Interview with Visible Asians on AAPI Representation in Hollywood & the Media

This month, we’re honored to feature Visible Asians whose mission is to increase Asian visibility in society, Hollywood, the media, and beyond. The founder of Visible Asians, Bryce Tom, spoke with our VP of Impact Distribution & Experiences, Megan Vandervort, about the violence directed towards Asians, representation in media, and holding people accountable:

Q: Bryce, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We love what you’re doing with Visible Asians, especially in the wake of Anti-Asian violence *finally* elevated in the mainstream media. Do you mind sharing a little more about what prompted you to create Visible Asians and the work that you’re doing?

Anti-Asian violence is nothing new in this country. Dating all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asians have always been viewed as outsiders in this country. The murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 is probably the most well-known act of anti-Asian violence and although there have been many more beatings and killings, that’s probably the last time the media paid real attention to an Asian victim. Fast forward to late 2019, and the early months of 2020, when the Covid pandemic was just starting. Trump and Fox News were scapegoating Asians as the reason for the virus, and they continually and ignorantly stoked the racist flames by referring to Covid-19 as Kung Flu, China Virus, etc. This immediately put a target on the backs of every Asian and Asian-American in this country. You heard reports of harassment, and a few instances of violence, but sadly that was nothing too out of the ordinary, just another day of “living while Asian” in this country. One of the things that many Asian-American kids are taught, from a very early age, is to keep our head down and not make any waves, so we accept the abuse and move on. This coping mechanism is so entrenched in our psyche, it’s become second nature for most.

Last month, Dion Lim (an Asian-American news reporter for San Francisco’s ABC affiliate) was the first to share footage of a 91-year-old Asian man getting pushed to the ground in an unprovoked attack. Luckily, he survived. I had a visceral reaction when I first saw the footage – maybe I saw my grandfather in that man; or because it took place in Oakland Chinatown, a place that holds countless childhood memories because my grandparents lived two blocks away from the attack; or maybe it was forty years of pent-up frustration and feelings of “otherness” encapsulated in 5 seconds of video. It’s likely a combination of all three, but I knew I could no longer stand by and do nothing, it was my duty to do something.

I know myself, and I know my strengths. I’ll never be a militant on-the-ground activist, and that’s okay, especially when there are so many out there that do a far better job than I ever could. So I asked myself, what can I do to make a difference? I strongly believe the rise in anti-Asian violence is directly correlated to a lack of Asian visibility in the media and in Hollywood. As such, I made it my mission to use my perch as a PR/Communications exec to enact the change that I want to see. I’ve worked in the entertainment biz for nearly two decades, and in that time, I’ve seen first-hand how invisible Asians and Asian-Americans are in Hollywood and the media in general. So, I built and launched Visible Asians as a think tank to address and promote heightened visibility for Asians across the board.

Q: What is your perspective of the media coverage surrounding the horrific shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta? Many have criticized the story’s unfolding as perpetuating harmful Asian stereotypes and generally insensitive to both the victim’s families and the Asian American community at large. How can the media do better?

Lots to unpack here. Let’s start with the horrific press conference where Captain Jay Baker (whose official title is ironically Director of Communications & Community Relations) downplayed the events and callously said the gunman was “at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him.” This is completely unacceptable, but not without precedent. It’s similar to the “lone wolf” narrative that is often trotted out when the shooter is a homegrown White American. It completely erases the very obvious racial motives – Asian victims at Asian massage parlors – behind the attack and since it was the first press conference, it will be hard to change the narrative once it’s out there. The victims were dehumanized, treated as a second thought when they should be front and center of the story.

Had this happened 6 months ago, people would have shrugged it off as disappointing but expected. But there has been a groundswell of support and many people have said enough is enough. A lot of mainstream media outlets that covered the conference are equally outraged and their coverage reflects that (Daily Beast, ABC NEWS, Newsweek). Lots of notable voices, including non-Asian voices, are finally speaking up as well. I don’t want to speak for all Asians, but many of us feel that we’re shouting into an echo chamber, while the media continues to ignore us. However, we’re starting to see a shift across the media landscape and we’re finally being seen.

The media can do better by reporting on these tragedies the same way they report other tragedies of similar magnitude. This was the deadliest shooting since the Pandemic started. This story should be front-page news in every newspaper and the headlines need to tell the uncomfortable truth. I was disheartened to see that the first headlines that covered the story failed to include the fact that the victims were Asian (see photo below).

As far as covering this shooting in particular, because of the many preconceived notions about Asian massage parlors, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) released a media tutorial to help outlets cover this story in a respectful, honest, and nuanced way to prevent the coverage from devolving into tabloid fodder.  Another influencer, Nick Cho, made a very salient point about getting the names correct in the media coverage surrounding the victims. We’re out here offering help, and it’s the media’s responsibility to listen and take it upon themselves to cover the story with the same respect they would extend to any other race.

Q: Asian representation in the media has often had the portrayal of being “invisible.” For those who may not understand the nuances there can you give us a brief rundown of how and why we got here? Where can people go to learn more and educate themselves?

Let’s look at Hollywood first. Asians have been in Hollywood for a long time. Many people are familiar with Anna May Wong, one of Hollywood’s first Asian-American actresses. Despite an impressive body of work, she was notably overlooked for the leading role of O-Lan (the Chinese protagonist) in Pearl Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH. The Asian role ended up going to Luise Rainer, who played the role in yellowface. Fast forward to the modern-day, and you still see this happening: Scarlett Johansson with GHOST IN THE SHELL or Emma Stone in ALOHA. The financial dynamics that get movies greenlit in Hollywood will always favor a White actress, but that’s starting to change. There is so much nuance at play when it comes to Asians in Hollywood, but I think we’re reaching a tipping point. Chloé Zhao was the first Asian woman to take home Best Director (NOMADLAND) at the Golden Globes this year. Steven Yeun is the first Asian-American actor ever nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. Riz Ahmed is the first Pakistani ever to be nominated in the Best Actor category, making it the first time two Asian males have ever been nominated for Best Actor.

While there is some progress being made, there’s still a long way to go. MINARI is a prime example of how Hollywood and the media continue to make Asian-Americans feel like they don’t belong. Per the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the governing body of the Golden Globes), the eligibility rules state that any film with at least 50% of non-English dialogue gets relegated to the Foreign-Language Film category, and movies that compete for Best Foreign-Language Film can’t win the best musical/comedy or best drama prize. MINARI was produced, financed, and distributed by American companies, featuring an American actor, telling a story that takes place in the heartland of America. The only difference between this and so many films before it is that the movie is mainly in Korean. Although it went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the victory felt hollow since it couldn’t compete in the larger, more prestigious Best Picture category.

Outside of Hollywood, it’s even worse. Asian-Americans are simply invisible to mainstream media. When news first broke about the horrific shooting in Atlanta, news outlets immediately reached out to the grandparents of the gunman and ran stories from their POV, but no one was running stories about the victims, their families, their stories. For years, anti-Asian attacks have been on the rise, but it was never covered by outlets outside of NextShark and a handful of other Asian-specific outlets. Things are starting to change, and a lot of that is thanks to the tireless work of activists including Amanda Nguyen and Michelle Kim, reporter Dion Lim, actors Olivia Munn, Daniel Dae Kim, and Daniel Wu, and countless organizations and individuals that are doing the heavy lifting to ensure that Asians get the visibility we deserve.

A few places that are great starting points if you want to educate yourself:

Q: How can we all do a better job of holding the media accountable — across the news, Hollywood, and the overall entertainment space?

Speak up, use your own platform to amplify Asian-voices, speak out when you see the media ignoring something major. We can’t do it alone. We’re calling on all allies to help speak up on our behalf. And support Asian-driven entertainment vehicles like CRAZY RICH ASIANS, THE FAREWELL, MINARI, RAYA, etc. We need to show Hollywood that there is a marketplace for Asian stories.

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