A SAG-AFTRA panel of Asian-American actors and broadcasters expressed hope today that the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans will continue to unify their communities and the nation against centuries-old discrimination and bigotry. SAG-AFTRA national vice president Clyde Kusatsu pointed out just how much attitudes have changed since he was a young man, and how much more progress still has to be made for equity to be achieved.
You can watch the full hourlong panel discussion, co-sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association, above.
Kusatsu, speaking on Wednesday at the union’s #StopAsianHate panel, recalled that as a young theater major at Northwestern University in the late 1960s, he was asked by a professor why he wanted to be an actor, given that there were so few roles for Asian Americans. “There weren’t many on the screen and on TV who looked like me in those days, except for stereotypes,” he said. “In my freshman year, I had a professor who stopped me in the hall and asked me why I wanted to be an actor, because there’s only The Teahouse of the August Moon and The King and I, and how could I possibly think of making a living? I was shocked and humiliated, but sometimes things happens for a purpose. It made me determined to be 10-times better than a white actor if that’s what it took to get me there.”
Undeterred, he became a working member of the theater department, playing character roles, and learned that “the audiences, if you were good, were accepting of you, no matter where you came from or your background.” After graduating, he moved to L.A. and joined the East West Players, a troupe whose purpose, he said, “was to show the industry that Asian actors could do more than the laundryman and houseboy.” That would launch a film and TV career spanning nearly 50 years and over 300 film and TV roles.
“Growing up in Hawaii, I was very much aware of the prejudice, and it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right,” he said. “But I learned one thing: if you are going to protest and advocate for change, you better have examples of how to do it. And that’s the powerful role of SAG-AFTRA: to build a vision of how to challenge and correct the bias, and to unite people under the union banner. And I see unity now, and that is the silver lining of this all. Before, it was anti-Japanese, or anti-Chinese or anti-Vietnamese. But this time, everyone has the face of the hate and prejudice against AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islanders), and we are rallying around AAPI. So I proudly identify with that and the fellowship of shared purpose.”
The panel, which was moderated by WAVE 3 News anchor and reporter Maira Ansari, is part of the union’s Stop the Hate Week exploring issues affecting Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Middle Eastern/North African, LGBTQ, trans, disabled, and senior performers – and their depictions on screen.
“I know that many of us still cannot shake the images of the horrific violence that the Asian American community endured just a few weeks ago in Atlanta,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris, who hosted today’s panel. “Gun violence is an incredibly tragic reality of life in our country. But this particularly gruesome act that took the lives of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, was clearly built on the hate and racism that permeates our country. Our Asian sisters and brothers have confronted racism and hate for decades, but that hate and racism has been especially inflamed in the past few years and given extra fuel by political leaders who targeted and singled out the Asian community on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
She didn’t mention former President Trump by name, but many blame him for contributing to the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans by referring to the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu” and constantly blaming China for unleashing the virus onto the world. SAG-AFTRA was in the process of kicking Trump out of the union for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but he resigned in February before he could be expelled.
Carteris said that SAG-AFTRA members who are part of the Asian American Pacific Islander community experience this hatred “on multiple levels, as broadcasters who have been covering the Atlanta murders and the broader Asian American bullying and violence. And often times, when they do their jobs, they too become targets. For Asian American Pacific Islander actors, discrimination is not a new phenomenon. Together, broadcasters and performers, and our entire SAG-AFTRA community, are taking up the urgent discussion, and hopefully solutions, on how communities and the media can help stop the hate.”
Ren Hanami, national chair of the SAG-AFTRA Asian Pacific American Media Committee, said that she is “grateful that our union has chosen this important time to elevate the emergence of the need to act, not just talk, about equity, diversity and inclusion…At this moment, our community has been deeply affected by the events taking place in society, with the recent horrific murders in Atlanta and the broader documented rise in violence against Asian Americans, which our community has been well-aware of, and is a direct result of the continued fanning of hatred by political figures, that has only underscored the need for our work.”
Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline, talked about the challenges she’s faced covering mass shooting, including the March 16 murders at three Asian spas in Atlanta. “I have spent a lot of time compartmentalizing when I’m out covering stories,” she said. I was thinking about all the mass shootings that I’ve covered, from the Vegas shooting, the Orlando shooting, the Newtown shooting; but when I when I was in Atlanta after the shootings at three Asian-themed spas, I couldn’t help but see myself reflected in the victims. And when I interviewed Randy Park, one of the sons of victims, I saw my son in his eyes. So it brings up an accumulated grief and trauma that I’ve been working through very slowly, because I think it’s important to unpack all of the things that we are exposed to and process and reflect on. But I have also been uplifted by so many of my friends and allies and colleagues who have sent me messages of care and concern, and when I see people like [fellow panelists] Olivia [Munn[ and Brian [Tee] and others stand up and speak on behalf of our community’s behalf, I also feel uplifted.”
Actress Olivia Munn (The Newsroom, The Predator) said that despite the rise in hate, “there has been this really great feeling of unification in our community…We have really unified to support each other and to amplify and try to make a change. That has been a really great feeling. And even though it’s a very scary time right now and there’s still so much violence that’s happening right now against our community, I do feel that there’s a lot of hope that we’re going in the right direction.”
“It sometimes feels like it’s two steps forward and then 10 steps back,” said Dion Lim, an anchor and reporter at KGO-TV San Francisco. “But this is a chance now – people are paying attention. The world is watching and listening, so that gives me comfort to keep going.”
Like NBC News correspondent Vicky Nguyen, who visibly held back tears on air in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, Lim said that she too has “broken down a number of times on TV, but I’ve come to a point where it’s okay, because no one has ever said ‘It’s not okay for you to feel this way.’ And I think that breaking down this stigma is so helpful because I was ashamed for a long time to show any emotion because we have been taught not to – to just report the news. But I think if you don’t, then something’s wrong – you’re almost not human. It’s perfectly acceptable these days.” Indeed, one of the most memorable moments in news broadcasting history came when the great Walter Cronkite choked up on air while announcing that President Kennedy had died from an assassin’s bullet in November 1963.
Actor Brian Tee (Chicago Med, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), said that he too is hopeful that some good will come from all the hate and violence. “For myself, I do feel a sense of hope. I do feel this sense of community really, truly coming together like I never have in my entire career. Unfortunately, it took this much to make it all kind of come together. So there is that sense of hope that we can unify and create progress that is genuine and that is real for the next generations that come behind us.”
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