Hooray for ECAASU
Only a month ago, the University hosted the East Coast Asian American Student Union conference, one of the largest annual conferences for Asian American students across in the country. It was the dominating event for the people involved with it. It took over their weekend, not to mention the weeks and months University students spent volunteering in preparing and planning for the event. As someone who did not help prepare for the event but took advantage of the conference out of convenience of location, it is clear that their efforts paid off. The workshops were informative and productive. The entertainment was amazing and despite the packed seats I wished more could have been there to see it.
For those who attended the weekend conference, the events left a sense of a broader community. People will bring the memories and experiences back to their respective colleges and their world after graduation. Various workshops included discussions on campus organization, current events, human rights, sex, crime, art and history.
Given my love for media studies, one recurring theme that caught my interest in the various workshops and speeches that I attended is the perceived lack of Asian Americans in media. For people who have followed recent controversies, mentioning examples like last year's film "21" pretty much beats the dead horse. To a certain extent it serves as an explicit example of what goes on around Hollywood and New York, where the decisions of creating and casting characters are routine and often taking for granted. With very few exceptions, Asian Americans are not the "normal" protagonist that the audience is asked to relate to within mainstream television and cinema. In the case of "21," the film's protagonist was based off an Asian American, yet an English Caucasian actor was cast and was given dialect coaching to speak in an American accent.
While I would love to continue talking (down) to people about this controversy further by providing more explanations, details and nuance about why it matters, the bigger concern of the controversy was the lack of potency. It should have at least received as much controversy as the films "The Da Vinci Code," "300" or "Harry Potter," but it seems like nutjobs equating a children's fantasy adaptation to devil-loving witchcraft are able to get their platform onto television news more efficiently than Asian American and Pacific Islander media watch groups.
It should be reiterated that the case of "21" is merely an example and Asian Americans are obviously not the exclusive victims of a broad problem. Some would argue a movie is just a movie and that business is business. Yet it is mass media that defines, reflects and reinforces our values. It is as much a tool for elites as it is an ephemeral mouthpiece for the masses. While we can argue about the chicken or the egg with norms and stereotypes that persist within the media in its relationship to the public, we can all get around the idea that the media can and will act differently once someone, somewhere, does something about it.
There are those who dismiss "21" and other examples, believing that critics who find them wrong are either adorable or angry trolls with a victim complex. Some of the naysayers of the criticism include Asian Americans themselves. Considering the history of racism in the country and the depressing images that always come out of headlines, it is understandable why some would think ignorance in media is not a big deal. But a problem is a problem, and things are not going to fix themselves.
Complacency with media is yet another microcosm of our American culture as a whole, which until very recently has become very tuned out, if not hostile, toward activism. The mindset that ties protesting, petitioning and letter writing to laziness or trendy rebellion has troubled progressivism for the past decade in a wide category of issues.
But it is events like ECAASU that give hope. The entire University community should be very proud for hosting such an amazing event. The conference reassured me that despite the complacency we perceive there are always people who are interested in righting a wrong, even when they do not directly benefit. Regarding the particular problems with media misrepresentation, it is great to know that there are those both outside and within the system who are alert and concerned with the issue. These people have a nuanced understanding of how institutions keep echoing back the things we allow to believe about ourselves. Some people tell others to start a movement, but the movement is already here. When will we hop on?
Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays.