I think that’s a very common theme among Asian drag queens that the show hadn’t captured before. Drag becomes a very political space where gay Asian men can claim their senses of worth. And they use the stereotypes that already exist to their advantage.
Kornhaber: Do you have any favorite looks for Kim Chi?
Han: My favorite one, which I think if you asked my friends they would say that it shouldn’t have been, was the one that she did with the little person. That was the most, quote, “Orientalized” look she had this season, but I think for that particular challenge it was very empowering. She takes what is seen as being submissive and controllable and uses that to reinterpret what power and control means. I think that’s what a lot of people of color do, not just in the gay community or in the drag community.
Kim Chi is incredibly insightful about race and sexuality and gender, and yet she comes off as this sort of naïve person. I think of the episode with the throwing-the-shade competition. And even [in the finale] where she’s asked which [Pit Crew member] would you take—it’s a very important moment. We expect her to jump up and down and say, “I would love to have one of these Pit Crew members.” Yet even in that small tiny moment, she makes it political, saying, “Clearly someone like me is supposed to be lusting after someone like that. But I’m going to not just reject it, but I’m also going to throw some shade at it. And I’m going to redefine what it means to be desirable because I’m the one up here with all the attention. I’m the one that they should want.”
Kornhaber: Throughout this conversation, you’ve referred to the idea of white gay standards. I think some people reading this will say, well, “RuPaul’s black, the winner is black, the contestants are very diverse.” But you’re referring more to the culture that Drag Race exists in, right?
Han: I think it’s a mistake that when we say “whiteness,” we equate it with just white people. Those two things are not the same. We’ve made this investment in a stereotype of what one should be that, to be quite frank, most white people also don’t meet. This type of a body that’s attractive, these types of physical features that are attractive.
When people of color are considered desirable, they’re only considered desirable because they meet that image of whiteness. We see this narrative all the time, even with Prince: Everybody said they loved him because he transcended race. When was the last time a white artist died and people said they loved him because he transcended race? Blackness and Asian-ness and Latino-ness only become acceptable if they leave those things behind.
William Hung sang with this heavy accent and he was an engineering student from Berkley and American Idol made him into a big joke. And Asian people [were] upset because this is a stereotype. Well, what we’re saying is that that image is not only unacceptable to white people but it’s unacceptable to us as well, and in the process we’re throwing people under the bus so that we can be more like white people. William Hung is a real person who speaks that way, as a significant percent of our population does. We’re only ashamed of them because somebody else told us we should be.
Even this notion of Kim Chi lisping—every time someone comments on that it irritates me a little bit. We need to think, “Well, why is this a problem?” It’s only a problem because we consider it a problem. Kim Chi doesn’t hide these things, she doesn’t overcome these things, she uses these things. And that makes her an incredibly powerful performer and someone pushing the dialogue in a more positive direction than it’s been before.