What Can Hollywood Do About the Violence Against Asians in America? (Guest Column)

Ronny Chieng Guest Column
Stephen Lam/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images; ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce president Carl Chan (left) speaks with police and a shopkeeper in the wake of anti-Asian American attack. (inset: Ronny Chieng)

Amid a spike in racist attacks during the pandemic, storytellers have a responsibility to spotlight claims and support local leaders who can make a difference at the community level, the 'Daily Show' correspondent writes.

Here we go again. Another out-of-touch so-called celebrity who needs to shut up or do more (depending on whom you ask), preaching to the entertainment industry choir. Who cares what this guy thinks? Believe me, I couldn’t agree with you more. But, as one of Hollywood’s statistically least desired demographics, an Asian man, I have a moral and civic responsibility to take the industry press opportunities I can.

In recent weeks, the almost daily videos of physical attacks on innocent elderly Asian Americans finally hit a cultural tipping point that pushed it into the American news media zeitgeist. Yes, the same American news media zeitgeist that everyone seems to simultaneously hate and seek the validation of finally found the pattern of attacks too horrendous to ignore and highlighted them, which led to a wave of solidarity online for Asian Americans and opened a dialogue.

Credit for this goes to journalists like Dion Lim, CeFaan Kim and Kimmy Yam, who have been tirelessly reporting on crimes against Asian people in their cities for years now; the various Asian American news focused outlets like NextShark and NBC Asian America; and everyday internet citizens spreading the news. And of course the strongest Asians in America, Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu, making the news with their rock hard abs and the $25,000 bounty they put out on an attacker involved in a Jan. 31 incident in Oakland, California.

One common denominator? Storytelling. And journalists reporting their stories and actors who have a platform thanks to the storytelling industry creating a story in real life with a $25,000 attention-grabbing hook.

The greatness of America is being able to freely, accurately and authentically talk about the world. This freedom of self-expression in storytelling can change the narrative, which changes the culture, which changes how people are treated.

Yes, we all obviously know that it will take more than just storytelling and the glorious double Daniel abs to solve the problem of Asian Americans being attacked on the streets. Ultimately, the people on the ground putting in their time and energy in their communities will be the ones who can make the most difference. It will take actually getting involved in local politics.

For example, you could join or help elect someone to your local community board, which might control zoning laws and affect small businesses in your neighborhood. New York City even has Precinct Community Councils that work directly with the NYPD and can select NYPD precinct commanders. It will take supporting the various existing community legal and civil rights organizations that have been working for decades to advocate for Asian American rights and provide legal help to individuals. Organizations like Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) or Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus.

It will take leaders who have a strong interest in Asian American issues fighting for a seat at the decision-making table at federal, state and local levels. Leaders like U.S. Reps. Grace Meng (N.Y.) and Andy Kim (N.J.) and assembly members Yuh-Line Niou (N.Y.) and Evan Low (C.A.), who have consistently and capably represented their constituents in these matters.

As far as Hollywood goes, storytelling is definitely part of the solution as well. We often talk about the need for diversity and representation in Hollywood, but what often gets missed is that we don’t need diversity for the sake of diversity — i.e., tokenism. What we need is diversity for the sake of authenticity. We need diversity to more accurately portray society as we know it to be — a multiracial world with three-dimensional characters. And again, that authenticity in storytelling will resonate, which changes culture, which changes how people are treated in society. For example, true stories about Asian American history would help make Asian contributions to the creation of America more widely known and help change “Yellow Peril” sentiments that exist in America today, also partly due to negative storytelling.

The only way to achieve this is by putting more Asian Americans in decision-making positions in Hollywood. So support that Asian American film, promote that Asian American production assistant, look for Asian American talent above and below the line. We are still in the opening chapters of the story of what it means to be Asian in America. It might not be the fate of our generation to see our ultimate idealized identity in America. All we can do is fight to write the next chapter better. And thinking intergenerationally? There’s nothing more Asian than that.

Ronny Chieng is a comedian, actor and correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.