“Where are you from?,” queried President Donald Trump last fall, to which a career intelligence analyst ultimately replied that her parents were from Korea. Trump then wondered aloud to another adviser why this “pretty Korean lady” wasn’t a negotiator with North Korea. Trump therefore assumed that her parent’s quasi-ancestral roots should be synonymous with her career choice, that she knew a lot about North Korea, and that perhaps she spoke some Korean. What his query didn’t grasp is that she’s a Korean American who might know none of the sort, in the same way that Trump is a German-Scottish American who doesn’t seem particularly versed in either place. The intelligence analyst is American, as am I, and as are the almost 2 million Korean ethnics who claim this country – not North or South Korea – as home (incidentally, #prettykoreanlady story broke the day before National Korean American Day to commemorate the arrival of the first Koreans in this country a 115 years ago). Perhaps Trump should have commented instead on how atavistic the most powerful world leader sounds when in 2017 he refuses to believe that Korean Americans actually come from New York and actually pursue careers like US state intelligence analyst and hostage policy expert. In fact, “our people” also go into American industries of business, reality TV, and politics, but Trump doesn’t grasp this because he sees anyone who looks like the intelligence analyst as Asian foreigners who aren’t “real” Americans. That’s why Trump wasn’t satisfied with her initial answers of “New York” and “Manhattan” when he asked that age-old foreigner-making question, “Where are you from?” How terrific or tremendous would he feel if, based on his logic, we presumed that he’s really from Bobenheim am Berg, Germany?
Trump’s query also doesn’t grasp that a “pretty Korean lady” can actually be capable of making up her own mind of what type of career she’ll pursue and thereby does not deserve to be ogled and talked about in the 3rd person, all in her presence. To spin the prophetic words of Janet Jackson: “No, her first name ain’t lady, it’s ‘American.’ Ms. Expert’ if you’re nasty.” And Trump has proven that he’s nasty in the worst way. He derides accomplished women as such when he’s not busy slut-shaming or invoking “pussy.” Worse, he does so while claiming to make the country great again. Far from great, however, many – including some Norwegians – believe that he’s turning America into a “shithole.” What could be worse than the most powerful person on earth being a racist and sexist who thinks he and Norwegians are superior to shithole countries teeming with all “those” shithole people?
To start with his racism, let’s be clear. To be racist, one need not lynch Black Americans from trees, as some are wont to use as criteria today. Anachronisms aside, one need only believe that White people are superior, are most entitled, and are the norm vis-a-vis non-White peoples. So when Trump renders foreign a Korean American by lumping her with Korea and refuses to accept her definition of herself (New Yorker), he racially excludes her from his club, that is, as not entitled to claim the United States as her country. This type of racism most often levied against Asian Americans, also known as nativist racism, seems much less iniquitous than stereotyping all Haitian people as having “AIDS” or all Nigerians as living in “huts.” Its consequences, however, are far from iniquitous.
Take for example the most infamous case: Japanese Americans being mass incarcerated by their own government despite the US citizenship of most of the Japanese ethnics and the lack of anti-US activity of all. But few Americans also know that one of the first groups banned by US federal immigration law was Chinese women. According to historian Sucheng Chan, Congress passed the 1875 Page Law to forbid the entry of Chinese (or “Mongolian”) sex workers, contract laborers, and felons. Yet, because White Americans assumed that all Chinese women were (opium-addicted) prostitutes, no woman who phenotypically resembled the Chinese was safe from racialized and sexualized harassment. Fast forward nearly a 140 years to 2012 when we witness Ellen Pao lose her lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for widespread sexual harassment and related retaliation. Because countless other Asian American women like myself had also experienced a sexually-charged work environment her case birthed “the Pao effect” and emboldened Asian American women to speak up and fight back. Indeed, such harassment has known no bounds, as research by Shirley Hune found that Asian American women in higher educational settings are among the most vulnerable targets of a hostile work environment. Yet, sociologist Tiffany J. Huang underscores that the role of racial stereotyping has scarcely been mentioned in the #MeToo movement, and few Americans know that compared to White women college-educated Asian American women earn less income and are more likely to be unemployed. They are also often the least likely to advance into executive or leadership positions.
In the same vein of the 1875 Page Law and the sexual harassment of Ellen Pao, Trump is turning this country into a shithole because he’s a sexual predator who fuses both racism and misogyny. In the case of the intelligence expert, he drew on intersecting race-gender stereotypes of the hypersexual, exotic, passive Asian woman, effectively normalizing her dehumanization. And, as history has shown, dehumanization almost always leads to violence such as sexual assault, or to the violence of white supremacists and nationalists whom he lauds as “some very fine people.” Trump clearly evidences the racialized and gendered dimensions of sociologist Joe Feagin’s “white racial frame” (and sub-frames) wherein mostly white men arrogantly presume that they know best and are most virtuous.
It’s true, of course, that some Korean Americans consider themselves a part of both countries. But answering the dreaded “Where are you from?” question with one’s US hometown is a common device to Americanize oneself in a racially-charged encounter. It’s also true that some women might be flattered to be called “pretty;” but as the historic Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have made clear, not if it prevents men from seeing women as capable in their jobs and especially not if it comes from men multiply accused of sexual assault.
Ultimately, Mr. Trump could only make a “Why doesn’t pretty Korean lady negotiate with North Korea?” type of wisecrack if he saw her as more stereotype than human. But I write this to let him and everyone know that Korean American women, a group from whom we almost never hear, are human and are American. Oh! And many of us are angry: Ms. Angry if you’re nasty.
Nadia Y. Kim is Professor of Sociology at Loyola Marymount University and the author of Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (Stanford Press, 2008).