While the popular Mannequin Challenge usually requires people to stay silent and stoic, actor Michael Tow’s take on it asks Asian-Americans to speak up.
Capturing everything from Chris Rock’s blatantly racist skit at the Oscars involving asian children to Jesse Watters mocking interviews with residents of Chinatown regarding the election, the “A-Woke” Mannequin Challenge shows that ignorance is still very much alive in America. Co-produced with Teja Arboleda, Tow reveals all the glossed-over issues that Asian Americans have faced just this year.
Asians, often dubbed the “model minority”, live invisibly as extras in the background of American cinema as well as a frighteningly quiet, underrepresented group in today’s media. The myth that there are no troubles in the Asian community not only condones stereotypes and cheapens achievements, but also enables racism to run rampant without fear of backlash. East of Hollywood producer Michael Tow talks to us today about his own experiences with racism while growing up, motivations as an actor, and hopes for a monumental change in the portrayals of Asian-Americans.
Tell me a bit about yourself. What was it like growing up in a predominantly white community?
I definitely felt like an outsider. I was usually the only Asian in the class. I was made fun of for being Chinese and tried to assimilate as best I could. I was embarrassed to be Chinese.
It wasn’t until after college that I started to get back to my roots and looking back I felt embarrassed that I tried to hide that I was Chinese. I realized a big part of the reason I felt that way was because of the lack of people that looked like me in media. Namely film and TV. When there were asians in media they were always so stereotyped, really uncool and always the loser. So when I picked back up acting as an adult, I wanted to fight back against those stereotypes.
One of the biggest struggle for Asian American actors right now, as actor Peter Sudarso mentioned to me in our interview, is that there is a lack of writers creating better asian roles. As much as I love Ken Jeong and Aziz Ansari, I can’t help but notice that their breakout roles in The Hangover and Parks & Recreation perpetuate the emasculated Asian male stereotype. Do you think Hollywood is moving forward in that sense?
It’s definitely moving forward, but not fast enough for me. For example, Aziz Ansari’s show, Master of None, was not emasculated like his Parks and Rec character and him and Alan Yang won an Emmy for the Parents episode, which I had a small role in.
There’s definitely an increase in non-stereotypical Asian roles and people seem highly receptive of it. But like Master of None, the show was written by Asians and in a sense for Asians. Aziz tweeted, “Our idea with Brian (Kelvin Yu) was to make an Asian character that is portrayed as sexually capable like real Asian people.” However, for other film and media there’s still a lack of representation. Why do you think Asians in particular are generally more boxed into certain roles than other minorities?
It’s happened to Blacks and Hispanics as well. It’s just that we’re about 30 years behind. Also, Asians are much less vocal but that has been changing. I feel it’s my responsibility to be a part of that voice.
How do you think we should accurately channel that voice? For quite some time, Asians in America are referred to as the “model minority” in the sense that we assimilate well and have relatively stable economic status. There’s ignorance in believing that there are no struggles for Asian Americans but is this due to us being docile or others not wanting to hear us?
We need to speak up when we see whitewashing or stereotyping in TV or films. Our voices have to be heard in responses like my parody response to the racist Bill O’Reilly Jesse Watters Chinatown segment and with our consumer dollars.
Like your Mannequin Challenge presents, Asian Americans are often silent when facing racism and stereotypes. How do we combat in daily life? While other minorities may have negative stereotypes, a sentiment shared by many asians is that we have almost only “positive stereotypes” such as having high academic capabilities and standards. How do we show that this is crippling our ability to be different as we now have a “model asian” standard?
We need more real stories about our community from our point of view. When stories from our community do come out we need support. Sure, some of them will be mediocre, but that’s the first step in trying to change the perception of Asian Americans. Plus, the more experience we have sharing our stories, the better they will become. Also, when we do get a seat “at the table”, it is our responsibility to use that power/influence to make a positive change.
Are there any final words you’d like to share to the readers? Something you have planned for the future or trying to promote?
I hope people check out my award winning short film East of Hollywood when it goes public (we just finished the film festival circuit). It’s a mockumentary about the behind-the-scenes of Asian American actors in Hollywood. Also we have another video coming out for the holidays!
Featured Image: Dadu Shin for NYT ‘Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?’