It was bound to happen, BAP Blogger making contact with the guys at Kulture (KultureMedia.org). I saw a few tweets, likes, and retweets from a guy who I soon discovered was one of their chief writers, Han Huang (author of the Sense 8 post I reblogged).
I clicked over to the site. It was taglined Asian-American Media Watchdog.
“OK,” I thought to myself, “I know a thing or two about this. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
The format was cool. Each offending television show, movie, commercial, &c. featuring hostilities, denigration or the use of racial stereotypes against persons of Asian heritage had its own page with individual instances relevant to the topic parsed out in direct and well reasoned sections. It was easy to use, and I could get bite-size chunks of information… insightful stuff.
I found myself reading piece after piece, nodding in my head, and making sounds with the letter M in agreement. I fell into what I call an “Internet black hole,” a site or topic that so completely engaging that you sign out and do something else only later realizing you went online initially to pay your power bill.
Soon afterward, I featured the Sense 8 piece on this blog and got in touch with the author, Han, as well as the site founder, Tim Gupta. The reason I wanted to do an interview so much is because one of my next projects was going to be very similar to what KultureMedia.org does.
The influence by the media on our subconscious minds cannot be overstated. In my twenties, I had a fair amount of interest in social science studies looking at subconscious bias –
How often do people act on subconscious bias? How often were people aware of subconscious bias? Did awareness of subconscious bias affect the way they acted? How did we get the stuff in our subconscious to begin with?
How do we change it?
The answers to these questions might surprise you. I will write more about them soon. As well there is discussion about this in the interview so, without further ado, I bring you my interview with “KultureMedia.org” founder Tim Gupta and writer Han Huang.
So Tim, Han… first and foremost, welcome and thank you for doing the interview with me. This interview is especially exciting because of the critical role I see media having in terms of improving the social experience of men and women with Asian heritage.
How long have you been active in your interests around Asian American political issues? Did you to know each other outside of the activist scene beforehand?
I’m like many Asians in that I focused on my career and life outside of work without a conscious awareness of how Asians were treated. How did I pull that off when I myself am Asian? Because we’re trained from cradle to grave not to pay it attention and that if we do, we will pay a social cost.
At work, I wanted to succeed so badly, everything that may be an obstacle you think is a minor obstacle on your way to getting ahead. I’m happy with my professional success but over time I became acutely aware of how the mainstream entertainment media reinforces the perceived lower status and microaggressions that Asians must deal with in everyday life.
Before I started Kulture, I had actually never watched a TV series with any regularity. When I traveled, I’d tune in, in my hotel room and a lightbulb went off. I saw the media scripts that became life scripts for people in real life; that they internalize on a subconscious level. Suddenly, all the Asian deference for whites, whites overlooking Asians as leaders, the stereotypes of Asian men as doormats and Asian women as always open to advances — it clarified to me where the signal boost was coming from. That’s when I became interested in changing the status quo.
During my youth, I was quite the opposite of Tim. I watched many movies and TV shows. The one thing I noticed was that Asian men were either omitted, cast as villains, or cast as nerdy social rejects.
One example that comes to mind is the movie Flash Gordon in which Ming the Merciless was an Oriental villain, but played by a Caucasian man. I thought to myself, “this isn’t right – even if we were all villains, why didn’t they cast an actual Asian man?”
Another example that comes to mind is Hiro from the show Heroes. He was one of the main characters, but instead of cool, he was nerdy, heavily accented and lacked any sexual appeal. Meanwhile, the white male actors in that show were getting onto magazine covers and being interviewed as the sexiest men of the year. That did not seem right to me. After all, I’m an Asian man and I’m sexy. Asian men should be portrayed as sexy leaders.
My first foray into Asian activism was when I saw a link to Kulture through reddit.com. I clicked on it and saw that the site was taking suggestions and write ups. I kept that in the back of my mind for future reference. A week or two later, one of my Caucasian coworkers recommended the show Sense 8 to me, citing its diverse cast as a major breakthrough in show business. I binge watched it and noticed that Asian men were being misrepresented and shown as inferior.
In fact, the main story arcs seemed to all revolve around the white characters while persons of color were relegated to sidekicks and support roles. That was when I wrote my first Kulture report. I connected with Tim shortly after submitting it and joined the Kulture team.
I liked the Sense 8 piece. You picked up on several more subtle but undoubtedly racist aspects of the show. What drew you both to media representation specifically? Why focus on the entertainment industry? I mean, there are many media and areas in which Asian men are underrepresented and misrepresented.
Asian men (and also women) are underrepresented and misrepresented in all aspects of western society – government, movie and TV industry, and music industry. The thing about movies and TV is that that it affects every member of society in one way or another. It is an innocuous yet powerful form of social conditioning that affects viewers in a deep and subconscious way.
Studies have shown that when people are exposed to the same ideas over and over again, they start to believe those ideas, even if those ideas are false. Misrepresentation of Asian people in western TV and movies is a dangerous thing for Asian American who live in the west – westerners will inevitably project their ideas of who we are onto us, and this affects us in real ways.
One example of this is the overwhelmingly high percentage of targeted bullying against supposedly weak Asian children that takes place in schools. Another example of this is the bamboo ceiling, which hinders career growth for Asians that are equally qualified for management positions, but are not promoted due to a supposed lack of leadership qualities.
That’s excellent that this is an idea you’ve got in mind as you write. I’ve done a little research in the area, and I agree wholeheartedly. So Tim, were you familiar with the social science literature on the effect of implicit bias in making your that connection?
No, I wasn’t. Since then I’ve read several studies on bias, status, and historical mistreatment of Asians on TV. I appreciate the concepts they define. However, too much of academia is stuck on jargon they cannot explain concisely. As they create their own lexicon, and retreat to often nebulous terms and concepts, they divorce themselves from the actual experience of Asians in America today. The military calls the latter “ground truth”.
Further, academia relies too heavily on decades-old, sometimes centuries-old examples that suggests to the reader that real racism was in the past, and it also is dated in the sense that racism expresses itself differently today than it did even 50 years ago. I strongly recommend Asian activists who understand how bias differs from overt racism invest time in reading about status, how humans pick up on subtle cues to determine a social hierarchy. Those studies helped me piece together how television scripts provided the social cues to modify and reinforce the social hierachy in the minds of millions; and how that leads to almost all the real-life disadvantages Asians face at everything from getting a promotion to leadership at work to their love life.
I second that suggestion. I think there’s a degree of programming that humans accept regardless of their conscious view of it.
There is this notoriously divisive issue between the men and women in the community. Indeed many women complain of too much sexual attention to the detriment of their recognition as a whole person while men complain about the denigration of their sexual identity. How do you personally react to this, and stepping back, is there common ground to be found?
Judging by the extreme elements on both sides, Asian men and Asian women may as well be a UFC fight. The thing is Asian men have loved Asian women for thousands of years, and Asian women have loved Asian men back. It’s gut-wrenching to see where we are today.
What is the difference today? White people and white culture. You talked about how Asian men and women are stereotyped. There’s a great Simpsons episode where Homer sees a TV cop show where the protagonist has his name; the guy is dashing and charming; soon all his co-workers hang on his every word. Mid-season they change that cop to a doofus and sure enough Homer’s friends can’t wait for him to “do something stupid” in real life.
It’s a cartoon but one which has understood human nature. We become what we’re depicted as because everyone around us reinforces it. It’s not one creepy white guy at work who keeps chatting up an Asian woman not interested in him; it’s all the people around who accept this as normal. Asian women and men are divided by white culture which for some reason seems to make it unusually uncommon for a mainstream show to have an Asian man and woman in a relationship, especially if they are in a white social circle.
It’s never too late for Asian men and women to see eye to eye, to recognize that there is a common threat which complicates all our lives, which encourages both of us to believe the worst stereotypes in each other. We can start by giving each other the benefit of the doubt, and realize that when the chips are down, we will be there for each other; that counts for something and is much more enduring than temporary white validation.
The disparity of sexual value between Asian men and women is definitely driving a wedge between the two genders. All I can say is to break the stereotypes personally while pushing for better representation in media. The hypersexualization of Asian women and emasculation of Asian men has been a campaign lasting decades and it damages any sort of unity that Asians may have in the west. We need to break through this fracture. After all, our parents, siblings and children are both Asian men and women.
Well I’m really encouraged to hear that both of your views include the need to transcend the division and see the larger issues, especially since I can see your site becoming increasingly influential.
What are your respective visions for where you’d like to see the site grow? Did you have a target audience when you started writing or started the site altogether?
The long-range vision for Kulture is not simply to document the offenses but challenge the offenders head-on. It’s crawl, walk, run and we’re in the walk phase now; building our readership and fine-tuning our ability to catch offenses- subtle and blatant- and expose them in a writeup that people want to read.
In terms of broadening our reach, I have to say the Asian media has been too busy writing about topics that have nothing to do with Asians to cover Kulture. We paid a PR firm to reach out to all the big names in Asian media, and given our unique offering in cataloguing an Asian-American media offense database, there has been no reasonable coverage. I hope and trust they will recognize that at the end of the day it is not enough for them to be “allies” to other communities but to advocate for one another; and that service to their political coalition does not mean they overlook non-political issues facing Asians, that are not necessarily in the wheelhouse of their political ideology.
That said, we are reaching many on Twitter with everyone from actors to former White House officials following us. Our tweets have caught the attention and engagement of everyone from Asian Uncle Tom Ken Jeong to Vincent Rodriguez who is breaking ground as the Asian male heartthrob on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We’re in it for the long haul and we plan to keep growing Kulture.
(Laughing) I just write – Tim is our leader and I follow. However, I do like having the freedom to choose the shows and movies I write about. My target audience is the same as Kulture’s target audience: Asians in the west who are unaware of the subtle ways media can affect the way their peers view them and the way they view themselves.
We are attempting to and hope to succeed in waking as many Asians up as possible so that Asians as a whole can begin to push for equal and better treatment, whether it be in movies, TV shows, government, schools and professional settings.
Well I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking about some kind of post-racial Utopia that a lot of America seems to be reaching for. While civil rights laws are important they don’t guarantee an equitable society. We have these laws in place and our society is still severely racially divided. The legislative work, as it turns out, is step one – the groundwork.
As people become educated about why we are still so racially divided & exhibit such racial bias, I predict more support and coverage for your project. And I do hope that happens soon.
So before we close this maybe you can recommend or talk about some of your favorite reports… things to peruse for my readers here to start on.
In terms of reports that I have written, I liked writing about Jurassic World. That movie is very much what Hollywood has always done in years past and present. I also liked writing about the Green Hornet as it was also a clear case of the subtle racial bias Hollywood holds toward Asian men.
I am proud of all the reports on Kulture. I never cease to be amazed at the writer’s ability to call out offenses that undoubtedly contribute to the negative perception of Asians but are the kind that slide by right into our subconscious. Making the covert overt is essential to what we do.
In addition, the interpretations I think make Kulture unique. We can explain why what’s shown adds to the anti-Asian stereotype; why for example, showing Priyanka Chopra having reverse cow-girl sex with a white guy she just met within the first 4 minutes of the first episode on Quantico, doesn’t just lead the the lie that Asian women are always available, but actually may lead to real-world sexual harassment and unwanted advances.
Our view: it is not enough to be outraged at these depictions but know why they worsen our lives. Once we know that, we’ll be motivated to activism against it. Some of my favorites on the site are: New Girl, Green Hornet, and Make your Move – for different reasons.
To talk about one, in New Girl, it’s easy to assume that they show an Asian male as the fiancee of a lead character; that’s good right? When you get into it, the Indian guy is a loser, is sexually awkward, his family is obnoxious and mistreats his Indian fiancee, he is stepped on by the bad boy white male. Finally the Indian girl leaves him during their wedding for the white guy; who then refuses to commit to her.
And she is a-ok with this. People watching just find this “interesting”; but somewhere it leaves an indelible mark on the person watching at home.
Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure.