Asiana Crash: the role of media in modern day racism
Where are you from?
This is a common question that many people of color are asked in the United States, where being American is still caught in a black/white binary. As a Korean American, I am often asked “are you North or South Korean” as a follow-up to the infamous where are you from? Why do these two questions go together like a 1-2 punch? It is because apart from being perceived as an “other,” despite being born in Detroit, my being of South Korean descent somehow brings both ease and increased friendliness to the well-intended American conversing with me.
On July 6th, every major news station was reporting live on the Asiana Airlines plane crash in San Francisco. The Boeing (yes, an American company) 777 plane crash reveals much more about ignorance and xenophobia in the United States than it does about supposed terrorist attacks.
Public Shaming has done a great job drawing our attention to a series of racist tweets resulting from the crash.
Despite the FBI stating there was no evidence of a terrorist attack, many Americans have decided to use their freedom of speech and sensationalism to showcase something we call racism. KTVU reports Flight 214 from Seoul, South Korea–not North Korea–had only 61 U.S. citizens on board of their total 291 passengers. Of the two killed, both held Chinese passports. Does any of this add up to an anti-American terrorist attack? No.
However, apart from acknowledging that widespread and pervasive racist attitudes exist, we have little hope for progress unless we address the historic roots of this racism along with our current misconceptions of global events and international relations. How can we unlearn what has been taught? How can we consume information from the media critically? How can we redefine what it means to be an American?
The practice of forming racial biases and sweeping generalizations against groups of people after tragedy strikes is nothing new. We see it with regards to increased islamophobia (targeting even Muslim Americans) post-9/11, we saw it with the Iran-hostage crisis that led to a backlash against Iranian Americans in the 70s, and we saw it with Pearl Harbor and the rush to put Japanese Americans into internment camps. Since these incidents, we have not moved past racism. Instead, we have allowed it to transform into “jokes”, making light of tragic events at the expense of those we consider less than fully American. Today, we’ve mastered the art of xenophobia in 140 characters or less.
In a rapidly paced digital world, it can be difficult to tread through the high volume of messages we receive. Twitter can share many accurate news sources along with many problematic messages. By no means does Twitter or any other social media platform create these problems; it actually showcases and allows us to pinpoint modern day racism. In a world that is supposedly post-racial, social media makes intangible biases and attitudes tangible.
All forms of media can shape the ways in which we consume and engage around critical issues. For example, films such as “Red Dawn” and “Olympus Has Fallen” continue to portray North Koreans as enemies to be feared. In “Olympus Has Fallen”, North Korean terrorists break into Olympus (the White House) by disguising themselves as South Korean diplomats for the sake of the reunification of North and South Korea- along with the destruction of the United States (aren’t we tried of this storyline?).
The above tweets from Public Shaming show that hatred towards North Koreans as a result of a fictional film can lead to real threats of violence against all Asians, including Asian Americans. How Asians are perceived in the media plays a large role in the words and actions taken against them. The media representation and historic sentiment built up behind these images have resulted in one thing: a cycle of violence in which perceived threats against Americans lead to real threats against people of color.
How are we to break this cycle? We need to look at how we respond to movies such as Red Dawn and Olympus, and how we translate it to our everyday lives. We need to take a hard look at ourselves and remember the difference between fact and fiction. A movie plot is not an excuse to go on Twitter account and post about “how we just want to punch an Asian” or any other race in the face. We know very well that a James Bond movie should not send us into a witch-hunt frenzy for British villains, so there is no reason that we should have these reactions whenever we see a Patriotic movie that glorifies hatred of a particular group.
It is interesting to note that whenever there a movie, media sensation, or world tragedy targets a minority group, there is an increased sense of nationalism in this country. Pure nationalism does not need to include hatred against another. So rather than asking meare you North or South Korean?, we should ask ourselves why it matters.