Asian American

Asian American


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



One major component of this anti-Black neo-conservativism is the belief

that racism against Blacks is a thing of the past or has been remedied.  Therefore,

we assume that Blacks should be grateful for the institutional gains they now have.



Asian America’s Response to Shaquille O’Neal

Riddled with Racial-Sexual Anxiety

By Kil Ja Kim 


By now, Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Shaquille O’Neal’s racial comments about Houston Rockets’ Chinese-born (and recent immigrant) Yao Ming has become well publicized.  On June 28, 2002, O’Neal said, “Tell Yao Ming…” and then made what are described in Asian American circles as racial “Chinaman noises.”  That is, he made sounds that reflect what the non-Asian public would characterize as the sounds that Asian people speak.  In short, O’Neal relied on common racial characterizations of Asian Americans, which, in this case, emphasizes what is considered the “foreign” and therefore “unintelligible” aspects of Asian American culture and language. 

Recently, O’Neal’s comment has been played over and over by different radio stations, sports commentators have chimed in on news radio programs and in the printed press, listservs have bounced around different responses, Asian American publications such as AsianWeek and Asian American Movement E-Zine, have commented on the situation, and there is currently a petition letter addressed to National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern circulating among Asian American listservs.  As of this writing, there were 4,317 signatories to this letter. 

This writer was not one of them.

It is not that I am not concerned by this racial characterization of Asian Americans.  My own life as an Asian American woman is certainly shaped and structured by this racial characterization.  So too, of course, are the lives of many people who are structurally situated similarly to me as Asian Americans.  Further, I am not supportive of any ideological sentiment that reflects and reproduces American ideology, which to me, is not about freedom and liberty, but is one of violence and containment through various dimensions of racism, (hetero)sexism, classism, and homophobia.

I say all of this to say that I am not in support of O’Neal’s comments about Yao, just as I was not in support of O’Neal calling the Sacramento Kings “queens” because both comments reflect a reliance on an American logic that demonizes that which is non-normative racially and sexually.

So why did I not sign the petition letter?  Why am I not joining in the calls for O’Neal to apologize or to be properly punished?

My reasons have to do with my concerns about how Asian America is framing Blackness, Black people, and Black politics in their response to O’Neal’s comments.  These concerns have to do with the ways in which the criticisms of O’Neal reflect Asian America’s racist and sexist anxiety about Black people generally, and in this case, Black men specifically. 

Overall, writers have relied on a racist and sexist image of Black men in their analysis of O’Neal’s comments.  For example, in his widely circulated January AsianWeek column ( ), author Irwin Tang calls O’Neal a “brute.”  In a January 14 circulated op-ed, Sacramento Bee writer Diana Griego Erwin describes O’Neal as “hulking.” ( 

The fact that O’Neal has a large build and is tall—standing at seven feet—is not the point.  What I find disturbing is that in order to provide a certain image of Yao, who we are to understand is representative of Asian America as a political entity, Asian Americans (and our supporters) must rely on racist and sexist images of Black people, and in this case, Black men specifically. 

What is most disturbing is that I do not even think we consider how violent our considerations, perhaps our fixation with Black men’s bodies are in our Asian American claims.  Yet we rely on the image of Black people as loud, aggressive, and physically and politically threatening in our depictions of Blacks “attacking” Asian Americans.  As such, it is necessary for the writers to depict O’Neal as “hulking” and as a “brute” in order to convince the readers that Asian Americans have a just claim.  Yet we read or hear little of the fact that O’Neal is actually five inches shorter and therefore, physically smaller than Yao.  This physiological fact would not serve our racial and sexual imaginations, which attempts to depict a struggle between a Chinese David in the face of a Black Goliath, and in the process, create a story of racially weak person versus racially strong, even scary giant.

The subsequent result of this framing is that we turn a blind eye towards the fact that the image of the Black man as hyper-masculine is racist and sexist.  Instead, we believe this image is really true and rely on this image in order to situate ourselves as “vulnerable” and “politically weak” Asian Americans.  As such, we do not challenge our racist and sexist construction of Black men, nor do we deal with the fact that we, as Asian Americans, have helped to reproduce a structure of violence against Black male bodies.  But it is precisely the image of Black hyper-masculinity and beliefs in Black male physical prowess and violence, an image that affects Black straight men and queers alike, that victimizes Black males.

Not only are Asian Americans careless with the use of this racist and sexist imagery of Black men, we also appear to envy it.  This is evident in broader discussions of Asian American masculinity generally and in the responses to O’Neal in particular.  For example, Tang’s AsianWeek column ends with the author issuing the following challenge to O’Neal: “Come down to Chinatown, Shaq.  You disrespect Asian Pacific America, and we will break you down.” 

Remember, this is from the same man who labeled O’Neal a “brute.”  What is interesting is how Tang strategically uses Chinatown as an image of both Asian American “emasculization” and Asian American power.  To do so, he must “hyper-masculinize” Chinatown in much the same way he does O’Neal.  To me, this shows a sexual-racial anxiety that characterizes most discussions of Asian American masculinity and sexuality more generally.  That is, it appears that not only does Tang accept the racist and sexist image of O’Neal as a Black male brute, but he also must make Chinatown (and Asian American men) appear as potentially violent and hyper-masculine in order to “break down” O’Neal. 

The result is that Tang does not challenge racist and sexist constructions of both Asian American men and Black men.  Instead, he relies on both to make his argument.  Yet Tang must rely on the racist and sexist construction of Black men to masculinize Chinatown as a site and symbol that can take on the “brute.”  This is not to suggest that Chinatown is not a site of violence, whether due to it being a place of international division of labor, gentrification, lack of viable housing options, containment by police agencies particularly Immigration and Naturalization Services and Licenses and Inspections, along with all of the terrible aspects of hyper-masculinity that characterize patriarchal family structures and capitalist arrangements.  Nor does it suggest that there are not individuals who indeed identify and are committed to a patriarchal, heterosexist and capitalist identity in Chinatown (or in Asian America, for that matter).  What I question is how Tang must masculinize Chinatown in order to see it as a symbol that can appropriately “take on” a “brute” like O’Neal with the anticipated result of “breaking” him down. 

This racist image of Black male sexuality also informs the idea that Asian Americans are not viewed as threatening enough, an idea that Tang discusses, as do others.  For example, consider a statement made in a letter to the editor posted recently on the Asian American Movement E-Zine ( “I am going from one Asian site to another in hopes of arousing anger and a sense of disgust to provoke Asians and sound minded non-Asians to wake up and realize that unless we are actively vocal and tenacious about our plight in America, Asians will always receive the second-class treatment and viewed as weak wimps and nerds by rest of America.”

What I wonder is, Asian Americans are not threatening enough…compared to whom?  It appears that the answer is Black people.  Asian Americans seem to think that we need to be more threatening, just like Blacks.  As such, we do not question the function of racist and sexist image of Blacks as threatening for the expansion of state violence through policing, prisons and state-sanctioned death.  Instead, we appear to desire the very aspect of Blackness that we also appear to hate.  That is, we want to be more vocal, more aggressive and more powerful just like Blacks, because supposedly, Black people have been able to do so successfully.  Indeed, the desire by many Asian Americans for Yao to do well in the NBA comes from both a racial and sexual desire for Asian American men to break into what is considered a “Black men’s game,” and in the process, prove that they are “real men,” i.e., hyper-masculine.   

Unfortunately, this image of Black people is not only racist and sexist, it also reproduces a certain image of reverse racism against non-Blacks by Black people.  This idea of Black racism is evident in the responses to O’Neal.  For example, the aforementioned writer of the letter that appeared in the Asian American Movement E-Zine says, “I think for too long there has been a double standard in American media when it comes to blacks and the racist comments they make.  If an Asian or white or any other group would have made similarly racially insensitive comments about blacks, the black community (i.e., Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the NAACP, by the way it should be NAABP because really they only represent the blacks and not all people of color like their acronyms [sic] suggest ‘National Association of Advancement for Colored People’) would be in an uproar.  Why isn’t Jesse Jackson or the ‘honorable’ Al Sharpton up in arms when blacks make racist comments?  Just pure hypocrisy, that’s why!” 

Not only does this writer need a history lesson to understand the establishment and trajectory of the NAACP and the term “colored.”  Not only does he make an implicit attack on Black political leadership, which is often viewed as too showy, disingenuous, selfish, and subsequently too successful by non-Blacks. What we also have is an image of Blacks as the “true” or “new” racists.  This is exemplified by the likening of O’Neal to the recently retired Senator Trent Lott (who praised Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond’s anti-desegregation platform) that has been made in different commentaries, notably those by Tang and Erwin. 

Yet I do not think that Black people have become less the subjects of racist-sexist comments or depictions, or that Black political leaders have been met overwhelmingly favorably.  Nor do I think that Black people’s position as the most detested, despised and contained racial group since the foundation of the US has changed, even as the positions and placement of other ethnic and racial groups, including Asian Americans, have.  Nor do I, unfortunately, think Asian America as a political project, really cares that this is the case, and if anything, must resist this analysis to make its political claims. 

Subsequently, the image of Black racism against non-Blacks seems to shape Asian America’s racial claims, as it does the rest of America’s.  The country has become even more neo-conservative as it moves towards a so-called color-blind perspective in the post-1965 era that has anchored contemporary racist projects by whites (and some Asian Americans and Latino/as), such as the current dismantling of affirmative action. 

Yet this neo-conservativism is not just against the consideration of race and racism, per se.  This neo-conservativism is also inherently anti-Black.  The impetus for doing away with race and for ending talks about racial power, discrimination and oppression was, and is in response to the aggrandized fears of Black mobility, access and power.  This fear of Black power, or more aptly put, of Blacks actually experiencing some aspect of non-slavery, has always been met with retaliatory violence, whether it was in the forms of lynching, the shutting down of Reconstruction and the movement of Union troops out of the South, the burning and murdering of Black towns and economies such as Rosewood and Oklahoma City, legal mandates such as the Dred Scott decision, hyper-segregation, or the creation and expansion of the current police state and the prison industrial complex. 

One major component of this anti-Black neo-conservativism is the belief that racism against Blacks is a thing of the past or has been remedied.  Therefore, we assume that Blacks should be grateful for the institutional gains they now have.  An implicit aspect of this perspective is the idea that Blacks now have political power and therefore have the same power as whites to be racist.  As such, Blacks can now be just as racist against Asian Americans as whites can be. 

This understanding of racial power is clearly evident in the claims made against O’Neal.  What has been overwhelmingly demonstrated with this situations is that if anything, Asian Americans need the racist and sexist image of Black people, and in this case, Black males, to make their claims.  That is, we need a group to both chastise and hold up as models of how one makes political claims.  Black people are that group.  The result is, we have hatred towards Blacks for being too loud, too pushy, too vocal, too visible, and for overall, taking up too much space politically.  We talk about how Blacks don’t share, or we say statements such as, “people need to realize that a lot of groups are racially oppressed” or, “Blacks aren’t the only ones who experience racism,” or, the popular “we need to go beyond black and white.” 

We even hijack Ralph Ellison’s consideration of Blackness as invisible as he wrote in 1952’s Invisible Man to make our claims against Blacks, who we purport to be successfully visible (never considering whether they are actually viewed as human).  Consider how many times Asian Americans have been able to successfully get resources, whether it be college programs, funding for non-profits, or sometimes just sympathy for our causes by using these claims.  In short, consider how often Asian Americans have attempted to make claims in opposition to Blacks and subsequently how we have been fairly successful at doing so.  It appears that Asian America cannot leverage our claims without relying on the image of Blacks as over-powerful and selfish.

In the process, we lay out the following agenda for Asian American politics: we must be more aggressive, more physical, more “scary,” and more “threatening.”  The fact that we rely on the racist caricatures of Blacks fails to concern Asian America.  The fact that these racist caricatures help organize and structure the lives of Black bodies—even rich people like O’Neal, who, as the editor of the Asian American Movement E-Zine puts it, “is not just another African American on the street”—seems to be of little concern to us.  The fact that Black men are the victims of this racist and sexist caricature as clearly shown by the containment they experience through state violence such as police violence, imprisonment and death seems to be of little concern.  The fact that Asian Americans have yet to figure out how to make our claims against white supremacy, capitalism and (hetero)sexism (if we have these claims at all) without attempting to silence, displace, and in some ways, hijack Black political claims seems to be of little concern.  The fact that despite supposedly not being heard effectively, we have somehow been able to live lives structurally different from Blacks in terms of state violence, racial and sexual characterization, etc. appears to be of little concern. 

Nor does the fact that Asian Americans work with white institutions and white people to police Black people (and many times can be successful at doing so) seem to be a concern of ours.  Yet this is precisely what Asian Americans are attempting to do in this case.  Calling on NBA Commissioner David Stern, a white man who also has institutional power, to chastise and punish O’Neal is a form of policing Black men just as Asian grocers calling on police to protect their stores in Black neighborhoods is. 

And who says women can’t police Black men?  Think about California Democrat Assemblywoman Judy Chu’s letter to Stern, in which she demanded the commissioner “prevent and publicly punish” racist behavior from players.  The desire to have O’Neal “publicly” punished by a white man is disgusting, as is Chu’s suggestion to Stern that O’Neal be forced to perform community service in LA’s Chinese American community. 

In closing, it is not that I am not concerned or bothered by O’Neal’s statements.  Nor do I want Asian Americans to not fight back against capitalism, white supremacy,  (hetero)sexism, and homophobia.  I am just not interested in promoting a response and a political agenda that reproduces racist and sexist constructions and treatment of Black people generally, and in this case, Black men specifically.  I am seeking for an Asian American response to O’Neal that can put forth a claim and an analysis that does not reproduce, and call for violence towards Black people.  Perhaps, though, this request, rather this plea, may be unanswerable. 

Ó2003  January 18, 2003 (

Kil Ja Kim  is a writer, educator and activist currently living and working in Philadelphia.  Her intellectual and political interests are Asian American politics, immigrant politics, and Black-Asian American relations. Kil Ja is currently working on working on a research project that examines the role of global racial politics in shaping the disproportionate presence of Korean immigrant business owners in Black neighborhoods in the US. 

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