I was too close to the edge of my seat not to fall out, and when I finally did, my partner next to me returned my grin. The film we were watching had my support long before I walked through the movie theater doors, but seeing someone who looked just a little bit like me — navigating questions and relationships that resonated with my own — drew me deeper into the story. I felt the joyful and rooted connections I have with my communities. I settled back into the red plush recliner, eager to see how the rest of “Sorry to Bother You” would play out.
“Sorry to Bother You” is a Boots Riley film, which follows Cassius “Cash” Green and his climb up the corporate ladder at a telemarketing company, thanks to his white voice. The story unapologetically elevates the struggle of working-class folks — mostly people of color — caught between working their way through the prevailing capitalist system to survive, and resisting those in power by risking their livelihoods to fight for something better.
“Sorry to Bother You” also came out just a few weeks before “Crazy Rich Asians”. The glamorous, Cinderella-story-esque film adaption of Kevin Kwan’s novel focuses on Rachel Chu, a Chinese American economics professor at New York University who agrees to meet her partner’s stunningly wealthy family in Singapore. In its first few days, Crazy Rich Asians brought in $34 million and a flood of conversations amongst Asian diaspora communities around whose stories are told and why.
Representation in Hollywood and mainstream media has become a formidable rallying cry for Asian Americans.
Representation in Hollywood and mainstream media has become a formidable rallying cry for Asian Americans. In some ways, both “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Sorry to Bother You” should have symbolized a win for those who longed to see someone who looked like them on the silver screen. Steven Yeun, a Korean American, plays Squeeze in “Sorry to Bother You”. Watching Squeeze, a working-class Asian American character organizing for fair wages, reminded me of my ancestors: Velma Veloria and Larry Itliong. Throughout the movie, I silently thanked the manangs and manongs who fought for worker rights on the West Coast. And I thought of all the folks who continue to do this work — in organizations like Domestic Workers United and Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and in more local movements — fighting alongside and for their communities.
While it is true that “Crazy Rich Asians” had a significantly larger Asian cast, I could not help but notice the difference in reception to the two films. Asian American Twitter buzzed about “Crazy Rich Asians” months before its release. After its opening weekend, my social media feeds swirled with think piece after think piece, some singing high praise and others offering sober critique. “Sorry to Bother You” seemed to receive much less fanfare from Asian Americans. I wondered if it was easier to cheer on — or at least, pay closer attention to — a movie where people who look like us celebrate extravagant lifestyles than one where they stand at the front of a picket line.
I wondered if it was easier to cheer on a movie where people who look like us celebrate extravagant lifestyles than one where they stand at the front of a picket line.
I also struggled with headlines triumphing in the profitability of “diversity” in film. What upset me was not the financial successes of “Sorry to Bother You” or “Crazy Rich Asians” or any other recent release featuring people of color; rather, it was the gnawing reality that there is a certain kind of diversity that sells. The stories that get told in Hollywood are usually the pitches most likely to turn a profit. And because that brand of diversity sells, capitalist logic encourages marginalized communities to rally in support. I wondered if individuals who volunteered to buy out entire theaters and send strangers money for movie tickets might extend a similar generosity to local grassroots Asian American organizers, doing less glamorous but still necessary work in their own backyards.
Capitalism manifests itself in the issues Asian Americans choose to support or ignore until a more convenient time. It prioritizes middle- and upper-middle class professionals breaking a bamboo ceiling over poor and working-class folks experiencing displacement and homelessness. It coaxes us to focus our energy on criticizing Hollywood for another whitewashed film, rather than abolishing the prison-to-deportation pipeline, organizing for the rights of domestic workers, or redistributing resources so that survivors of sexual assault in our communities get the care they need. Capitalism rewards those who ask “How can I get more?” over those who demand that everyone have enough.
Capitalism rewards those who ask “How can I get more?” over those who demand that everyone have enough.
One of the first things I learned in an introductory economics class was that each model we studied relied on a set of assumptions. The foundation of capitalism assumes that our markets are free and even-handed. Competition dictates which ideas and individuals deserve to thrive. Resources are scarce, and people will always allocate those resources to serve their own interests. Information is both publicly available and readily accessible. Profit reigns supreme. And in the same way a rising tide lifts all boats, a growing economy benefits everyone — eventually, anyway.
My classmates and I protested that these models were painfully unrealistic, that the system was set up for certain groups to thrive and left other groups vulnerable. Based on experience both lived and witnessed, I knew that we were not wrong.
“When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.”
These three lines in Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” have haunted me for years. Polite and detached, they are as matter-of-fact as an employer wrapping up interviews with hopeful applicants. Whoever “they” are in this poem holds all the cards, but “you” are dispensable. “You” are a means to an end — that is, their profit. And somehow, “you” are still supposed to feel lucky that you even got to play at all; our first and final assumption is that this is the only game there is.
But the point of familiarizing ourselves with these assumptions was so that we could later question and even critique them in more advanced classes. What happens to the models, or the structures, that we’ve built when we let go of our assumptions? What would happen if I broke down the ways in which I have ordered the world around me, one brick at a time?
One of the most simple and powerful ways to hold space for questions and paradigm shifts is through stories: claiming our own, and listening to others’ that are not ours to tell. As more and more people of color land writing and producing roles, I am excited to see how their creativity nurtures radical storytelling. I dream of communities sharing our stories with each other, amplifying those on the margins, speaking truth to power, and calling that profit.
The argument that capitalism, in its current form in the United States, is our best option lacks imagination. As Audre Lorde — a queer black womanist, warrior, and poet — wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Similarly, I think many Asian Americans, in pursuing the American Dream, believe we are chipping away at the master’s house when we are only rearranging the furniture. Borrowing the tools of capitalism, anti-Blackness, and classism betrays our growing comfort with them. The longer we cling to capitalism, the more we resist our own collective liberation.
The argument that capitalism, in its current form in the United States, is our best option lacks imagination.
For me, anti-capitalism praxis begins when I lay bare what I’ve grown to believe, but it does not end there; information is not transformation. I might understand how I am complicit in capitalist exploitation, even in the most mundane decisions about what I eat and where I live and who I consider my neighbor. But if I do not engage in new practices, then my knowledge of individual and collective participation in this system means little. Actively disentangling myself from dominant systems requires tools different from those the master keeps or those that empire employs. As a Christian, the person and life of Christ points me to an alternative vision and new habits, stretching my imagination wide enough to wrap around the margins and see that the people there have always been at the center.
By Charmaine Runes
Illustrations by John “Enger” Cheng
Charmaine Runes is a policy research analyst in Washington, D.C. Her dreams and schemes revolve around visual storytelling, amplifying community voices, and making data more accessible, interactive, and action-oriented. She also advocates for Asian American inclusion and data disaggregation in research, and gospel-driven solidarity among communities of color. She enjoys yoga, climbing, cooking plant-based meals, and celebrating radical softness wherever she sees it.
JOHN "ENGER" CHENG serves as creative director of INHERITANCE. He is a Los Angeles-based artist, designer and illustrator. He graduated from the University of Southern California Roski School of Fine Arts and is co-founder of Winnow+Glean.