This year has been an eventful one for people of color, both culturally and politically. We saw more of us on screen in American films than ever before, with greater agency in telling our stories. We saw greater alignment with social justice movements, like when a group of young Asian Americans penned an open-letter project on talking to their families about anti-blackness.
But when it comes to Asian Americans, 2016 seems to be the “one step forward, two steps back” year. From Master of None and Moana to #ThisIs2016 and #whitewashedOUT, which called out the continued practice of whitewashing Asian characters and roles, this was a year that offered small, meaningful victories while revealing troubling patterns of erasure and division.
To parse out what it means to be Asian in 2016, Isha Aran, a Sri Lankan American, and Anne Branigan, a Filipina American, sat down to recap what went down in Asian America this year.
Isha: This was a pretty exciting year for Asian Americans in media and pop culture. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None was a critically-acclaimed, award-winning, *woke* piece of television. We saw the rise of gifted Asian comedians like Kumail Nanjiani, Ali Wong, Aparna Nancherla, and others. And John Cho starred in everything (well, through the hashtag #StarringJohnCho, meant to draw attention to the lack of Asian actors in lead roles).
But of course with progress comes some recoil. And by recoil I mean corporate whitewashing.
Anne: Yeah, I’m not sure anything captures the idea of “one step forward, two steps back” quite as much as Asian Americans in Hollywood. we had Moana, which was a fantastic and refreshing film—but which still left Pacific Islanders feeling pretty conflicted about how faithfully their culture and their people were represented. For example, we wondered whether the depiction of Maui in the film played into Polynesian stereotypes.
Isha: Right, Moana was probably Disney's most researched and authentic film when it came to featuring a different culture, but that's not saying a lot. But at least the voice cast was almost entirely of Pasifika descent. With movies like Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange, Asian characters were simply replaced with white people, doubling down on this idea that whiteness is neutral, and cultures are just characters. It also denies immensely talented Asian actors work.
And the film industry isn't the only place where this is happening. Only 4.5% of the roles on Broadway for the 2014-2015 season went to Asian actors. They are commonly denied roles on Broadway (and off Broadway) due to their ethnicity, and white people are still playing Asian.
Anne: Wait, wait, wait—white people playing Asians is still a thing? Well, I guess Emma Stone being cast to play a Hawaiian was only a year ago.
Isha: Haha. Hahahahaha. Hmm. Yeah.
But it was kind of a big year for Asian American rappers. Earlier this year, Bad Rap, a documentary about Asian rappers, introduced us to Rekstizzy and Lyricks, among others. Bad Rap star Dumbfoundead’s music video for “Safe,” which featured him photoshopped onto some of the most iconic white characters of pop culture went viral, as did “Green Tea,” a celebration of Asian women by Awkwafina (also in the documentary) that poked fun at stereotypes and featured Margaret Cho.
Anne: Generally, I’m encouraged by the emergence of a lot of these new voices in pop culture, but it still feels like we’re fighting for scraps on that front. We’re still counting on one hand the number of times an Asian American man has landed the cover of Entertainment Weekly. That’s beyond ridiculous to me. And the fact that so many people will defend or excuse it is disappointing.
Isha: (Here's looking at you Steven Yeun!)
Anne: We shouldn’t have to look at foreign films—which are in languages we don’t speak, and which don’t address our perspectives or experiences as Americans—to see ourselves represented. And it seems, so often, that that is what’s asked of us.
We did win at the table, though. Literally—2016 was a great year for Asian Americans and food.
This year we saw the emergence of lesser-known Asian cuisines, like Filipino food, as haute cuisine. Which is notable because it’s one of the few areas of American life where we get to represent ourselves authentically. Where we have complete economic and creative agency. Apart from being an economic foothold for so many Asian American immigrants (how the rent and light bills were paid, how their children went to college), it’s a source of pride for us that keeps us connected to our parents and grandparents’ cultures.
I have never been able to get Filipino food outside of my mother’s or tita’s homes. Not until this year. So many of us had assumed our cuisine was just not appealing or good enough, because the only time we ever saw it represented outside of our homes was on shows like Fear Factor. But this year we saw sisig, adobo, and pancit get love from top food critics, like Pete Wells of the New York Times and the LA Times’ Jonathan Gold. As insignificant as it may seem to everyone else, that recognition and that visibility was so massive for Filipinos because we rarely see ourselves reflected anywhere else in American culture.
Isha: As brown Asians we’re definitely either grouped in with one of the handful of pillars that supposedly represents Asia or completely left out of the Asian conversation. People simply assume I’m of Indian descent, and broader, some folks (including South Asians) don’t even recognize South Asia as being part of Asia. So yes, we made some progress when it came to entertainment and pop culture but there’s an assumption of homogeneity when it comes to the Asian identity that does not begin to take into account the actual diversity of our identities, as well as the way some Asian cultures subjugate others.
Of course, nothing really demonstrated the importance of addressing this quite like the #Thisis2016 conversation, started when a white woman told New York Times editor Michael Luo to go back to China—the onset and aftermath of which was a pretty big moment for the Asian American identity this year.
Anne: Arguably, it was the moment, because it so captured what is at the heart of the Asian American experience, regardless of ethnic background: the idea that you’ll always be viewed as an “other.” We’re a model minority, sure. But we’re not viewed as secondary citizens, to some degree, because we’re not really viewed as citizens at all.
Now, there was some discussion about how, ironically, even the #ThisIs2016 convo exhibited its own brand of exclusion. What was your personal reaction to the hashtag? Did it resonate with you, or leave you wanting?
Isha: I think the hashtag and the video were great. It’s always very powerful to see people talk about their experiences, and make non-Asians confront some of these biases, and I want to amplify these voices as much as possible. At the same time, I knew that while I can fundamentally relate, these experiences weren’t mine.
It's a tall order to have a short video speak to every form of Asian American out there, but it just wasn't as inclusive as it could have been and in a way, perpetuated the assumption that all Asians are essentially East Asians.
Anne: Right. I didn’t even catch that right away, probably because I’m so used to the Asian American experience being framed that way—very East Asian-centered. And looking back, it’s probably why I’ve always felt a disconnect with Asian American as an identity. It just never seemed to be for me or include people like me.
In fact, it wasn’t until the Huffington Post letter, in which a group of “brown Asians” called out the New York Times for erasing their experiences, that I really woke up to the idea that I should expect a more inclusive convo from within the Asian American community. We’re so accustomed to turning outward and demanding more from everyone else, it seems, while not necessarily being great allies for each other.
Isha: It’s probably safe to say that “Asian Americans” at its most useful is census terminology—a way to simplify, account for, and categorize. Inherent in that is its potential for erasure. So, in that sense the biggest thing that renders “Asian Americans” into a community is the fact that we’re not white—it’s an umbrella we run under, but it doesn’t belong to us. That letter was definitely a reminder that intra-Asian and inter-minority relations are complicated and need consistent attention.
We saw that need in situations like the aftermath of the killing of Akai Gurley, a black man who was shot by Asian American police officer Peter Liang. Thousands of Asian Americans came together to protest the conviction of Liang, the first NYPD officer to have been convicted in an on-duty shooting in over a decade, who they viewed as a scapegoat for other police killings that did not end in convictions. Of course, at the end of the day, an unarmed black man was still killed—for those who believe that black lives do indeed matter, the conviction of a police officer in the death of a civilian was a small dose of oft-flouted justice.
Anne: I think that’s the perfect example of why Asian Americans are so often left out of conversations dealing with marginalization, or the impact of racism. Not that we don’t suffer from it, but we haven’t really shown up for other groups, like black and Latinx Americans, on these issues. Those protests were embarrassing to see unfold, and while it was mostly Chinese-Americans involved, it felt like a pretty big blow to Asian American credibility when it comes to these intersectional struggles. Like guys, the cop getting sentenced is what is supposed to happen.
Isha: But there was a moment of enlightenment. As a response to the Peter Liang protests, in July, various Asian Americans came together to draft an open letter to their parents, grandparents, and family members that addressed anti-black racism, specifically the killings of black citizens by police, and expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. So we did start having conversations.
Anne: That brings us to the big story of the year—the election. Where the hell were Asian Americans in all this?
Isha: The Islamophobic sentiments amplified in Trump’s campaign absolutely affected parts of the Asian community, but beyond that, we weren’t courted or really considered in the same way that Latinx and black voting blocs were. On top of that, exit polls certainly miscalculated the voting trends of the blocks, so clearly something is up. (Then again, the polls got a lot wrong.)
Anne: As a bloc, we came out hard for Clinton, and whether those were out of concerns about Trump’s xenophobia, racism, misogyny, or the many other traits that should have disqualified him from the presidency—we don’t yet know. I do remember seeing data that suggested Trump was especially unpopular with South Asians, more so than with Filipinos, for example—which speaks to the diversity of experiences we talked about.
Back to that idea of erasure, though—it’s been disturbing to me that we’re so frequently left out of the conversation when we talk about Trump’s America.
Because where we land in this social fault line has a lot of implications. You have some Asian Americans who, in their desire to assimilate, seem to be more aligned with white identity. And then you have a set of Asian Americans, typically younger, who find more alignment with other communities of color. I’m thinking specifically of Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented Filipino American activist, who has been doing important intersectional work with Emerging US and #JournalismSoWhite.
As a community, I’d love for Asian Americans in 2017 to bring themselves to the forefront of these civil rights struggles that we’ve so benefitted from. What about you Isha? What is the one thing on your Asian America wishlist for next year?
Isha: One thing that has helped me interact more with other aspects of the Asian American identity has been checking out events hosted by organizations like the Asian American Writers Workshop. In 2017 I would like to see more interaction like this, the ability to come together and create a space while giving others a platform through which which to share their art and their voice. To keep the discussion of the Asian American identity open and to be able to organize around that more effectively. Obviously Asian sub-groups have their own organizations, which his great—the grassroots effort is tantamount to any social change. But to see more acknowledgment and engagement of Asian Americans would be ideal. So let’s get to work.