EXCLUSIVE: Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra & TV Stars of Color React to Tokenism, Asian Whitewashing on Screen
By Stacy Lambe
"I can't control what other people do. It's a problem that, unfortunately, there's no quick fix for," Aziz Ansari, the co-creator and star of Netflix's Master of None, tells ET about issues of diversity onscreen, in particular tokenism and Asian whitewashing. "It's going to take a long time."
On Thursday, Ansari made history as the first South Asian actor ever to get nominated for a leading role at the Primetime Emmys, in a year that saw a person of color nominated in each of the
leading acting categories.
The news comes as the issue of whitewashing has recently become a hot topic thanks to several actors, including Ansari, Constance Wu, Daniel Dae Kim and BD Wong, who spoke out to The New York Times in May. The problem is, they said, that Hollywood is casting white actors in the few Asian roles that are out there, and more often than not, the Asian roles that are cast are just a form of tokenism.
"As an Asian American, there's a certain feeling that I get that the media subliminally tells you that you're secondary in a lot of ways," Kimiko Glenn, star of Orange Is the New Black, says, pointing to where whitewashing is the most visible. "That, unfortunately, hasn't changed much in the film industry."
"Going to the movies has always been tough for me because I see a lot of white stories," Glenn continues. "To only tell stories from one perspective is a little bit of a waste in my eyes."
Last year saw one of the most questionable casting choices when Emma Stone played Allison Ng, a character that is one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian, in the Cameron Crowe rom-com Aloha. "I loved her in Easy A, but she's so white!" Jolene Purdy says. The Hawaiian actor recently joined the racially-diverse Orange Is the New Black in season four. “It is kind of a standout when you see a role that is specifically written one way and they go back a few decades to cast it a different way."
Stone couldn't escape the media scrutiny and eventually addressed the issue in an interview with news.com.au: "I've learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is. It's ignited a conversation that's very important."
In fact, two major upcoming film adaptations, Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, have cast Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson in roles considered to be Asian in the original comic books. Both decisions were largely seen as a step backward.
The issue was further exasperated at the 2016 Oscars, which was already under scrutiny after the Academy failed to nominate any people of color in the acting categories, when host Chris Rock brought out three Asian-American children for a stereotype-laden sight gag.
The response was immediate. Wu and Kim slammed the joke on Twitter, and a few days later, Sandra Oh, George Takei, and director Ang Lee were among several Academy members to sign an open letter, calling for an apology.
While the issue is not limited to film, several stars say TV is making progress -- and at a much faster pace. Last year was particularly noted for the success of several new, Asian-led series: ABC's Fresh Off the Boat and Quantico, and Master of None on Netflix. Meanwhile other popular series, like The Walking Dead and The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, featured Asian Americans in prominent roles.
"The second we knew it was set in Southern California, [co-creator] Aline Brosh McKenna, who is so good and precise, was like, 'Let's look up the demographics. It's 50 percent Hispanic, 25 percent Asian,'" Rachel Bloom, star and co-creator of the musical dramedy, says of casting Vincent Rodriguez III as Josh Chan. "So, we tried to be true to that. And Josh was always an Asian bro."
"Television really has stepped up its game in terms of casting more than just one look," Glenn says. "Honestly, Orange Is the New Black has done a great deal for television in terms of opening the conversation for that. It doesn't all have to be tall, skinny, white models, you know? People actually relate to real-looking people, people that you would see in your daily life. And that's what they want to see."
For Conrad Ricamora and others, representation goes beyond just being an Asian character or having an Asian show. "To a certain extent, there is a need to tell these stories, but there's also this hunger -- and I feel it myself -- for us to be able to play people," he says. "I love that I get to do that on How to Get Away With Murder."
"The way I look at it, I should not be defined by the color of my skin," Priyanka Chopra, star of Quantico, says. "I should be defined by who is the best person for the job because it's subjective. If you look around, the world doesn't look like one person. Everyone is so different from one to the other in the U.S., which is an amalgamation of cultures from all over the world."
"It's not enough for there to be representation," Alan Yang, co-creator of Master of None, says. "There's not enough for there to be Asian representation, or gay representation, or black representation. It's got to be good. It's got to be good representation. It's got to be the best stuff out there."
"I rather there be no stuff than it all be bad stuff," he continues. "Let's not just have the Asian shows. Let's have them be good."
It's precisely why Ansari and Yang wrote the Master of None episode, "Indians on TV," which not only addressed the lack of more than one person of color in a lead role on the same series, but also the tokenism that results from just casting a person of color to meet check a box.
"You can watch something and it'll be a bunch of white guys and there'll be this one black friend," Ansari says. "You're kind of like, 'Would that guy really be hanging out with them?' Also, that guy always goes away. Like, he never has the main story. Whoever the white guys are have the main thing."
"All this stuff just takes time," he continues. "You see that this stuff works and the audience respond to it, whether it's Master of None or The Fast and the Furious. That's a very diverse, real group of people. That looks like America to people. Hopefully, it becomes a thing where audiences respond to it and it takes effect in that way as well."