The images, the videos and the screenshots, are everywhere now. You've seen them: the man's belly, black shirt lifted up, arms extended in a vaguely Christlike pose as he's being hauled through a narrow airplane aisle. His bloodied mouth, bent glasses, shut eyes. A later video, maybe even worse, of him upright and back on the plane, clearly in shock as he breathlessly intones, "They'll kill me" and "just kill me." And then we are shown him jogging up the aisle, footsteps audible on the carpeted floor as he repeats, "I have to go home. I have to go home."
Did I mention his screams, that haunting and ragged sound followed by abrupt silence, because the screamer has been knocked unconscious?
What to do with so much indignity and awfulness?
I didn't immediately watch the videos of 69-year-old Kentucky doctor David Dao's violent removal from United Flight 3411. I didn't want to. When I finally did it was out of a sense of duty to confront the nastiness everyone was talking about. What stayed with me were his exposed belly and the tight, claustrophobic shot by the other passengers as he was slammed headfirst into the armrest, as he fell limp and was pulled by his arms through the aisle. I wanted his humiliation to end, for it to all work out somehow. I thought to myself, Please let his pants stay on… I also thought of my father, who is roughly the same age and build as Dao, who also wears glasses, speaks with an accent and—like Dao and unlike me—often refuses to comply with authority figures.
In the aftermath of the incident, most of the outrage focused on the idea that someone could be so mistreated for just wanting to keep the airplane seat he paid for. In the blink-and-you'll-miss-it pace of a modern scandal, videos of Dao's injuries went viral, an old criminal conviction surfaced, people denounced the media for attacking a victim, and the CEO of United eventually apologized, all while Dao remained in the hospital.
But Asian Americans saw all of this differently. For many of us—including, reportedly, Dao himself—his race played a role in his abuse.
"It's really striking that we have in this moment the refugee ban, the wall, all these efforts to constrain the movement of certain bodies that are seen as foreign or alien, and this seems a piece of that," said Mimi Thi Nguyen, an associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "It was definitely happening before this administration, but it's definitely also stepped up after it."
The Asian American community's response on social media has been vocal and varied—outrage combined with reminders for solidarity with other victimized minorities. There was also a kind of seen-this-before attitude: Our stories rarely get told and when they do, it's usually out of our control and somehow almost always demeaning. Think of caricatures and stereotypes in Hollywood, whitewashing in films like Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall, erasure, othering, mocking, exoticizing, fetishizing—the list goes on. Even Bruce Lee, perhaps the coolest and ass-kickingest action movie star of all time, became weaponized against Asians, his stance and fighting squawks used to ridicule Taiwanese American kids on playgrounds in ipstate South Carolina in the 90s and, I'm sure, many other places too.
"Excited about the zero thinkpieces and zero collective outrage over an elderly Asian being assaulted on a plane and dragged like cattle," tweeted my VICE News colleague Jay Caspian Kang shortly after the story broke. CNN's Jeff Yang also noted this absence of Asian American voices, though not the presence of Asian voices in Foreign Policy's piece on the video's unexpected virality in China.
A few pieces on the subject eventually trickled out. The most effective has been Clio Chang's "Why it Matters That the United Dragging Victim Is Asian" in the New Republic. "The victim's race is an important part of this story," she writes. "To treat it as an inconsequential factor seems, at best, an oversight—at worst, it's an erasure." It's an uncomfortable thing to say but it's nearly impossible to imagine a white doctor receiving such treatment or, really, a white anybody—recall the famously noncompliant videos of the "I don't answer questions" guy Kenny Suitter. Instead of being brutalized for his lack of cooperation, Suitter is time and again met with either bemusement or toothless exasperation from the cops.
Our stories rarely get told and when they do, it's usually out of our control and somehow almost always demeaning.
"I'll tell you one thing: If the 'randomly selected' passenger had been a blonde white lady, and she refused to give her seat, there's no way in seven hells that these cops would have dragged her ass out kicking, screaming and bloody," wrote blogger Phil Yu on his website Angry Asian Man, where he deals with issues of race and discrimination in culture. The sentiment was echoed by the Guardian's Steven Thrasher: "She'd have threatened to sue, other passengers would have come to her aid, and the whole flight would have been deplaned before she'd been assaulted like that."
Let's not forget that Dao's mistreatment was at the hands of Chicago aviation security—this was state violence, in other words. It unavoidably recalled a history of constraint and removal of Asian bodies by agents of the government, including the Japanese internment camps during World War II and Congress' 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which turned poorly paid Chinese laborers into "the first illegal immigrants," according to historian Erika Lee's The Making of an Asian America.
"Gatekeeping immigrant policies began with Asian migration to the US," said Eric Tang, author of Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto. "The notion of who you could admit and deport and remove was really premised on our government's desire to police the rate and the number of Asians who would become American citizens. Asians have historically been the subject of discriminatory legislation on who can enter the country and who can be removed."
Other minorities have suffered just as badly or worse at the hands of authorities; as many have noted, Asian Americans should be vocal in protesting the mistreatment of African Americans and Latinos at the hands of police. But it is impossible (for me, and for many) to watch the video and not think of race.
"There's this element of [Asians as] the quiescent, appeasing racial minority," said Tang. "Deferential. Clearly Dr. Dao was not in this instance. The consequence of not playing that expected role was rather severe. The question that many might be critical of him should ask themselves is: Would they not do the same thing? And would they not expect that reaction from anybody who had paid for a seat and boarded the flight? Their questioning of Dr. Dao is based on the assumption that Asians should be quiescent and accommodating and ultimately grateful."
As reports poured in, there was even some confusion over whether journalists had fingered the wrong Dr. David Dao, another instance of the annoyingly inexorable "all look same" phenomenon. Ah ha! these conspiracy theorists seemed to say, he was an angel after all. I've been mistaken for everyone from Hiro Nakamura to roughly half of the Asian men in New York publishing; a part of me, too, hoped this might be true. (It wasn't.) Really, though, it shouldn't matter: Dao's past has no bearing on the violence done to him.
While the notion of "flying while Asian" is (thankfully) not a thing—as opposed to driving while black, which very much is—incidents such as Dao's reveal an underlying truth that Asians—and all minorities and all marginalized people—are acutely aware of: Your ticket can be literally revoked at any time, "model minority" or not, and the way you deal with it can have serious, occasionally violent repercussions. It also shows that not everyone sees the same thing in a viral video of brutality, which is why we have to show them.
Follow James Yeh on Twitter.