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Speaking Out on #whitewashedOUT and Why It Matters

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The Asian American (and Asians too, including myself) are speaking out against the lack of diversity and representation in Asian narratives and of Asian actors not only in Hollywood but also in how the issue causes bigger problems for the community. With news of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange to Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell to past movies such as Aloha and Dragon Ball Evolution, it’s no surprise. Constance Wu, George Takei and many others have spoken about it and the fact is we’re just sick and tired of it.

The #whitewashedOUT initiative was started by Margaret Cho, a comedian, fashion designer, singer-songwriter and actress, Keith Chow of Nerds of Color and Ellen Oh of #WeNeedDiverseBooks to talk honestly and openly about the dangers of erasure and lack of representation for Asian American (and Asian) communities. On May 3rd, just yesterday, they kicked-off this month-long campaign.

And the response by the Asian American (and Asian) community have been outpouring ranging from actors, writers, comic book writers and even non-Asian Americans/Asians who are in solidarity with our struggles. But even with TV shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Masters of None and Crazy Ex-girlfriend, we’re still at the bottom. According to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 1 out of 20 speaking roles go to Asians and 1% of lead roles in films go to Asians with a staggering 78.2% going to white actors.

Despite being the largest region in the world, Asians are only at 1%. Chris Rock admitted that Hollywood is indeed racist during the recent Academy Awards yet paraded Asian children on stage and made fun of them. It’s this ongoing cycle of making fun of Asians that are “okay” that’s so worrying.

Anna Akana, a youtuber and known for speaking out against Hollywood’s whitewash tradition said “Growing up wishing you were white so you could be characters in stories” is what #WhitewashedOUT meant to her. Jenny Han, author of New York Times best selling YA book, To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before and The Summer I Turned Pretty said that during a recast of a film adaptation of her book, the potential producer said “Race doesn’t matter as long as they capture the spirit of the character.” From “potential” to “nope” immediately.

Indie-comic book writer, Jon Tsuei, who also spoke out on the Ghost in the Shell issue said that #WhitewashedOUT mean all of his childhood heroes never looked liked him. And when someone said he should just go back to his home, he fired back with “America IS my home”. Another comic book writer, Marjorie Liu said #WhitewashedOUT mean being repeatedly told that she should write under a white pseudonym because no one would buy a book by someone Chinese. But she proved them wrong and became a New York Times Bestselling Author.

Truth be told, researchers at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA have shown that having cast diversity actually brings in more money and more audience. Hence, Chow’s article that casting white actors isn’t just about economics. It’s racism. Even if money plays a role, it’s still market-driven racism. Big Hero Six‘s cast was diverse and Hiro Hamada was voiced by Ryan Potter. If all the arguments on “Race doesn’t matter” is put here well, mind you, this is an animated film where technically the voice actor could just be anybody. But no, they chose an Asian-American (not just one!). And what happened? $658 million earnings worldwide, the 16th highest-grossing animated film of all time AND an Oscar win. The film’s success isn’t solely on its story and production but also in its actors and passionate input.

Some argue that we have enough representation in our own respective media (e.g. Japanese media, Korean media) but that’s the very core of the problem, thinking that we have enough, thinking that 2 diverse actors in a show is too much. Devalidating the struggles of Asian-Americans doesn’t make their struggles any less important. Their opinion matters because this is about them, not about you. Yes, we have some of this representation here, some of that Asian culture there. But why can’t we have more of this representation, more of that Asian culture here? That some of this is all that we have that we are desperately cling on to it. If you think there aren’t any Asian A-listers, then you should be asking why there aren’t. The answer is easy: because they aren’t give enough opportunities to be A-listers in the first place.

By making white the default, it not only takes away the opportunities for Asian-Americans/Asians but it also diminishes and belittles Asian talent, Asian culture, Asian history, Asian art and music and Asian people of all ages, sexual orientation and walks of life. It’s like we are not good enough, not deserving enough to portray, to show, to act, to sing, to write, to speak out about our own narratives. It’s erasing us of our own right. Because it’s not only affecting us now, but it’s also going to affect our future generation and how we are going to be seen and treated. Our culture and history belong to us.

You cannot just steal what part of us you love and leave us out of the equation because we can’t sell, because we aren’t cut out for the A list. Apparently, being the first Asian actor to be nominated for an Oscar in 50 years for a film where she doesn’t even speak isn’t “sellable” enough to cast her in a lead role for a Japanese narrative that she is perfect for. Or the fact that she wasn’t even considered. (Yes, Rinko Kikuchi.)

We are not just nerdy, undatable men. We are not just submissive, exotic women. We are not just all from the East. We are not just those with weird accents and small eyes. We are more than that. And we want to show the world that we are more than that. So instead of taking our place, taking whatever you want, how about you let us do our thing so we can do it right?

If you think this ongoing practice is just too shallow, then you should be asking why. Maybe you’re just privileged enough that you don’t have to fight for a place, or an opportunity because you have so much of it just being spoonfed to you. Instead of setting aside our struggles, why don’t you have a read at the #whitewashedOUT tweets and see why it’s more than just a shallow problem. And get educated about being whitewashedout too.

(Note: It’s not only the Asian-Americans/Asians. It’s also Native Americans, Latinos, Blacks and others that also need representation and opportunities. All of us exist.)

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