Why We Should Talk About Race When We Talk About Ourselves

How you deal with your "otherness" matters to others.

Posted Jul 30, 2018

Pixabay/ CCO
Source: Pixabay/ CCO

There’s a reason I rarely broach the topic of race—especially my own—in my writing. I used to want to be viewed simply as a writer, not labeled as an Asian-American writer or a Korean-American writer. That constant reminder of race always there to preface my existence, as if to say, before I am anything else, I am my skin color, my ethnic heritage, my last name. I’m not ashamed of being a person of color, although as a kid growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Los Angeles, I did harbor resentment towards my obvious “otherness.” I recall my best friends, who were all white, flipping through fashion catalogs and magazines and pointing out the women we most resembled—and me, unable to find one single woman who looked like me. I was embarrassed. The message was clear: people like me didn’t exist or belong in the realms of fashion and beauty. Another memory that stands out: In sixth grade, a popular boy told me that his ideal girl was someone who had my personality but a white girl’s face. Even now, this one still stings.

As a kid, there’s nothing worse than realizing you’re different from everyone else, being the outsider, the other. I hated it. And in an act of defiance, I did everything I could to shed my Korean-ness, which as a powerless kid, was mostly limited to refusing to attend Korean language school and stop eating kimchi. As if, quitting my culture could somehow make me less Korean, and de facto, more American.

It was only in college when I realized that not everyone felt the way I had as a kid. In fact, many of my new peers celebrated their racial differences and shined a spotlight on their ethnic heritage. On campus there were groups and unions for nearly every cultural group and, if anything, it seemed like not embracing your racial identity was the real taboo. And so, even I ended up cautiously exploring my roots and joining an Asian American theater company. Soon, most of my social circles consisted of Asian people. I began to see how comfortable it was to be surrounded by people who looked like me, to blend in, to not stand out in my otherness.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This newfound pride in my heritage quickly soured however, during my first Asian American studies lecture, in which I found myself defending the fictional character Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles on an online message board for class. I acknowledged that, of course it was racist, and in 1984, there were so few portrayals of Asian people on screen who were actually being played by Asian people, that perhaps, this role (and others like it) might have been the necessary evil to help Asian Americans actors get more exposure for future roles. The vitriol-filled responses to this seemingly reasonable remark blew my mind. I was accused of being white washed, a self-hating racist, a traitor and a number of other terrible things that I have since blocked out of memory. To my classmates, the only acceptable solution was for Gedde Watanabe, who played Dong, to refuse to play the role. In their minds, no representation was better than distorted representation. And they aren’t alone in thinking this way.

For many young men growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Gedde’s stereotypical performance made a hugely negative impact on their social lives. Martin Wong and Eric Nakamura, co-founders of Giant Robot, an Asian American pop culture brand, tell NPR:

"If you're being called Long Duk Dong," Wong explains, "you're comic relief amongst a sea of people unlike you."

Worse, says Nakamura: "You're being portrayed as a guy who just came off a boat and who's out of control. It's like every bad stereotype possible, loaded into one character."

Even now, Gedde, who continues to perform, but never became a breakout star, still grapples with the pivotal role that defined his career. In 2014, he told Vulture, “[A]ll I’ll say about that is that because there weren’t enough Asians onscreen comedy was kind of looked down upon. I was not in the film business... It was my first movie and I had no idea what I was stepping into. I know that periphery is loosening. But because there were so few Asian actors onscreen at that time, people were looking for Kurosawa in a comedy and Sixteen Candles wasn’t that kind of movie.”

Since 2000, Asian Americans have experienced the fastest growth rate of any major racial group, jumping from 11.9 million to 20.4 million in 2015. While we currently make up 5.6 percent of the population, we are still vastly underrepresented in Hollywood. A recent USC diversity report finds that “Of a total of 1,114 directors across 10 years and 1,000 films, there were only 34 Asian directors (3 percent), with 91.2 percent male and 8.8 percent female.” And last year, The Huffington Post reported that in 89 years, Asian Americans earned just one percent of Oscar nominations. Merle Oberon was the first and last Asian American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar—in 1935.

On this lack of visibility, Nancy Wang Yuen, a Biola University sociology professor, tells the Los Angeles Times: “There is a bias against Asian Americans... We are nondescript and in a way dehumanized by not existing in scenes or having speaking roles. We are just part of the backdrop.”

Which may precisely be my problem. For too long, I found comfort and ease in keeping my otherness in the background, to stay quiet during difficult conversations, to try to assimilate rather than enact change. (You can bet I never responded to that message board ever again.) Why bring attention to my otherness, when it can distract and become the focus of who I am? I always figured my words would speak for itself—does it really matter what the person who writes them looks like?

As it turns out, it does. In her wonderful TED Talk, “The danger of a single story”, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns how a powerful narrative, if repeated enough, can evolve into the truth. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she says. To illustrate, she shares how an American roomate once expressed shock when she learned that Adichie spoke perfect English and didn’t listen to “tribal music” but preferred Mariah Carey. The roommate, she explains, “had a single story of Africa, a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

Within this frame, it’s easy to see how Long Duk Dong became this single, lasting story for Asian Americans. At the time, there were barely any other Asian faces on American television or film screens. But had there been dozens of other movies that year starring Asian faces playing a gamut of roles, maybe no one would have thought twice about this character or still be writing think pieces about its impact on racial stereotypes thirty years later.

This is why I am so excited by the mainstream success of Asian American performers like Ali Wong and Randall Park—both who were coincidentally part of the same theater group I was in at college. (Park was in fact, its co-founder.) What makes Wong’s comedy so extraordinary is the unbridled and unfiltered exploration of all the facets of her identity—as a woman, an Asian American, a working mother, a daughter of immigrants. She does not surrender to one label. She is not one story, but many. Park, too, displays such humanity, humor and depth in his portrayal of Louis Huang, a multidimensional immigrant father and restauranteur in Fresh Off the Boat. For once, an Asian accent does not serve entirely as a punchline.

Especially in today’s divided political climate, these are the kinds of diverse stories we need to see and hear more of. And they are the stories that we should all start telling each other. After all, these unique stories and experiences are what make us human and, ultimately, how we see others as human, too.