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On Racial Adversaries in Silicon Valley

Erlich Bachman (left) and Jian-Yang (right) in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is something out of a Jack Vance novel, where the doctrine of rational egotism is a law of nature.

I should start this by noting that I encountered Inkoo Kang’s article “It’s Time for Silicon Valley to Disrupt Its Toxic Asian Stereotypes” via Hacker News, the social news tentacle of the real Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, which in my experience tends to be inhabited by lots of libertarian reactionaries who use the acronym “SJW” with impunity. I call attention to this because I don’t like the hivemind’s eagerness to dismiss social justice issues, their penchant for misogyny, or their tone-deaf comments against diversity. But on this particular opinion piece, I think their side-eye is warranted.

I don’t have direct experience with the real Silicon Valley—that is, working for morally bankrupt tech startups on the West Coast—but I have been exposed to the personalities at those kind of startups due to my years working as a cog at digital agencies here in Boston. And OH MY GOD does Silicon Valley capture the ego of the people involved: the soulless VC suits, the vapid digital visionaries, the pernicious tech executives, all thanks in no small part to the army of consultants the show hires to keep its subject matter accurate. Silicon Valley exists in a kind of parallel universe we hope isn’t actually our own: something out of a Jack Vance novel (I’m partial to Cugel’s Saga), where the doctrine of rational egotism is a law of nature, and all those who fail to follow it face economic or spiritual ruin.

As POC in the tech industry myself, I was looking forward to reading Silicon Valley through a social justice lens, as I always thought the show did an honest job depicting the cultural insensitivity of the real Silicon Valley. But by the end of Kang’s opine, I felt like s/he missed the forest for the trees. Kang is worried that Silicon Valley relies too heavily “on racial overtones that reinforce pernicious stereotypes about Asians in tech and other industries.” S/he tries to make the case that “Dinesh and Jian-Yang might be just as brilliant as their counterparts, but Silicon Valley never shows it.” The problem is Kang seems to play favorites with textual evidence.

Dinesh is one of the show’s main characters: he’s an emotionally needy Pakistani programmer whose competence is matched only by his white, self-assured counterpart, who is an emotionally withholding Satanist named Gilfoyle. Kang casts Gilfoyle as a racial adversary of Dinesh, but the two are paired as an odd couple because they share the same insecurities, even though neither will admit to it. The reason why Richard—the show’s resident genius and the founder of Pied Piper—cedes control of the company to Dinesh is because Dinesh’s video app was more successful than Richard’s platform, a fact that undermines the claim that Silicon Valley never shows its minorities succeeding. Moreover, Dinesh’s inevitable fall as CEO is no less graceful than any of the other characters’, and has more to do with his insecurities blossoming into arrogance when he’s placed in the limelight than his status as a minority.

Dinesh Chugtai of Silicon Valley

I think what really struck a nerve for Kang is a recent episode in Season 4 titled “Intellectual Property,” where sleazy, white incubator-slumlord Erlich Bachman learns Chinese immigrant programmer Jian-Yang is developing an app about octopus recipes and not Oculus VR, just before he has to go into a pitch meeting to sell the product. As a character, Jian Yang is cut from the same cloth as his incompetent white counterpart “Big Head” Bighetti, both of whom are young but inept developers who represent the over-eagerness of VCs to cash in on stupid ideas (and both of whom make out with millions because of that stupidity). After a series of ridiculous racist exchanges, Erlich manages to convince a bunch of white, male VC morons that the app is actually “Shazam for food,” and thus hi-jinks ensue. Needless to say, Kang sees the relationship between Jian-Yang and Erlich steeped in racial antagonism (and it sure is), claiming that “its Asian characters, who represent the quarter of Valley workers who are Asian or Asian American, are shuttled into the same little boxes society has kept for Asians for centuries.”

Hollywood seems loath to relinquish the ethnic jokes of the past, and so its new favorite thing is wrapping those racial gags in plausible deniability by having a heinous (or otherwise unpleasant) character utter them.

What Kang interprets as “plausible deniability,” however, I interpret as intentional verisimilitude, given the nature of the egotistic universe that Silicon Valley‘s characters inhabit. Mike Judge and company are not shying away from the racist epithets, they’re laying them on thick, and they mean to. This is not comedy that drops the N-word “accidentally”: the writing in Silicon Valley uses stereotypes to cast light on the very culture that uses those stereotypes humorlessly.

What’s laudable about Silicon Valley is that it portrays racist sleazeballs like Erlich Bachman and misogynists like Russ Hanneman and psychopaths like Gavin Belson with uncanny accuracy, and we laugh at their portrayals not just because we like seeing these assholes get their comeuppance (everyone eventually gets theirs in this sort of universe), but because depicting them as “heinous character[s]” exposes the real Silicon Valley for what it is: ruled by rich, racist, misogynist assholes. In “Intellectual Property,” if we subtract race from the equation, we’ve got a failed entrepreneur who has a history of exploiting immigrants trying to sell total nonsense to a bunch of clueless, VC douche-bags. And if we add race back, we’ve got a blatant, racist stereotype of Jian-Yang as the “cunning” Chinese sidekick who outwits his white slumlord at every turn. This is not commentary-as-accomplice to what should be, which is what a less-than-conscious execution of these tropes would accomplish, but a commentary-against what is, of the culture that it parodies.

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