In the last few years there has consistently been stories about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Black people only win Oscars for playing slaves and maids, never modern day characters of complexity and agency. Asian American men are never love interests, hence #StarringJohnCho. Lupe Ontiveros, a Latina actress, has been cast as a maid over 150 times. On the other end of the spectrum you can get a movie made about a white man with a dizzying amount of variety- badass scientist on Mars, hilarious sarcastic action hero Deadpool, earnest and sexy lover of the truth Captain America who fights billionaire genius inventor white man Iron Man, emotionally broken white man vigilante that dresses like a bat versus sincere and earth saving alien that always manifests as a white man. I’m just listing the lead characters of some of the top grossing movies of 2016. You can also get a movie made about a white guy who is in love with a blow up doll, who is a serial killer, a mobster, a lonely widow, just about anything. The stories we tell, reflect something of who and what we value. It can be easy to dismiss the deeper reasons for this conversation about representation. It can seem superficial. And as a woman of color, sometimes I have a hard time putting into words the impact it has on me, because I’ve never known anything different.
About a year ago I had the chance to meet an artist at a conference in Memphis. It was Bay Area, Korean American artist Dave Kim. I was intrigued. I come from the generation of Korean Americans where everyone was supposed to play the piano and be a doctor, dentist, or lawyer. So meeting Korean American visual artist was a little bit like seeing a unicorn, I was intrigued. I asked to see some photos of his art and he showed me photos of his paintings and a mural he had painted in the Bay Area.
This is the mural.
And then he explained. The mural tells the story of Yu Gwan Sun, a Korean freedom fighter. On the left side she is young, with her friends. On the far right she faces death for her cause. She was an organizer of the March 1st Movement, a protest against the occupation of Korea by Japan. She became of symbol of Korea’s fight for freedom through peaceful protest.
Here is a video of Dave putting up the mural.
I was so taken aback by this Korean American brother who, would not only paint the story of a woman, but of a freedom fighter. I had never in my life experienced that. A woman of my ethnicity, from my culture, who lived passionately for justice. I have never heard my own story told back to me. I have never heard it told by someone who thought it was worth their time, and energy, and creativity to tell. I didn’t realize how much this had impacted me until I was talking to someone else the following day. We were all chilling in the lobby after teaching our seminars and I introduced Dave to someone new and I began to talk about his mural. As I described the mural, I teared up. I was crying in the lobby with strangers. And I had to pause and figure out why I was feeling so stirred. I had never seen someone else say, a woman like you, a Korean woman like you, with the passions you have- that is a story worth telling.
Either woman like me are totally absent from stories, or we are prostitutes, masseuses, or martial artists or the wives of white hipster. Ironically the reality of this was pressed home when I was back in Memphis a few months later. A young man walked up to me and said “You look like that person in the Rush Hour movie.”
I was confused, I look like Jackie Chan? “Which one?”
“You know, the masseuse.”
The only Asian woman’s story he could draw from when he saw me, was that of a masseuse/ prostitute.
A couple days ago my FB feed was filling up as Asian American friends posted Google’s image of the day, which depicted Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama. It would have been her 95th birthday. Born in Southern California, imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps, she and her husband eventually settled in New York where they raised their six children. She was one of the few non-black people deeply committed to the Black Nationalist movement. She met Malcolm X in 1963 and joined The pan- Africanist Organization of Afro American Unity. And she was present in the Audubon Ballroom when he was assassinated.
I had heard of her a few years ago, but I will be honest, she didn’t really register. As much as I can articulate the way that our history has centered on white men and has dismissed, minimized, and erased the history of people of color, especially women of color, I am still colonized in my mind. And the fact that I had never heard of her, made it hard for me to believe she was really a person of import. Her story surfaced again a couple years ago when she died. And again, I felt like she couldn’t count. If she was really a role model, I would have heard of her before now, right? But then seeing her on google the other day, she finally registered in my conscious. It took hearing about her multiple times. And there was something validating about seeing her on the google search. As dumb as it may sound, a mainstream voice was telling me she was important and worth knowing impacted me. So I looked up more about her life and I was so inspired.
It hurts me to see the way that misogyny and white supremacy have seeped into my own thinking. It hurts me that I would devalue someone that I should identity with deeply. Malcolm X has been one of my heroes since I read his autobiography in high school. To realize that an Asian American woman had been there, doing the work with him, it stengthened me. This last December, at a conference where I was leading worship, I had a chance to stand with my African American brothers and sisters and add my voice and heart to the cry that Black Lives Matter.
And it changes me to know that I follow in the footsteps of an activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Yu Gwan Sun. So I thank you Dave, you introduced me to Yu Gwan Sun. And I thank you Google, cause you validated an important story. And thank you Yuri- for being a pioneer. Its not lost on me that it was two pieces of visual art that moved me forward in my process. Artists- keep using your art to be prophetic, to affirm, validate and expand the stories we are telling. We need you. Our country needs you. That kid in Memphis needs you.