Representation Matters

Last Updated by Madhulika Sikka on

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Last week the biggest box office movie in the United States was "Crazy Rich Asians," based on the phenomenal bestseller by Kevin Kwan.  It has all the necessary ingredients of a great romantic comedy, it just happens to have an all-Asian cast. 

The cast consists of a wide selection of hyphenated Asians, led by Chinese-American Constance Wu, who plays the leading lady Rachel Chu.  There are British-Asians, Singaporean-Chinese and Malay-Chinese amongst many other identities that star in this movie.

One of the questions that the story deals with is the question of identity.  As a first-generation Chinese-American, Rachel Chu considers herself Chinese and American.  To the Chinese Diaspora she encounters through her boyfriend’s Singapore family, she is American.

I bring this up because this question about identity is, I believe, a central issue in the current discourse in America, it is something we should be talking about, and our inbox has got me thinking about it. 

If you are a hyphenated American does that make you less of an American? Are your stories less valid?  Is coverage featuring non-white Americans too PC?

Our inbox has received a range of letters over the summer that deal with this broad issue of identity in all its forms.  From chef Marcus Samuelsson’s show "No Passport Required," PBS NewsHour’s interview with the first Sikh American State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the NFL, immigration, “the makeup of story tellers and interviewees [on PBS] tends more to minorities, than majority individuals,” and Hari Sreenivasan’s interview with comedian Hari Kondabolu about The Simpsons' Indian character Apu.

That’s just a selection.  What they share is they raise questions of identity and representation in today’s America.

Samuelsson has been visiting hyphenated communities across America examining their food and culture in "No Passport Required." He’s explored the food and culture of many Americans including Haitian-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans and Detroit’s Middle East population amongst others.

Shiloe Stewart from Oklahoma City, Okla., is not a fan:

“Your show with this chef Samuelson [sic], making his little digs at how we’re all alike is a load of crap!! If Mexicans were willing to give back to American then they would learn the language and pay taxes on the jobs they get…Why doesn’t he ask them how they feel about their fellow wetbacks being nothing but criminals while he’s cooking with them” And they’re in America!! Why are half the interviewees not able to speak English but say they deserve to be here!!??!!?? I’m ashamed at PBs for airing such crap that’s racist to America!!

More broadly, viewer Mary Ann McFarlane from Phoenix, Ariz., has this observation:

“I’ve noticed that the makeup of story tellers and interviewees tends more to minorities, than majority individuals.  Shouldn’t a station funded in large part by the public reflect the ethnic composition of the country?  I know it’s hip to be ethnically sensitive, but perhaps you are going overboard.  And please don’t dismiss me or my input as prejudice, I’m just a middle of the roader. “

Kevin Jehn from East Wenatchee, Wash., writes:

“I would like you to represent all people not just immigrants and people color, indian and white people too.”

As a rule I don’t feature mail from people who do not provide their name.  I’m making an exception in this case because of the nature of its content.  This from ‘B’ in Austin, Texas:

“The NFL is beginning a downward spiral like global warming.  Serious repercussions are beginning to show.  When a business employes [sic] 70 percent black, 26 percent white, 4 percent other, your financials will suffer.  When the children your sales rely upon cannot visualize themselves playing the game, their dreams are lost.  Blacks make up less than 17 percent of the US population and in no way purchase the items and tickets needed for survival of the NFL.  With that add in the players attitudes, criminal activities, nasty tatooes [sic], haircuts and disrespect for the national anthem, and you have no role model or hero types.”

Viewer Kenneth Kaefer of San Clemente, Calif., has had enough:

I just finished watching the Thursday evening PBS news, and I was aggravated by the repeated stories of “marginalized” people and groups.  From the separated families at the border, the Sikh attorney general, the immigrant Somali family in MN, etc., I wondered, “Is there nothing else important going on in the world?”

You can see a thread here.  These letters question the focus, attention and worth of stories that feature non-white people. 

It’s almost as if the presence of non-white people in this country is a new phenomenon that has unsettled the republic.

Of course, non-whites have lived here since before the Revolution – native Americans, African slaves who were shipped here in the early 17th century, Hispanics have been here for centuries, Chinese labor arrived in the 19th century.  You get the point.  America has always been diverse, but, it’s been run for most of its modern history by white men.

When we see programs on PBS that feature non-white characters or talent we are, in fact, looking at America, though some of you may be seeing an America you were not aware of before.

To Shiloe Stewart who objected to Marcus Samuelsson and "No Passport Required," I would ask her to approach the show by leaving her preconceived notions behind.

I learned a lot from the episode about the Hispanic community in the Chicago area.  I had no idea it was the second largest Hispanic community in the U.S. with a population of two million that started to arrive in the area more than a hundred years ago.  The Middle Eastern community in and around Detroit has been in the U.S. for more than a century, too. 

The mission of the show is precisely to “explore and celebrate the wide-ranging diversity of immigrant traditions and cuisine woven into American food and culture” and in my mind it succeeds beautifully.

Samuelsson featured American-born citizens and he also featured a so-called "dreamer" – a tax paying, economically contributing member of the population, brought here as a child, awaiting news of his immigration status.

I don’t know what information Ms. Stewart has been exposed to, but immigrants (documented and undocumented) are a net boon to the economy and commit crimes at a significantly lower rate than native-born Americans.

To Mary Anne McFarlane I ask, have you and I been watching the same public television? Unlike you, I don’t feel that “the makeup of story tellers and interviewees tends more to minorities, than majority individuals.”

Public media, both television and NPR, has long faced criticism for being “too white” which I think has been a fair criticism.  So I always notice when there are new shows, programs or segments that "look" different than PBS did a decade or two ago.

Just this summer we’ve seen both the aforementioned "No Passport Required" with Samuelsson and "Breaking Big"  with Carlos Watson – black men hosting new and engaging shows.  In addition, "Breaking Big" has focused on a lot of stories of non-white, as well as white successes, including Eddie Huang, Roxane Gay and Lee Daniels, stories that are worth telling and that are part of the American story.  These are individuals whose contributions to American culture have been groundbreaking.

With the addition of Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor, along with correspondent John Yang, PBS NewsHour is looking a lot more like America, too.  And of course, having a solo female anchor in Judy Woodruff is inspirational to many, as was the late great Gwen Ifill.

Maybe Mary Anne McFarlane is responding to these changes?  But if we look at the totality of PBS programming I think we have a long way to go before minorities outnumber the majority.

As a nation we have yet to grapple with race relations and the damage we still live with from the original sin of slavery.  In recent years there has been an uptick in attacks on minorities, the political discourse has become uglier and the scapegoating of particular groups and the continued "otherization" of many has contributed to the toxic environment that we currently live in, an environment acutely felt by many non-whites, including myself.  

An interview with the first Sikh-American state attorney general is part of the story of America and worth featuring.

In a recent segment on "The Problem with Apu," NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan talked with comedian and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu about the impact of a stereotypical depiction of an Indian character, Apu, on the iconic animated series "The Simpsons."

Chris from Moisnee, Wis., responded to the segment like this:

“Probably like millions of others I have never watched the Simpsons and have no idea what the insinuated perceived stereotype problem is which apparently the producer does. What rubbish.”

I’m sorry that the segment didn’t work for Chris.  While it might have benefited from an extra line of exposition, what it did very well was to highlight the fact that running on a single, stereotypical joke about a group for 30 years is lazy and out of touch and how American comedy can benefit from a more diverse group telling stories and jokes about the country we are today.

The letter we received about the NFL was interesting to me for many reasons.  While 70 percent of the NFL players may be black, the owners are almost 100 percent white.  The writer is right, the NFL has issues regarding the behavior or individual players (black and white) with regard to domestic violence, it has issues it needs to face with regard to concussions, but owners have chosen to deal with these relatively lightly, in my opinion. 

On the issue of "taking the knee" however, owners have taken their cues from current political discourse and the "culture wars."  Players are not protesting the flag, as some might claim, they are protesting the treatment of blacks by authorities and law enforcement, and taking a knee is how they express that sentiment.

Given the backlash against this form of protest you’d think that the practice of standing for the anthem at a regular NFL game was a tradition as old as time. In fact, it’s as old as…2009.  It was only then that the NFL started the practice of players on the field for the national anthem.  This coincided with a program by the Pentagon dubbed “paid patriotism” - 6.8 million taxpayer dollars paid to professional leagues including the NFL for public displays of patriotism, a practice criticized in a 2016 report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake.

Most NFL owners buckled to political pressure earlier this spring and introduced a new rule, fining players who kneel during the anthem.  But without discussion with the players that rule is being challenged.

To our correspondent about the NFL I also say I agree with you - when children cannot visualize themselves…dreams are lost. 

And in response to all the correspondence featured in this column, when children who are not white do not see people who look like them in business, in sports, in media, their dreams are lost, too. 

Which brings me back to "Crazy Rich Asians." Constance Wu plays an American in this film.  For every Asian-American who goes to see this film they see someone who looks like them and who represents the still complicated challenge of being a hyphenated American, but seeing themselves on the big screen is reaffirming.

Representation matters and when all Americans can turn on PBS and see people who look like them, whether it's Judy Woodruff or Carlos Watson or Amna Nawaz or Yamiche Alcindor, and stories that are their stories, that is something that dreams are made of.

Posted on Aug. 24, 2018 at 12:32 p.m.

 

ABOUT THE PUBLIC EDITOR
As public editor, Madhulika Sikka serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. She reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
 
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