Asian Americans Break the Silence at SXSW

With recent outrage at whitewashing movies including “The Great Wall,” starring Matt Damon, and “Ghost in the Shell,” starring Scarlett Johansson, Asian Americans continue to be left out of the equation. Not only are they underrepresented on television and film, but when they are represented, their roles are typically reduced to stereotypes.

Story by Zoya Zia

On Sunday, a group of versatile Asian American artists and creatives discussed this struggle for visibility and provided insight on their respective industries at a South by Southwest Interactive panel in Austin, Texas. Executive director of Kollaboration and actor Christine Minji Chang served as the moderator. Other speakers included writer and blogger Phil Yu, writer and stand-up comedian Jenny Yang and actor Dante Basco.

Photo courtesy of Kollaboration

Photo courtesy of Kollaboration

Chang began by describing the goals of the panel and asked audience members to share their interests in the topic, which helped facilitate a more interactive discussion among attendees. The speakers were excited to outline the power of storytelling in media, explain the importance of representation and offer some tips on how to contribute to the movement for diversity.

Before going any further, the panelists were introduced.

Chang is the executive director of Kollaboration, a grassroots and non-profit organization that started in Los Angeles in 2000. The organization connects and empowers Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in fields of art and entertainment.

Yu is the founder and editor of Angry Asian Man, a popular blog that has been running since 2001. The blog produces diverse content, ranging from thoughts on social issues and current events to spotlights on leaders in the community.

With similar aims in mind, Yang created the trending hashtag #ThankYouMattDamon after “The Great Wall” premiered. Yang was honored as a White House Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling in 2016. She also produces the first-ever, mostly female Asian American stand-up comedy tour called Disoriented Comedy.

Lastly, Basco is an actor and founder of an Asian American arts collective in Los Angeles. He voiced Jake Long in “American Dragon: Jake Long” and has played an array of other roles in Hollywood.

For Chang and Yang, the journey to their current professions included twists and turns. Chang went from studying medicine to pursuing a career in entertainment. Yang started with a career in politics before moving to comedy. “First and foremost, I’m a person who cares about the world,” Yang says.

When Yang was involved in a labor union, she admits that the work was boring. “I feel like there is a lack of creativity and it was liberating to move to comedy,” Yang says. “We need to be better at telling stories on the non-profit and politics side in order to connect."

One way that Yang recently connected with her audience was by responding to a controversial “Pho is the New Ramen” video with a satirical “How to Eat PB&J” video. Yang argued that if the Asian American community could channel their anger at the pho video into political action, they would be unstoppable.

At this point, there are several obstacles preventing the community from gaining proper representation in the media or even in politics. Chang remarked that although she didn’t want the panel to be a complaint festival, the discussion had to be contextualized by social realities.

Chang asked the speakers how they would describe the Asian American experience, and Yu quickly acknowledged that there is no single Asian American experience. “The Asian American Pacific Island banner is a convenient, inconvenient label to describe one group,” Yu says. “The conflict is that we want to define ourselves but outside forces try to tell us who we are.”

Movies like “The Great Wall” and “Ghost in the Shell” are the latest examples in a history of underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Asian Americans. “I grew up dying to see a little bit of myself somewhere in the media,” Yu says. “It’s a lifetime of this search and we weren’t even allowed to talk about this for a while. Now, there is a larger conversation.”

Part of the conversation is understanding the types of roles with which Asian American actors are cast. Yang asked the audience to throw out common stereotypes. Audience members shouted out “smart” and “submissive.” Yang added that one could just google “model minority myth.”

The other part of the conversation is invisibility or the absence of Asian American characters. When Yu started his blog in 2001, he says he counted five Asian American characters on primetime networks. Although their numbers have increased, a list of these characters could still be compiled. “But nobody’s making a list of all the white people on television,” Yu says.

Basco has been involved in the entertainment industry for over thirty years. Making it in Hollywood is hard enough to begin with, especially when the number of roles for Asian Americans is limited. Stereotypes are how white people have perceived Asian American experiences, but that is not their narrative.  “We need to take back the narrative and tell our stories,” Basco says.

Recognizing this momentum for reclaiming the narrative, Chang closed the discussion on a positive note. The speakers considered what audience members could think about or do to support the movement in the days ahead. “It’s about creating, shooting YouTube videos, writing films and plays,” Basco says. “We need more content not less, we need to inspire.”

ORANGE managing editor Zoya Zia asked the speakers about the existence of a hierarchy within the Asian American subset, specifically with regards to South Asian representation. The speakers responded with encouragement and assured Zia that her voice matters when it comes to media content. In particular, Yang reiterated the diversity of Asian American experiences.

In conclusion, the kind of roles offered to Asian Americans must be diversified and the frequency of these roles should increase. “We don’t want to be upset when an Asian American show is cancelled or if a character dies,” Yu says. “There’s not a lot of room to fail.”