This year at the White People’s Choice Awards — I mean, the Academy Awards — host Chris Rock took a biting stab at the lack of diversity in nominations and the very, very pale audience sitting in front of him. But if Chris Rock was taking five leaps forward for diversity at the Oscars and in not-cross-burning-racist-but-sorority-racist Hollywood, he was also leaving other minorities behind. This was especially evident when two little Asian children and one Russian child, dressed as accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, were invited onto the stage midway through the ceremony.
“They sent us their most dedicated, accurate and hard-working representatives,” Rock said, “Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz. If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone also made by these kids.”
There was an audible gasp, and then laughter. At the time, I was in a room with four other Asians and we were upset. But was there a reason to be? We live in a country that believes stereotyping is not quite as crippling as racism, where minority is not the same thing as disadvantaged minority. My mother was an investment banker, and I grew up surrounded by the world of finance where the most intelligent people I knew were Asian and worked in the industry. So where is the film about my mother being the first Asian woman to make partner at Goldman Sachs? Where are the stories of my mother working in a room full of men who competed on bathroom runs over who could pee the fastest?
“Spotlight,” “The Revenant” and “The Big Short” were all films based on true stories, so of course the people in films have to look like the people they portray, right? So white casting is justified? Does no other race have a true story to be told? My mother would beg to differ.
If there should be an Oscar category for “Best Black Friend,” as Rock joked, then where is the category for “Best Asian Nerd” or “Best Chinese Supermarket Manager #1”? Or “Best Illegal Immigrant”? When Chris Rock invites “hard-working little yellow people with tiny dongs” on stage, should we feel guilty that we think of little Asian people before a group of Minions run on stage? Such a joke is intelligent since it preys on our prejudices, so where is the intelligence of making diversity diverse? It has been over 50 years since a Hispanic or Asian actress has won the Best Actress category. If the only way that we can call attention to diversity in film is through historically based stories, such as “12 Years a Slave,” Hollywood will eventually get tired of warfare and tears. If the answer to #OscarsSoWhite is #OscarsMoreBlack then it only stretches one dimension of diversity. What we need is not more black nominees, what we need are films with black actors who are not just starring in films about slavery or guns. What we need are films in which the sidekick is not the fat black guy, or the lanky Asian genius, the sexy Hispanic girl or a Native American afterthought to Leonardo DiCaprio’s star power.
Post-racism America cannot make movies to teach the world about a post-racism America. It doesn’t exist. I know what you’re thinking — we have TV shows such as “Fresh off the Boat” and “Master of None,” series that call attention to Asian-Americans as minorities. How progressive of us. But if the only way for us to speak about race is to do so in an overt and almost satirical fashion, how can we cross over to casting minority actors in films that show them as people? According to a USC Annenberg study, 78.2 percent of lead roles go to white actors, 14.3 percent go to black actors, 2.7 percent go to Latino actors, 1.3 percent to Asian actors and 3.4 percent to actors that do not identify in these groups.
It’s time we discuss color and cast color — and it shouldn’t take an adoption story, a slave revolt or a crude joke by Chris Rock to do so.