Every time I see that ABC 7 reporter CeFaan Kim has posted a new Instagram Story, my heart does a mini Tower of Terror drop — chances are another grandmother had a rock bashed into her head or a sexagenarian Korean bodega owner has been pummeled in the doorway of his own shop. In many of these assaults, if the attacker says anything at all, it’s specifically anti-Chinese hate speech (regardless of the victim’s race): despising the way we look or linking us with COVID and measles, a virus that was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000 thanks to large-scale vaccination efforts. (I don’t have to include the least imaginative slur.)
That Kim even has anti-Asian hate as a reporting beat — and that he’s rather alone in his coverage — says a lot about how the media treats Asian Americans today. We go largely ignored unless our black eyes, our pain, and our deaths are deemed sensational enough to make for a click-y headline. Or if a person of, again specifically Chinese descent commands mainstream attention because of their successes or chaotic political career, a shift happens. The rhetoric goes from a car-crash mix of voyeurism and passing sympathy to something snide and subtly racist — something like what many of us experience in the daily interactions we have with our white neighbors and colleagues. And, famous or not, it can have dire, real-life consequences for all Asian Americans.
In Olympic skier Eileen Gu’s case, the 18-year-old is being painted as a sort of Benedict Arnold with a Victoria’s Secret contract. The “reason”: Gu is representing China instead of the United States in the Olympic Games — even though American-born athletes competing for other nations isn’t all that uncommon. She has been made out to be a turncoat, an ingrate, a Gen-Z Pollyanna for daring to believe she can further diplomacy through sport; a secret communist; and a “jerk” by a writer who maybe should have had another think about being a white man assigning pejoratives to a young woman of color on the internet in 2022. But while much has been made about the morality of her decision and her refusal to discuss geopolitics, nearly all of the reporting on Gu has pointedly focused on her stable of sponsors — while simultaneously missing the mark.
There are a number of side-eye glances aimed at Gu’s relationships with brands like Tiffany & Co., Estée Lauder, and “a slew of Chinese companies.” (Some articles allegedly about her athletic performance still rattle off her modeling gigs, while others can’t seem to resist a giggly mention of her partnership with dairy giant Mengniu. Another writeup sourly compliments her Louis Vuitton and Fendi campaigns as “actually quite well done.”)
Gu didn’t exactly invent the professional athlete endorsement industry — these are business decisions meant to lengthen and diversify a career path that has an expiration date unless, say, you can hop on the slopes-to-commentator pipeline or keep pulling in spokesperson gigs for mental-health apps and auto insurance. But by framing these contracts as somehow novel when Roger Federer signed with Uniqlo for an estimated $300 million and Michael Phelps inked a Chinese Mazda deal, even the more measured stories still seem to call her an opportunist — which is, ironically, the most American thing there is. Why are we so suddenly (and performatively) squeamish about a top athlete leveraging their talent to unapologetically live the capitalist dream? What is even the point of being a Wheaties box–level sports star if you don’t get to be on the Wheaties box? (And for that matter, why are we so eager to critically label Gu’s mother a “tiger mom” while someone like Kris Jenner has pages upon pages of admiring memes dedicated to her marketing the hell out of her family?)
Because this is a country that gatekeeps. You can play for us but not them. You can’t bend the rules but we can. You can make money here but not there. So when someone operates outside of these double standards by using both sides of her identity to her financial advantage, the response is to depict her choices as unique or nefarious. That’s how the “if you just work hard, you can make it” myth lives on — if Gu is portrayed as a shadowy exception. But in a time when drumming up sentiment against one notable Chinese person means more violence and danger to all Asian Americans, vilifying Gu shouldn’t come so easily.
To cover Eileen Gu in this way and think that it won’t cause harm, to both her and others, is naïve — even more so than her quest to “unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations” through skiing.