Hard to believe, but it was on Feb. 26, 1992 that “Into the Next Stage” first appeared in the pages of the Rafu Shimpo. Back then, the first President Bush was in the White House. Johnny Carson was still hosting the “Tonight Show” (he’d retire in May). Five days earlier, Kristi Yamaguchi had won the Olympic gold medal for women’s figure skating. The first MANAA meeting was a month-and-a-half away. The Los Angeles riots, two months.
In 1992, few Asian Americans even had a recording contract with one of the major record companies (as part of the group The Party — which featured cast members from the Mickey Mouse Club — Deedee Magno had just reached No. 34 with “In My Dreams”). In 2010, Far East Movement — made up entirely of Asian Americans — scored a No. 1 hit with “Like a G6.” Part-Filipino singer/songwriter Bruno Mars, who grew up in Hawaii, now regularly calls the Top 10 his home (his current hit, “It Will Rain,” peaked at No. 3 and now ranks at No. 13).
Twenty years ago, many television shows featured all-white casts like “Seinfeld,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” and “Home Improvement.” The top 4 shows were “60 Minutes,” “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown,” and “Cheers.” As far as I can tell, the only Asian American regular on the four networks — CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox — was Steve Park on Fox’s sketch comedy “In Living Color.”
That’s right — one regular. At this point in 2012, there are 30 Asian/Asian American regulars. It didn’t happen because of the kindness of network brass but institutionalized efforts and programs pushed by the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), which I currently serve as co-chair. Many of the initial “ITNS” columns were position statements on the various aspects of stereotyping facing our community and what needed to change. These days, I write more reviews of television characters and reality stars making an impact on audiences.
The fact that there has been so much to chronicle is a good sign that Asian Americans have become a more natural part of the television landscape, though not to the point where we’re the actual stars of those shows (the only examples of the past 20 years: Margaret Cho in “All-American Girl,” Sammo Hung in “Martial Law,” Lucy Liu in “Cashmere Mafia,” Carrie Ann Inaba in “Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann,” and — though he plays a white man — Rob Schneider in “Rob”; honorary mention: the WB/CW’s Russell Wong in “Black Sash” and Maggie Q in “Nikita”).
After Jackie Chan’s finally-big-in-America success with 1997’s “Rumble in the Bronx,” we got a lot of motion pictures starring Chinese martial artists like Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat. But studios never understood that if audiences would pay money to see Asian men who stumbled through English, they’d be even more willing to support Asian American men who had no problem with the language.
On the contrary, producers often went out of their way to not use Asian Americans — male or female — even when their casting screamed for it: “The Last Airbender,” directed by race traitor M. Night Shyamalan; the upcoming “Akira”; and “21 Jump Street,” where the Harry Ioki character (Dustin Nguyen) and black officer Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson Peete) of the original ’80s TV series apparently aren’t even in the script (that’s like redoing “Star Trek” without Sulu or Uhura). Though produced by Stephen J. Cannell Productions, which handled the original Fox series, they too are taking a step backward with this reboot next month.
And screenwriter/director Alexander Payne spent eight months soaking up the unique people, culture, and environment of Hawaii and coughed up a script for “The Descendants” that had no significant roles for any of the Asian/Pacific Islanders who make up the majority of the population there.
Jay Leno, after being confronted years ago by various Asian American activists regarding his jokes about Chinese/Koreans eating dog, continues to do them. Even when told the analogous situation would be to make quips about black people eating fried chicken and watermelon whenever they’re in the news.
The news media — which seemed to jump on the “we want diversity” bandwagon after the 1999 controversy that revealed that none of the 26 new shows by the top four networks starred a person of color — seems less interested in Asian American issues than ever before.
The Los Angeles Times forgets that we make up 15% of both Los Angeles County and the entire state of California and usually ignores our media concerns and triumphs. Predictably, they were late on the Jeremy Lin controversy where an ESPN editor wrote the “Chink in the Armor” headline after Lin lost his first game with the New York Knicks last Friday night. There was nothing in the Sunday or Monday paper. Finally on Tuesday, they addressed the issue in two pieces in the Sports and Calendar sections.
In his insightful article “Lin Story Reflects on All,” Bill Plaschke noted other recent offenses targeting the Taiwanese American: “the writer from Foxsports.com [Jason Whitlock] who began the barrage of ignorance last week by tweeting a tired joke about the assumed size of Lin’s manhood. The guy apologized, but his company did not, which should not be surprising considering Fox Sports is also the outfit that last fall aired a segment in which a reporter ridiculed Asian Americans at USC for not understanding football.
“Can you imagine a major American media company tolerating this sort of blatant racism if it were directed toward any of Lin’s African American teammates?”
On Feb. 16, a woman was describing Lin’s physical attributes as a basketball player on WNYW’s morning show: “He’s got long arms — that’s what you need as a point guard — and he’s really …” Co-host Greg Kelly, who’d just returned to the show after being suspended for rape charges that had been dropped only the week before, interrupted, “What about his eyes?!” (Go to http://deadspin.com/5886232/what-about-his-eyes-other-moments-in-media-stereotyping-or-racism-about-jeremy-lin to see it.)
There may’ve been a misunderstanding of what Kelly did with that woman, but he certainly violated our community with that crack. You ask me, if anyone should be fired for anything done or said this past month regarding Jeremy Lin, it’s Kelly.
Plaschke wrote, “I’m thinking, you’re kidding me, right? In a media world that is reluctant to even cite a subject’s ethnicity unless it is relevant, it’s suddenly OK to openly laugh about Lin’s cultural characteristics because, well, because he’s Asian American and everybody does it?”
The coming-out-of-nowhere success story of Jeremy Lin — and the racially charged statements that have come out in the two-and-a-half weeks since — demonstrate the dismissive attitude many still have of Asian Americans despite our relative success in society. And we are partly to blame. Because we’ve hidden behind those successes, naively thinking they would protect us, insulate us, and, in our daily lives, render racism obsolete.
Until your boss makes an off-color remark about your ethnicity that you’re afraid to protest, or someone raises expectations based on your race, or you get called a racial slur on the street, or see it on television, or hear it on the radio, or read it in a headline.
In this country, every group must stand up and defend themselves. Blacks fighting for their dignity and winning the civil rights battle was perceived as a victory for them and no one else. Because this white-dominated country has always resented having to see things from the viewpoint of any minority group. So guilt over slavery and the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s — and let’s face it, fear of angry black people — has led to sensitivity toward that community. But it hasn’t helped anyone else.
The fact that Asian Americans use the Internet more than any other ethnic group and can therefore register their outrage quickly through online comments and emails to those responsible for insulting us is an advantage we need to harness. But nothing makes a stronger impression on society like a good old-fashioned protest with angry faces and slogans pasted on protest signs.
So stand up and be counted. Or expect more of the same.
Breaking It Down Department: Let’s be honest: The phrase “chink in the armor” has been around for centuries. It was never meant as an insult against Chinese people. It’s one of those unfortunate words with double meanings that we’re uncomfortable hearing but understand is not meant to hurt. But the juxtaposition of that phrase with a picture of Jeremy Lin made many in the community furious.
On Saturday when I spoke to Rob King, ESPN’s senior VP of editorial, print, and digital media, I made no demand that the editor be fired; I wanted to know what his intention was first: Was he aware that “chink” was a slur? Was he trying to make a punny joke? Did he not read the company memo to be careful how they covered Lin that was issued late Wednesday/early Thursday? But he was fired the following day.
That man, later revealed to be Anthony Federico, later told the New York Daily News he’d used the headline over a hundred times and didn’t even think twice about using it again. He felt terrible about it.
The newscaster who used the phrase on the air is married to an Asian woman and meant no harm either. He was still suspended for 30 days. The positive thing, of course, is that newscasters and writers will have to think twice about what is said about Jeremy Lin and other Asian Americans. And hopefully it’ll lead to greater sensitivity towards us all — the kind that’s eluded us for most of our lives.
However, I don’t agree that every pun is offensive. Most I’ve heard are fun. “Amasian,” a play off of “amazing?” No problem. “Yellow Mamba?” No biggie.
I just hope no one writes the headline “Nip in the air” next to a picture of a basketball player of Japanese descent.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open. Uh, and I hope there isn’t a 40th anniversary of this column.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.