By Kathy Sun, Senior Manager at Search for Common Ground
Starting at the age of five, I very seriously wanted to be a singer. I found solace in music, and I loved to perform.
By the time I turned twelve, I had abandoned this dream — not because I no longer wanted to be a singer, but because I figured it was impossible. I had never seen a famous singer of Asian descent in the U.S.
The world looks different today. BTS, a Korean band, just broke the record for most views of a YouTube video within 24 hours, a mark held previously by a different BTS video; Marvel released a trailer for its first Asian superhero film; and Minari, a film about a Korean-American immigrant family, was nominated for six Academy Awards.
This recent, unprecedented breakthrough of Asian representation in mainstream American media really hits home. If I were a preteen now, witnessing this wave of Asian representation, I can guarantee that my career pursuits would look different.
However, even though this wave is incredibly important and deserves celebration, representation alone will not solve hate against Asian-Americans. The fragmentation of our cultural landscape poses a hard challenge. Media and entertainment can be powerful tools for combating hate, but only if we use them effectively.
At their best, media and entertainment create bridges across divides. They help us to see the humanity and experiences that we share with others — even those who seem totally different.
For example, BTS have emerged as global superstars primarily because the group draws on their own stories to touch on themes that are foundational to the human experience. Take “Spring Day,” a fan favorite that explores loss and grief: “Past the edge of cold winter, / until the spring day comes again, / until the flowers bloom, / please stay there a while longer / Please stay” (translation by doolset). Such messages resonate with millions of people. Fans feel deeply connected to one another and seven men from Korea, no matter how different these singers may seem at first.
Yet the BTS effect has limits. In the comments section of any social media post about the group, you’ll find a slew of racist and hateful comments, alongside adoring comments of fans. Even as representation in mainstream media improves, hate crimes against Asian-Americans have skyrocketed. Popular media and entertainment seem to be moving in one direction, while other parts of our society move in the opposite.
What can we do to go beyond mainstream media representation — to strike at the roots of hate in the United States?
It used to be the case that millions of Americans watched the same five shows and listened to the same music, but digital platforms have exploded this homogeneity. With algorithms spoon-feeding us content, we fall into hyper-personalized patterns of media consumption. We never have to engage with content that we dislike, that challenges our beliefs, or that broadens our perspectives.
Even though popular media is spotlighting more Asian and Asian-American figures, only people who are already open to this kind of content are going to engage with it. People who feel fear, anger, and hate toward Asian-Americans won’t.
If we want to combat the most severe instances of racism and hate, then we’re not reaching the right people, and we’re not using effective tactics. Media representation achieves little if the messages only reach people who are already convinced.
More than ever, we must meet people where they are, through the sources and channels that they already trust. We can no longer assume that we have captive audiences and that “if we build it, they will come”.
We must be willing to infiltrate spaces where hate is being sowed and offer compelling alternatives. Media and entertainment are a good place to start. (If you’re interested in spaces outside of media and entertainment, a previous piece that I wrote discusses strategies for tackling everyday instances of racism and hate.)
Today, an alarming number of extremist media platforms are attracting millions of people and fueling hate. Very occasionally, someone who is a part of a demonized, targeted group will courageously accept an invitation to speak on these platforms, telling their story and spreading their message. There is incredible power in this. And we need more of it.
I understand that there is concern about giving legitimacy to hateful ideas, and it is increasingly seen as despicable to engage with particular groups of people. I know that what I’m proposing is difficult and frankly, quite scary.
But I’ll leave you with this question: if we never engage with people ready to embrace hateful ideologies, then how can we ever expect them to choose a different path?