Representation Matters

By Frank Nam, Civic Commons Project Director

Frank NamtIn late January of 2012, the New York Knicks had lost 11 of their last 13 games. In a game against the Utah Jazz, Jeremy Lin made his first career start in early February and led his teammates to a seven-game winning streak and started what became known as “Lin-sanity” amongst the NBA and larger sports world. During that time, he would light up opposing defenses as more and more spectacular headlines after each game.

I grew up in New York and New Jersey after my parents moved us from Seoul to Greenwich Village in 1976. I grew up a Knicks fan, but when I moved to Seattle in 1996, I wasn’t following the Knicks closely when Lin-sanity started. In fact, I only paid attention after hearing from a friend of mine.

My friend recounted a story where he noticed his son mesmerized by the television during a segment on Jeremy Lin. He wasn’t a Knicks fan and wondered why his son was so into the highlights. When the son said, “Dad, he looks like me” he realized how his son never saw himself, a young AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) male, cast in the role of a sports superstar on national television. He immediately bought his son all the requisite Knicks paraphernalia and even took him to games.

Representation matters.

Lin-sanity was such a huge revelation for AAPI members in general, but particularly AAPI men. Traditionally, AAPI men have been typecast as a-sexual nerds who had no social lives outside of school and music lessons. We rarely saw ourselves on television or movies in any role other than a martial arts performer or a social outcast. On the flip side, AAPI womxn* were hyper-sexualized and fetishized by the larger public and faced different issues around discrimination and objectification.

This is not by accident. This is by design. The history of AAPI folx in this country was created in a specific and racist manner. Chinese workers came in large numbers to the United States in the 1850’s to work in the gold mines and railroads on the western half of the continental U.S. Men made up 90% of the immigrant community and Chinese women were not allowed to enter in large numbers starting in 1875 with the Page Act.

When the gold mines went dry and the railroads were completed, the Chinese work force were only allowed to enter fields of work deemed feminine or un-fitting for white men during the late 1800’s. Most Chinese laborers on the West Coast worked on farms, as domestic servants, or in small shops that catered to their own. That coupled with the lack of Chinese women created large bachelor communities in West Coast cities where racism and persecution happened in great numbers.

Representation matters.

Until very recently, the AAPI community has not been able to see themselves represented in normalized characters. We were always given either an exotic or emasculated role. But with the rise of stars like Jeremy Lin, Constance Wu, Ali Wong, and Steven Yeun of the Walking Dead, we are witnessing more and more mainstream role-models that look and act like us.

AAPI folx come from such a large variety of backgrounds, languages, religions, and cultures that the term “AAPI” itself feels unwieldly. We deserve to tell a myriad of stories from a variety of lived experiences. We will keep pushing to finance the telling of our stories and we will continue to go out and spend our dollars on shows and movies that gives us the ability to feel like we have integrated into the fabric of the country and not assimilated into racist roles.

In my role as the Project Director of We Belong Here at Civic Commons, I work on the framework of belonging. One of our key learnings is around Marshall Ganz’s framework of public narrative. He frames stories in three ways: Stories of Self, Stories of Us, and Stories of Now.

Stories of Self allow people to tell their whole stories. Who they are. Where they come from. What they experienced. It prevents erasure and allows for true belonging. My ability to not only tell my story, but see it lived out in the lives of other AAPI folx in the media helps me feel like I belong.

*The word “womxn” is a more inclusive term that promotes intersectionality. "Womxn" is designed to be more inclusive of people that identify within the gender of women and the ‘x’ allows space for individuals who identify as gender fluid, gender queer, gender non-conforming, or non-binary.