I started this blog only this month mainly to present a series of essays and commentaries on some of the issues facing Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-American men. One such issue is media “whitewashing”, i.e., the habitual use of white actors to play characters who are Asian, both fictional and historical and usually it is Asian male characters who are whitewashed out. Another aspect of this phenomenon, as it relates to Asian men, is the issue of whitewashing Asian men out of relationships with Asian women, i.e., an apparent ubiquity of onscreen partnerships involving white men and Asian women, yet very few involving Asian men and Asian women (but this is another story!).
As an Asian man, I’m fully aware of how invisible we are in the media, and I get it that invisibility increases the influence of negative stereotyping. I also get it that challenging invisibility in the media and media misrepresentations is a necessary part of the struggle to end dehumanizing images of Asians. Unfortunately, my feeling is that as much imbalance there is in the media, the response to it by Asian-Americans is equally out of balance. It seems to me that there is a movement of sorts within the Asian-American community that seeks to elevate issues with the media over that of real civil rights issues. I think of this as something of a “populist” movement – populist in the sense that there is an ability to mobilize apparently large numbers of supporters across the nation to protest and engage in demonstrations against whatever media issue is at hand. The Airbender issue is a perfect example of this populism in action.
Most people reading this will probably be familiar with the issue. Briefly, many Asian-Americans (i.e. East Asian-Americans) are peeved that a live action movie re-do of a Nickelodeon cartoon has used non-East-Asian actors/actresses to play characters who were apparently East-Asian in the original cartoon. The response has been immaculate! Letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, accusations that the director is being racist, and calls for a boycott. I have been amazed!
Recently, I wrote a post (here) about the ongoing struggles faced by Asian-American children in South Philly High School. What seems to be happening there is that Asian children have been targeted for harassment and violence. Beatings of Asian children are routine, and racial baiting is reportedly initiated in some instances by teaching staff. School admins are and have been fully aware of the problem, yet apparently continue to permit an environment of anti-Asian bias in the school. Evidently, this seems to be a major issue that suggests the civil rights of Asian children are being abused.
What is remarkable is the seeming lack of prolonged outspoken national support for these beleaguered children. In the first few days that the story broke, somewhat nationally, several Asian bloggers carried the story, there was some degree of national support in the form of monetary donations (I believe), but since those first few days, the issue has quietly slipped from the popular Asian conscience (although some Asian bloggers continue updating the situation). By and large, the kids and civil rights advocates at South Philly are apparently on their own.
Compare now the response to the Last Airbender whitewashing issue. Since the casting for the movie was announced in 2008, the issue has been kept fresh in the hearts and minds of Asian-Americans across the U.S with repeated calls for letter writing campaigns, boycotts, protests, and so on and so forth. There’s even a website devoted entirely to the campaign. Yikes!
Here is my confusion; why aren’t we getting this worked up about our kids being basically lynched in South Philly? Where are the one day walk-outs by Asian kids across the country in support? Where are the thousands of letter-writers? Where are the weekly demonstrations around the country that keeps the pressure on the South Philly school district? Why aren’t we more angry about it?
Whilst I empathize with the frustration and pain of media whitewashing, I find it hard to understand how the Airbender issue can assume so much importance that it eclipses an overt case of institutionalized racism. People and societies form ideas about people in many ways. The Asian community is extremely concerned about its image in the media, yet, I can’t help but wonder what kind of image we are presenting with our apparent failure to get our priorities straight. I think that prioritizing media whitewashing and misrepresentation over civil rights issues is ultimately as detrimental to our very real cause as the media whitewashing itself.