HBO’s Silicon Valley is a world of seesaws. Swift, meteoric rises and abrupt, catastrophic falls govern the lives of the entire Pied Piper team. One day they’re titans of the tech industry; the next, their ideas are rightly referred to as “toxic assets.” And with millions in funding and an ever-moving finish line, that unpredictability leads to constant backstabbing and double-crossing. To make it in the Valley, you have to keep your friends NDA’ed and your enemies out of your incubator—otherwise, you’re hosed.
That zero-sum dynamic applies to rivalries within Pied Piper as well as without. But in the cases of frenemies Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and the hostile partnership of Erlich (T. J. Miller) and Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang), that antagonism takes on racial overtones that reinforce pernicious stereotypes about Asians in tech and other industries. And over the show’s three and a half seasons, the writers’ reliance on those tropes has only become more obvious.
Silicon Valley grapples with the difficulty of translating genius into profit—but only its white characters get the privilege of suffering that dilemma. Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is the show’s tortured artist, consumed by the thought of inventing the next internet. Bemused nihilist Gilfoyle is the only coder who can equal Richard’s skill, imagination, and purity of intent. Loyal Jared (Zach Woods) has come through for his team time and again by looking at the larger picture when the rest could only focus on the details. And Erlich, who last season conjured up a $6 million bidding war over lunch, continues to turn stems and seeds into medicinal-grade sativa. (Entrepreneurially speaking.)
Meanwhile, Pakistani immigrant Dinesh spectacularly screwed up both a CEO position and a relationship—the entire point of his character is that he’ll never be as smart or as savvy as Gilfoyle. (For proof of this, look no further than their tiff on last night’s episode, which Gilfoyle won simply by maintaining that he did.) Chinese immigrant Jian-Yang is written as even less smart—his big pitch this season was a collection of eight octopus recipes—and the developer’s greatest achievement thus far has been cheating Erlich out of a year’s rent by taking advantage of a loophole meant to help the unfortunate. Dinesh and Jian-Yang might be just as brilliant as their counterparts, but Silicon Valley never shows it.
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 character utter them.
None of this is to say that show creators Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky intentionally set out to make a TV show that replicates the Valley’s racial biases—but that’s what happened. And it doesn’t stop there. For Erlich to earn his long-overdue comeuppance, viewers had to sit through a seemingly unending parade of references to Jian-Yang’s sidekick-y Otherness: “My funky Asian friend,” “My beautiful little Asiatic friend,” “He’s from China, a small town, not used to our big-city liquor.” 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. But that doesn’t make the experience of watching a white man repeatedly point out an Asian man’s ethnicity—or treating him like a disobedient dog, as Erlich also regularly does—any more enjoyable. It might be satisfying to bruise someone who repeatedly calls you a name, but you’d probably prefer to not be bullied in the first place.
America has always allowed its racial anxieties to dictate the supposed aptitudes of certain groups. Slavery was rationalized—with an assist from phrenology—through assertions of African Americans’ lesser brainpower and innate “tameableness.” After the California gold rush and the construction of the transcontinental railroad, racist demagogues portrayed Chinese immigrants as so “cunning” that the US government saw it fit to isolate them inside segregated ghettos and ban immigration from China for more than six decades. Today’s yellow peril is more subtle—but undoubtedly persistent. As the Japanese car and electronics industries started overtaking American companies in the 1980s, Gung Ho and Sixteen Candles emasculated Asians for white suburban audiences. And now, with China’s ascent in the early 21st century, xenophobes have found a new salve: Whites create and Asians copy. Asian intelligence comes with asterisks—it’s either derivative (like Dinesh) or devious (like Jian-Yang). That pervasive view is partly to blame for why, contrary to White House adviser Steve Bannon’s panic about there being too many Silicon Valley CEOs of Asian descent, statistics show that Asians and Asian Americans face a “bamboo ceiling” that results in their underrepresentation among tech leadership.
Not every white character on Silicon Valley is a genius, of course. And that’s the point. White characters can be dreamers like Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) or dumdums like Big Head (Josh Brener). But 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. For a show that’s constantly questioning what keeps innovation and progress from happening, it should ask the same of itself.