While many current media diversity conversations are centered on depictions and representation of women and African Americans, Asian communities face many of the same challenges of misrepresentation, omission and caricaturization.
Kulture is a media watchdog site founded in July 2015 to draw attention to both the more overt offenses and the harder to recognize micro aggressions that media inflict on the Asian American community.
The site focuses primarily on problematic depictions of Asians in advertising, television and movies and features a searchable database of offenses from mainstream media and entertainment companies. There are in depth reports on popular shows like “Dr. Ken,” “Quantico” and “2 Broke Girls” as well as reports from of more subtle media microaggressions in commercials and music.
Ken Jeong is notorious for selling out & being a walking stereotype of Asian-Americans….a buffoon to be laughed AT. #AsianUncleTom
— Kulture (@kulturewatchdog) October 4, 2015
The organization also maintains an active social media presence and regularly calls out organizations and individuals that rely on tropes and stereotypes when depicting Asian communities.
I spoke to Tim Gupta, Kulture’s founder, on the issue of Asian representation and some of the problems facing the Asian community in media.
AllDigitocracy: Can you tell me more about how the site came to be?
Tim Gupta: There were Asians that recognized that the problem with Hollywood misrepresentation of Asians was much broader than anyone thought. In the media you’ll hear about profile pieces of white washing but the reality is that the denigration of Asians is widespread throughout advertising, television shows and movies.
We find that there are three main categories: denigration of Asians, self aggrandizement-where whites feel themselves as central-and gender, which is summarized that Asian men are doormats and Asian women are casual sex partners.
So a number of us realized that not enough was being done to make Asian communities aware of this and we decided to create a website that had very specific examples and reports that break down this media and show exactly why it’s offensive.
AD: What is a specific example of an offense that spurred you to create the site?
TG: There was one commercial that I saw that was by a company called Wix, which enables people to create websites. And what I saw in the commercial was very, very subtle. And I think the basis of culture is that the most pernicious denigration is subtle and that it’s often not noticed.
In this commercial Brett Favre, the famous football player, was in an Asian man’s office. And the office was very well appointed- a large office-so clearly the Asian man had status. And Brett Favre put his feet on the Asian man’s desk. And to me that symbolized that no matter how much status you have as an Asian male, a white man can always come into your space and disrespect you. This was an example, amongst others, that I thought the media was not talking about, that even Asian blogs are not speaking to, and I think it’s because it flies under the radar.
AD: Many of the offenses on the site fall under what you call media microaggressions, Why aren’t more people focused on these kinds of small incidents?
TG: One of the reasons is that in cases where they show that whites take advantage of Asians, it touches on various traumas that Asians have as they move through life both socially and in the workplace. And I think there’s a tendency for Asians to downplay it-to say that TV is just harmless fun, it’s innocuous. It doesn’t mean anything.
But studies have shown that television informs social reality. That the average American watches 5 hours of television every day. So if you think about that, we spend more time watching television than we do socializing outside of work or studying.
And studies have also shown that television reduces the self esteem of both minorities and women, and that it raises the self esteem of white boys. The reason why I think a lot of Asians overlook these subtle offenses is because they’re tacked together in a narrative. and narratives are fiction and we automatically assume that fiction is divorced from the real world, but studies show that’s not the case.
AD: As you work to make people more aware of these microaggressions what has been the response from media outlets?
TG: In general, in Asian media, the silence has been deafening. And for whatever reason we haven’t been able to get our message across just yet. And I think the idea of addressing these subtle microaggressions is just now warming up.
AD: Why do you think there’s hesitancy in the Asian community to speak up about these issues?
I think because, in general, the Asian community is conflict averse and strives to achieve harmony. And I think Asians in general-we’re new in America-a few generations after the immigration act. So I think we’ve had a lot fewer successes than the hispanic community and the black community. And I think, in general, the Asian community shies away from some of these controversial issues.
AD: Do you see this across the board? Do you think that younger generations are more active?
TG: A lot of our parents were immigrants and their primary goal was to create a good life for themselves and their families. And I think social issues were largely secondary. Asian communities, they’re doing a lot of things, but they’re not focusing on media denigration.
So when you bring it up, it’s almost completely dismissed by the white community. That we’re ridiculed, we’re told that we are complaining about something trivial. Hollywood is almost unassailable because they pass (these offenses) off as fiction.
So coming back to the fact that the Asian community is conflict averse, there are some topics that are readily understandable by the white majority. For example, Asians are the model minority obscures the fact that a lot of Asians are poor and are suffering.
In our case we will necessarily come into conflict with a white population that does not believe us and we have to be aggressive in standing by this argument and making it over and over again.
AD: In most diversity conversations, the focus tends to be on African Americans, Latinos, women and the LGBTQ communities. Why isn’t there more focus on Asian representation and diversity?
I think the white population, and even more broadly, has internalized the model minority myth of Asians. That our issues are not as significant, that Asians have incomes, on average, that are more than whites, that we’re seen as educated and successful, as a default. And this is not universally true. So because of this falsehood our issues are certainly on the backburner.
And there are some grave issues that are affecting some minority communities so by no means should our issues displace those but I think people do turn a deaf ear to our issues because of that.
So where African American and Latino communities are othered because they are viewed as thugs and criminals, many Asians are dismissed because they are seen as already successful and their complaints are trivialized?
I think whites try to play minority communities against each other. And our view is that we’re not competing with anyone else regarding the importance of our issues. Just because the police mistreat Black Americans, doesn’t mean that the white community doesn’t also oppress Asians via the media they control.
And it’s important that we in minority communities don’t take the bait and we recognize that we face a common struggle. And there are some reports on Kulture where we talk about women and blacks suffering from the same media abuse. So I think there’s more commonality than there may seem at first glance.
AD: What’s the danger in the perception that Asian Americans have it easier?
TG: There are many Asians who came here without education, poor English skills and are still very poor. But the perception is that universally we’re well off. And I think it’s to some degree human nature that people don’t see people who are well off as victims. You won’t find people too emotionally invested in the problems of a billionaire, for example.
But the point that we want to get across is that Hollywood media has real world consequences for Asians, whatever their economic status. And to the extent that white men are seen as saviors and Asian men are seen as misogynist completely ignores the misogyny happening from white men.
There’s a reason we’re not seen as leaders in the workplace, despite our qualifications. And there’s a reason that in various studies by dating companies Asian men are seen as the least desirable. One of the things we talk about is that Hollywood has emasculated us for the last 50 years. And now they have the gall to say that Asian men don’t test well as romantic leads. Well, I wonder why?
AD: So speaking of movies and Hollywood, what do you think about the Oscar nominations and the #Oscarssowhite hashtag?
TG: I think there’s a broader problem in America and the explanation I’ve heard is that the people who vote for these awards are older and white and they simply didn’t see a lot of these movies, such as “Straight outta Compton”, and were unable to vote for them.
I think there’s a problem in the sense that A) the people who vote, there’s a lack of diversity and B) to the extent that they vote I think it’s incumbent on them to be more inclusive in what they consider.
But I think there’s a bigger problem here. There’s a candidate running for president, Donald Trump who, even of himself may be problematic. But what’s more problematic is something called Trumpism where we’re starting to see that a large segment of the white population have resentments against segments of the American population. And Trump, in response to this, has said that “it doesn’t matter Blacks have the BET awards” and he received a large amount of praise from people that support him.
— Kulture (@kulturewatchdog) January 26, 2016
So I think that the territory that we’re getting into now is that politicians, or anyone in society, can make these demeaning comments against minorities. and things like exclusion are actually applauded.
AD: Are you seeing any positive depictions of Asians in media?
TG: The one example that stands out is “Into the Badlands,” where the lead character is Daniel Wu. And unlike Dr. Ken, he is seen as strong, decisive and very clearly a lead character for the right reasons.
But I think for every character like that, there are examples of where the Asian character is used to create an Asian minstrel show and Hollywood has used inclusion as a way to pacify the Asian audience. And that’s something we want to blow the whistle on.
AD: So what are the next steps for the site?
Our first objective is awareness. We want to talk about the fact that this problem of Asian Americans in the media is much worse than people think. And when you look at the Kulture reports I think they will open people’s eyes to the fact that Hollywood tries to sneak in the importance of white people-the centrality of them-and the idea that Asian men are timid, that Asian women ought to throw themselves at white men.
So the first step is to help the Asian community realize that there’s much more to this problem than high profile cases of whitewashing. When you have awareness a lot of problems solve themselves.
The second step-and we’re not there yet-is to have coordinated action against both the media organizations and the individual actors, directors and producers. Our goal is to tarnish the brands of media companies which relentlessly assail Asian Americans. We intend to do this on Twitter, on Facebook, wherever the company has an online presence.
I think one thing that distinguishes our organization from established organizations-although we’re complimentary- is that we recognize that the landscape has changed. And that the internet is a very effective mechanism to drive change and hold people accountable.
Kulture called out this video game commercial for portraying white men as sex Gods lording over Asian women.