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Alien Americans: Asian Discrimination in Hollywood


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The people we worship in our popular culture—from James Dean to Steve Jobs, Marilyn Monroe to Princess Diana—don’t play by the rules. It’s a Western myth that those we love distinguish themselves by their differences, that their faults are their virtues. Asians are seen differently: pathetic perfectionists who never got the meaning of life, who’re unable to live with abandonment and therefore with romance. And that is why [they] will never be compelling enough to be the hero in your eyes.

Thessaly Force (Force)
(“#STARRINGJOHNCHO …”)

Youtube Video

Project Overview

Asian Americans have been alienated for years now. This racial discrimination had started in the 1800s with the Chinese Exclusion Act—continuing on in the 1900s with Japanese Internment. The problem facing America right now is that Asian discrimination still thrives today throughout our country in the form of whitewashing—a casting practice in which white actors are casted in historically non-white character roles or in roles which are scripted for non-white characters. My project attempts to offer an overview of this problem throughout the years of its existence—concluding with what actions must be taken in order to finally combat this modern day issue.

My Interest

I have a serious issue with going to the movies! I personally love them as they provide the right amount of action needed in any regular day life, especially mine during the school week. But recently, I have started to not enjoy them as much. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why movies became so “meh” to me, until one day, I realized that many of the movies I previously watched involved whitewashing. From this realization, I started to question the whereabouts of different races in Hollywood, in particular Asians. I have always felt that Asians were either misrepresented or underrepresented in cinema—and I wanted to know why? This initial question was the reason I chose this topic for the GOA Catalyst Conference, as it would educate not only myself, but my fellow students as well, about this current issue.

Historical Overview

(“Pacific Chivalry …”)

Our country has racially discriminated against Asians for the past 169 years. This problem started in the 1850s once the Gold Rush struck California. During that time, more and more Chinese immigrants found their way to America in search of job opportunities, such as railroad working or gold mining. From this mass immigration, cheap and expendable workers flooded American labor markets, which benefited many major companies at the time, such as the Union Pacific Railway Company and Central Pacific Railway Company.

Because this labor provided many benefits, America signed the Burlingame Treaty in 1868, which granted free immigration from China. Essentially, this treaty was a welcome invitation to Chinese laborers to America, with one downfall being no naturalization to immigrants. On one hand, this treaty was the first step to Asian integration in America, but on the other hand, it was just the beginning of years of Asian oppression—continuing with the Naturalization Act of 1870 (Schneider). This act was emplaced to help non-American born citizens gain citizenship in America. But, similar to the Burlingame Treaty, the Chinese were not given the opportunity to become citizens yet again.

Ten years later, Asian racism still seemed to be relevant, as America passed another law called the Anti-miscegenation Law, which forbade intermarriage between Asians and whites, among others (Schneider). From these smaller pieces of legislation, America started to spread a sense of Chinese xenophobia, known as Yellow Peril, around the country. This “political disease” not only affected American people but also our government, resulting in a “cure” known as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (Schneider). This act was America’s first major law restricting immigration from a certain group of people (Lockemy). It was not until 1943 that the U.S. government finally repealed this law, but by doing so, it allowed them to switch gears and focus on another problem at hand—WWII and Japanese Internment (Lockemy).

(“The Chinese Must Go …”)

After years of Chinese discrimination, the Japanese soon found themselves as America’s next victim. On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service surprise attacked a United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Aitken). Due to the devastations at Pearl Harbor, not only did America enter WWII, but they also started to emphasize security concerns regarding the Japanese. On February 19, 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Evacuation Order 9066, which allowed Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, the right to deem zones “from which any or all persons may be excluded” (Aitken).

Why the hell am I running back home? Am I American or not?

Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi (Aitken)
(Lange)

Essentially, this legislation allowed the American government to relocate Japanese into designated zones until further notice. Roosevelt’s justification for signing this document was to prevent “war espionage and sabotage” from the Japanese living in America, although there were no clear pieces of evidence that proved whether the Japanese were conducting any forms of disloyalty toward our government (Aitken). A disparity was that although Germany and Italy were also axis powers in the war, Germans and Italians were not interned nor treated as harshly as the Japanese were. At this point in time, justice was just another useless word for the Japanese (Aitken).

These camps [are] definitely an imprisonment under armed guard with orders [to] shoot to kill. These people should have been given a fair trial in order that they may defend their loyalty at court in a democratic way. Many disloyal Italians and Germans were caught but they were not all corralled under armed guards like the Japanese—Is this a racial issue?

Fred Korematsu (Aitken)

By the end of 1945, the last Japanese internment camp was closed, and America finally apologized for its prejudice actions. President Harry S. Truman declared, “they were concentration camps. They called it relocation but they put them in concentration camps, and I was against it. We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do” (Aitken). Furthermore, in 1988, Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which was an apology to internees stating that the government’s actions were based on pure “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” (Aitken). Although America recognized its actions and successfully apologized through both legislation and media, the government had made minimal efforts, if any, to have prevented further Asian discrimination from happening before 2000, foreshadowing why this problem still exists today.

(“President Reagan’s at the Japanese-American Internment…”)

To learn more about the history of Asian discrimination click here!

Present Day Overview

(Buenaventura)

Although it has been 77 years since the Japanese internment camps and 31 years since America’s Civil Liberties Act, “Yellow Peril”  still lives today. In the past, Asian discrimination has taken on many different shapes and forms. Starting from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese internment camps, Asians have been rebuked for decades. Today, this discrimination still persists in the form of whitewashing (Force).

(“Ken Jeong GIF …”)

One of the earliest appearances of whitewashing was with Warner Oland—a Swedish-American—who played an infamous Asian villain named Fu Manchu in the 1920’s. Oland, a white man, was costumed with slanted eyes, “caterpillar” eyebrows, and a long, wispy dangling beard—an image of a true stereotypical Asian man. Another example of whitewashing appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Mickey Rooney was casted as Mr. Yunioshi. For his role, he was also portrayed as a very stereotypical Asian man, having lips that barely closed over grotesquely pronounced buck teeth and slicked-back hair dyed jet black. Fast forward to today, Hollywood continues to discriminate against Asians. For example, there are only four major actors presently who are Asian: Olivia Munn, Keanu Reeves, Ken Jeong, and Constance Wu (Force).


(“Fresh Off The Boat …”)

Advocates have started to emerge in order to challenge this absurdity. One major advocate for this cause has been George Takei—a Japanese-American who was cast as Captain Sulu in Star Trek (Force). Takei and many others, such as Sandra Oh, who played Stephanie in 2004’s Sideways, Dae Kim, who stars in Hawaii Five-0, and Kumail Nanjiani, who stars in Silicon Valley, have been huge advocates for Asian equality, especially in film, for years now. In the beginning, many smaller efforts were made to advocate for the elimination of Asian discrimination, but after the premiere of the Academy Awards in 2016, where Chris Rock—the host—made a “small”, funny, yet impactful joke, it all changed. Used as a sight gag for the audience, Rock pulled out three eight year old Asian kids, dressed in suits with briefcases, and introduced them as the accountants that will be responsible for counting the votes for the night. After seconds of laughter from the crowd, Rock also commented that “if anybody [was] upset about [the] joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids” (Hess). This joke was the tipping point for Asian advocates and the floodgates were opened. Advocates started to raise awareness through written letters and social media, such as Margaret Cho’s, star of All American Girl, hashtag known as #whitewashedOUT (#whitewashedOUT).

(“Oscar Asian Children Accountants …”)

As a result of these efforts, change has begun—in some ways. For example, recent TV shows such as Fresh off the Boat, starring Constance Wu, and Dr. Ken, starring Ken Jeong, both have Asian lead roles (Hess). In addition to these smaller TV accomplishments, there has also been one groundbreaking event that occured in the last year—that being the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians. This film is not only about an amazing budding romance of an Asian couple, but is also the third Hollywood movie ever to have a predominantly Asian cast (Menta). Although there have been milestone achievements in Hollywood as of late, it does not cover the fact that this problem is still relevant today. More and more instances of whitewashing continue to appear. Major movies such as The Great Wall with Matt Damon, Doctor Strange with Tilda Swinton, Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson, The Martian with Mackenzie Davis, and Aloha with Emma Stone all have a white actor playing an Asian role—alienating Asians from cinema as well (Hess).

(“The Great Wall Premiere …”)

To learn more about the present day problem of Asian discrimination click here!

Call to Action

(“Call to Action …”)

For us individual citizens, we can each do a little to help a lot. One way we can become a part of the conversation to end racial discrimination against Asians is through technology. Nowadays, through modern social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, online organizations, posts, and hashtags, such as #whitewashedOUT, allow us to follow and access information with a click of a button. By doing so, we as a community will be able to stay up to date about the progress of this issue and advocate daily in order to spark the flame for change. In addition to our digital voices, we could also “talk” through our money. In other words, we should also utilize our consumer power in order to support films that include Asian actors and discourage films that involve “whitewashing.” By doing so, we will help promote other racially moral movies to premier, deny production companies the satisfaction of gaining money through social injustice, and discourage malpractices. These smaller actions will lay the foundation needed for society to strive for equality.

To learn more about my micro-solution click here!

Macro Solution

(Suzuki)

In order to reach equality, big steps must be taken as well. One such way is by attacking Hollywood directly. By convincing major actors and directors to listen to our voices, we could potentially change casting practices and start creating more roles for Asians in movies, which would finally open the doors of Hollywood to Asians. Another way our society could tackle this issue is by funding “start-up” companies. As stated by French playwright, Charles-Guillaume Etienne, “If you want something done right, do it yourself” (Charles-Guillaume Etienne Quote). Well, throughout the past decade, influential Asian actors in Hollywood such as Dae Kim, Mindy Kaling, and Ken Jeong, have made their own shows, documentaries, and small production studios to help tell the real story of underrepresented Asians living in America (Hess). I believe that through extra funding from our society, we could help create a new cinematic movement that champions the reshaping of the Asian image in America. If successful, this movement would offer more Asians the chance to become actors and help integrate them as a socially accepted ethnic group in cinema—wiping the word “whitewashing” away for good.

To learn more about my macro-solution click here!

Works Cited

To view my Works Cited click here!

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COMMENTS: 5
  1. April 26, 2019 by Nicolas.Ortiz

    Your use of ample evidence and the use of vibrant colors truly kept me engaged throughout the entirety of your webpage! These attributes benefited my learning of this critical problem in society. Congratulations on an amazing webpage!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Eugenie.Park

    Hi Jaedon,
    What a beautifully and thoughtfully done presentation. Your observation about the major productions that have white actors playing Asian roles is especially infuriating: thank you so much for writing about such an important topic. One of the big reasons I think this topic is so important to explore is one that your title suggests; when Asian Americans are excluded from popular media, they are seen as less and less “American”. One question I have for you is whether you think that this particular issue is uniquely serious for the Asian American community compared to other racial minorities. I personally think it is, but I am not sure whether I am biased or not.

    Thank you so much again for your work!

  3. April 27, 2019 by Addie Behrens

    Hi Jaedon! Your presentation was done amazingly well! Being an Asian American, this problem really effects me and I love that it is being discussed. Your page helped me learn even more about this topic and broadened my view, especially by the fact that they are seen as less “American”. This is such an amazing project, Great job!

  4. April 29, 2019 by Brandon.Byrd

    Great webpage Jaedon! I did my webpage on the misrepresentation of African Americans in film so it was really interesting to read about the same problem from another perspective. It just shows how much minorities are constantly discriminated against even pop culture. I appreciate the fact that you decided to shine light on this problem because it is rarely talked about.

  5. May 01, 2019 by Jessica

    Hi Jaedon,
    As an Asian American myself, I am always actively paying attention to and talking about Asian American rights, from affirmative action all the way to Asian representation on screens. Even though I am familiar with most of the incidents and policies that you have talked about, I didn’t really know a lot about Asian Americans in Hollywood, and your discussion in this area has really informed me more. Your macro solution is also very enlightening, I can actually see this being out in the future! Thank you so much for raising people’s awareness on this rarely discussed topic!

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