Who is qualified to write about race?

A recent NYTimes story about Asian-American actors raises questions about diversity, white allies and media silos

Published May 29, 2016 11:29PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-675946p1.html'>Dmitry Brizhatyuk</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Dmitry Brizhatyuk via Shutterstock)

This week, a New York Times piece titled “Asian-American Actors are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored” offered a snapshot into an ongoing conversation about Hollywood's problematic portrayal (or lack thereof) of Asian characters. I was thrilled to see the high-profile presentation of a long-overdue conversation, and even more thrilled to see the piece was widely read and shared. Activists and personal idols like Aziz Ansari, George Takei, and Constance Wu were certainly deserving of the positive coverage, and having their voices amplified even more will likely benefit the cause. Still, I could not help but find the piece's byline jarring.

When I spoke with Mary Suh, the editor who assigned the piece to Times Contributing Writer Amanda Hess, she rejected out of hand the suggestion that the NYT ought to have considered a writer of color instead, calling the question a “dangerous” one. Suh praised Hess as a “terrific” journalist who “had the required writing skills and sophistication and analytical skills to write a piece like that,” a characterization of Hess's past work which I don't dispute. “As an Asian-American myself I do not want to be limited or siloed,” she said.

Suh's point is well-taken, and speaks to a broader problem in the industry, particularly with respect to opinion commentary or editorial coverage. Writers of color, especially women, are often confined to addressing social issues, and frequently pressured to do so from an explicitly personal angle, one that precludes their being labeled “serious.” While white men exist in a default state of authority, and are more likely to be judged on the substance of their arguments rather than their qualifications to make them, female writers of color must actively push up against the notion that their expertise is limited to specific facets of their experience, and are often pigeonholed as experts on race, gender, and nothing else.

But, of course, there is a non-trivial distinction between “Asian-Americans can only write about issues of direct pertinence to the Asian-American community” and “Asian-Americans are uniquely capable of writing about such issues, [and other ones, too.]” The distinction is one with strong parallels in Hess's piece itself, which subtly praised the ingenuity of filling traditionally white roles with Asian actors, while frowning upon casting choices that whitewashed roles traditionally filled by actors of color. The question is ultimately one of representation, and the very real, tangible way in which a long history of systemic exclusion has limited opportunities for Asians in high-profile, public positions.

The Times's perspective might be that white writers and writers of color are equally qualified and entitled to cover issues of race. But Suh acknowledged the importance of “diversity, not just by race, but by gender, by religion, everything” in the Times' newsroom, and noted that it's an issue of “ongoing concern,” while maintaining that this was a separate issue altogether from the question of which stories are assigned to whom. However, this emphasis is an acknowledgment that a breadth of lived experience is one of many factors involved in producing sensitive coverage on complex and nuanced issues.

Jenna Wortham, for example, has spoken publicly about how her deeply wonderful profile of Syd tha Kid for the New York Times Magazine was enriched by their shared race and sexuality. That the experience of reporting the piece was apparently made more meaningful for both journalist and subject is not, in and of itself, unimportant, but the larger benefit is that the rapport developed as a result produced a better product, and a more meaningful experience for reader as well. (Apart from the obvious, again not unimportant, inherent value of another byline.)

Suh's somewhat contrary point that “reporters are reporters,” who “should be able to go out and write about any number of subjects with sophistication and sensitivity and verve,” is, to a certain extent, also well-taken, but might be better-taken if the Times as an organization were making a good faith attempt to diversify its explicitly editorial voices. Instead, it boasts a woefully homogenous slate of columnists, many of whose attempts to tackle race-related issues fall well short of Suh's bar, often veering into unapologetically ignorant or hurtfully simplistic territory. When op-ed contributors of Asian descent do pop up on the NYT op-ed page, they are, to borrow Suh's terminology, frequently siloed. They overwhelmingly address issues directly related to Asia, as a region, or the trials of life as an Asian living in Europe or America.

This is not to say that minorities are categorically better-versed in race-related issues than their white counterparts. And I certainly would not attribute my minor gripes with Hess's piece — her positive characterization, for example, of Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson's condescending attempt to brush aside critiques of his casting choices without acknowledging wrongdoing or resolving to do better — to her race.

The problem is not with a particular writer, editor, or article, but instead a need for broad, institutional reform. White allyship is important, to be sure, but allyship often amounts to stepping back to listen rather than stepping forward to speak up. Minorities need public forums to air their own grievances, rather than having them filtered through white eyes. There is an undeniable irony in the fact that the piece itself acknowledges the importance of minorities telling their own stories in television and film, while, by virtue of process, implicitly dismissing its importance in news media. The optics alone threaten to undermine the Times' important and significant work of drawing attention to Hollywood's diversity issues. It's work that would be all the more powerful if accompanied by serious introspection, a genuine grappling with its own shortcomings in this regard. Asian-American actors, after all, aren't the only ones fighting for visibility.

By Silpa Kovvali

Silpa Kovvali is a New York-based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic, amongst others.

MORE FROM Silpa Kovvali

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Asian American Representation Diversity Editor's Picks Hollywood Media New York Times Race