Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
Warrior's Successful Depiction of Racism
I’ve been a fan of the series Warrior since it came out last year. As of the writing of this article, the show is coming to its climax for its second season and there are questions as to whether there will be a third. I really hope so, as it's one of the best action shows I’ve seen in many years, as one would expect from a premise created by Bruce Lee himself over 40 years ago. What impresses me more about the show, however, is how it depicts racism in the context of the era the show takes place.
Warrior is set in late 19th century San Francisco. It is a city dealing with a constant influx of Chinese immigrants, most of whom work on the railroads, but also has a burgeoning, criminal underworld as well in the form of Chinese gangs known collectively as Tongs. The main protagonist, Ah Sahm, is newly arrived from China and a gifted martial artist. He arrives in season one to find his lost sister and bring her home, but encounters a whole host of problems along the way in 19th century America. There’s a clear hierarchy in the society that has the Chinese and Irish communities at the bottom of that pyramid. Ah Sahm has to join one Tong group, the Hop Wei, in order to survive, only to find his sister is the head of their rival Tong syndicate, the Long Zii.
Though the sibling relationship is the driving force of the series, there are also a number of subplots happening at the same time. One of them is the Chinese communities’ conflict with the Irish community over the scarcity of jobs. The Irish, led by a violent, union man named Leary, blame the Chinese for taking their jobs that are already hard to come by. This conflict has been brewing and finally explodes into open warfare in the streets towards the close of season two.
What makes this portrayal so great isn’t that they showed it at all or that it mirrors much of the American cultural conflicts today. It's a depiction that shows how nuanced racism can be.
"Do I look like I want your fucking job! If you're so damn...'American', maybe you should ask your people why they keep fucking you over to hire us."
— Ah Sahm, Warrior
Racism has been depicted in our TV shows going back to the 1960s and 70s as America was coming out of the Cultural Revolution. The social upheaval this caused exposed many of the nation’s long-existing racists tendencies, among other things. The result was that minorities saw a slow but steadily growing presence on screen. Because racism was so intrinsic to the experience of non-White Americans, this also saw an increase in the depiction of racism in media along with the increasing exposure.
To be fair, sometimes it felt like a token effort on the part of the producers, feeling obligated to have at least one episode touching on the topic. Even when it was genuine though, it was often the simple situation of a White person or persons' disapproval and hostility towards other groups who were different, whether it was religion, skin color, or culture. And the message was often a simple one: racism is wrong, don't be a racist.
An agreeable message to be sure and though progress has been and continues to be slow, there have been clear signs of racism being more on the forefront of peoples’ minds over the last four decades, rather than just an outlier or unmentionable.
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At the same time, it has also created something of a false narrative about racism. It has dumbed down racism to be simpler than it actually is, with a quick and easy solution besides. This was apparent during events like the 1993 LA riots and the recent George Floyd protests as well. Yet I think the event that most blatantly exposed this naïveté was the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the office of president of the United States.
The CEO had made numerous disparaging statements about Muslims and immigrants, causing many of his opponents to believe he was a racist. So naturally, it seemed obvious in 2016 that his opponent Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the White House. Those people were soundly disappointed when this did not happen. There was confusion: after eight years of a Black president and clear advances in progressive values, how could so many people take five steps back by voting in a ‘misogynist racist'?
Handling a Thorn Bush
How does all this connect to Warrior’s portrayal of racism?
Though the show is a self-proclaimed martial arts fantasy, it depicts many of the situations and climate of 1870s San Francisco. One of those issues is the hustle to get jobs. Because there were more people than jobs, some were going to lose out to others. While physical differences definitely played a part in the prejudice of many people, the show makes it clear that the Irish union’s primary issue with the Chinese was the lack of jobs their employment was creating for the Irish and their own families.
There’s a pivotal confrontation between Ah Sahm and Leary this season where the two men, now leaders in their respective communities, have a verbal sparring match. Leary says that the Chinese don’t belong in America, nor will they ever be Americans. Sahm counters, however, that Leary is being a hypocrite because, since businesses are not hiring Irish, maybe it's they who don’t belong. He asks why doesn’t he confront his fellow ‘Americans’ as to why that is. This clearly pisses off Leary and the two leaders almost come to blows before Leary thinks better of it.
The underlying implications of this debate are clear. The Chinese and Irish are in competition for work, and whoever gets the work gets the right to claim that they belong in the new world. Race is an unspoken secondary, which is also clear because the two men have fought to a standstill before and there is respect between the two of them for it. However, both have suffered in a racist America and both are trying to make it in a small market run by the corrupt. Both come from communities that have mouths to feed and are disenfranchised by the powers that be that only care about profit rather than any kind of racial or cultural purity. It's cutthroat survival through and through.
This was the actual case in many growing, urban centers across the country during the 18th to 20th centuries, as each new influx of people lessened the chances of the established group to get work and survive. Poverty was the status quo, day-to-day life was hell, and many were lucky if they made a decent wage to live on. Hope that you didn't get sick, too.
Don’t get it twisted, people who were racist just because of looks definitely existed and Warrior depicts this as well. But it existed alongside this other form of racism that, if circumstances were different and society had more economic opportunities, perhaps there may have been a better chance of mutual respect and co-existence, even if not exactly friends.
Know Your Enemy
Warrior is first and foremost a martial arts show. It is not meant to be a historical docuseries. It even takes a number of liberties on external and little-known factors of San Francisco. However, the show really deserves to be more well known for how it treats racism besides its drama and choreography. Warrior presents that there are different levels of racists, that there are racists on every side as the Chinese refer to Whites collectively as ‘ducks’. And how external factors can fuel those feelings.
If people truly believe that they can end racism or at the least not be caught off guard by it again, then they have to look at the context and circumstances in which it is festering. It is not enough to ‘punch a Nazi in the face’ when the Nazi is going to keep coming back, and visa versa. Dealing with the ‘why’ as well as not tolerating physical and obstructive acts of racism are both important. Because humans are a nuanced species, and it's going to take a nuanced answer for an equally nuanced problem.
© 2020 Jamal Smith