Racialicious family member Thea Lim has an essay on Salon about the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, and his meaning to Asian Americans. She argues that Manny Pacquiao has unwittingly upended decades of hurtful stereotypes about Asian masculinity, making his Asian American fan base all the more passionate. Thea also talks about boxing’s racial history, Pacquiao’s famed rivalry with Floyd Mayweather, and what repercussions their rivalry has for Asian-American and African-American relations. Read it here, and here’s an excerpt:
Pacquiao makes boxing lovable by being lovable: He overcame immense poverty to become an international phenomenon worth millions. He is monstrously fast in the ring. He named his newborn Queen Elizabeth just because he likes Queen Elizabeth. He is humble and sweet-faced and appears amazed by his own success.
But dig deeper and you see something else about Pacquiao that is an unexpected gift. For Asians and Filipinos who were born and live in the West, Pacquiao offers a space where a diasporic people can feel closer to somewhere hardly ever seen. For a few hours they are united with all the other Asians in the world hunkered down in Pacquiao caps, socks and hoodies, trying not to gnaw off the rim of their beer glasses. Pacquiao closes a distance of thousands of miles so that they are at home.
For Asian fans, there is something exceptionally thrilling about Pacquiao: the joy of seeing ourselves whenever he is on TV. During an interview on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” in 2010, Pacquiao sang “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You,” for no reason really, other than that he wanted to. I was transfixed by his warbling; he employed the exact same karaoke style as my Singaporean uncles. I had never seen such a comforting, familiar and unabashed presentation of Asianness on American TV.
It is Colin’s happiness at seeing a bona fide, nonfictional Asian hero for his friends that draws him to Manny. When I ask the group if they think it’s OK to experience enjoyment at the sight of an Asian man beating a white man, Aruna, Christian and Anthony search for a tactful response. But Colin says, “Doesn’t it sort of feel gratifying though? I’m just thinking of all the times we’ve seen Asian men emasculated, and I just think Pacquiao can be symbolic of Asian pride. It’s kind of cool and satisfying to see one of us — ” Colin stops to correct himself here, pointing out that he can’t say “us” because he’s not Asian. But it’s clear that Pacquiao means something to him directly, not just via his friends. He continues, “For me, when Obama won the presidency, it was one of the greatest moments of my life: to see a black guy, a biracial guy reach the highest levels. You can dispute Obama’s policies or whatever, but seeing that win, I cherish that. I don’t think it’s wrong to necessarily feel a little pride, a little racial pride maybe, in seeing Pacquiao knock out a white guy out.” He pauses dramatically. “He put that guy to sleep.” Everyone laughs.
Despite the fact that Asians are an enormous community, the perception that they are soft-spoken and submissive, and therefore a “model minority” preferred by the white ruling classes, can create rifts among communities of color. It is ridiculous to state that over 2 billion people share a deferential nature; yet in the case of Manny, the irony is that the description fits. All the Pacquiao fans at my disposal describe him as incorrigibly gentle. Ryan says, “He is a tough guy within the ring, and that confronts stereotypes about Asians, but outside of that he seems sort of nonthreatening, and maybe that fulfills a stereotype. But that’s because he just does him.” Yet contrast this with the way African Americans are stereotyped and how Mayweather appears — loud, arrogant, violent — and when two boxers who both match a racial bill come up against each other, it’s war. In an echo of the Jack Johnson treatment, perhaps Pacquiao is forgivably Asian. But neither being forgiven nor unforgiven for your ethnicity seems so hot.
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