Sandra Oh, Grace Lee & Others Talk Asian American Representation and Authentic Storytelling in Hollywood

The topic of diversity and inclusion has been front and center in Hollywood. Black and Latino communities have been very vocal about their representation, but more recently, Asian Americans are becoming more involved in the conversation, making their voices heard after years of being underrepresented in television, film, and media.

At the Center for Asian American Media and Comcast NBCUniversal-hosted panel, “Expanding the Conversation: Asian Americans in Media,” prominent names in the industry dug deeper into the hot-button topic of the status of Asian Americans and diversity in media via a solutions-oriented conversation.

Joining the conversation was Golden Globe-winning actress Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy; Grace Lee, director of the Peabody award-winning documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs; Co-Executive Producer of Shades of Blue Rashad Raisani; as well as Senior Vice President of Programming Talent Development and Inclusion for NBC Entertainment Karen Horne and Craig Robinson, Chief Diversity Officer for NBCUniversal.

The panel started with a montage of clips showing the strides the AAPI community have made in television, showing clips from Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, as well as the memorable speech from Master of None co-creator and former CAAMFest guest Alan Yang at the Emmy awards saying that the Asian community has a long way to go from Long Duk Dong when it comes to representation.

When panel moderator, MSNBC anchor Richard Lui, asked what “expanding the conversation” meant to the panelists, there was a consensus: it was all about storytelling about the Asian American experience.

“It’s about finding ways to get our stories told,” said Lee. “It’s about finding support to get these stories out there.”

Oh adds, “If the story doesn’t resonate, no one is going to want to want to see them.”

The Grey’s Anatomy actress also points out that “we have to tailor the message to who you’re talking to” and with television, it starts with the development process.

Horne aims to continue to find great talent for this process that can tell a universal story that is specific to them. Robinson agrees, adding that there needs to be more Asian Americans behind the camera as there are in front. Leading this charge is NBCUniversal’s Talent Infusion Programs — which includes the Writers on the Verge program.

Writers on the Verge focuses on fostering writers and readying them for a staff writer position on a television series. The program is open to everyone, with writers of diverse backgrounds encouraged to apply.

Raisani, who came from an immigrant and Muslim American family, was chosen for the program and gave him the necessary skills to become a writer and producer which eventually put him in the writers room for Burn Notice and then led him to a position on Shade of Blue as co-executive producer.

Raisani’s position in the aforementioned successful shows give a different perspective and point of view from a monotone writers room and production team. He says that “America is bored with the same ‘WASPY’ story” and it shows with the surge of diverse programming on television as of late.

Although the American mainstream has embraced AAPI narratives like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat, networks tend to be cautious with diverse storytelling, but Horne says that they shouldn’t be.

“Diversity does not equal risk,” said Horne. “Diversity means higher ratings.”

Robinson adds, “Failures of the underrepresented are not to be overanalyzed.”

When Horne says “diversity means higher ratings,” there’s plenty of proof. Asian American-centric shows have gained popularity with more in development. “Fresh Off the Boat” has gained a third season and remains one of ABC’s prize comedies and Sanjay Shah, one of the shows co-executive producers is developing a comedy based on his experiences as a teacher at San Quentin State Prison. In addition, shows like Empire, Jane the Virgin, The Mindy Project, Insecure, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, all having diverse casts and stories, continue to be popular and maintain their loyal audiences.

It’s not all about just getting into the writers room. Once in there, it’s about making your voice heard by pitching your stories and your opinions.

“Sometimes Asians don’t want to rock the boat,” said Robinson. “You need to know how to act in the writers room — once in there, you need to make sure you’re heard.”

When it comes to stories about the Asian American experience, Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None have covered this in very different ways — but these are just two Asian American shows showing two different experiences. The panel says there’s room for even more stories, but as Oh says, there is a pain that the Asian American community feels when they aren’t included in the conversation. Now, with the AAPI community making strides, it’s an opportunity to break in and tell those stories, but as a storyteller, you have to know what your goal is.
“Go find out who you are and what the story is you want to tell,” said Oh. “It’s about telling an a story of authenticity and connecting to people no matter how small or big the audience is.” Oh has recently focused on stage acting and working with Asian American playwrights and directors, such as Julia Cho.

For Lee, she is interested in seeing more stories about where the AAPI community fits in with other communities of color and how they collide with each other, adding that “representation is huge —it helps us visualize a country that reflects who lives here. It’s empowering to see these images.”

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Dino-Ray Ramos is a Los Angeles-based journalist and host of the Off White Podcast. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Paste Magazine, Bustle.com and other publications.