Posted on May 27, 2016

Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored.

Amanda Hess, New York Times, May 25, 2016


It’s never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood, let alone take a stand against the people who run the place. But the recent expansion of Asian-American roles on television has paradoxically ushered in a new generation of actors with just enough star power and job security to speak more freely about Hollywood’s larger failures.

And their heightened profile, along with an imaginative, on-the-ground social media army, has managed to push the issue of Asian-American representation–long relegated to the back burner–into the current heated debate about Hollywood’s monotone vision of the world.

“The harsh reality of being an actor is that it’s hard to make a living, and that puts actors of color in a very difficult position,” said Daniel Dae Kim, who stars in “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS and is currently appearing in “The King and I” on Broadway.

Mr. Kim has wielded his Twitter account to point to dire statistics and boost Asian-American creators. Last year, he posted a cheeky tribute to “the only Asian face” he could find in the entire “Lord of the Rings” series, a woman who “appears for a glorious three seconds.”


Studios say that their films are diverse. “Like other Marvel films, several characters in ‘Doctor Strange’ are significant departures from the source material, not limited by race, gender or ethnicity,” the Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in a statement. Ms. Swinton will play a character that was originally male, and Chiwetel Ejiofor a character that was originally white. Paramount and DreamWorks, the studios behind “Ghost in the Shell,” said that the film reflects “a diverse array of cultures and countries.”

But many Asian-American actors aren’t convinced. “It’s all so plainly outlandish,” Mr. Takei said. “It’s getting to the point where it’s almost laughable.”


Online, even more Asian-American actors and activists have spoken out with raw, unapologetic anger.

Ms. Wen castigated “Ghost in the Shell,” tweeting about “whitewashing” and throwing in a dismissive emoji. Mr. Takei went off on “Doctor Strange” on his Facebook page: “Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here.”

Mr. Nanjiani jumped on Twitter to call out the red carpet photographer who told him, “Smile, you’re in America now.” (“I know when someone is racist, the fault is theirs and not yours,” he wrote. “But, in the moment, it makes you feel flattened, reduced and bullied.”) And Ms. Cho helped start a hashtag campaign, #whitewashedOUT.


Ellen Oh, a writer for young adults who devised the #whitewashedOUT hashtag, credited a generational shift. “For a long time, Asians have been defined by the immigrant experience, but now second- and third-generation Asian-Americans are finding their own voices,” Ms. Oh said.

They’re also employing a new vocabulary. “The term ‘whitewashing’ is new, and it’s extremely useful,” Mr. Wong said. In contrast to “yellowface,” which protested the practice of white actors using makeup and prosthetics to play Asians, “whitewashing” gives voice to the near-absence of prominent roles.