Biracial Asians in Western Media

Tasia Matthews News Coordinator

The lack of racial diversity in Western media is an ongoing pain point, especially when it comes to roles for BIPOC* (1). Thanks to the amplification of voices on social media, casting directors are starting to understand that the public desires more and more authentic representation, especially for racial minorities whose only roles thus far seem to be ill-fitting caricatures based on harmful stereotypes. But even though new media is being rightfully evaluated for its contribution or lack thereof to racial diversity and representation, there remains the clear presence of bias and colorism in Western media, where casting directors choose to meet the call for racial diversity by casting lighter-skinned or white-passing BIPOC. The reality is that white people tend to view mixed and biracial people according to their racial minority, thereby adding them to the pot of potential actors for BIPOC roles. In the eyes of the white casting director in Hollywood, the half-Asian, half-white actor is fair game. 

 

This is not to say that every biracial Asian person is white-passing. Quite the opposite, as the physical diversity of mixed-race people is extremely varied. However, the white-passing biracial woman has a distinct privilege against other minority Asian women whose physical features are not so familiar to the white audience. Even with this advantage, a white-passing biracial Asian actress might not make the cut for white roles, because their racial ambiguity makes it challenging for them to fully present as White. They can feasibly be an Asian person, but they cannot be an acceptable White person unless they can physically pass so well that their Asianness is essentially removed from them entirely. It often comes as a shock to people that Keanu Reeves, whose father is Hawaiian-Chinese, is Asian American, as so many of his roles have completely erased any semblance of his physical otherness. He has been in the industry for so long playing canonically white roles as a white-passing person that now he’s seen as just White.  

 

So then what is the issue with casting white-passing biracial women of color (WOC) in non-white roles? The playing field for WOC is already so small, that now they have to deal with colorism from the casting staff further hindering their ability to find success. We then have WOC competing against white-passing WOC for a limited number of roles. Neither group can win, and this competition can foster dissatisfaction amongst minority actors towards their white-passing counterparts, such as actress Jamie Chung’s frustration at learning that Henry Golding, the male lead for Crazy Rich Asians, was biracial (which she apologized for) (2). Even roles that are canonically biracial haven’t been given to an actual biracial person (Emma Stone as Allison Ng, anyone?). This experience is worse for Black-Asian women, whose defining roles are fewer and far between. Just as white people view biracial people according to their racial minority, when a mixed person comes from two racial minorities, that view is often tossed up to the minority that is more subjugated. In this case, despite an actor being both Black and Asian, they will be confined to being ‘just another Black actor’, competing with other Black actors for Black roles. In many minds, Black-Asian people cannot play an Asian role, because Asians are not Black. Asia Jackson, a biracial actress and content creator of Black and Filipino descent, said this in a 2017 interview with NBC News: “I’ve only had one audition for a character that was half-Black, half-Asian. With the roles in Hollywood, ‘Asian’ really means East Asian…South and Southeast Asians are often erased from the whole conversation when it comes to Asian representation”(3).

 

One of the most prominent examples of this was the casting of Naomi Scott, a white-passing biracial woman of Indian and British descent, as Princess Jasmine in the 2019 Disney live-action remake of Aladdin. This isn’t to disparage Scott, because she is clearly a talented actress who played the role well, and I was personally elated to see such a big role given to a Eurasian woman. But something still didn’t feel quite right. There are so few roles out there that are canonically for a WOC that for Disney to have casted a light-skinned, white-passing Asian woman who questionably physically passes as Princess Jasmine likely meant that the opportunity was taken away from another Asian actress. 

 

To take it a bit further, Scott’s performance was praised for bringing “more agency and less passiveness” to the original 1992 animated version (4). This is in part due to the writing of the film providing more depth to her character, even giving her a solo where she sings about not wanting to be silent. But at the same time, the animated Princess Jasmine was not passive or unspoken. Despite Aladdin being given more screen time and character development as the hero, she is remembered fondly as one of the first and few Disney princesses who openly challenged her role in life. She pranked all of her suitors and ran off with a stranger, for god’s sake. I have to wonder if this sort of praise is partly due to Scott’s whiteness, and how much easier it is for a Western audience to digest a brown woman’s dissent when she physically presents as Western (read = white). Is the only palatable princess a light-skinned one? 

 

So how do we advocate for racial diversity in media, without biracial Asian actors only being able to ‘make it’ by taking roles that are potential opportunities for other minority Asians? As much as I also want to see myself on the screen, I have to acknowledge that the casting of BIPOC roles through a white lens pits mixed-race people and their corresponding minority groups against one another, contributing to Asian Americans being less likely to see biracial Asian Americans as belonging to their group. Just as East Asians cannot be the sole representatives of all Asian Americans, the casting of only light-skinned and white-passing biracial people for Asian roles should not be the half-hearted compromise we accept from western media. 

 

But perhaps there is a way forward. In casting a large and realistically diverse group for a coming-of-age TV show focusing on the experience of an Asian American girl, Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever is, to me, one of the most successful examples of racially diverse casting. Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the canonically half-Japanese love interest of the show’s protagonist Devi, is played by actor Darren Barnet who is – get this – actually half-Japanese. In intentionally writing in a biracial Asian character, Kaling created a space for a biracial Asian actor to obtain a role without infringing on the opportunities available for minority Asian actors. Although Barnet is white-passing, this intentional feature of his Asian background does not erase his biracial identity. Unlike Keanu, Barnet will not be whitewashed. With mixed-race people quickly rising to be the largest racial group in America, maybe it is time to look at Kaling as an example of how to promote biracial Asian representation without taking anything away from the Asian minority.

 

So, to the white writers and casting directors of Hollywood and beyond, hear me out. You have the ability to create these spaces. Biracial and white-passing actors – Asian or otherwise – should not be lumped into competing with BIPOC for representation because you are too lazy to recognize that the emergence of a significant racial identity means shifting expectations from your consumers. It is your responsibility to adapt to these expectations and to showcase the multiple authentic experiences across all identities and all colors of the Asian American spectrum. If you write and cast roles that intentionally provide access for a multitude of racial identities (or even better, if you hire BIPOC who tend to meet the demand for racial diversity more readily), you make room for biracial Asians and minority Asians to work alongside each other in your stories, rather than against. 


Footnotes

1 *BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. The term is inclusionary of all people of color while also intentionally acknowledging that not all people of color face the same levels of injustice.

2 Chung, Jamie (jamiechung1). “I am sincerely sorry about the ignorant comment I made earlier in the year. Hope to meet you one day so I can say this in person. I am truly looking forward to the movie and hope it’s a huge success so that…Hollywood and the powers that be will realize that we the audience are hungry to see more shows and movies that truly represent our diverse and colorful society. @henrygolding Hope you can forgive me.” 1 Dec 2017, 11:57 AM and 12:00 PM. Tweet.

 3 Escobar, Allyson (31 May 2017). “Actress Asia Jackson Wants to Take On ‘Colorism,’ Redefine Filipino Beauty”. NBC News. Retrieved 29 May 2020.

4  Oleksinski, Johnny (22 May 2019). “Live-action ‘Aladdin’ is way better than its awful trailer”. The New York Post. Retrieved 29 May 2020.

News Coordinator

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