If you haven’t seen the O’Reilly Factor’s clip in Chinatown, you should watch it immediately. Watch how antiquated racial stereotypes appear on mainstream television without shame or subtlety. Watch a major news network abandon all journalistic integrity and humiliate unwitting interviewees who do not speak English in an attempt to incite laughter. Watch a series of references completely unrelated to Chinese culture, including Mr. Miyagi, who is Japanese, asking interviewees to try karate, a traditional Japanese martial art, bowing before an interview, which is a Japanese tradition, the song “Kung Fu Fighting” by the Jamaican-British singer Carl Douglas, and practicing taekwondo, which is Korean.
This issue of racism against Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry is not a new one. As we’ve progressed further into the 21st century, a belief has traveled with us that we have transcended racism and racist behaviors. This confidence has instead allowed racism to creep into many areas, such as entertainment.
There’s Scarlett Johansson playing the Japanese character Major in “Ghost in the Shell,” one of Japan’s defining science fiction stories. Critics have noted that the themes of existentialism and identity are so uniquely Eastern that they cannot even take on a Western setting, a problem directors felt could be solved through CGI to make Johansson “look more Asian” through what was essentially high-tech yellowface. This pattern continues on and on, with films like “Gods of Egypt,” “Aloha,” “Dr. Strange,” “Death Note,” “The Martian,” “The Last Airbender,” “The Great Wall,” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” which all whitewashed originally Asian ethnicities.
The filmmakers of the upcoming Bruce Lee biopic, “Birth of a Dragon,” have gone as far as creating an entirely fictional white protagonist to tell Lee’s story without his daughter’s consent. Even some of the defining movies of the last century prominently display yellowface “” Mr. Yunioshi of the 1960 cult classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was played by the white Mickey Rooney.
Hollywood has been consistently criticized for its lack of diversity, and the trending #OscarsSoWhite hashtag of both this year and last publicized the Academy’s glaring misrepresentation. However, during Chris Rock’s hosting dedicated to the mistreatment of minority actors, Rock touted three Asian children he dubbed the show’s “accountants.” Conversations combatting discrimination seemingly do not protect Asians. The stereotypes are so pervasive that Rock concluded the skit saying, “Just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” To make matters worse, Rock’s bit came directly after two South Asians had just won documentary Oscars.
This isn’t to say, however, that Asian-American actors aren’t working hard to receive the equal treatment they deserve. Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat” and Johnny Cho of movies like “The Green Hornet,” which Cho could only play because of Bruce Lee’s groundbreaking portrayal of the same character in 1966, starred in a campaign to reimagine whitewashed blockbusters with Asian lead characters.
Aziz Ansari included an insightful episode of his self-produced show “Master of None” entitled “Indians on TV,” which broaches the similarly prejudicial arena of television. “Fresh Off the Boat” was the first Asian family sitcom in decades, and even then critics rushed to accuse the primarily Asian producers of a racist title. Actors like Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley” have been told by red carpet photographers, “Smile, you’re in America now.” Conservative commentator Ann Coulter dared to call Asian-Americans “Mandarins” on “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” which she insisted was the politically correct term.
These deeply ingrained stereotypes cause more harm than simply offending Asian Americans “” they further systemic oppression in America. Asians have become victims to the “Model Minority” stereotype, which attributes extreme studiousness, a subservient nature and antisocial behaviors to all within the race. While this caricature retains some aspects of truth, its entirety helps reinforce prejudicial beliefs to such a degree that a Harvard reviewer described an Asian applicant by saying, “He’s so quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.”
The Model Minority myth, while it may appear complimentary, has devastating consequences for Asian-Americans. It increases the overall difficulty for us to thrive in the liberal arts, as the two stereotypes of antisocial intellectual or martial artist are the only permissible options. It also allows people like Jesse Watters of Fox News’ Chinatown clip to blatantly act upon racist beliefs, falsely secured in thinking we are too submissive to complain.
As someone who is half Asian, I have grown up almost my entire life experiencing this limited representation. I look forward to the day when Asian-Americans are given equal opportunities for casting and hailed for our successes instead of mocked. But until that day comes, I refuse to be silent when people of any race or ethnicity are made the butt of a joke. Jesse Watters, Bill O’Reilly and anyone who misuses their position of authority: You are supposed to represent the voice of the American people, but we have spoken up for ourselves and we say no.