The phrase “cultural orphan” was first popularized in the 90s by the Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun, defining a sense of loss and alienation; anxiety in the search for self. In America, for most of its history, media representations of minority races have been inherently political and submissive to the white majority. These misrepresentations became so deeply embedded into its culture that its reputation around the world became synonymous with ignorance. African, Hispanic, and Asian Americans became cultural orphans in their own country, finding that their races were too often constructed relative to white American culture.
The 2018 box office successes of the Marvel superhero movie “Black Panther” starring an almost all-black cast, and “Crazy Rich Asians,” a contemporary romance story set in Singapore, demonstrate that there can be a renewed narrative in the media about minority races in America. It matters because our era is defined with stunning inequalities, perhaps none more pervasive than racial inequality in America.
When Crazy Rich Asians was premiered in China, the world’s largest population of Asians, they were not crazy at all about the movie. In America however, it was nominated for two Golden Globes, including best picture. The cast featured a collection of very good-looking Asians with chiselled abs, bikini bods, and lots of money and power. It stood in stark contrast to a longstanding stereotype of Asians in America – a model minority, known for its academic prowess that rarely translates into the “cooler” entertainment and sporting industries. While the movie was only representative of a very small collection of elite Singaporeans, it made little difference to many Asian Americans who celebrated the film as a step in the “right direction.”
The media can continue this path by framing race related stories in absolute terms. In 2012, NBA player Jeremy Lin was ridiculed by an ESPN writer in an article headlined, “Chink in the Armor,” after a subpar performance on court. It emphasized opposite identities of the dominant white athlete and the Asian athlete as a novelty, making it apparent that not everyone’s achievements count equally in America’s sporting industry. The reality is that as Asia becomes increasingly wealthy, educated, confident, and culturally diverse, Asians will be represented in contemporary spheres from sports to politics, across the globe. In America, they will continue to demonstrate that they can compete equally well on the same stage as everyone else. Standing at 6-foot-3-inches, Jeremy Lin is in fact a genetic aberration, but his achievements should be celebrated on the shoulders of progress, rather than assigned a niche in white America.
Alongside, the media has rarely encouraged minorities to think in scale about higher order derivatives of racial equality. The reality is that for the average person in every major racial minority subgroup in America – Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians – life has improved markedly by measures of income, employment opportunity, educational attainment, and many other socioeconomic metrics over the last 50 years. A longstanding news policy is that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and when people are constantly fed news about the mistreatment of minorities and broader inequalities, it’s easy to understand why cynical millennials are recruiting for the next socialist revolution.
Tolerance is not the hallmark of Homo sapiens. So, while slower than perhaps warranted, socioeconomic progress should be measured fairly, celebrated by the media, and not ignored. Likewise, inequality should be framed in context because progress is not monotonic. Certainly then, Asian Americans might not have to wait for Crazy Rich Asians 2 to see something inspiring about themselves in the media.