Talking About Race & Asian-Americans on HBO’s Insecure

This Sunday’s episode of Insecure opened the door to a lot of big questions about race and identity, but the show has always done that, and done it well. What’s different this time is that Insecure posed a lot of overarching questions for Asian Americans, both for the community itself, but also how it exists in relativity to Black Americans. The article contains spoilers for the show and the latest episode, so I suggest you get caught up before reading!

I love Insecure, and I think it’s an incredibly written and produced show. I can’t tell you how excited I was to see Andrew’s character develop this season, into a really serious love interest for Molly. Unlike so many Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) characters we see in television or movies, his character is growing and multifaceted. His race plays a role in who he is, as it should, but it doesn’t dominate or define his character. He also doesn’t conform to a lot of negative stereotypes about Asian men, which means more positive and diverse representation. He isn’t effeminate or desexualized, nor is he portrayed as undesirable. He has a high emotional quotient, with a particular talent for calming Molly down. Plus, he works in entertainment, which is a field that AAPIs are definitely underrepresented in.

I was particularly thrilled with Andrew’s character because I was feeling disheartened after Diane’s portrayal in the first season of the show. Molly’s co-worker was a flat character who was written to be annoying and slightly problematic, and up until this season, she was the only Asian character on the show. But we got to meet two more Asian characters in this week’s episode, which is an uncommon level of representation in a non-AAPI show. That alone is an achievement for the show, and something more shows need to undertake. But not only did Insecure give us the representation, it gave us an argument explicitly about race to dissect.

For those of you who didn’t watch this week’s episode, there are spoilers ahead. Molly travels to Puerto Vallarta with Andrew, meeting his brother and sister-in-law there. Andrew speaks Mandarin earlier in Molly’s apartment, and he slips into Mandarin again when he first sees his brother. Throughout the episode, Mandarin was mixed into everyday phrases and woven fluidly into their conversations, and given how so many AAPI communities are immigrants or second generation, it’s an accurate portrayal. However, I wish that they had found bilingual actors, especially for the guest roles, where they can afford to be a pit pickier. AAPI folks who would realistically shift into a near-native language would definitely speak with more ease than that, so it would’ve been nice to see that reflected. But poor language aside, our first introduction to Victor and Lydia was off-putting.

Our first impression of Victor is that he is uncompromising and lacks the ability or willingness to see that Molly and Andrew clearly want some alone time. He takes on the classic stereotype of Asian Americans having a lower than average social intelligence. It’s an annoying conformation to stereotypes, but Lydia’s first impression is worse. She easily picks up on Molly and Andrew’s social cues, but her first comment to Molly has some racist undertones. She analyzes Molly’s body and says she’s a “straight 10,” adding that she’s going to have to “call her trainer.” Lydia sees Molly through the problematic lens, perceiving her as a black body instead of a black person, which not only echoes legacies of slavery, but is just a wholly inappropriate way to treat a family member’s significant other.

The hiking scenes were fairly innocuous, without much to work through. It was nice to see Lydia and Victor in a more casual setting, where they weren’t explicitly there to represent some bigger themes. Their eagerness seemed intended to be annoying, which was an unnecessary addition. Again, AAPIs are so often thought of as having low social capital, as outsiders who just seem incapable of understanding what is accepted or popular. It was bothersome to see more of that reflected, especially in a scene where the writers could’ve easily avoided piling on to that negative preconception that so many people already have.

But, to finally arrive at the most provocative scene, let’s talk about the argument in the pool with Molly, Andrew, Victor, and Lydia. Molly is understandably upset because the towel girl, in what is clearly an incident about race, disrespects her by treating her differently than the white guests. Victor, having witnessed part of it, does not call out the towel girl on her behavior or take Molly’s side, and even thanks the towel girl afterwards. When he gets into the pool, he’s already talking about a different subject, and it’s readily apparent that Victor has brushed off this racist incident. In this scene, Victor plays a classic archetype present in Chinese American communities, as well as other AAPI populations. He intuitively calls himself the “devil’s advocate,” and goes on to treat race as an offhand conversation topic he can engage in without seeming to be affected too personally or emotionally. He provokes Molly by suggesting that it may not have been about race, and by doing so, invalidates her experience. To justify that comment, he claims that he faces racism for being Asian — but that’s an entirely unique set of challenges, one that is usually incomparable to the black experience. It gives him no right to question or invalidate Molly’s lived experience the way he thinks it does, and even with both Andrew and Lydia asking him to stop, he continues to egg on Molly. He even goes as far to mock her for saying he hit a nerve, seemingly incapable of understanding how deeply it affects her to talk about her identity, and claiming that they’re “just having a conversation.” Victor is dismissive of the incident and of Molly’s feelings, and while his portrayal is clearly not positive, his character is essential, because there is no denying the anti-blackness that is rampant in Chinese American communities. It is not at all unrealistic to see anti-black Chinese Americans that question the validity of the Black experience, and Victor forces us to confront those hard truths, uncomfortable as it may be. Unchecked, and even checked, his portrayal is as unfavorable as it is a crucial reminder. It’s a reminder that we have to check anti-blackness in our own communities, similar to how Andrew reacts to him.

Molly was justified in how she acted for most of that argument, but it was hard to miss how she accused Asian Americans of only being POC when it benefits them. Her comment plays right into the false notion that Asian Americans are not really people of color. This belief stems from the fact that Asian Americans rarely suffer from the same violence and criminalization that we tend to associate with default communities of color (Black and sometimes Latinx), which are the ugliest and most explicitly harmful forms of racism that exist today. They are also cast as the model minority, a myth perpetuated by right wing commentators to convince us that systemic racism can be overcome by spending enough time on your math homework. But Asian Americans cannot be perceived as a monolith, nor can their problems be erased or ignored because they may be less severe. Chinese Americans just happen to face a different host of problems than Black Americans and Latinx Americans. Korean Americans, Indian Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and all kinds of other AAPI folks all face a different host of problems, each distinct from the next group. Their experiences shouldn’t be negated just because some of them don’t face the forms of racism that we are most familiar with, and to be frank, some groups of AAPI communities do, especially darker skinned folks. But it’s not conducive to compare oppressions, in some kind of twisted race to the bottom. Civil rights are not a zero sum game, and admitting that Asian Americans are POC who face their own unique problems is a crucial step in gaining a more thorough understanding of race. And that’s exactly what Andrew challenges Molly to do when she says that, because thankfully, he openly disagrees with her comment. Molly’s next move is interesting, because she actually tries to tokenize Andrew by telling him he’s different. He challenges her again by asking how he’s different. Because what Molly has done is a move that all POC are probably familiar with. She made a blatantly anti-Asian statement and then tried to cover her tracks by saying that she thinks her boyfriend is an exception to that rule. She basically called Andrew a credit to his race, which is the most backhanded of compliments.

Molly’s temper also elevates when Andrew and Victor switch to Mandarin, and she reminds them sharply that she’s “still here, so can we please speak English?” In context, I genuinely understand her frustration, especially given that the situation is escalating. But the decision to be able to shift into another language that is more comfortable for the speakers, even if there are non-speakers in the conversation, is a decision that has historically faced too much unwarranted criticism. Imagine a scenario that’s been popularized in some memes and tweets, where the Karens of the world are always concerned that the bilingual nail technicians are talking shit about them. The burden does not belong on the nail technicians to soothe the fragile egos of the people around them. Being able to use the language you’re most comfortable with, regardless of who is around, without drawing criticism, is the basest of rights. But Molly played a beautifully important role in the argument because she wasn’t perfect. She didn’t get a free pass to be anti-Chinese just because she’s black, and Andrew certainly didn’t give her that. She has her own biases to check, because even if she started off justified in her anger, it didn’t excuse what she had to say about Asian Americans.

Lydia’s role in the pool argument is a bit more ambiguous. By this point, it’s clear that she is aggressively friendly to Molly, which has problematic undertones. She swears more and even seems to get louder around Molly, almost like she is trying to act more like what she thinks stereotypical black folk act like. Her overzealous positivity to Molly is questionable, and seemingly betrays a faint sense of discomfort. It’s like she’s worried that at any moment, somebody could accuse her of being racist, so she has to maintain a steady stream of compliments to Molly. She doesn’t say much in the argument itself, except to add that, “this is what white people want, to divide us.” It’s not completely clear who she’s directing this comment to, but Molly is the most likely assumption. It would definitely be unfair to put the burden on Molly for bridging that divide, when Victor is the one aggravating her and casting doubt on her experiences. But it opens the door to another interesting topic, to the idea that Asian Americans sometimes aren’t seen as allies to other communities of color. The natural tendency among so many immigrant populations is to just keep your head down and avoid causing problems, so it’s up to the second generation kids to start stirring up trouble. There isn’t a visible presence of politically active Asian Americans, so people have trouble even imagining that reality. Oftentimes, the infrastructure isn’t even there for us to become more involved, especially because there are enormous language barriers. AAPI folks aren’t targeted or even discussed, and a large part of that stems from the fact the issue discussed earlier — that they aren’t always perceived as people of color. But at the end of the day, anybody can be an ally. All allyships just have to be earned and maintained, and Victor simply hasn’t proved himself to be worthy of Molly’s solidarity, nor Molly his.

Andrew is the only person who seems to keep his head on straight for this argument. He tells Victor right off the bat that it was clearly about race, tries to get Victor to stop being an asshole, and stands firmly on Molly’s side. But he still doesn’t let Molly get away with being anti-Asian, which is something I deeply appreciated. Andrew is the Chinese American representation I want to see on television, but I still wish that Insecure had re-imagined Lydia’s character, to present another Chinese American character in a more positive light. Victor was a necessary and symbolic evil, but Lydia had potential to be somebody better. Perhaps it was still useful in exposing a form of microaggression, but I would’ve loved to see a stronger Asian American woman who defied stereotypes instead.

Still, it was a landmark to even see this many Chinese American characters on television, and there were so many layers of race and identity to get through and analyze. The writers managed to jam pack a number of compelling questions in just a few short scenes, and it was incredibly well done. Issa Rae did not undertake this lightly, and she should inspire something within all of us — let’s engage and talk about race with the AAPI folks in our lives.

Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month!

My name’s Viv and I use she or they pronouns. I’m a 23 year old Chinese American living in North Carolina. I like writing about identity, race, and healing.