Public Media Arts Hub

Actress Margaret Cho on why racism is a 'deep well of shame' for some Asian Americans


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: For more on the rise in anti-Asian-American crimes, I spoke earlier with Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy and Grammy-nominated comedian and actress Margaret Cho.

Margaret, what's been going through your mind, your heart in the last few weeks and months as we've seen this escalation of crimes against Asians?

Margaret Cho: It's really wondering all about all of the incidents that are not reported, because I think, at least from my family, we have such a deep well of shame when it comes to racism and how much we don't want to upset other members of our family, of our community by sharing what happened. I think this practice comes out of PTSD from wartime, you know, and having all of these things occur in your family's history. And then to bring it over here looking for the American dream, for some kind of escape from all of the trauma that we experience there. And then to have this new, new terrible thing, racism, which my family experienced, such intense racism coming to San Francisco from Korea in 1964 that they've never discussed. And I think all of these incidents now bring up so much shame, so much heartache, so much past trauma that I'm sure this is so underreported.

Hari Sreenivasan: Do you think that this is part of why perhaps this community is perceived as more of a soft target? We see more women being targeted than men. We see more elderly people. There's a sort of perception maybe that is fueling this.

Margaret Cho: It comes from the model minority myth, which I really reject the term model minority because it really denotes that we are in existence purely for the performative value for white people and to pit us against other quote unquote, minorities. It is really dehumanizing. I notice that they're attacking the elderly that are attacking elderly women. Older Asian-American women are being targeted, which puts me in a very high target category.

Hari Sreenivasan: The intersection between how we perceive Asian women, sexuality and race. Tie that together for us.

Margaret Cho: It's race and gender and identity. All of these things kind of go into whether or not this is a hate crime. Obviously, what happened in Atlanta is a hate crime. He was targeting Asian women because of the way they made me feel and also the way that it was all framed by the Atlanta authorities was very disappointing in that it was this huge effort to somehow humanize this murderer who had a bad day, who was trying to get some kind of relief for his sex addiction. So there's so much that we have to unpack when we're even looking at this incident from the perspective of the news that we're like allowing them to frame it as a bad day. It's way more than a bad day.

Hari Sreenivasan: You know, you've got a podcast that starts to look at some of the kind of crimes in history that most of us have maybe forgotten about. I mean, I'm old enough to remember the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit and know that Detroit auto workers were upset at Japanese people. He wasn't even Japanese. It didn't matter. They beat him. They killed him, didn't go to jail. Yeah. I mean, and there's so many other stories like that that most Americans don't hear.

Margaret Cho: Well, our history as Asian-Americans has really been erased from American history. We had a huge influence on the way this country was built, starting with the railroad that connected the east and the west, the north and the south. We were probably one of the biggest reasons why the country reunited after the civil war. And yet twenty thousand deaths of Chinese workers on the railroad goes unrecognized in this country. There have been numerous lynchings, numerous hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans that we need to discuss. And so I'm doing a podcast called Mortal Minority, which is, we're trying to kill off the idea of a model minority and also look back at the history of what we've experienced.

Hari Sreenivasan: In some ways, the pandemic has also brought to light the class distinctions that we choose to ignore. I mean, what is an essential worker oftentimes is a poorer person of color who's delivering your food for you or cooking that food in a kitchen somewhere. And I wonder if they're, not necessarily a silver lining, but what's the potential here? What can we come out of this with greater understanding and what do you hope for?

Margaret Cho: I hope for a more of an inclusion of Asian-Americans in the way that we view America. And I mean, I think this includes the entertainment industry, even though it's the industry that I work in. But we have a distorted view of what Asian-Americans really look like from what we see on television and movies and I love Crazy Rich Asians and I love Empire, but those really make our communities seem untouchable or that we're above things like this pandemic about economic insecurity. All of these things are really just another aspect of being Asian-American, but they're not the majority of us for sure.

Hari Sreenivasan: Right. When you think about that model minority and that sort of economic success that is talked about, I mean, this is, I think in New York City, I think some of the highest poverty rates are among Asian Americans of all stripes. And it's just not supported by the facts. Yes, there are crazy rich Asians, but there are crazy poor Asians all around us as well. And there are very highly educated ones. I mean, we're just as American as any other Americans or poor ones and rich ones and tall ones and short ones, et cetera. Right. So, being in the industry that you're in, are you surprised at how long it's taken for these hate crimes to get traction? I mean, it seemed like in the summer last year, as the Black Lives Matter movement really picked up steam, that there were more kind of public responses from corporations and from movie studios and everyone else.

Margaret Cho: Well, I think that it goes back to that idea of a hierarchical system in the way that we view race and how much hate is viewed as a value and how many values that this certain group has and how many others have. It's a very distorted view of what we should be looking at. And hate is hate, hate and racism are wrong. And whatever forms they take are wrong. And we have a different historical perspective on all of them. And yet no one should have more value than the other. It's just that it's wrong.

Hari Sreenivasan: What's the potential here for this moment to try to galvanize a new generation of Asian-Americans into the civil rights movement? Maybe in a different way than our parents generation.

Margaret Cho: I feel like we have at least a generation away from some of the historical traumas that we're bringing from our home countries, and of course, certainly a lot of us have been here for many generations. So there's different degrees of that. But I feel like we're learning faster. We're learning faster about each other. We're learning unity faster. We're learning that we have to sort of let go of a lot of the biases that we've had over other Asian countries, other Asian identities which exist in your interracial things happen within the Asian community all the time. And so that needs to be dismantled for us to move forward as a group because we're all considered the same, here, we are all the same.

Hari Sreenivasan: And there's also an interesting ally ship that maybe it's my own perception of it, I don't know, but the potential here between black and brown groups that have been in the civil rights movement for a while, starting to see Asian communities taking on some of this as well. I mean, because to a racist, if you're not white, you're not white.

Margaret Cho: Right. And I think that this is, it's really to me, it's symbolic in the long relationship between Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bruce Lee and their friendship and their alliance. And it really sort of speaks volumes to how we should be acting now that we should be down with everybody who's different. And because we are actually the majority if we think about it.

Hari Sreenivasan: Yeah, Margaret Cho, thank you so much for your time. [

Margaret Cho: Thank you.


Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.