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Lack of Asian representation in media shows through in recent blunders | COMMENTARY

Bill Bramhall's editorial cartoon for Tuesday, May 25, 2021: "The tourists are back!"
Bill Bramhall's editorial cartoon for Tuesday, May 25, 2021: "The tourists are back!" (Bill Bramhall/New York Daily News)

I arrived in the U.S. from China in 1949 already an avid consumer of American media, inspired by the formative years I spent in Hong Kong watching Western movies, reading the New York Timesand hearing stories from my father and brothers about their experiences living in California for two years, when my father led the first Republic of China military delegation to the U.S. from 1939 to 1941. My affinity for American media inspired me to go there myself in 1949 to study. I recognized early on that there was little representation of Asians in American media, but I assumed this would change as more Asians arrived in the country in the decades after World War II.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. While the rise in hate crimes against Asians has made headlines across the country, it has also highlighted just how little representation there is for Asians in media. Both right and left-leaning publications have covered the recent hate crimes against Asian Americans. But the lack of regular Asian contributors to the major American newspapers has been laid bare through a series of editorial blunders.

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The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section ignited an international incident after publishing an op-ed last spring under the headline “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” Asians denounced the headline for evoking racial stereotypes, to which the paper claimed ignorance. The entire incident could have been avoided if the paper had included Asians on its editorial board. This was not the only incident of media perpetuating bias against Asians in the early days of the pandemic. As NBC News reported in March 2020, papers covering the outbreak of virus cases in New York including the New York Times, the New York Post, and the Hill all used photos of Asians wearing masks despite the lack of known connections between positive virus cases and members of the Asian community. The Times subsequently removed one of the images from its online article, and the paper’s VP of communications called its use “an oversight that was addressed quickly.”

Despite many news organizations seizing on last month’s observance of Asian Pacific American Heritage month as an opportunity to highlight their efforts to be more inclusive, the old ignorance of Asians continues to rear its ugly head. The New York Daily News recently featured a cartoon labeling mayoral candidate Andrew Yang as a “tourist,” despite the fact that the entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential candidate has lived in New York for 25 years. His wife Evelyn criticized the cartoon as a “racist disfiguration,” but the paper’s editorial page editor insisted there was nothing racist about it, evoking the same ignorance to the history of anti-Asian racism that the WSJ used following the “sick man” headline backlash. The string of highly publicized attacks against Asians in New York City in recent months makes the cartoon all the more tone deaf. Regardless of the intent, “the interpretation was hurtful,” and the paper should have been more sympathetic to this.

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The lack of Asian voices and perspectives in American media contributes to the biases that are fueling these attacks. By ignoring Asian voices, the media has perpetuated the silencing and isolation of the Asian community. For evidence of just how invisible Asians are in media, look no further than a new study showing that 42% of respondents could not name even one famous Asian American. This ignorance leads to cultural misunderstanding and biases that fuel discrimination. If the media took more care to highlight the perspective or very existence of the Asian community, than maybe these racists would not just assume that all Asian faces they see are foreigners who should “go back to China.” Extending platforms for Asian voices is important year-round, not just during Asian Pacific American Heritage month. Including more Asian contributors will not end all anti-Asian bigotry, but it may help overcome the ignorance and help address misunderstandings that fuel such sentiment.

Chi Wang (chi.wang@uscpf.org) is the president and co-founder of the US-China Policy Foundation. He is the former head of the Chinese and Korean sections at the U.S. Library of Congress and a former professor of History at Georgetown University.

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