Like many Asian Americans, I’ve been looking forward to the release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first major Hollywood film featuring an all-Asian cast since the “Joy Luck Club” was released 25 years ago. I understand the hunger Asian-American audiences have for movies portraying us as glamorous, sexy and part of a powerful elite after enduring so many nerd, kung-fu master, servant and sidekick caricatures.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a historic win for representation, but it’s no coincidence that it centers the stories of wealthy and class-privileged Chinese people (including main character Rachel Chu, who has a ton of class privilege through her job as a professor and her Ivy League degrees). In this moment of extreme wealth inequality and increasingly visible White supremacy, I’m not surprised that Warner Bros. took a bet on a movie where rich Asians show they can act like rich White people and and reinforce the model minority myth, the stereotype that all Asian Americans are wealthy, have high educational achievement and assimilate well into White culture.
The logic of racial capitalism goes, Why can’t all other “minorities” be like Asians? There can’t be a “model” and “good” minority without there being a “bad” and “lazy” minority who, because of bad choices, deserves to be poor. The model minority myth has been used by the mostly White, ruling class as a wedge between the Asian-American community and African Americans, Latinx and other people of color for decades, stamping down multiracial efforts to challenge this country’s deeply unjust and racist economic system. That’s why I was disappointed to “Crazy Rich Asians” doubling down on this myth and falsely asserting that wealth accumulation and outspending White people is an effective way to challenge racism.
“Crazy Rich Asians” also contributes to the flattening of the Asian American experience, when in reality, economic division is at a historic high in the Asian-American community. According to a recent report from Pew Research Center, the income gap between the richest and poorest Asian Americans is greater than any other racial group. And a 2016 report from the Center for American Progress found that the net worth of the top 10 percent of Asian Americans is 168 times the net worth of the bottom 20 percent.
I’m a rich Asian. My parents immigrated to the United States as grad students and accumulated wealth through business and real estate. My mom’s insurance business took off in the 2000s as wealthy Chinese nationals bought investment properties in North Carolina and insured them with her. As the number of “crazy rich” Chinese people has grown, my family has benefited from their consumption patterns (like buying $500K properties with cash).
Today, my parents’ net wealth is around $3 million, and they have already transferred more than $200,000 to me by paying for my college tuition, the down payment on my condo, cars and gifting me money. This wealth puts my parents in the top 1 percent in North Carolina and the top 7 percent in the U.S. It puts me in the top 10 percent of millennials, which is defined as having $200,000 in net assets if you are age 30-35 or being part of a family that has $1 million or more in net assets.
But the elite Chinese Singaporeans in “Crazy Rich Asians” who casually drop $200,000 on one shopping trip would probably consider my family middle-class. Reading the book, I had to resist the impulse to think, Well at least we’re not that rich. I think that’s one of the reasons the book is so popular; it gives a voyeuristic glimpse into the lifestyles of the super rich while letting everyone else off the hook, especially those who aren’t visibly “crazy rich” but are still way richer than most Americans. But focusing on 1 percenters and their lifestyles renders invisible the exploitative, mundane and ubiquitous systems that make extreme wealth consolidation possible. Folks with degrees from “selective” colleges, no student debt and the class privilege of always being able to afford medical care, mortgages and travel have access to security and stability that they don’t deserve any more than people from poor and working-class communities.
Like Nick Young, the primary love interest in the story, I grew up oblivious to my own wealth and class privilege. I lived in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in my hometown of Cary, North Carolina, but like Nick, I assumed everyone had big brick homes and leafy yards on spacious cul-de-sacs. Although it’s frustrating that as an adult he has been conditioned to hide his wealth, I empathize with him. I used to downplay and hide my wealth and class privilege, in small ways (“Oh, my parents bought me this car…it’s used, though.”) and significant ones, like not giving at the higher end of sliding scales for events or fundraising asks.
As I got more involved in activism, I felt more pressure to hide it, as I didn’t want to have my “progressive card” taken away. Rich people like Wall Street bankers and the lobbyists and the Koch brothers were the enemy. I didn’t see any room to be both rich and progressive.
It wasn’t until I joined Resource Generation, which helps wealthy young people use our resources and privilege to support racial and economic justice movements led by poor and working-class people, that I understood I should bring all of myself to social justice. Being transparent about my personal access to wealth helps expose classism and systemic wealth inequality. Since I’ve been involved with Resource Generation, I’ve increased my giving (which I now see as redistribution, rather than charity) to social movement organizations 20 fold. I also act in solidarity by lobbying and participating in actions.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved seeing this all-Asian crew on the big screen. Visibility matters. But I hope future all-Asian casts are assembled to tell the powerful stories of Asian and Asian American activists who have been on the frontlines of economic and racial justice struggles, like Filipino farm worker and labor organizer Larry Itliong, Indian freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, and writer and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs. These giants built solidarity across race and class to challenge capitalism, White supremacy and imperialism. As an Asian born into a rich family, I am inspired by their stories, and they have taught me that wealth accumulation for a few cannot ensure communal safety for all. It will take powerful collective action and wealth redistribution to end racialized capitalism and move toward true liberation for our communities.
Iimay Ho is the executive director at Resource Generation—a national multiracial membership organization of young people with class privilege and wealth committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land and power—and co-chair of the board of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Follow Resource Generation on Twitter @ResourceGen.