Andrew Yang and His Comic Use of Asian American Stereotypes: At What Cost?

andrew yang

By Kathleen Kim ’23 and Gabriela Kim ’23

In a matter of a few months, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang went from being an unknown politician to arguably one of the most prominent Asian American political figures in history. Viewed as the “Internet’s Favorite Candidate” for his massive online following self-dubbed the Yang Gang, Andrew Yang has been getting more and more coverage on his candidacy and especially his proposal for a universal basic income. While Yang has received significant praise for this Freedom Dividend plan as well as other concise policies, he has also simultaneously received criticism from the Asian American community for his consistent usage of toxic Asian stereotypes.    

  Andrew Yang’s platform stands out from all the other Democratic candidates running for 2020 due to this unusual proposal of the freedom dividend. However, he is catching more and more media attention not only for his policies but for his embrace of Asian stereotypes. His most recent controversy dealt with comedian Shane Gillis, who “mimicked caricatures of Chinese accents … called it a hassle to have to speak to a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, [and] used a racial slur to refer to the entrepreneur Andrew Yang” (Stevens, 2019). In response, Andrew Yang tweeted on September 15th: “anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the n-word the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.” 

While Yang does make a statement disagreeing with Gillis’s inappropriate behavior, his tweet does something more than that: it compares Gillis’s insults to the racial slurs other minority groups face and the backlash that behavior would have had in order to advance his own argument. Critics condemned his comment, saying that it completely “[ignored] the nuances in how each group has been treated in the past” (Zhou, 2019). Yang’s tweet not only unconvincingly calls out Sean Gillis for his inappropriate use of Asian American stereotypes, but also dismisses the black minority and discredits the unfair stereotypes and mistreatments that they face. This raises the question of whether Andrew Yang really is the diverse and culturally-sensitive president many Americans hope he is.

To make matters worse, there are numerous cases where Yang gives voice to “humorous” remarks at the expense of Asians and Asian Americans. During the third Democratic Debate on September 13th, Yang quickly quipped, “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors” when he was questioned on the topic of the healthcare industry. He has also been recorded remarking “I’m Asian, so I love tests” and “I’m Asian, so you know I love to work” in multiple interviews. Even his campaigning merchandise appeals to Asian American stereotypes, with the acronym MATH, which stands for “Make America Think Harder” and clearly parallels Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) trademark. Finally, to top it all off, Andrew Yang nonchalantly mentions in an interview with NBC, “I’m the opposite of Trump, an Asian man who likes math” (Bowden, 2019). When interviewed on these controversial comments, the entrepreneur replies:

“The Asian American community is very diverse, and certainly I would never claim that my individual experience would speak to the depth and the breadth of our community… At the same time, I think Americans are very smart and that they can actually see right through that kind of myth. And if anything, by poking fun at it, I’m making Americans reflect more on it,” (Zhou, 2019).

The presidential candidate makes a valid point in his reply that yes, the Asian American community is indeed quite diverse, and yes, his personal experiences certainly does not speak for those of all other Asian Americans. However, his “poking fun” might not make “Americans reflect more on it” as he hopes; it is actually more likely to reinforce these toxic tropes that Asian Americans already struggle with. His comments do more than bring a “humorous” effect — it hurts Asian Americans by confirming long-standing racist stereotypes and has deleterious effects on his campaign, especially amongst the Asian American population. Unlike what he claims, not all Asian Americans “like math,” “know a lot of doctors,” “love tests,” or “love to work.” In fact, his words create a toxic environment for Asian Americans who are expected to fit into the characteristics of the model minority. Even though Yang claims this is all in good heart and should be taken light-heartedly, Asian American stereotypes are not a light enough issue to be used as punch lines nor are they what his candidacy should be framed around.

Furthermore, his comments bring up the question: who is his platform appealing to? Seeing all of the insensitivity these comments pose, he is clearly not as interested in obtaining Asian American voters as he is with conservative white voters. Out of all the current Democratic presidential candidates, Yang and Sanders are the only candidates able to gain double-digit support from 2016 Trump voters (Economist/YouGov poll from July). Meanwhile, the Asian community has an overall population of 5.6 percent in the U.S but had the 2nd lowest voting turn-out for the 2016 presidential race with 49 percent. “If you do the numbers” as Yang loves to say, it is clear that Yang has a better chance of making it to the next stage of the debates through appealing to previous Trump supporters rather than the Asian American community. Through these harmful quotes, Yang shows that he puts his votes before his fellow Asian Americans.   

Andrew Yang “is one of the three historic Asian American and Pacific Islander candidates, a milestone that’s been a source of pride for many Asian Americans” (Zhou, 2019). As a prominent Democratic president, his words carry a significant amount of weight, especially regarding the topic of Asian Americans. In order to continue to bring Asian Americans pride for his many successes, smart ideas, and good work, he should heavily consider whether his next Asian-American-stereotype-based punchline is worth the cost of reinforcing the misconception that Asian Americans are and can only be one way.

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