These socially constructed racial perceptions form the basis of interactions in America, including in the United Airlines incident.
Double standards abound in the United Airlines incident. It is hard to imagine that an American airline would physically beat a 69-year old, gray-haired white male physician, slamming his face into the headrest, knocking out two teeth and giving him a concussion if he passively objected to his removal from the flight. It’s more likely that he would be treated in a civil manner. Dao’s suffering is linked to the cultural dehumanization of Asians. It makes others see our rights and feelings as less worthy of consideration.
On the flight, witnesses saw other customers refuse to leave, but the flight attendants did not call security in those cases. But when Dao refused to leave, the flight attendant called security forces to remove him.
Why were flight attendants more aggressive toward Dao? Why did the tension escalate in his case but not with others? In Dao’s case, he even told the flight attendants that as a physician, he had patients he needed to see the next morning, making it crucial for him to stay on the flight. However, racial biases influence perception of threats and reactions toward defiance.
In the US, Asians are perceived as passive. Therefore, when an Asian defies this stereotype and expectation, the reaction can be indignation and anger.
Dehumanization not only influenced what happened to Dao, it affected how people respond to the incident. A passenger on the flight witnessed one of the police officers “laughing in the midst of the incident, to the violent, abusive way the passenger was dragged off the plane by the [other] officer.” Late-night TV host, Jimmy Kimmel turned this tragedy into a joke on his show. He’s the same host responsible for the “let’s kill everyone in China” skit in 2013. This is how Asians are stripped of their humanity; how anti-Asian crimes are downplayed while gaining tacit approval.
In the Western narrative, Asians are often villainized, even when victimized.
United Airline’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, initially refused to apologize, assuming Asians would not react strongly to the incident. It was only after the United Airline’s stock value fell by nearly $1 billion as a result of an uproar on Chinese media that he apologized – in Mandarin – in fear of losing business in China.
The fear of consequences is absolutely vital to combating Western disrespect toward Asians. It’s time Asian people everywhere stood up for themselves in matters big and small.
The author is a writer associated with Kulture Media, a media watchdog for Asian Americans. firstname.lastname@example.org