• Hopefully it won't take 200 years before Asian stories are mainstream. (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
"[My friend] was more optimistic than me and thought our children would be part of a better cultural landscape."
By
Saman Shad

5 May 2021 - 9:39 AM  UPDATED 6 May 2021 - 8:51 AM

Last weekend, I was a guest on a podcast run by a friend to highlight the voices of Asian creatives. Ever since the rise in Asian hate crimes, not just in America, but Australia as well, there has been a push to not just speak out but to highlight Asian voices – which is why my friend started her podcast.

We were speaking about how I felt there was still a while to go before people from the Asian diaspora as well as POC would have their stories seen as comparable to those of white people. In the creative industries especially, there is a belief that the majority of white audiences won’t watch diverse stories.

“I feel our children will still be fighting the battles we are,” I said on the podcast.

“I feel our children will still be fighting the battles we are,” I said on the podcast. My friend the host, disagreed. She was more optimistic than me and thought our children would be part of a better cultural landscape.

Deep down I hoped so too, but then I read the opinion piece the actor Lucy Liu wrote in The Washington Post and found myself agreeing with Liu about how much further we still have to go.

"I feel fortunate to have 'moved the needle' a little with some mainstream success, but it is circumscribed, and there is still much further to go. Progress in advancing perceptions on race in this country is not linear; it’s not easy to shake off nearly 200 years of reductive images and condescension," Liu wrote.

Lucy Liu is one of the most famous Asian-American actresses, gaining mainstream success for her role in the Charlie's Angels movies before going on to star in a string of other successful films.

Many of us from Asian backgrounds (including South Asian and South-East Asian), were buoyed by the success of Asian creatives at the Oscars, that took place last month.

Chloe Zhao was the stand-out star winning both Best Director - the first time a woman of colour has won the award and only the second time a woman has won; as well as picking up the Best Picture nod for her film Nomadland. But there was also Yuh-Jung Youn who made Oscars history as the first Korean performer to win an Academy Award for her role in Minari, getting the Best Supporting Actress award. And then there were Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun, who were the first men of South Asian and East Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor.

But their success doesn't mean that the cultural landscape we are part of has changed. 

As Liu wrote in her article: "Asians in America have made incredible contributions, yet we’re still thought of as Other. We are still categorized and viewed as dragon ladies or new iterations of delicate, domestic geishas — modern toile. These stereotypes can be not only constricting but also deadly."

And it's this - the positioning of everyone who isn't white as the 'Other' - that is the hardest perspective to shift. While everyone is speaking about Asian-Americans or Asian-Australians - it's the hyphen that stops us being just American or Australian. And it's the same with our stories. 

With my own creative work, I'm often described as Pakistani-Australian, even though I left Pakistan at the age of four and have spent most of my life living in this country.

But it's more than that. POC creatives often face a number of barriers when trying to break through in the arts. For example, many creative opportunities are often not advertised, instead they are referred through word of mouth. Making the connections you need to get ahead when you come from a culturally diverse background in screen or theatre is difficult - I have found this in my own career. It takes time to find the right people and cultivate the relationships in order to find opportunities for your work.

Then there is the matter of unconscious bias. "Everyone is talking a good game, but they still want a white man in charge." A producer in the Hollywood Reporter noted.

It was also telling when the author Stephen King, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who run the Oscars, said last year that diversity was not a consideration for him when he voted as a member of the Academy. 

"...I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong." He tweeted, garnering immediate criticism

All this means that while we are pleased for the success of Asians at the Oscars this year, only time will tell whether this success will lead to greater change across the industry. Will it take another 200 years, as Liu predicts it might? Or will the landscape be more hopeful for my children's generation? On my friend's podcast, I might have seemed pessimistic about how long the change will take, but I do hope it doesn't take hundreds of years for us to get there. 

While the Oscars operates on a whole other level, for the rest of us, change will happen when we begin to see the same opportunities arising for POC as they do for white creatives. Much of this change of course is coming because POC creatives are taking matters into their own hands and creating opportunities for themselves. My friend's podcast is one example. There are theatremakers and filmmakers I know who are going out on their own because we've become sick of waiting for the opportunities to find us. But whether this will lead to change on a larger scale and in the mainstream - only time will tell. In the meantime I will celebrate any recognition diverse voices get, because if we don't celebrate our own success then who will?

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