“It’s key now that we speak up and showcase the amazing talent that we have out there, and that we tell our stories and say that Asian American stories are American stories.”Snehal Desai, Artistic Director, East West Players

Presented by CAAM in partnership with NBCUniversal, hosted by MSNBC anchor Richard Lui and featuring NBCUniversal’s Karen Horne and Craig Robinson, documentary filmmaker Grace Lee, actress Sandra Oh, and producer/writer Rashad Raisini.

(Videos by The Raconteur Collective for CAAM. Banner photo credit: Rich Polk/Getty Images)

Photo by Mike Palma.

Photo by Mike Palma

Shifting from Diversity to Authenticity

by Patricia Tumang (PR/Marketing Manager, East West Players)

On November 2, the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and Comcast NBCUniversal hosted a forum called Expanding the Conversation: Asian Americans in Media at NBCUniversal in Universal City, inviting a variety of national and local media organizations, individuals, and Asian Pacific Islander (API) thought leaders to be part of a much-needed conversation regarding the status of Asian Americans in the media.

MSNBC anchor Richard Lui moderated a panel that included actress Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), producer/writer Rashad Raisani (Burn Notice), and NBCUniversal executives Karen Horne and Craig Robinson to ask their take on issues like diversity and representation and what could be done to ensure API visibility and inclusion in Hollywood. These issues and concerns have been at the core of what East West Players, who co-presented as a community partner, has been doing to combat racial stereotypes by providing ample opportunities for API artists to tell their stories onstage for over 51 years.

As the panelists tackled the “diversity” buzzword, I recalled Alan Yang’s compelling “call-to-action” 2016 Emmy speech, when he and Aziz Ansari won their first Emmy for Comedy Writing for Master of None. After critiquing Hollywood’s historic portrayals of APIs—“We got Long Duk Dong”—Yang implored Asian American parents to do him a favor and get their kids cameras instead of violins.

Sandra Oh drove this point home when talking about the pressures that APIs face growing up in immigrant families and how authenticity starts with knowing what stories you want to tell: “The work that I do—if it isn’t as deeply authentic and soul-searching as possible, it’s not going to resonate. If it’s not going to resonate, then nobody’s going to want to see it. That’s what I’m interested in.”

That’s when it clicked for me: this is not just a conversation about diversity in the media, what it’s really about is authenticity. How do we, as Asians and Pacific Islanders, represent ourselves authentically—not only to the media, but also at home, with our families?

NBC exec Craig Robinson framed the conversation when he said, “The boiled-down answer that resonates with everyone, no matter where they are in terms of their understanding of media, is making sure that what you see on television is created for and features people that look like the world. So it’s about representation and authenticity.”

A current shift towards API visibility is happening in today’s media landscape with hit TV shows about/starring APIs like Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, and Master of None (the forum opened with a short video featuring clips from these shows). While big strides have been made for APIs in television, it hasn’t been the same in film and also in the American theater. So, what’s next?

All panelists agreed that we should support shows, plays, and films that feature API stories. The crowd applauded when Oh concluded the night with a great piece of advice: “It’s going back to that point about authenticity. What stories do I want to tell? What do I really want to say? The pain that we feel when we’re not included or see ourselves… It’s so present for me. Things like #OscarsSoWhite—there’s a deep pain there. So whatever that is for you, find that out and do a story about that. Because the sooner that you do that, the better you’re going to be in ‘that room’ to say, ‘You know what, room that I’m not usually a part of—you can’t knock me over. If you don’t want to hear my story, that’s fine. I’m going to find this place

[that will].’”