“What, you’re oppressed because a white kid played Aang in Avatar?”
Someone challenged me with these words not too long ago. It was infuriating. The smug over-simplification and dismissal of Asian American representation in popular culture (by someone who was not even Asian American) made me see red.
I can see why one might scoff at another’s anger over something as “little” as a movie role given to an actor of an identity different than what was originally intended by an author. I see why, only because, as I’ve written before, these nuances only seem to matter to those negatively affected by it. The beneficiaries could not care less, could not even know where to start caring, because, well, they’re benefiting from it, whether they know it or not — they’re benefiting from their face, their skin, their culture, represented once more over others in the white-dominated pop culture we’re indoctrinated with from every angle. And why would anyone want to address or change a system when they benefit from it?
I picked up Mia Alvar’s In the Country yesterday, a collection of nine stories which “gives voice to the women and men of the Philippines and its diaspora.” Eleven pages into it this morning, I had to put the book down because I was overcome with emotion. The writing is indeed spectacular, but I wasn’t emotional just because of Alvar’s talent — I was emotional because I found so much comfort in just those eleven pages alone, so much relatability on such a rare level. It felt like coming home to a familiar face after months and months of being surrounded by the foreign and unfamiliar. It felt like the same relief I feel when I see an actor with almond-shaped eyes and silky black hair in a commercial, TV show, or movie who isn’t a caricature perpetuating offensive stereotypes of Asian cultures (which I don’t see very often at all).
When the only representation I see of my people in the media is a stereotype, when my interactions with people are based on their internalization of these stereotypes (“Are you a dragon lady kind of Asian, like the roommate in Pitch Perfect? Or would you say you’re more like the weird one?” — yes, I’ve received those questions before, twice), of course I’m going to be dissatisfied with how Asians are represented in pop culture. Of course I’m going to be emotional and relieved when I start reading something as real and raw and relatable as In the Country.
This level of relief is something uniquely felt by
subordinated groups, something I imagine those in dominant groups can’t begin to grasp without first possessing tremendous amounts of empathy and education on these issues. I get exhausted trying to help spread that education when I am immediately dismissed by people who don’t think it’s an issue — people who don’t think it’s an issue only because they’re not affected by it.
I am angry at the arrogance some people have to tell marginalized groups how to feel about the issues faced by their own communities. I am angry at the fact that I have to go way out of my way to be connected with my history and my culture in a society that, despite how much it’s praised for being “a diverse melting pot,” makes white American culture so much more easily accessible for its constituents while shaming, exoticizing, or exaggerating other cultures, a society that makes the white community immediately more at home by having children learn only white American history in elementary school, with world cultures only a week-long unit or a footnote in the context of Western imperialism and colonialism. At least, that’s the society I grew up in. (I know others might have had the fortune to go into world cultures a little bit “more” in detail.) It’s not the society I want my future children, my children who will be of Filipinx descent whether they like it or not, whether they internalize whiteness like I did for so long or not, to grow up in. I don’t know where to begin to work against it. I’m currently writing this post from a state of exhaustion and irritation with white hegemon. For now, I’m going to just curl up with In the Country and retreat into a world that brings me comfort, a world I wish was more accessible in this sea of suffocating homogeneity.
Further resources/reading on representation
Mic: “Black-ish Star Yara Shahidi Nails Exactly Why Representation Matters”
The Moral Communities Project: “Why Representation Matters”
The Wake: “Why Does Media Representation Matter?”
BuzzFeed: “23 Reminders That Representation Is Everything”
CNN: “Study: White and Black Children Biased Toward Lighter Skin”
What Shih Said: “On Race in Pitch Perfect: In Dialogue, There Is Hope”
The Huffington Post: “Why White Actors Should Not Be Cast in Latinx Roles — On Broadway or Off”
Images of Pitch Perfect (2012) found on Google Images