Recent controversy surrounding Doctor Seuss’s racist and caricatured portrayal of East Asians in his books has led to deeper questions being posed about xenophobia in American culture and the representation — or rather, misrepresentation — of Asian Americans in the media. The “Doctor Seuss problem” may be what’s drawing major attention to this topic, but it most certainly won’t be the last we hear of it.
When it comes to people of East Asian descent, the recurring stereotype is that of the smart nerd. People of Chinese, Japanese, and often Korean descent are always portrayed as the no-fun, sexually and socially inexperienced characters, especially when it comes to children and young adult movies and shows. Discrimination against people of color in Hollywood is not a new phenomenon, yet somehow, despite the many racial equality and representation movements that have taken place over the years, Asian Americans continue to be overlooked, fated to be stuck playing the same role over and over.
That is, of course, until now. In recent years, — this can actually even be traced back to the mid 2000s — TV shows and movies have begun regularly casting people of color as main characters, albeit, these characters have absolutely no mention of their culture nor background. This creates an unrealistic alternate universe where racism and homophobia suddenly become non-existent. Real-life racial disparities are erased, and suddenly, everyone is friends with everyone. So now we have two options: an Asian character who is given the role of many before them, misrepresented and forced to endure high levels of racism, or a character who is played by an Asian actor, but who seemingly has no ties whatsoever to their character’s background. Is one option better than the other? That’s not to say that all Asian characters should be deeply connected to their culture, but there’s an important link between racism and stripping someone of their culture that we must begin to understand.
There are all shades of discrimination in Hollywood, but one particular group of people that somehow never seems to be anyone’s priority is South Asians; specifically, Indians. Whether in shows, books, movies, or even on the popular social media app TikTok, “casual racism” towards Indian people has become increasingly normalized. From racist jokes to insanely problematic blanket statements, it’s an issue that’s prominent in all shapes and forms. This is not only concerning in itself, but it also is something that has a visible effect on how people see South Asians. Even in the Berkeley High School (BHS) community, extremely offensive statements have been thrown around casually, as if the meaning behind the words was somehow insignificant.
Moreover, this idea of our media’s ideals and portrayals leaking into our beliefs and actions is actually dangerous. For example, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of misguided and horribly popular anti-Chinese sentiment: joking about Asians spreading COVID-19 became normal, and there was a sudden surge in hate crimes towards Asian American people. It isn’t easy to say whether this was a direct result of the false ideas floating around, or possibly one derived from the spread of anti-Asian media, or a conjunction of the two.
However, we shouldn’t act like there hasn’t been any progress or any films and shows with accurate and relevant portrayals of Asian American characters. TV shows like Never Have I Ever and All American have people of color playing leads, but are able to create a balance between oversimplifying racial issues and avoiding harmful stereotypes.
It’s important that our media reflects the truth, rather than generalizations and biases, because in this day and age, where Instagram and Twitter have started to become sources of information, false information is spread twice as easily as it would be otherwise. We can’t allow racist media to be reflective of our world; it’s important to give everyone a voice and a story, and not just the same one we’ve heard since childhood.