This post was written by Contributing Author Alex Ho, who teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).
When I worked at the Museum of Chinese in America, we would use one of the first photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown, “An Unsuspecting Victim” by Arnold Genthe, to show how an author’s intent through what they choose to show and to hide and to editorialize would affect the impression a photograph could give a viewer. The photograph is stripped of the other white Americans, darkened, and given dimensions much more familiar to our vertical-video smartphone world. It jibes with a persistent fantasy about ethnic enclaves like Chinatown–that they are mysterious and dangerous for white America.
Today, the themes of misinformation, documenting (or oversharing/ performing) “reality”, and media hysteria are at the forefront of many peoples’ minds. The stoking of white nationalism in America by Donald Trump in the past four years has led to a downslide in the public discourse on immigration, international relations, and support for working-class people. Then, a global pandemic occurred, and the Trump administration further dragged the country into madness, schizophrenically denying the virus’ impact and mockingly emphasizing its country of origin. A many-months reverberation has led us to many reports and reckonings about hate towards Asian Americans, including the latest tragedy, a mass shooting at Atlanta-area spas, where 6 Asian women were killed on Tuesday. I believe it is all the more important at this moment to be able to critique and openly discuss media culture. I have been heartened to see social media users responding to the mainstream media’s coverage, showing how media again shapes the story in ways that embed racist and sexist tropes.
(Sources: https://twitter.com/MsKCabrera/status/1372185043624456204 above, https://www.instagram.com/p/CMiww2_L6Nw below)
In times like this, filmmaker Joshua Fu’s webseries “Ching Chong Blues” is a refreshing experience. It makes great usage of the tones of satire, slapstick, and farce to raise its audience’s critical engagement. Each episode has Asian American protagonists making humiliating choices, navigating levels of internalized and systemic racism in a “color-blind” world, and yet, they also do so much to humanize these characters and take the audience through the mental loops of a doubly-conscious minority group. Through Fu’s work, our class will explore how to narrativize our relationship to media culture.
Meanwhile, the life work of activists, like labor rights lawyer and former community organizer Karen Kithan Yau, are another inspiration. Karen Yau is involved in the Asian American Bar Association’s comprehensive report “A Rising Tide of Hate Against Asian Americans in New York in COVID-19”, which gives this grave, complex issue full context into its historical causes and implications for public policy. Her background, as a 1.5-generation Hong-Kongnese-American to Brooklyn and community organizer in the Lower East Side, as described in the recent “Whole Lawyer Project” podcast episode, has informed her extensive work advocating for the disenfranchised through the law, from being a New York State Labor Bureau Assistant Attorney General to recently working for the New York Immigration Coalition fighting for vulnerable immigrant populations. In the podcast, Yau discusses how many issues affecting immigrants are dismissed as a product of “language barriers”, continuing to stereotype immigrant populations and ignoring the root issues of racialization, class, gender, and labor exploitation. For Yau, advocacy is a driver for her engagement with media communications.
Speaking at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Asian American History class, on Monday, March 22nd, Joshua and Karen engaged in a discussion about how Asian American identity has informed their careers, an analysis of a clip of “Ching Chong Blues”, and a reflection on the current issue of anti-Asian hate and the media’s role. As an adjunct lecturer at BMCC with a media arts education background, I encourage the BMCC community to reflect on the works of these two guest speakers and think about how we can use our relationship to media to strengthen our studies.
Activity Prompt: Explore your relationship to media through the following free-writing prompts.
Part 1: Make a Media Diary (5 min) Pick 1 of 3 prompts
- What did you watch yesterday? Why did you watch these things? What did you think about them?
- What is your favorite movie, television, video game, Internet video, or other form of media? Why is it important to you?
- What is the earliest memory of a piece of media you can remember? How do you think it affected you?
Part 2: Talk Back to Your Media (5 min)
- If you could talk back to the media that you wrote about in Part 1, what would you say?
- Do you feel represented or misrepresented by this media?
- Are there any stereotypes or cliches that you would break down in this media?
- What would happen in the real-life version of the story that this media is telling?
Alex Ho is an Adjunct Lecturer who teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).