By Ed Diokno
It would be easy to describe the year as an awful year with the highlight – or, lowlight, depending on your point of view – being the election of Donald Trump.
But something was happening among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that might make 2016 a year to relish. The year might go down in Asian American history as the year the quiet, subservient go-along to get-along Asian American stereotype was put to rest.
We’ll have to wait to see if history calls 2016 a watershed year, but there is no denying the degree of activism that was generated in all facets of Asian American life, from the movies and schools to the courts and the streets.
MOVIES & TELEVISION
It began with Chris Rock’s unfunny joke using three Asian American youngsters as the butt of one of his jokes during the Oscar telecast. What made the racist joke so outrageous was because the Academy Awards were under the spotlight for ignoring actors of color sparking the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Bringing in Chris Rock as the host was supposed to balance the obvious oversight.
In this era of social media, the blow back was immediate. The outrage that followed didn’t die the next day, or the next day. AAPIs in the entertainment field wrote a letter protesting the incident. AAPI media kept it alive. The Academy acknowledge the offensive “joke” and kind of opened its doors to a more diverse membership. Producers and casting agents began looking at AAPI actors in a new light.
The Oscar slight was made even more obvious when contrasted with what was happening in television where more AAPI actors were being cast in meaningful roles. Mindy acknowledged her Indian heritage in The Mindy Project; Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang honored their immigrant parents in a brilliant episode of Master of None; Fresh Off The Boat seems to have found its groove in its third season and the romantic Asian American man was reintroduced to U.S. audiences when Vincent Rodriguez III shared an interracial kiss with the lead actress in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Master of None’s Ansari and Into the Badland’s Daniel Wu shared beds with their female co-stars.
Despite the record number of AAPI actors appearing on television, studies still reported their severe underrepresentation in the entertainment industry and the lack of AAPI actors in quality roles.
The motion picture industry was the worst offender. Adding fuel to the fire was the whitewashing of roles meant for Asian characters; most prominently: Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Dr. Strange and Scarlett Johanson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming Asian-set Ghost In The Shell.
Despite the popular success of The King and I and Allegiance, a report on Broadway diversity by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition concluded that AAPI performers faced the same lack of opportunity on stage. AAPI performers only had 4.5 percent of the roles in plays and musicals.
The news media also came under the spotlight when the Washington Post headlined an article about the NBA’s Hall of Fame worthiness of Yao Ming by using the Chinese equivalent of the n-word.
The news media itself noted the lack of AAPI voices on the cable news networks of CNN, MSNBC and Fox, especially since much of the news involved the demonizing of immigrants and refugees.
Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, started a hashtag #JournalismSoWhite to bring attention to lack of diversity in our nation’s newsrooms. Even in the discussions surrounding race and immigration, it was hard to find AAPI commentators taking part on the various news panels.
This situation seems to change as the presidential campaign wore on as Lanhee Chen and Manu Raju began to make appearances, even though it wasn’t in prime time. The most noteworthy exception to the lack of AAPI appearances was when Elaine Quijano became the first AAPI journalist to host a vice-presidential debate.
The so-called comedy skit of Jesse Watters on Bill O’Reilly’s show interviewing elderly Chinese residents in New York’s Chinatown drew the wrath of the Asian American Journalists Association and community members. The protest prompted network executives to come to New York’s Chinatown for a meeting to discuss how the network can be more sensitive to the community.
The New York Times exposed its narrow vision of Asian America when in March the NY Times produced a video series called “Conversations on Race.” In the segment showing the AAPI perspective, they overlooked Filipino Americans, the second largest Asian ethnic group in the U.S.
That might have passed as an “oops” moment except when later in the year, a racial slur was hurled at a NY TImes staffer Michael Luo. His powerful letter in response to the incident got front page coverage. Part of the follow-up coverage in The NY Times was another video, #ThisIs2016, asking Asian Americans to tell their stories of racist slights. Once again, it excluded brown Asians. This oversight prompted another letter asking that the NY Times expand its definition of who is Asian American, a discussion that we’re still having inside the AAPI community.
Bon Appetite, an upscale magazine targeting foodies and gourmands, named a Filipino American restaurant, Bad Saint of Washington D.C. as one of its hottest new restaurants in the country. On the other side of the coin, however, the same magazine embarrassed itself with a major faux pas when they featured a Euro American chef writing an article on what makes a proper pho, a favorite Vietnamese soup. Really?
The Asian American Journalists Association scored a major coup when it was able to get the representatives of the major presidential candidates for the Democrats and Republicans plus the candidates for the Green and Libertarian parties to join a panel at their annual convention in Las Vegas.
JUSTICE & EQUALITY
The issue of affirmative action was in the news again in a big way. Asian American legal and community groups submitted friends of the court briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in a University of Texas case claiming reverse discrimination because of the school’s affirmative action policy considering race.
SCOTUS ended up upholding the goals of affirmative action and sided with the university in the case before them.
However, affirmative action also exposed the division in the AAPI community between first-generation immigrants and AAPI who have lived in this country longer. The newcomers claimed that the affirmative action policies of the Ivy League colleges discriminated against Asian Americans and brought forth several complaints. The groups that filed briefs on behalf of affirmative action in the Texas case, were on the other side of the issue.
For a brief while, the AAPI community was excited when an Asian American jurist was considered as a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court to take the place of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died early in the year.
Judge Sri Srinivasan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was among the finalists for the coveted life-time position but President Obama eventually picked Judge Merrick Garland, a more moderate choice with a better chance of surviving the GOP’s Senate gauntlet. However, Obama’s pick was blocked by the conservative Republicans who refused to do their duty and hold hearings. Instead, the GOP-dominated Senate left the position vacant. The position will be filled by President-elect Trump and presumably the court will retain its conservative majority.
The 75-year battle of Filipino WWII veterans for justice and recognition drew closer to an end when President Obama signed a bill that allowed the veterans’ families to move up in the immigration que. Last month, Obama also signed a bill giving the vets the Congressional Gold Medal honoring the elderly soldiers.
Trump’s campaign began with an attack on immigrants from Mexico and questioning President Obama’s executive orders for DACA and DAPA. Immigration and keeping families together struck a chord with Asian Americans and Pacific Islander.
Although much of the rhetoric centered on Latino Americans and The Wall on our southern border, immigration policies has a strong impact on AAPI immigrants since numerous studies concluded that immigration from Asian – particularly from China, South Asia and the Philippines – had surpassed immigration from Latin America.
The anti-Muslim sentiment that grew out of the Paris and Nice attacks and the San Bernardino and Orlando mass shootings and then stoked by the Trump’s campaign was easier for the AAPI community to find common ground, especially since Muslims in South Asia would be affected by any Muslim restrictions in movement and immigration.
When a Trump surrogate said that the internment of Japanese Americans might provide the legal grounds for a Muslim Registry, the outcry from AAPI activists, particularly Japanese Americans, was heard loud and clear.
The AAPI community found itself struggling with its place in the American milieu, especially in what some consider to be the most important social movement of the 21st century, Black Lives Matter.
When an Asian American NYPD police officer was found guilty of shooting an unarmed man. AAPI protestors rallied to Peter Liang’s support, claiming he was being scapegoated while White police officers accused of shooting Black individuals go unpunished. At the same time, other AAPI activists sided with the BLM and the unequal and unjust treatment Black people face at the hands of law enforcement.
A campaign started by young activists was launched with the aim to have discussions within AAPI friends and family. The online letter was translated in numerous Asian languages and thousands of young people took the campaign to have heart-to-heart talks with family to explain how the BLM cause was the cause of all people of color.
Non-Asians who have bought into the model minority myth resented what they believe to be the “privileged” status of AAPI. The portion of AAPI who fought against affirmative action policies didn’t help relationships with underrepresented minorities, that face the same inequities in school admissions, employment and promotions.
Beside the outcries of representation in the entertainment industry, the political cycle brought out the most activism in the AAPI community. The growing political clout of AAPI communities is perhaps the most underreported story of the campaign season.
A massive drive to register AAPI voters and to get them to the polls was undertaken by various community groups, particularly in states and cities where there were larger numbers of AAPI.
The Clinton campaign and Democrats were the first to reach out to the AAPI community drawing in support and creating an extensive network of AAPI political activists, politicians and millennials who manned the phones and walked door-to-door for their candidates.
On Nov. 8, AAPI volunteers provided language assistance and monitored the elections uncovering several instances of poll workers asking for additional I.D. information and intimidation.
However, the biggest story was the movement may be that the vast majority of AAPI voters supported Democratic candidates. In normal times, it was usually assumed that the AAPI community was open to the Republican platform of small business opportunity and family values. However, this was not a normal campaign.
The heated anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric coming from Trump turned off the AAPI electorate, many of whom were first-generation immigrants themselves seeking to bring relatives to join them in the U.S.
A promising sign of the growing activism of the AAPI community was that there were over 400 candidates running for local, state and federal offices last November, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. Many of the candidates were running for the first time. Five new lawmakers are taking their seats in the 115th Congress on Jan. 3.
Both the Republican and Democratic conventions featured AAPI speakers but it was Khizr Khan, who provided the emotional highlight for the Democrats. Khan’s son was killed whiled on duty in Afghanistan. In his speech, he challenged Donald Trump to read the Constitution.
All in all, this is one of busiest years that I’ve seen for the AAPI community. What was remarkable was the use of social media to organize nationally and amplify the voices of a community learning that old adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is proving true. Mainstream media stayed a few steps behind the protests “discovering” a story only after a mass of Tweets, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook posts got the discussions and planning underway.
Though there are 18 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, we are dispersed throughout the country, diluting our impact.
However, when you get the AAPI nation speaking out over the Internet, being retweeted or liked thousands of times over, the volume increases. The Internet acts like a loudspeaker so it becomes impossible not to hear what we have to say. According to some researchers, AAPI are savvy in the use of the Internet and social media.
It also acts like a bulletin board where we can plug in, link up, talk to each other and organize. We’ll need to do more of that in the coming year.
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