“Ethnically oriented” versus “American” roles in Hollywood

Photo: Sina Aragni

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending V3con, the conference for Asian Americans working in the news and media industries. The event was put on by the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association and hosted at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. It was really great to meet and hear from people I’d only ever seen on the Internet, like Phil Yu (who gets introduced as “Phil Yu Angry Asian Man“) and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. The big star of the event, of course, was civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, who got a standing ovation at the end of her interview with MSNBC news anchor Richard Lui.

One particular moment from the morning plenary session stood out to me. Local television news anchor David Ono was moderating the session on “Asian Visibility in Hollywood and Globally Online,” with Parvesh Cheena, Lynn Chen, Pradeepa Jeeva, and Lawrence Yee sitting on the panel. I don’t remember how the question was specifically worded, but at one point Ono asked the panel whether they preferred to take “ethnically oriented” roles (i.e. immigrant or foreigner roles) or “American” roles like that of Canadian actress Sandra Oh’s character in Grey’s Anatomy.

The panelists answered the question gracefully. Cheena, for example, said that he played an Indian monkey in a Dreamworks film, but that he really relates best to suburban housewives.

However, I and several others in the audience were not so happy with the question.

Must “ethnic” and “American” be juxtaposed and presented as mutually exclusive? Much of the talk about Asian American visibility in Hollywood is about the visibility of later generation, accent-less, “assimilated” Asians, but what about the visibility of Asian characters who are foreign or immigrant, and who do speak English with an accent? Don’t they deserve to be portrayed with dignity and respect?


  1. What a terrible question to ask in a room predominantly full of Asian Americans. The audacity of some people. But to weigh in on this issue, I definitely agree with Quincy’s point that stories of color are indeed part of America’s history so why the hell are they making those terms mutually exclusive?

    Any character of any ethnicity deserves to be treated fairly and portrayed accurately. It’s disturbing that in the year 2013 when we have an African-American president, racism still rears its ugly head in many aspects of life. The Entertainment industry is so influential, and by portraying unfair and inaccurate representations of groups of people, it paints an unrealistic picture for others to soak in, thus spreading more racism.

    I just still can’t get over that question. Everything is an American role. We’re Americans, aren’t we? Ugh, it’s that kind of thinking that gets spread around like a virus to new generations.

  2. Also though, it’s important to exercise forgiveness and allow people the space to grow…we all deserve benefit of the doubt (insert smiley face emoticon here). How can we turn these conversations where we “call out” folks into productive dialogue?

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