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This has been a long time coming. I thought to write this when Dads premiered last September. I thought to write it when 47 Ronin came out back in December. But ultimately I decided against it. I hate conflict and I believe in people being entitled to their own opinions. But when I woke up this morning to an e-mail about #HowIMetYourRacism, I couldn't let it slide anymore. The other night CBS aired an episode of How I Met Your Mother entitled "Slapsgiving 3," about Jason Segel's character Marshall learning the art of slapping from "wise masters," a.k.a. Colbie Smulders, Josh Radnor, and Alyson Hannigan in yellowface. The trio dressed in kimonos and talked some shit about "much gold" while random actual Asians sat in the background, by and large silent. How the hell did no one think this wasn't OK to air? Especially after the shit that happened with Dads. Sure, it's just a joke and I'm overreacting. But it's difficult not to when you've lived a life shadowed by this stereotype.
I'm 100% Filipino, and grew up in a traditional Filipino household, with lots of family living nearby. And if I'm going to be completely honest, I grow up with a skewed view of what I wanted and who I wanted to be because of that. I can't speak for all Asian cultures, but I will say this: In Filipino culture, skin-lightening is a massive thing and pointed noses are a gift. In Filipino culture, looking mestizo—a mix of Filipino and any other ethnicity—is a blessing. I constantly got that compliment as a kid, and that made my parents proud. At some point, it started making me feel proud. On the SAT form asking me to bubble my ethnicity, I found myself penciling in Pacific Islander over Asian. Marking Asian came with a flood of stereotypes, and I didn't want to be associated with that.
Growing up, I went to an elementary school in L.A. that was predominantly Filipino and Latino. That's really all we knew. But my friends and I didn't grow up watching Asian TV shows or anime. We didn't seek out Asian role models—that wasn't a thing people did. We related to American culture at large and sought out role models that fit. And for me, that was The OC's Seth Cohen, an awkward white guy. So it was a nice, albeit twisted, thing to hear a peer call you "whitewashed." It basically meant, "Congratulations! You don't fit the Asian stereotype because you like white things, like folk music and stuff!"
Whose fault it is that it's become OK for one of my peers to say that she 'sees me as white'?
High school just made the awareness of my Asian-ness worse. Compared to my grade school, my high school had a more diverse population, but was predominantly white. An area in the quad where I used to wait to get picked up after school was unofficially designated as Chinatown by other students. Being othered felt like a burden I couldn't shake, so I kept my head down 'til I got the fuck out of the Valley in college.
Which didn't change too much. I wonder, whose fault it is that it's become OK for one of my peers to say that she "sees me as white"? What does that mean? Normal? Like one of you? My Filipino-ness doesn't program me to like different things than you do. I've grown up with the idea that whiteness is a compliment, but now it feels like the biggest insult you could hand me. What it's saying exactly is that because I don't fit the Asian stereotypes perpetuated by the media and racism, I'm not what I inherently am.
The first time I can remember the media not giving Asians, more specifically Filipino people, a fair shake was when I watched Lizzie McGuire and realized that Lalaine Paras, a Filipino actress, was cast as a Mexican girl. Does the word "Filipino" not sell? It was the first time I really felt that my Filipino culture was hidden and othered. Flash forward a few years later, and Filipino actress Vanessa Hudgens is playing a Hispanic girl in High School Musical. So when I saw that Manny Santos (played by Filipino actress Cassie Steele) on Degrassi had a debut (the Philippines' version of a cotillion), I finally felt validated. To this day, I get giddy when Asians aren't conflated into one, but recognized as individual groups. When Emily (played by half-Pinay actress Shay Mitchell) on Pretty Little Liars first acknowledged that she was Filipino, the fangirl in me got so giddy that I told a couple friends.
Still, no one's going nuts over the fact that, other than Iranian-American Nasim Pedrad, there's never ever been an Asian player on SNL. Studios are still letting shit like the movie 21, a story about the Asian MIT Blackjack Team played by a virtually all-white cast, slide into theaters. And, off screen in the real world, a white girl dating an Asian guy still catches looks. Or, in my experience, said white girl explains to a table of non-Asians (besides me) that she's "dating this Asian guy and he's really nice, but like I'm totally going to break up with him. It's just a little weird." Girl, do you. You don't have to make excuses for having an Asian boyfriend. Why would you think you need to?
Just because it's a joke on TV doesn't mean that it doesn't hold real power and influence. The dismal portrayals of Asian people and cultures we do get, and lack of Asian representation on screen, directly influences how audiences view Asians, what they expect from them, and how they treat them. A person's ethnicity doesn't have to define who he or she is. Let's quit being lazy with this casual racism and get a little smarter. At least so that my kids and their kids won't watch the crap that played out on How I Met Your Mother and have to answer for it later.
Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)