Editor’s Note: Brian Tee has become a notable face of Asian Hollywood, providing representation to a community that has been wildly underrepresented and, on more than one occasion, misrepresented. He has appeared in big banner films such as The Wolverine, Jurassic World, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. He also appeared in numerous TV series and is best known for his current role as Dr. Ethan Choi on NBC’s Chicago Med. In a guest column for Deadline, Tee unpacks the the surge of racism and hate crimes against Asians since the beginning of the pandemic, the “model minority” myth and the dire need for unity in a time when the Asian community — and the world — needs it the most.
There is a growing trend of racist hate against a community you do not see. A community you do not count. A community you think will be fine… because we are Asian. But you need to see us. We must be counted. And we are definitely not fine… and it’s EVERYONE’S fault.
Let’s break it down. There are many reasons Asian hate crimes increased 1,900% in some areas in the past year. I’ll pause there so you can digest: yes, 1,900%.
The main factors to this unconscionable uptick are historical, mythological, cultural, and social. Historically (and this isn’t a history lesson, but a reminder that hate against Asians in America is nothing new), from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first and still remains the only law to have been implemented to prevent members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States; to the Japanese Internment Camps in the 1940s, which was the only time the U.S. government incarcerated a specific ethnic group, most of whom were American citizens, purely for being of Japanese descent. Hate against Asians wasn’t just a belief…it was the law.
Well, maybe that was a history lesson for some of you.
Then there’s the “model minority” myth depicting Asians as the “good ethnics,” using us as scapegoats to contrast the racial inequality that exists in America, pitting us against all other BIPOC in this country. This is highly due to our own cultural passivity of assimilation — to keep our head down and nose to the grindstone to hopefully be accepted — which only created an invisible minority, deemed not important enough to be counted or valued. There’s the never-changing social stigmatization of the “forever foreigner,” though many of us have been here two, five, even 10 generations and are now the fastest-growing ethnicity in the U.S. … yet we still do not belong. Gaslight this xenophobia with hate rhetoric like the “China virus,” or “kung flu,” exacerbating fears of Covid, which caused an economic fallout, and you have yourself an Asian Hate Explosion.
The worst part of all this is that the majority of the verbal and violent attacks are targeting our elderly. I’ll pause again so you can absorb what I just said… yes, the ELDERLY. This should make anyone reading this sick and disgusted. For me, it cuts into the heart and soul of my being. Rarely do I share anything about my personal life…but the most influential person in my life was my grandmother. I lived and took care of her for the last 10 years of her life. Just her and I. In over a decade of living with her, she taught me so much about life, about understanding and to never take things for granted… especially love. Always leading by example.
She married once. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away very early in his life at 43 years young. Same age I am today. Yet my grandmother never remarried… instead she graced and paid tribute to an altar of his memory, where she would bring him a shot of soju and a bowl of rice every day, three times a day, for the next 40 years. There is a scene about this in a show I did on Starz called Crash, about 13 years ago. This was all due to an incredible creator and showrunner, Glen Mazzara. He had the compassion and the guts to authenticate a realistic story near and dear to my heart but, most importantly, share it with our audience to help change the narrative.
The major racial issues that we face today are because of the lack of coverage to create awareness, lack of education and understanding overall, as well as the perpetuated use of Asian stereotypes and gross misinformation put out there by our industry. Yes, we have been adding fuel to this fire for decades. We have such an influence that has and can change the course of history. With that comes great responsibility because the power of storytelling, on all outlets, influences the lives of nations and impacts the global understanding of one another.
I myself am accountable. I’ve played these Asian tropes and stereotypical characters my entire career, from Japanese Business Man #2 to North Korean Soldier, and I can’t tell you how many others I didn’t book. I’ve made a career playing the Asian Bad Guy. But those were the only opportunities given and as a good Asian, I took them. I kept my head down and nose to the grindstone to hopefully be accepted someday.
Well, that someday has to be today, right?
I am currently on a hit network show with a long-standing tenure, in the homes of millions, playing a non-stereotypical heroic leading man role, saving lives on the front lines. We, along with Dick Wolf and NBCUniversal, are doing it and doing it right, changing the perspective of how our audience views Asians, week after week. But why am I looking over my shoulder while walking my dog? Why have I asked my elderly parents to not leave the house or take walks in their own neighborhood even though they have been vaccinated? The fact that I am an exception to the rule is not enough, because it’s obvious the narrative has not changed.
We need more. We need help. We need you… to continue to create positive characters, like the one I’m portraying. To continue to back stories like the highly nominated Minari, that you all adore and endear so much. To continue to create insanely popular franchises like Crazy Rich Asians, which are proven commodities in our industry. To continue to tell stories about us and more importantly with us, in front and especially behind the camera. Because even a storyline like the one Glen Mazzara and I collaborated on in Crash can create an understanding. The best thing about that was that he did it with me, authentically. So count on us to help you change the narrative. We can’t do it without you… and please don’t do this without us.
Trevor Noah painfully yet brilliantly said, “Society is a contract… and that contract has been broken.” I can’t agree more. The deal point in that contract that does not allow hate violence toward another race has been redlined. But I am still hopeful because I see so many out there trying to re-negotiate this contract. I am so grateful to all those who have marched, supported and spoken out. Those who have created organizations and funds to help victims, create awareness and strengthen our communities, not just Asian ones but all communities, coming together to stop hate… you are an inspiration.
But there is much more work to be done. So together as an industry, let’s change the narrative, by creating the social bridges of understanding through our mediums, which has the power to unite us all.