Media Diversity Panel with (left to right) Sang H. Cho, Arden Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, John C. Yang, and Traci Lee

Diversity, Not Adversity

The recent Emmy Awards had a number of historic wins for communities of color

The recent Emmy Awards had a number of historic wins including Master of None star Lena Waithe as the first African American woman to win an Emmy for her comedy writing, Donald Glover becoming the first African American person to win an Emmy for comedy directing, and Riz Ahmed becoming the first Asian man to win an acting Emmy. As Ahmed accepted his award, he added, “I want to say it’s always strange reaping the rewards of a story that’s based on real world suffering. But if this show has shone a light on some of the prejudices in our society, Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, then maybe that’s something.” His words directly highlight why diversity in the characters we see on television is so critical during a time when divisions in our society have been given an unfortunate elevated profile.

With the advent of streaming services that provide original content, seeing so many Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) characters on the small screen creates the illusion that we are nearing a peak of diversity when it comes to AAPIs. However, a new study released last week titled “Tokens on the Small Screen” thoroughly dismantles this view. The multi-university study examined 242 TV shows and 2,052 series regulations from broadcast, cable, and streaming television scripted shows airing between September 1, 2015 — August 31, 2016.

Among the study’s highlights is the finding that 87% of AAPI series regulars are on-screen for less than half an episode and 17% of AAPI series regulars have the lowest screen time on their show. The study also delves into the type of character development television shows allow for AAPI characters. Specifically, when identifying what intimate relationships add to a character’s depth, three times as many white series regulars as AAPIs have romantic and/or familial relationships. Further, television shows also continue to perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes including the forever foreigner, model minority, emasculated male, and exoticized woman.

Advancing Justice | AAJC is committed to the principle of increasing AAPI diversity and perspectives on the small and large screens. Highlighting and profiling those instances where improvements can be made is simply the first step. Calling out white-washing, whether it is for deviation from source content by replacing Asian characters with non-Asian actors, or it is casting non-Asian leads for stories based in Asian countries, has already proven to have profound effects.

Diverse television is simply better television. It provides a unique perspective on the issues and storylines that television shows for so long have played out before a primetime audience. However, even more than that, it humanizes the struggles our communities face and brings our stories into the mainstream of American society. Riz Amhed, once again, made the point succinctly in a pre-Emmys interview when he said, “The mark of a great show is that everyone takes something different from it.” It’s time that viewers receive a fully-rounded characterization of AAPI characters.

Koustubh "K.J." Bagchi is a Senior Staff Attorney for Telecommunications, Technology, and Media