By Guest Contributor Jonathan Vogeler
This summer, Citibank began running an advertising campaign that features three young men embarking on a project, financed by the bank, to photograph Earth from space, using a weather balloon and off-the-shelf equipment. The advertisement taps several currents of our national mythology – independence, ingenuity, discovery, and superiority in space (which is itself an extension of our glorification of colonial conquest).
This is not an entirely fictional story. Two years ago, Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, two Asian-American MIT students, made international headlines when they used inexpensive, readily available materials to photograph near-space orbit on a $150 budget. They describe their project here, and received national media coverage.
There is a remarkable visual similarity between the Citibank ad storyboard and the real-life project documented by Lee and Yeh on their blog. But there are a few key differences.
As you can see in the commercial above, the most obvious discrepancy is that Lee and Yeh have been replaced by two young white men and a third who appears to be African-American. Within this group there is also a clear racial dynamic: the white men initiate and execute the project, while their friend drives the vehicle and points appreciatively at their success.
America has a long history of mis-attributing credit to white men. But the specific erasure of Asian-American men is indicative of deep cultural paranoia toward the challenge that Asian-American success poses to white hegemony. If the ad were to feature the real-life heroes of this story, many white Americans may read it, not as a feat of American ingenuity, but a dangerous manifestation of their loss of power. This fear is evidenced both internationally, in apprehension toward the rising economies of Asia, and domestically, as resentment of Asian-American students at elite universities. The narrative of enterprising white men achieving success (with an assist from a person of color) is less threatening, because it reinforces the identity that white American men like to imagine for themselves.
A second, less-apparent difference between the commercial and the real story is the source of funding. Citibank positions itself in the commercial as a benevolent patron of small-scale innovation. You may have the idea, the ad says, but the big banks make it feasible. Therefore, white people have an interest in allying themselves with big banks, in the same way that Citibank is tacitly allying itself with the cultural demands of whiteness.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this story, however, is that Lee and Yeh were able to compete with NASA on a budget of only $150. They did not need a bank loan; their seed money was a $200 donation. As they describe it, the specific barrier that they faced was a lack of access to resources. They simply could not afford the expensive equipment that would be needed for near-space photography (and presumably no bank would have lended them the money). Their accomplishment was not only an expansion of scientific knowledge, but the pioneering of a technique that allowed them and others who imitate them to overcome the financial obstacles that restrict scientific access.
The story of ordinary people achieving their goals by tapping small donations and economizing is just as threatening to banks as Asian space-flight is to many white Americans. So this inspiring all-American tale of hard work and ingenuity is rewritten as an alliance between white hegemony and the banking system. Sadly, this the only version of the story that most Americans will ever hear.