By John Odum
Moderator Sona Charaipotra and creators Keith Chow (founder of Nerds of Color), writers Marjorie Liu, Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex), and Preeti Chhibber (Book Riot) made up the Asian American #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel, now focused on promoting a new hashtag: #whitewashedout.
#whitewashedout was the brainchild of Ellen Oh (who had been scheduled, but wasn’t able to attend). “White washing,” of course, referring to the all-too-common practice of casting white actors as characters of color, or of simply reimagining the character entirely as white.
Panelists expressed frustration that, despite so many other recent advances in diversity and representation in media,” this was the year Hollywood decided to be extra mean to Asian characters,” as Kuhn phrased it. “It really does feel like it got extra ridiculous this year.”
A power point slideshow recounting some of the higher profile “whitewashing” instances of recent years (Emma Stone in Aloha, Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia, etc.) scrolled in the background, as panelist after panelist complained of feeling – as Chow put it -“fed up with the notion of being erased from your own stories” as Americans of Asian descent.
Chhibber recounted the experience of “growing up and not seeing yourself” in the media she loved, while celebrating the fact that “a lot of us have…grown up” and are now, as creators, in “a position to do something about it.”
Interestingly, much of the panel’s time was taken focused on a non-Asian character’s coming debut in Netflix: Marvel’s Iron Fist. Chow led a high profile effort that lobbied Marvel Studios to reimagine Danny Rand as Asian, or Asian-American, seeing the character’s origin (rooted as it is in Asian cultural forms) as providing marvel with a unique opportunity.
Kuhn noted that the Iron Fist casting represented a (now lost) chance to modernize and take Rand out of the 70s, leaving behind much of the cultural fetishizing the character is steeped in.
“This would have been a way of subverting….orientalism…and all these Asian tropes” Liu noted.
Chhibber added that when the casting news broke “we all lost our damn minds, a little bit.”
But rather than flashing anger, panelists’ demeanors would be more accurately characterized as fan disappointment from being presented with what seemed to be the perfect opportunity, only to see it taken away.
The panel continued with a nuanced (and personal) discussion of Asian versus Asian-American identity, and a thoughtfully examination of why the two groups would feel differently about white-washing, given that many immigrants would not have had the experience of growing up as the “other” in white American culture that their US-born children would.
As Liu put it, “we have a very particular experience here, and a very particular experience of racism and internment” which “needs to be addressed and it’s not.”
Still, she (and Kuhn) advised aspiring Asian-American writers not to assume the entire burden of representation onto each and every character they put to paper.
“It’s hard enough to write, it’s hard enough to create…. Just tell your story.”