About That Thing I'm Doing (part 5): An Unintentional Activist

Since the launch of Just Doug, I have made a few observations, some of them about Asian Americans, some of them about my own views about my identity as an Asian American, and the rest coming to terms about Asian American activism.

Let me start by saying I have been realizing that I was a self-hating Asian for much of my life growing up, but in a somewhat roundabout way, hating the fact that the "model minority" trope limited what I could do in life, that I couldn't do anything with my life outside the confines of being a doctor/lawyer/engineer/banker/(insert traditional profession here).  However, even I was brainwashed to believe that this model minority trope was EARNED by Asian Americans for being lame since they got here, and I had to do my part in improving the image of Asian Americans by being a creative.

Dougie MacA, Colonizer or Savior?

Dougie MacA, Colonizer or Savior?

I am now coming to terms with my own deeply internalized white supremacy.  I eschewed Korean culture because I myself have thought it backward at times, rolling my eyes at FOBs who told me to show them undeserved respect out of age hierarchy or if I saw a lame nerdy looking Asian guy (which was me for much of my life), I'd silently mutter to myself what a disservice he was doing by merely existing, making the rest of us "assimilated Asians" look bad.  I bought into the fact that "white people could do no wrong" and it really was us as Asian Americans who needed to embrace the culture of the individual in Western society, and that a lot of our values that stemmed from our survivalist instincts back in Asia were now "backward".  I even used to be proud of the fact that my name, Douglas, comes from the US Army War General, Douglas MacArthur, General of the Armies of the Pacific during WWII, and the General of the Korean War.  Now I see it as somewhat of an extension of the Stockholm syndrome we as colonized Korean Americans on SOME level have internalized the "white savior" narrative.

I'm also trying to unlearn some of the other types of racism that I've embraced that stems from the model minority and that has to do with living with relative privilege under the white adjacency umbrella that I've enjoyed for so long.  As a high school student with stellar records rejected from the majority of the colleges I applied to, I played right into the white supremacy narrative of blaming affirmative action towards other ethnicities, while seeing no issue with legacy admissions that granted so many white applicants of automatic privilege.  Because of Asian American's white adjacency, I believed that if you just assimilated enough, worked hard enough, that we would be accepted and seen as American, but really that meant being seen as "white".

When I first got into entertainment, I was unaware of a lot of the systemic biases within the industry that have prevented Asian Americans from making real progress.  I believed that the bulk of the problem was Asian Americans themselves, and though I still think we as a group have a LOT of work to do before we can claim our own narratives, there were many other forces at play that I just slowly became accustomed with.

It didn't help that some of the Asian American working actors that I reached out to didn't understand this themselves and almost gave me advice that was well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided, that basically the solution was to ignore Asian American issues and to "be about the craft" and to succeed in traditional Hollywood first (read: get in with the whites), as if the way to change Hollywood was to adapt this Trojan horse-like strategy, assimilate and then reverse engineer the narrative to tell your story and bring others up once you've made it.

When I started working on Just Doug, my initial strategy was to look at what other minorities did.  I started looking at the efforts of Spike Lee and even Tyler Perry, filmmakers that understood that their communities were starved for entertainment that merely represented them in the way that they saw themselves, not in the way white America saw them.  Actors like Will Smith also showed (with a VERY carefully cultivated image since the Fresh Prince), that black men can be sensitive and charming, going against hypermasculine stereotypes of black men that have always been disseminated from Hollywood.

I will be the first to cringe when I see the two ways in which Asian American male produced content have sought to improve their images of masculinity, which is in a way derivative of the general American social zeitgeist on a 10-20 year delay.  They either embrace the "woe is me, I'm a nice, good guy and nice guys finish last" trope or they try to flip it and hypermasculinize themselves predictably by having "getting with mad bitches" (and sadly, revering getting with white women as a "conquest") be their ultimate goal.  Both are forms of toxic masculinity that I do believe we need to educate ourselves from and rise above against, and worse, neither tackles the root of the cause: that we are all on some level conditioned to be white supremacists, Asian men and women, and that we have been played against one another.  

In my show, I tried to reflect a reality that I was familiar with, an Asian American male who's simply trying to parse through his own identity and that he, like other millennials, doesn't have all the answers and is just trying to figure it all out.  I didn't want to fall into either of the aforementioned traps of making him this infallible hero or to making him a sad agency-less character, but to illustrate his humanity, something that I think gets lost in much of American media, that Asian Americans are just simply human beings.

I personally am more attracted to Asian women (and more specifically, 2nd generation or beyond Asian American women) because for me, it's just easier to relate to someone who has a lot of the shared experiences growing up.  But I won't lie that if I got attention from a white woman (which as an Asian man, I don't on average, this is just reality) that caught my interest, that I wouldn't explore that.  Too often, Asian men are quick to point fingers at Asian women who date white men as "race traitors", when hypocritically if they were afforded the opportunity to get with a white woman, they wouldn't hesitate to take the opportunity.  I cannot be more clear about the fact that I do not think Asian women's dating choices are the problem.

However, I still sympathize with the plight of Asian American men, there's a real problem we face of emasculation in America that literally started with Asian American men being castrated.  Let me make another thing clear, I will NEVER get behind anyone Asian American (especially one who claims to speak for intersectional Asian American issues) either dismissing Asian male masculinity as a non-issue or worse, disseminating the idea that Asian male emasculation is a net positive.  There are whole swathes of Asian American men who are bullied from a young age because they are seen as "easy targets", that we are told from an early age that we are unworthy of love, that some resort to suicide from their feelings of worthlessness.  This is not trivial.

Unfortunately as a minority group, we're still in the process of figuring out that our gender infighting is actually a divide and conquer strategy devised by white supremacy not dissimilar from the model minority stereotype.  Asian American race theory has not come up with the language to fully explain the situation that we're in, because our situation frankly can't be compared to other PoC.  Our white adjacency makes us complacent, and that causes us to improperly apply lessons learned from other PoC to our own communities and expect greater acceptance and a united identity to follow.  We demand changes and privileges that other PoC have achieved in American society, when we ourselves haven't done the work, haven't educated ourselves and haven't really delved into our own hypocrisy when it comes to racial identity.

If I had not gone into entertainment, I would likely not give two shits about many Asian American issues.  Like many Asian Americans, I'd be complacent in my white adjacent life because at the end of the day, the cost/benefit ratio for an average Asian American to go into activism for AsAm issues is terrible.  From many Asian Americans perspectives, a lot of is "why rock the boat when we have it relatively good compared to others" and that makes it hard to rally Asian Americans towards these issues, especially when these issues are much more nuanced and insidious.  Activism is often thankless and emotionally draining, and with my own issues and lack of self-care at times, I often feel unequipped to even participate in it.

But we're on the verge of a cultural revolution when it comes to Asian Americans, and I do feel that there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that Asian Americans can take control of the narrative.  I also feel that making this show has opened my eyes to a lot of these complex issues, and that it'd be a disservice to myself and to Asian Americans to just ignore them now and do something we as Asian Americans often do, "leave the work for someone else who cares more about it to do."

When I first read the Paper Tigers article before I moved to LA, I dismissed the writer as a self-hating white wannabe.  I still do.  But I think I'm realizing more than ever, I hated him because I saw myself in his writing as well.  I have been self-hating for most of my life, and I think I am now kind of coming to terms with that.  It's probably apparent from reading my ranting blog, but I live in a constant state of unhappiness, and almost believe on some level that I am unworthy of happiness, and while this is only partly attributed to being an Asian American male, the fact that it is attributed at all is tragic.

And honestly, when it comes to the entertainment industry, sometimes I do wish I was white or white passing, because it does inevitably lead to more opportunity.  Despite the minuscule progress that we've made, I still hear comments from white actors in acting classes bemoaning the fact that they're not diverse and pointing to that as the reason why they're not getting into rooms.  It's infuriating, but I bite my tongue all the same, just hoping that things will ultimately get better.

Just a couple of Americans.

Just a couple of Americans.

I've always hated "activism" because much of it is self serving and ultimately just a bunch of words that we throw at problems and expect solutions to follow.  But I think most of my dismissal of activism was my cynicism towards it, that it can't really spark any real change.  I'm not going to lie, there have been many times in the past few months where I was in despair, that I felt that even the Herculean act of making my TV show out of my sheer force of will was falling on deaf ears, and that our cause for greater Asian American representation was ultimately doomed.  But a few weeks ago, I came across a video message made by a fan of my show (who was also an aspiring actor), who was on the verge of tears in telling him how much the show meant to him, the same type of reaction I had when I first saw Harold and Kumar in 2004.  I realized that activism in my art is necessary, because if no one else is making the type of content that I'm making to try and fight for our greater representation, then who will?  

Asian American artists must still be "about the craft" but they must "do the work" in terms of figuring out their identity before they can be an effective figure for change in this industry.  We as Asian American creators are only in the beginning stages of creating an Asian American identity, we have the dual responsibility of excellence in our storytelling, but also figuring out what stories to tell and why they're uniquely Asian American stories.  As an Asian American artist, I don't want to be an activist, but I can't afford not to be.