It’s 2017 in America, and the cultural representation of Asian Americans is dominated by the white imagination. This isn’t news. It’s been actively fought for decades, and lately has entered the mainstream with more frequency thanks to the efforts of a horde of bloggers and Aziz Ansari.
If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a general sense that casting white actors as Asian is bad. You might think that Asian actors should be offered, and then take indiscriminately, every chance to enter the stage or screen in a white or nonracialized role. You’d almost be right! But there’s a little more to it. Or a lot, depending. And going deeper is our responsibility as writers, producers, and performers alike.
“KENNY. The things you do have consequences.
EDITH. The things you don’t do have consequences, too.”
A. Rey Pamatmat, Edith Can Shoot Things And Hit Them
A week ago, I was invited to audition for the role of Harry H. Dow, the first Asian American to pass (1929) the Massachusetts bar. The play was part of a local event commemorating the 135th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. I respectfully declined, and offered up the contact info of some other actors who I thought would do the part justice (pun intended).
I’m half white (German / Norwegian) and half Filipino, born and raised in New Jersey. I am not recognizably any one thing. You might say that 50% “Asian” heritage gives an actor blanket license to tell any story in any way related to that vast, diverse, and complicated half of the globe. At 0.5, I can round up, after all! But from my perspective, my Filipino experience has little to do with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It’s about as relevant to this story as, you know, my white American experience, and that one time I felt excluded on the playground in middle school.
The bottom line is this: much as I might be able to empathize with Harry Dow in his situation and authentically deliver the role, the audience would not receive the same story as if it were told by an actor who is in some way rooted in the Chinese American community. The historical nature of the show, and its presentation within a diverse Boston community, demands that this care be taken.
The “check the box” mentality that would qualify me within the white imagination to play this part, regardless of context, is a rejection of critical engagement, disguised as affirmative action. It’s just as dangerous as whitewashing – it often amounts to whitewashing – and, unlike racism, sometimes it works both ways. (Imagine an Asian American playing historically white Alexander Hamilton of Hamilton, and then imagine an Asian American playing historically white Interlocutor of The Scottsboro Boys. The Interlocutor is the literal face of anti-black oppression in 1930’s America – whites only, please!) This is why representation in America requires critical engagement, not reaching a quota or checking off boxes. There can be no rules, aside from respect and inclusion. It will always depend on your community, your audience, the story, and the intersection of cultures owned by all collaborators.
(See the third link at the bottom for a positive example, where colorblind casting allowed a university lacking diversity to respectfully explore a Native American story with the playwright’s consent!)
Confused? Me too. But feel free to ask me about it, or someone else you know! No one has all the answers, but perhaps starting that conversation will turn out to be more valuable than that show you wanted to do, anyway.
Submitted for further consideration: