Over at ye olde New York Times, Slate alumna Amanda Hess has a new article on the insane difficulties Asian Americans face in trying to score leading roles in film and television. Constance Wu, star of the hit ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, has been particularly vocal about the lack of Asian American representation. So has Aziz Ansari, who addressed the issue in a vivid and heartfelt way in his Netflix series Master of None and in a Times op-ed that appeared last fall. There is a case to be made that Wu and Ansari’s complaints are self-refuting. Both are very successful, and we’re talking about the dearth of Asian Americans on TV and movie screens at least in part because Asian Americans like Wu and Ansari now have really big platforms. Given that there are far more Asian Americans in media today than in the past, it’s not crazy to believe that we will see more of them in prominent roles in the years to come. The march of progress is inevitable, yada yada yada.
But I have a somewhat different and darker thought: What if Asian Americans are underrepresented in media because non-Asians have yet to reconcile themselves to Asian overrepresentation in the uppermost echelons of U.S. society? Don’t see that many Asian Americans as CEOs or in other leadership roles? Just give it time. Whether you look in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, elite academia, or America’s burgeoning medical-industrial complex, you’ll find a disproportionately large and fast-growing number of Asian Americans. Earlier generations of Asians often found themselves stymied by the so-called “bamboo ceiling,” which largely reflects the fact that new arrivals in America tend not to have the social connections they need to reach the highest rungs of the organizational ladder.
That is not generally the case for their children, who tend to have been raised by middle- and upper-middle-income parents in above-average school districts. While the share of children living with two parents is 65 percent for the U.S. as a whole, it is 83 percent for Asian Americans. These advantages are already starting to pay off for Asian Americans in schools and in the workplace, and it would honestly be shocking if America’s future elite didn’t include a large number of Asian faces. Are you sure everyone’s going to be excited about that? I don’t think so.
In the Times, Hess observes that while 5.4 percent of the U.S. population is of Asian descent, more than half of media properties have no Asians in named or speaking roles. To be fair, the size of the Asian American population is dwarfed by that of America’s Hispanic population, and I dare say that Hispanic underrepresentation is just as bad, if not worse, than Asian American underrepresentation—given that there are now far more Americans of Hispanic descent than there are black Americans.
So what is distinctive about Asian American underrepresentation? I’d venture that it seems galling to many Asian Americans because they tend to live in relatively prosperous communities with relatively large Asian populations. Moreover, Asian Americans are massively overrepresented on elite college campuses, which feed into sitcom writers’ rooms and Hollywood production houses. But the media powers-that-be are driven by profit, and while American viewers embraced the idea of a black president long before we actually elected one, they don’t appear to be clamoring for more Asian American actors in leading roles.
Consider the “whitewashing” of Asian characters in films like The Martian, in which a Korean-American character named Mindy Park was portrayed by Mackenzie Davis, a blonde Canadian who is, um, not of Korean origin.
When I saw the movie, I was a little cranky about the casting choice myself. Recently, sociologists Pyong Gap Min and Sou Hyun Jang found that 60 percent of Asian immigrant men with bachelor degrees had been STEM majors—as opposed to 28 percent of native-born white men. Among native-born Asian American men, the share fell to a still-pretty-high 40 percent. The gap between Asian immigrant women and native-born white women is even bigger: The former are three times as likely to have been STEM majors as the latter, and the pattern persists with native-born Asian American women. Even without those numbers handy, if you’ve spent time among science and engineering students in America over the past decade or two, you’ll know that NASA wouldn’t be able to get astronauts on Mars without relying on way more Asians than were depicted in The Martian. I mean, way, way more Asians.
Hollywood is in the business of selling appealing fantasies. The producers of The Martian realized, consciously or otherwise, that it was far more appealing to have Chiwetel Ejiofor (an Englishman of Nigerian ancestry), Donald Glover (a black American), and Jeff Daniels (a white Midwesterner) playing space-age supergeniuses than, say, a Taiwanese-American bro, a half-Korean nerd, and a winsome Indian immigrant with a really thick accent. Would The Martian have done just as well at the box office in this parallel, more-Asian universe? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it.
Asian Americans have often been characterized as “the new Jews.” The basic idea is that just as striving Jewish immigrants gave rise to ambitious and highly successful second- and third-generation cohorts, we’re seeing a similar pattern among the members of several, though certainly not all, Asian American groups. I’ve always found this comparison annoying as it massively oversimplifies the complexities of both the Jewish and Asian American communities. But I believe it is useful to note the rise of Jewish Americans in American public life has been accompanied by anti-Semitism. It strikes me as very plausible that the rise of Asian Americans will be accompanied by anti-Asianism.
Long before Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her best-selling paean to hardcore Asian parenting, Yale Law School professor Amy Chua wrote an equally provocative book called World on Fire. Chua’s basic argument is that economic liberalization can contribute to the concentration of wealth in the hands of privileged “market-dominant minorities,” which in turn can inflame the members of less-affluent groups. We’re all familiar with the baleful consequences of racism against poor, marginalized minorities. But racism against prosperous minorities can be pretty ugly, too. The experience of Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia is instructive. In both countries, Chinese communities have historically enjoyed higher levels of income and wealth than their indigenous neighbors, and this has periodically led to periods of extreme interethnic tension and even race riots, like the anti-Chinese pogroms that broke out in Indonesia in 1998. Both countries have put in place legislation designed to curb the advancement of people of Chinese origin, which in turn has driven large numbers of Chinese Malaysians and Indonesians to seek greener pastures in countries like Australia, Canada, and the U.S.
Is America immune to these forces? Or might our future look like Malaysia or Indonesia’s, with a multiracial working class that is highly suspicious of a disproportionately Asian elite? The Jewish experience gives us at least some cause for optimism. While anti-Semitism still exists in the modern U.S., it is a far weaker force than it has been in other societies throughout history. In our race-obsessed society, however, Jews are by and large identified as whites. Asian Americans are not. They constitute, in a very literal sense, a “visible” minority. And as such, the visibility of Asian Americans is a double-edged sword. By all means, let’s have more shows like Fresh Off the Boat. I’d love to see John Cho, an excellent actor, starring in literally every movie. But let’s also realize what’s going on beneath the surface. Though Asian American privilege is not a lighting-rod issue today, I suspect it will become one in the very near future.