Calling Asians ‘robotic’ is a racist stereotype with a long troubled history


When American figure skater Nathan Chen won the gold medal in men’s figure skating at the 2022 Winter Olympics, a Washington Post article attributed his victory to a ferocious, focused, “robotic” zeal. This robotic characterization builds on a dated stereotype of Asians as stoic, callous workaholics.

In my book”Models of machines: a history of Asia as an automaton“I argue that the image of Asians as robots is the perfect example of how majority cultures characterize a certain type of minority as model workers and threats.

In the United States, there has been a popular belief that Asians are ruthless competitors obsessed with technical achievement, whether as classical pianists, spelling champions or math whiz. This was the basis of the myth of the model minority. However, the model minority projections often merge into Asian roboticsthe idea that Asians act or behave like technological beings.

What happens when someone is considered the perfect type of human automaton?

To the extent that Asian lives are reduced to caricature, and their humanity disavowed, what emerges is a negative stereotype of Asians as uncreative cogs lifted by “tiger parentswho teach their children total obedience to authority, education researchers in australia write.

The eight co-champions pose with their trophies after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 30, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

Mental perceptions then shape social interaction.

In a 2009 study, social psychologists found that white people read East Asian faces like machines, carrying less than human qualities. This imaginary association carries a story, like the media researcher Lisa Nakamura points out. When you call someone robotic, “you’re saying what they’re doing isn’t unique or worthy of recognition. What is the History of the Asian Workforce in the United States »

Depicting Asians as automatons

When ordinary people are turned into robots, all kinds of human rights are violated, and all kinds of abuse may occur.

As the China-US trade war escalated in 2019, right-wing conspirator Alex Jones claimed Asians were like fearless “Robots are coming to kill you.”

The implication is that the Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese are a swarm of like-minded cyborgs who will attack in unison. Jones also said that Native Americans – having an ancient connection to Asia – are easy to “mind control”.

Indeed, these derogatory references recall a long history of dehumanization of Asians and other groups.

As global capitalism developed alongside European colonialism, the idea that robots are the servants of humanity became aligned with the treatment of colonial populations. In their 2019 book “Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures”, Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora write that this “sliding scale of humanity” transformed living subjects into objects of control.

The United States took it over in its quest for empire.

In the 19th century, Chinese workers were considered by Anglo-American politicians to be the best working machines in the world. This justified both their exploitation by and exclusion the United States.

During the Second World War, American military propaganda portrays the Japanese soldier as a programmed warrior of the state, more animal than human. In the midst of the Cold War, the fiction of the inexhaustible workers is associated with the fear of the masses in Asian communist nations.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese prostitutes were derided as “sex machines” by american soldiers.

A man dressed in a tuxedo is on stage surrounded by backup dancers.
South Korean pop singer Psy performs with backup dancers in Seoul on February 25, 2013.
Kim Hong-Ji/AFP via Getty Images

Today, Chinese factory workers are branded as robots by their corporate executives, while promoters of South Korean popular music, or K-pop, categorize their singing idols as entertainment machines. workers push against these insultsasserting his desires and his freedom.

Challenge a stereotype

Scholars have adopted the term techno-orientalism criticize the Asian-dominated view of the future, especially in science fiction where Asians are depicted as slaves to the machine.

An Asian American man sits between a woman and a man.
In this photo from January 24, 2016, Nathan Chen sits with his coaches and eagerly awaits a decision during the US Prudential Figure Skating Championships.
Marilyn Indahl/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/via Getty Images

Such harmful views are reproduced in mainstream movies like “Ex-Machinawhich portrays Asians as inscrutable robots. The Sundance Hit”After Yangfeatures an android named Yang who reproduces this story.

Margaret Rhee, author of “Love, Robotsays the Asian as a robot figure raises moral questions of solidarity, equality and justice. This resists casting Asians as material things.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center released a video essay, “Inhuman figureswhich looks at this sense of Asians as tireless workers, robots, indistinguishable copies, clones and strangers forever.

They supposedly lack human empathy and therefore do not deserve compassion.

Whether subhuman or superhuman, Michelle N. Huang explains, Asians are never human enough.

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