Culture

Arexis Fongman: A Case Study on Casual Racism

Update as of Jan 25, circa 2am: Alexis Fishman has issued an apology via Twitter stating that she ‘never intended offense’ and that her page was a ‘poor attempt at parody’. Though she is missing the point a bit as to why her profile was problematic in the first place and sticks to her story that it was parody, her regret does seem genuine. In any case, it seems she is feeling the full consequence of her actions now. Hopefully the lesson is learned not just by her, but by her fans and others like her.

First and foremost, thanks to Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang and composer/lyricist Timothy Huang for bringing this to attention.

Alexis Fishman, at first sight, seems like a perfectly average woman. She graduated in 2004 from a performing arts school in Western Australia and went on to pursue a career in the arts, now ‘based permanently in New York’, as per her official website. Her performer’s page is professional, her website is tastefully metropolitan, and the posts on her personal Facebook give no indication of strange or deviant social behavior. She is, in essence, the typical young woman trying to make a name for herself in the performing arts industry. Why, then, has she created a Facebook profile dedicated solely to the enthusiastic spread of what amounts to racist garbage? Internet, meet Arexis Fongman.

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Born in 2010 and taken down just hours before this post, Arexis Fongman lived, breathed, and squawked Asian stereotypes in a series of terribly-phrased, insipidly-inspired status updates and slapdash, garish photo albums (oh, that super original squint and bow).

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Although her name seems to have taken its roots from the Chinese last name ‘Fong’, Arexis Fongman spared no Asian stereotype in her quest to spread ignorance—two such examples are in her ‘likes’: Shogun is listed as a favorite book, covering themes that are distinctly Japanese, and her main obsession in life seems to be ‘dumprings’, which, for the record, can be found in a variety of cultures, not only in Asia.

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In her profile photo, she sports what is either a cheap black wig or natural bed-head, hair strewn all over her face, mid-grimace, as she wrestles with a tangle of laundry. Yes, laundry, because we Asians are only good for working in laundromats and Nike shoe factories—and eating dumplings. Oh yes, lots and lots of dumplings.

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The list of offenses goes on and on, but what is most important to note is the stark disparity between her performer’s page and this one.

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The comments. Dear god, the comments.

The most obvious contrasts are in the formality of language and attention paid to image. She tries hard to be the professional aspiring star on her page, limiting boasts to a minimum, instead quoting critics’ lauds and posting thoughtful, inspired messages to her fans. Arexis Fongman, however, has no qualms. She poses for pictures bare-faced and often tousle-haired, reverting to an unattractive, unkempt state while attempting to ape her perception of Asian culture.

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Attractive.

The videos on her wall are equally as messy and unsophisticated—she would likely rather bury herself than present those as an example of her acting ability. And if these photos, videos, and posts ever make the light of day (as they are now) whilst connected to her name, her credibility and attractiveness as a performer would likely bottom out. So why on earth would she risk creating the profile and establishing any links between that and herself?

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What would her manager think of this incredible display of illiteracy?

While she has reflexively claimed that her profile was satire and should be seen as humorous (largely by comparing her work to Borat and The Book of Mormon), the intelligent thought that is necessarily present in the concoction of such satire was quite obviously missing. While she made an effort to work in little details (going as far as to detail her seat number in a Nike shoe factory and whip up a stereotype-laden biography), her comment on society, racism or even life in general was woefully lost on me.

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Thanks for boiling down our entire race into sweatshop laborers and laundromat personnel!

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It is not clever to lump all appearances of Asians in the performing arts into one fictional loudmouth.

Satire is clever, witty, and stark in its message. Satire is bold and clear and utilizes reason and startling contrasting examples to make its point. What exactly is her point here? Is she noting that dumplings are delicious? There was never much of a controversy in that case. Is she bringing to light the difficulties immigrants have with pronouncing the ‘L’ sound in English that was missing from their respective native languages? Not much to satirize there, either. How about on the perception of Asians in American society? Plausible, but highly unlikely.

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Not only is this belittling the reasons for which Christianity is rejected by some Chinese people, but it also serves as an example of her inconsistent ‘Engrish’. Apparently she couldn’t bring herself to misspell ‘Christian crusaders’.

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Please find a single satirical comment on society here.

Her ‘accented English’ is not only flawed in its mere typed existence (no Asian seriously writes like that, these are issues with pronunciation), but the content of her posts highlights her true perception of what she believes Asian life to be. And to her, that life is full of fishy-smelling courters, excessive infatuation with dumplings, and an unhealthy affinity to e’s, p’s, and r’s.

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Some prime examples. Once again. Any social commentary? Any satirical points made? No? Moving on.

It has been postulated that Arexis Fongman was created primarily for the entertainment of Ms. Fishman herself and her friends. In any case, they certainly seem to egg her on.

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If that is the case, then she is all more dangerous. It is one thing to be obviously, publicly racist—people recognize racism in its purest form, and often their responses are polarized. Arexis Fongman, however, is a case of what I would term ‘casual racism’, even ‘ignorant bigotry’. She straddles the fence of public opinion, riding right in between dismissal and reaction. Consequently, she is free (wrongly) to play the ‘misunderstood humor’ card. This card includes both satire and jokes, and is used to combat criticisms by invoking the ‘you are too sensitive and you don’t get it’ clause. Hardly a valid response in the face of public scrutiny, but many a claimant has successfully dodged responsibility with a combination of the card and half-hearted apologies. Making racist comments in jest does not dilute their inherent racism. If anything, it instills the idea that it’s okay to say just about anything—as long as you ‘don’t actually mean it’.

The point is, it’s not okay. Arexis Fongman’s friends (her Caucasian, non-Asian friends), might think it’s hilarious, but whether it’s because they don’t know better or because they’re inherently racist themselves, it still isn’t okay. If these fans are knowledgeable enough to navigate the sprawling net that is Facebook, they have no excuse to remain ignorant. It’s one thing to travel to the depths of a wooded, isolated area and make the case for cultural ignorance, but it is certainly another to attempt to the build the same defense for people who seem quite internet-savvy and able to find information. They managed to find this page, after all, and devotedly follow and like it. They’re just a few clicks away from truly giving an effort to understand and alleviate the burden of their ignorance on our shoulders.

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The above conversation between herself and her fans (and apparently at least one family member) illustrates perfectly the dangerous situation we encounter more and more often. Much like blind mice arguing about the color of a cheese, the participants have agreed to commiserate in their ignorance and build new lines of reasoning to allow their world to make sense as they see fit. While ignoring their underlying affliction (in this case, a crippling sense of ignorant bigotry), they continue in their mutual confusion, allowing falsehoods to morph into their truths, growing unchecked. By allowing their invented logic to become their realities, they delude themselves into thinking that there is nothing wrong with what they are saying, spreading their diseased convictions into the world. When was it ever okay for people outside a culture to make sweeping, belittling generalizations about it, and craft for themselves a microenvironment in which their stereotypes hold unconditionally true? Where is there room for the truth in that situation? And, in light of this danger, how could anyone convincingly say that we, as a group of concerned Asians and Asian Americans (and advocates), are overreacting? That we are being ‘too sensitive’? It is too easy for others to wave away our concerns as hysterical over-exaggerations (after all, what’s the harm in a few jokes?), but consider that we are an ethnic group that has toiled generation after generation, only to be slapped in the face with such dismissal and ridicule.

Arexis Fongman, aka Alexis Fishman, is undoubtedly neither the first nor the last to hold the role of the contagion of casual racism. That said, she serves as a perfect case study from which we can make our argument. This type of racism becomes increasingly prevalent in a net-based social environment, in which ‘jk’ and ‘#notracist’ are too easily thrown around. And this type of racism is that which we need to especially fight and speak out against. God forbid one day we wake up to a world in which the persona represented by Arexis Fongman, dramatic-Laundromat-worker-extraordinaire-with-a fish-and-dumpling-fetish, is accepted as truth by which the rest of us are judged.

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