Civil rights activist Malcolm X once described the media as “the most powerful entity on earth” which “control[s] the minds of the masses.”
In light of a growing number of attacks on Asian Americans, most recently in the form of eight people being killed in a series of shootings in Atlanta and the brutal assault of an Asian American woman in New York, a critical question to ask is how our media culture’s image of Asian Americans is contributing to this problem. Burbank’s stance as the “Media Capital of the World,” which serves as home to major media companies such as The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros. Entertainment, makes the City a fitting place to examine the subject.
The Burbank Human Relations Council acts as a local organization which promotes equality through education and action. The Council recently addressed the City of Burbank with a written release regarding how locals can contribute to supporting the AAPI community by being vocal advocates in the face of discrimination. The more every person serves as an ally to the Asian American community, the Council believes, the less likely it is that these tragic attacks will continue.
“We have a responsibility here in Burbank to recognize that references to ‘the Chinese Virus’ has appeared on signs and on social media from within our own city boundaries, and that we can do better,” The Burbank Human Relations Council said in a statement. “We have many Asian neighbors and friends who receive racist comments and mistreatment, who suffer in silence, who need us to do better. Now’s the time, more than ever, to listen to what is being said and to acknowledge the effects words have.”
The City of Burbank expressed a similar sentiment in their City Council Meeting on Tuesday, March 30, which offered a “Presentation of a Proclamation Condemning Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance Against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”
A long-serving advocate for equity in media representation is Guy Aoki, Founding President of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. Born and raised in Hawaii, Aoki relocated to Los Angeles in 1980 to attend Occidental College. While at Occidental, Aoki landed a production assistant position for Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” radio music countdown show. He remained at the program from 1984 to 1988 and eventually took on different roles in media, such as writing for the LA Times, as well as creating content for syndicated radio shows with Dick Clark Productions, then located on Olive Avenue in Burbank.
Prior to his formation of MANAA, Aoki became involved in the NCRR, an organization dedicated to achieving reparations for the exclusion and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. His experiences with this group gave Aoki the idea of forming a media watch committee, as the organization was looking for ways to expand their civil rights efforts.
When 1991 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Aoki noted unbalanced media reports depicting Asian Americans unfavorably. This led to an increase in Anti-Asian hate crimes and was the breaking point which inspired Aoki to become serious about his plan to address negative media representations of the Asian American community.
“I was talking to my cousin and complaining again about the media,” Aoki said. “And I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘It feels really good to have people agree with you. But what are you accomplishing,…[by] preaching to the choir? Are you going to actually do something about this?’”
Soon after this revelation, Aoki decided that, if the NCRR didn’t soon form a media committee, he would spearhead his own project to do so. Following speaking with fellow advocates, Aoki conducted the first MANAA meeting in April of 1992.
MANAA both praises the media’s positive portrayals of Asian Americans and addresses issues of prejudiced representations. Some of their significant work includes a 1993 nationwide protest against film “Rising Sun” and its unfavorable image of Asian Americans, and confronting comedian Sarah Silverman for her use of an Asian racial slur on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2001.
In addition, MANAA collaborates with major TV networks, including Burbank’s ABC network and Warner Bros., to encourage the implementation of Asian Americans in major roles on camera and behind the scenes.
Aoki’s passion for his work with MANAA stems from him witnessing firsthand the dismal consequences of a lack of media inclusivity and equity for Asian Americans. This consists of both unfair treatment towards Asian Americans and low self-esteem within the AAPI community.
“It’s not just the way people treat [Asian Americans], but it really really affects our own self-concept,” Aoki said of negative media portrayals of Asian Americans. “[When] I came to Los Angeles at Occidental College, I would see other Asian Americans walking around like…they’re ashamed of something… I saw this self-hatred.”
Most recently, MANAA made headlines for their Zoom call with Jay Leno and producers of upcoming Fox game show. The call consisted of an apology from Leno after years of numerous jokes about Asian Americans eating dogs, which included at least nine counted jokes made from 2002 to 2012. These jokes were said during his run on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” which was filmed at NBC Studios Burbank, now called The Burbank Studios.
MANAA and its affiliate organization, The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, made numerous complaints to NBC over the years regarding the prejudiced nature of the jokes. It wasn’t until the end of 2012, however, when APAMC began to plead with Leno’s advertisers to cease their commercials on his program, that NBC made a verbal commitment to end the jokes. Leno remained good on his word until another joke of a similar nature was made by him on “America’s Got Talent” in 2019.
The following year, when Leno was announced as the new host of the rebooted game show, “You Bet Your Life,” Aoki reached out to Fox and discouraged them from allowing Leno to take on this role. When Aoki threatened to go after studio advertisers, a meeting was set up between MANAA, Leno, and producers to discuss the history of Leno’s jokes about Asian Americans.
The remote meeting took place in February, after which Leno issued a public apology. Aoki, along with MANAA President, Robert Chan, and Vice President, Lawrence Lim, accepted Leno’s efforts in making amends for his wrongdoings. Aoki has had more than a dozen conversations with Leno since the Zoom call, during which Leno has expressed his now-elevated understanding of the implications of such jokes.
“We had a Zoom call in February and Jay was apologetic,” Aoki said. “I told… Jay… [about anti-Asian American crimes] on the call, and he called me up later on. He said, ‘When you told me about the hate crimes, you really got to me. I really got it. I get it now.’”
Hate crimes directed at Asian Americans have long been a problem in the history of the United States, but since COVID-19 emerged, the prominence of these occurrences has increased significantly. In 2020, larger U.S. cities have experienced an almost 150 percent increase in Anti-Asian crimes. Media figures like then-President Donald Trump referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” only served to exacerbate the issue.
Hateful crimes such as the killing of Vichar Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, in San Francisco, CA, display the alarming nature in which assailants are operating. Ratanapakdee was killed when he was forcefully shoved to the ground by a 19-year-old man.
“The scary thing about this is that in a lot of these cases, you can’t negotiate with these attackers,” Aoki said. “They just shove you from behind. You’re walking and they shove you to the pavement. …There’s such [a] disregard for life.”
Several derogatory media depictions of Asian Americans are addressed on MANAA’s site, including showing Asian Americans as foreigners who can’t be assimilated into American society, including anti-Asian racial slurs without this language being challenged, and depicting Asian names, accents, or mannerisms as humorous and eccentric.
“The problem [is] there’s a perception that you can get away with [it],” Aoki said of racist media stereotypes. “You don’t openly laugh at a joke against a group unless you think no one is going to come to their defense and you can get away with it…It all creates this atmosphere of, ‘You don’t have to take Asian people seriously.’”
Whether or not someone is a key player in our media landscape, Aoki believes that speaking out when stereotypes are displayed is an essential element in supporting the Asian American community.
“We need people just to stand up for us and help people,” Aoki said. “[Asian Americans] are so sick and tired of being on the receiving end [and] feeling like a punching bag… People can help by being allies to us, jumping into the situation and say[ing], ‘Look, that’s not cool. Come on, don’t be like that.’ We need more of that to happen.”
Moving forward, Aoki feels optimistic that the media will continue to expand their diversity with favorable and accurate portrayals of Asian Americans in leading roles. Some recent releases which have gained MANAA’s approval are “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Always Be My Maybe,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and “Minari,” for which actor Steven Yeun has become the first ever Asian American nominated for an Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category.
A major determinant of whether or not advancements in equity will emerge for Asian Americans, Aoki says, will be how willing local studios are to further create opportunities where diverse voices can be heard.
“All of [this progress] is good. It’s just about Hollywood taking the leap of faith,” Aoki said. “Hopefully this will help the situation [and] make it…better for us.”
MANAA holds remote meetings every third Thursday of the month in which anyone who is interested can participate. You can learn more about their work here or by reaching out via their email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about the Burbank Human Relations Council here.