After the interview we talked for an hour and a half on Hollywood's portrayal of Asians and Indians. In general, minorities are getting the shaft, but Asians and Indians seem to have more problems in common than most. I touched on this in Hollywood Chinese and Indians, but here are some more thoughts.
As you'll recall, I surveyed the 2009 TV season so far. The picture for Natives wasn't pretty. Looking at the same shows for Asians is hardly more encouraging. About the only Asian actors I've seen listed as cast members are:
Lost, Community, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Wife also have regular Asian Indian characters. Lucy Liu was on Cashmere Mafia and Dirty Sexy Money the last couple years but isn't on the air now.
Does this sound like a decent record? Well, Asians make up about 5% of the US population. But many TV shows are set in Los Angeles or New York City, where Asians make up 11.9% and 9.9% of the population, respectively. Moreover, many shows feature white-collar professions--medicine, law, business, government, etc.--where Asians are well-represented.
It's fair to say that at least 10% of the characters on TV should be Asian. That's one of every 10 characters, or about one character per show. We're nowhere near this level of equity. Instead we have a hundred or more shows and only a dozen or so Asian characters.
I may have said this before, but of the "major" minorities, I think Asians are the worst represented on TV. Natives and Latinos are next--though with Natives, it's hard to tell. America's Native population is small enough that a couple appearances a week would fill their "quota." Finally we have blacks, who are probably doing the best among minorities.
While blacks and Latinos are increasingly playing a variety of roles, Asians and Natives are still cast as a few types. The savage or kung-fu warrior. The wise mystic elder. The beautiful maiden or princess. The shady casino or high-tech business owner.
Moreover, Asians from different countries and Natives from different tribes are cast interchangeably. Some Asians look "Eurasian" enough to play Natives, Latinos, or anyone who's supposed to be "ethnic." And Hollywood loves to cast whites with a tiny amount of Asian or Indian "blood" in these roles. That way you get someone who has an edge of "strangeness" but is mostly "normal" and "acceptable."
Has Hollywood focused on blacks first because Americans see race as a black-and-white issue--literally? Is it just a matter of time before other minorities get their fair share of roles? Are Asians and Natives being held back only by their small populations, which make them "invisible" to studio execs? Or is something else at work here?
I don't know, but we can speculate. These days most people would guess that blacks and Latinos are Christians. (Unless a black man gets elected president, that is, but that's another matter.) In contrast, Asian Americans are perceived to have non-Christian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, ancestor worship, etc.). So are Native Americans, although I believe both groups are predominantly Christian.
Moreover, both minorities are perceived to be stoic and inscrutable. They're perceived to live apart from the mainstream (in Chinatowns and on reservations). And of course they have "exotic" or "Asiatic" features.
Coincidence? Or is Hollywood avoiding Asian and Indian actors for a reason? When it keeps whitewashing Asian and Natives roles (The Last Airbender, 21, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Twilight), you have to wonder.
For more on the subject, see "Colorface" Yesterday and Today and Friday, Tonto, Jacob Black, et al.