Up until middle school when I was put into this program for “gifted” students filled with mostly Asian Americans and located in a small wooden shack-like facility behind the main building, I had never really understood that I was Asian American. This is what living in majority white towns and going to majority white schools had normalized for me; until the moment that I was truly separated from the the majority white population as “foreign,” as “Asian” I had not realized my own racial and ethnic background. And it took until high school, where I met some of my closest friends who were also Asian American that I learned to stop hating my own identity and actively sought to learn more about what it meant to be “Asian American”. This course helped me better understand why I felt so much self-hatred towards my own race during my teen years and how the media plays such a big role in influencing young POC develop their sense of identity in this hegemonic society.
YouTube stars like KevJumba and NigaHiga had peaked in their popularity around the time that I was in middle school and most of my fellow classmates knew who they were and watched their videos. Prior to taking this course and discussing these pseudo-celebrities, I had only been able to look at these YouTubers with murky mixed feelings: yes, I had laughed along with their jokes as they imitated the accents of their immigrant parents (I, too, had immigrated to the U.S. at a young age and grew up with parents who spoke with an accent) and acted out common Asian stereotypes, but when my classmates started to copy these jokes and make self-deprecating, racist Asian jokes, I began to resent my own racial identity. These “stars” had in some way helped to contribute to the self-hate that many of my classmates and I had held, and some probably still carry today.
However, after discussing these YouTubers in class, I came to realize that YouTube had been pretty much the only place where I had seen popular Asian comedians, musicians, and “celebrities,” which the mainstream media had and still severely lacks. It was a platform where I could see Asian American representation and acts of agency: a place where I could see someone that looked like me become successful with millions of subscribers. I can now see the positive side of these YouTube stars’ accomplishments, and the inspiration they had probably been to up-and-coming Asian YouTubers now. But at the same time I believe that their content should be observed with a critical eye, just as with mainstream media, as it is important to recognize the harm that internalized racism can have on young Asian Americans. Still, YouTube is a platform that can serve as an outlet for the frustrations that many Asian Americans feel and a place where they can share the talents that Hollywood or other media platforms are missing.
But why are there so few Asian Americans in TV shows or movies? Why do YouTubers have such a hard time making the switch from YouTube to mainstream media? A discussion we had about Avatar: The Last Airbender and the white-washed cast of its live action adaption shed light on the doubts that Hollywood directors seem to have about the “forever foreigner” and misconception that fans have about why a character’s actor should “look Asian.” It was a new term that I had not heard before, but felt like I knew of: cultural racism, where the fans of Avatar attacked the white-washed live action cast on the basis of the same over-simplified connections between “race” and culture” that are used by mainstream American media as a hegemonic force to categorize the Asian body. These fans never seemed to address the fact that these types of Hollywood directors are not casting Asian actors, because many of them don’t believe that Asian actors can become successful towards their majority-white target audience, and that a white actor would be a better representation for white audience members.
But if this was the right line of logic then minorities, especially young children and teens who are usually only exposed to mainstream media at their age, would never see themselves represented on the big screen apart from maybe the occasional stereotype. Thus, it is through platforms like YouTube where POC youth can view content made by people who come from similar backgrounds as them and have gone through similar experiences. At the same time, however, we talked about how this sort of liberalism, though it may give some POC a platform where they can voice their own stories, does not actually give them an escape like radicalism can. For example, YouTube makeup gurus and comedians nowadays often get sponsorships there they must pander to the capitalist market in order to make a profit off of their content. So while social media sites like YouTube do give Asian Americans a voice, it can often be just as restricting as other forms of media.
Perhaps if I my middle school-self had had an Asian American role model then I wouldn’t have undergone a period of so much self-hatred of my own identity. Taking an Asian American studies class had helped me understand the importance of media representation and also the critical evaluation of such media.