United Airlines Flight #3411: Western "Soft Power" is the silent killer of Asians

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    A Vietnamese-American doctor, Dr. Dao, was brutalized by United Airlines on April 9, 2017. He was beaten by aviation security, given a concussion, and dragged off the plane like an animal. What recent reports failed to recognize was the degree to which Western culture, or Western “soft power”, played a role in the beating.

    Before the attack

    Western culture promotes what can be called the “White Brand”. From their youth, American children read fairytales such as Snow White with white male heroes; the trend continues in adulthood with larger-than-life leading men in Hollywood almost always being white men. America’s sordid history of crimes against humanity are hidden and/or downplayed. The American population – white, black, Hispanic, and Asian (non-whites make up 40% of America) – are trained to see whites as virtuous and high status.

    In contrast, Western soft power normalizes the dehumanization of Asians and Asian men in particular. It’s not uncommon for American movies to depict Asians being killed en masse and for it to be shown as “justifiable” since the Asians are portrayed as villainous, abusive, and/or misogynistic; examples of this include: “The Wolverine”, “The Interview”, and “Lucy”. Harm towards Asians is also seen as humor. In “Lucy”, the white female lead shoots a Taiwanese driver for not being able to speak English; this was meant to be “comedic” and blogs reported that audiences laughed at the scene.

    The onslaught of demeaning depictions leads to a subconscious dehumanization of Asians in the public mind (note: Americans cannot tell the difference between different kinds of Asians such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese; so damaging perceptions of one, harms all) These socially constructed racial perceptions form the backdrop of interactions in America, including the Dao incident.

    During the attack

    Double standards abound in the Dao incident. It’s unfathomable that the police officer would physically beat a 69-year old, gray-haired white male physician, slamming his face into the headrest, knocking out two teeth and giving him a concussion if he passively objected to his removal from the flight. It’s more likely he would instead be seen as a respectable gentleman to be treated in a civil manner. Dao’s suffering is linked to the cultural dehumanization of Asians. Dehumanization makes others see our rights and feelings as less worthy of consideration; they become more prone to aggression towards us, indifferent towards the pain caused.

    Witnesses saw another customer refuse to leave, but the flight attendants did not call the police in that case. Instead, they engaged respectfully until the passenger agreed to leave. But when Dr. Dao refused to leave, the flight attendant called the police to deal with him.

    Why were flight attendants more aggressive towards Dao? Why did things escalate with him but not with the other passenger? In Dao’s case, he even described that as a physician, he had patients he had to see the next morning, making it crucial for him to stay on the flight. However, racial biases influence perception of threats and reactions towards defiance. In America, Asians are perceived as passive so when an Asian defies this stereotype and expectation, the reaction can be indignation and anger. There’s even a paper on this.

    After the Attack

    Dehumanization not only influenced the Dao incident, it affects how people respond to it. A passenger on United witnessed that one of the police officers was “laughing in the midst of the incident, to the violent, abusive way the passenger was dragged off the plane by the [other] officer”. Late-night TV host, Jimmy Kimmel turned this tragedy into a joke on his show. He’s the same host responsible for the “let’s kill everyone in china” skit in 2013. This is how Asians are stripped of their humanity; how anti-Asian crimes are downplayed and tacitly approved of.

    Interestingly, American culture doesn’t laugh at white victims, who instead enjoy abundant sympathy. The 2015 Paris terrorist attack that killed 12 sparked globally-televised vigils. In contrast, when 31 Chinese were butchered by the 2014 terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, the Western media sympathized with the terrorists and misrepresented them as “freedom fighters” fighting their “oppressors”. In the Western narrative, Asians are often vilified even when slain.

    Consequences are the key

    United Airline’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, initially refused to apologize, assuming Asians would accept the incident passively. It was only after an uproar on Chinese social media contributed to United Airline’s stock value falling by nearly 1 billion dollars on fear of losing business in China, that he apologized – in Mandarin. The fear of consequences is absolutely vital to combating Western disrespect of Asians. It’s time Chinese people everywhere stood up for themselves in matters large and small.


    Western media’s dehumanization of Asians contribute to these tragedies. All Asians must fight the West’s dehumanization of Asians that produce racially biased aggression.

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