“No role models and I'm here right now
No role models to speak of
Searchin' through my memory, my memory, I couldn't find one” – J. Cole
Think of the first person you’ve ever admired. Perhaps you thought of someone in your neighborhood growing up or a family friend.
Maybe you struggled with finding someone nearby. Role models do not have to be limited to older members living in your community. For many, to fill the void of suitable role models, there are always figures in culture to hold in high regard. Even growing up in a community where you feel like the outsider, at least there is always someone to relate with through another medium, the messages society and media feed to you as the ideal to aim to be. Think of the poise and confidence of Tom Brady evading defenders left and right in the passing pocket. The furrow in his eyebrows while being brought down by a defensive lineman, eyes still locked downfield to see if his receiver made the catch, crowd roaring. Or maybe it’s the character in the sitcom who is slightly awkward but still becomes the mediator at the right times and shines during their moment.
Growing up can be hard, and part of that process of discovering yourself and finding your uniqueness inevitably involves having role models: individuals who you can look up to for assurance that going down your current path will be able to lead to a desired outcome. For individuals with the privilege of having someone who looks like them represent them on media, they are able to validate their every nook and cranny of their personality. For every quirk in character or behavior, human beings want to know they are normal. And for most people, there is that somebody, whether it be in the community or in media, who normalizes your behavior or personality and who acknowledges and represents your full humanity, full of nuance and complexity.
For most of my life, I had no conception of what it meant to be a Korean-American man, to be able to envision myself in 20 years. The best representation was always my dad. Stern and stoic, his only interests were to make sure my sisters and I enjoyed prosperous lives in the future. His perceived one-dimensionality, a common stereotype of Asian parents, carried into the one-on-one conversations we had in car rides. (It would only be years later when I first initiated a conversation with my dad about my struggles when he shared his own hardships.) Feelings were never discussed. Instead, food was on the table, and I was put in varying extracurriculars to fill the time not in school. It was assumed that I would end up becoming successful somehow, always biding my time for a mythical future. What I didn’t have was any fathom of was what to do with the time in between.
Looking for myself among the sea of faces on television, there was no one. Instead, the few times that do pop into mind were always varying permutations of the same stereotype of the nerd or the martial artist. Was it okay to be introverted but still possess a deep personality? Could I be interested in humanities but still pursue a career in the STEM field? It felt as though every time I deviated from my parents’ wishes, I was pushing the envelope in what society and the messages I grew up with expected of me, when it shouldn’t be that way. There is an undeniable connection that comes from seeing someone like you on television that can’t be mimicked no matter if there was a person of another background playing out your life’s key events.
Representation also extends beyond just having role models. Representation also involves other deeper underlying issues. From corporations in America to the locker rooms, voting booths and Hollywood, Asian Americans are not being represented. This past year included both highs as well as lows in progress for increasing diversity in Hollywood. Though there may have been a slight mishap during the Oscars, “Moonlight,” a movie portraying a gay African-American teenager growing up in Miami won Best Picture. It’s a full-length movie that is able to portray the protagonist Chiron’s myriad of social identities as well as his daily struggles. The movie does a masterful job of depicting Chiron’s transition from boy to man, trying to figure out life like the rest of the audience. However, a low point last year was Matt Damon being casted as the lead for “The Great Wall,” a movie set in China where he “discovers” the secrets behind the Great Wall and plays savior.
I know many people who ask, “What’s the big problem? Why does it matter who gets the lead role in a movie?” But when you’ve never come into contact with someone of another race in your entire life, the only image of a person that comes to mind are ones that are already saturated in culture. Unconscious bias plays a huge role, and media shapes it. This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon called implicit bias.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter as much in casual social settings, but what about in the rooms of corporations while choosing new potential candidates? Think of a scenario when it comes down to two people, one with a more “exotic” sounding name and one with a generic English name, but with the exact same specifications. In a study from Ryerson University and University of Toronto, job applicants with more Asian sounding names such as “Soyou Han” were 20 percent less likely to get called for an interview than Anglo names like “John Smith.” As the person hiring, you can only think of the numerous shows you’ve seen with the immigrant speaking broken English, meek and shy, unable to be seen as a leader. In a 2015 study of Silicon Valley, Asian-Americans represented 27 percent of workers but only 14 percent of executives at the surveyed big tech firms. Perhaps for the company it was only a decision, but for me the message I got was simple: Asian Americans aren’t leaders. Who would you hire them?
Representation matters. I’ll say it again. Representation matters. It is not just Asian Americans. There are other groups in this country who also do not have proper representation, such as those with disabilities. Representation that means being cast in those lead roles and being in front of the spotlight, but not in a way that relegates my heritage to the level of food on a sampler plate, only thought of as extra and as an appetizer for the main course. Representation in all its entirety and nuance, and all with individuals one can aspire to become.
At the end of the day, human beings want few things. As social creatures, we desire friends and acceptance. For many individuals, there are ways to validate themselves through media. Nerdy band geek? You got it. Jock with a passion for art? You got it. However, there are people who do not have this same opportunity to feel empowered. Be that role model for another person. Show them that life does not have to be defined in neat little categories. Your quirks and character “flaws” can be your greatest assets. Maybe I would have still gone down my current path in life without any representation or role models, but damn, would it have been easier.