Image description: Three goldfish with human arms grow in cloning tanks


In the popular HBO series The White Lotus, Armond, the manager of a luxury Hawaiian resort, discusses behavioral expectations with the hotel’s newest trainee, Lani, a Pacific Islander. He tells her that self disclosure to the resort’s guests is heavily discouraged and that the guests should feel as though they’ve entered a “tropical Kabuki” upon arriving at the hotel. The guests—white, wealthy, and willfully ignorant—take the workers for granted. As an employee, Lani should seem “generic” and “vague,” and act as a “pleasant, interchangeable helper” to benefit the hotel’s demanding guests. Armond’s message is clear: to the hotel, the workers—even managers like himself—should be non-differentiable, replaceable, and replicable. 

The language used in this scene, the Hawaiian setting, and the inclusion of native Islanders as workers illustrates a stereotype often perpetuated against A/PI workers: the “Interchangeable Asian.” Popularized by a New York Times article by Brian Chen, the concept of the “Interchangeable Asian” relates to the stereotypes that all Asians look the same, are intensely hard working, and are obedient to hierarchical norms. Though Chen focuses on the application of this stereotype in white collar jobs, The White Lotus illustrates that this concept even extends to the service industry. The “Interchangeable Asian” sustains workplace inequality by creating a sense of “oneness” among all employees of Asian descent, thereby reducing the contributions and impact of the individual worker. Regardless of ethnic or national identity, those who are classified as Asian are often seen as “\doers, not leaders,” curbing advancement opportunities and furthering the underlying cliches of the “Interchangeable Asian.” 

Dr. Michelle Huang (Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University) used the concept of the “Interchangeable Asian” as an introduction for her guest lecture on “Racial Replication,” hosted by the University of Michigan’s DISCO Network, a collective of policy makers, artists, and scholars working collaboratively to address digital social and racial inequalities. Huang’s work with literature and digital media helps to illuminate patterns in Asian American immigration and labor history that permeate our present societal structures. Depsite the undeniable industrial and technological advancement that Asian people have helped achieve in the United States, Anti-Asian xenophobia has been a constant in American history. To the vision of a predominately white, middle class society that many in the US hold, there exists a notion that the increased normalization of Asian workers will lead to a replicative body that undermines the “average, American worker.”  However, when interchangeability is put in conversation with replication, suddenly, the threat is diminished. Interchangeability denies individuality, and rather than being one of many, Asian workers become a collective version of the one. Instead of being a group that can easily replicate and take away opportunities from others, the Asiatic body, seen as a monolith, can be controlled and capitalized for the gain of others. 

Huang’s talk made clear the distinction between replication and interchangeability and how, together, these concepts both enable the exploitation of workers and fuel xenophobic sentiments. She demonstrated her idea of “racial replicability” through two dystopian novels about clones. In analyzing Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl, Huang presented the concept of “racial replication,” which can happen in one of two ways: 1) genetic duplication and 2) replication for mechanical use (which she respectively calls “genetic” and “generic”). In either case, the replication allows for the abstraction and commodification of living beings, an idea Huang borrows from the work of African American Studies professor Saidiya Hartman’s theory of racial fungibility. While racial fungibility focuses on the idea that racialized bodies can be held captive, abstracted, commodified, and exploited (“vessels for use,” in Hartman’s words), Huang argued that interchangeability is just as fungible as the construct of race itself. By using contemporary fictional examples, Huang illustrated how the replication processes in Never Let Me Go and Salt Fish Girl create interchangeability among the clone figures within each novel, and how their status as clones allows them to be commodified for the use of overbearing institutional powers, whether it be corporate or governmental organizations. 

Though clone technology seems to belong to a distant and dystopian future, the basic premise of how technology can be co-opted by institutions and ultimately racialized holds true for innovations in our real world. Already, we see the potential for replication in technology through programs like the Metaverse, where intelligent, self-replicating digital avatars could interact and learn from their environment while evolving within the simulated reality. Though the clone students in Never Let Me Go do not look alike, because their main purpose is to just serve as live organ donors, the use of their bodies creates a sense of interchangeability for the citizenry. And while they are not explicitly racialized, the “othering” of their existence implies racialization as a construct that differentiates them as clones from the humans in their world. In Salt Fish Girl, Dr. Flowers actually creates fish-human and cat-human hybrid clones who have obvious Asiatic attributes. Because these clones all look alike, Dr. Flowers is able to exploit their non-differentiability and keep them as a docile and subjugated workforce, commodifying them as “vessels for use,” physically, for the benefit of the patriarchal corporate powers that control their society. 

Though Huang’s scholarship uses fictional examples, the conclusions she reached in her talk appear in the real-life experiences detailed by employees of similar racial identity.  These ideas further inequality and can be perpetuated across all kinds of workplaces, from the service industry to the corporate world. By learning from scholars like Dr. Huang, who study these concepts from theoretical perspectives and analyze the tensions that exist within these concepts, we can learn the vocabulary to combat any micro- or macro-aggressions that sustain these harmful stereotypes in the professional and personal spaces we inhabit. 

American society tends to either fear racial replication or look for ways to capitalize and commodify it. But, knowledge of these ideas allows us to be critical about how the institutions that we belong to can actually exploit our identities without our realization, allowing us to take back the power of individuality while simultaneously building solidarity. No longer “vessels for use,” we can instead challenge the norms of racialization in technically advancing spaces and work instead to create a more collaborative, inclusive technological future.

Works Cited:

Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 19.