With the increasing attention being given to racial dynamics in the United States, it is likely impossible for People of Color to avoid discussions on race. In my experiences, a common case for these discussions is a white person spurring conversation (whether positively or negatively) by making it clear that they lack experience and/or knowledge on the topic. When encountering this agency, People of Color have an infinite spectrum of possible responses. According to Leslie Bow, however, the majority of these responses leans toward either a deconstructivist or a minoritizing approach (21). A deconstructivist approach aims to alter the current set of systems that our society uses to function while a minoritizing approach looks to work within them, pointing out their problems and presenting the experiences of people marginalized by them. The overwhelmingly white media in the US has the same agency in bringing about responses. When Artists of Color make it into the mainstream media, their responses to spurs from the white majority are especially important because other People of Color are able to see them and because the media typically assumes their opinions to be representative of all other People of Color.
This clip (at about 24:55 in the video above) from Elementary’s panel at New York Comic-Con is a strong example of the hegemonic media utilizing agency to discuss race. In the clip, an audience member directs a question at Lucy Liu: “How can we increase the representation of Asian Americans in the media without perpetuating really harmful stereotypes about Asian Americans?” Liu’s answer, in my opinion, is a waste of an opportunity; not only does she barely answer the question, but also, her answer is lukewarm.
Her main point is that “a closed mouth doesn’t get fed” in the realm of social justice. The start of her answer is promising, as she says, “First of all, the idea of doing and action is the most important thing.” The entirety of her answer after that sentence seems to me like she has grown quite complacent within our systems of oppression. Liu references her habit of asking Robert Doherty (the show’s creator) to make new characters Asian, or even simply more diverse. She says although people will say no often, someone will eventually say yes. After emphasizing “asking the question,” Liu points out that even Doherty doesn’t have the final say in improving representation, as “It’s a complicated group because you’ve got people above you and above you and above you and above you, but it starts, as Rob said earlier, as a kernel…And we have to be a participant and we have to open our mouths.”
As you could imagine, I have a few issues with Lucy Liu’s answer to the audience member’s question. First off, she barely answers the question, only providing one way to (maybe) increase representation and neglecting to say anything about the harmful stereotypes mentioned. Furthermore, the idea she presents regarding speaking up is far too individualist for my taste. Saying “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed,” implies that there isn’t already an army of open mouths, also known as activists, calling for improvements (this same army has been present for years). That statement also implies a power dynamic in which marginalized people make pleas to the hegemony, waiting to be “fed” better treatment, rather than recognizing their agency and demanding it. The dynamic here is solidified when Liu mentions asking “Rob” for equal representation in Elementary, suggesting that a white man is the only one who has the power to make this a reality.
Although I disagree with her, I believe that there is a fair amount for us to learn from Liu’s minoritizing response, as well as her apparent stance on media representation of People of Color. The first point to take away is a reminder that the current systems do not present us with all of the options we have to combat oppression. Rather, they take away/hide options that include large-scale change in an attempt to convince us that we have limited agency—that we are trapped in oppression. Liu, likely due to her large amount of time in the mainstream film/TV industry, seems to have forgotten about agency that breaks out of direct hierarchies (“someone above you…”). I think her statement that we must be participants, presumably meaning participants in systems of our oppression, sums up the effect that so much time in the industry has had on her. She neglects to recognize that breaking out of these systems is also an option. This perspective reminds me of the common narrative of house slaves, as they, too, were satisfied in obvious systems of oppression, likely due to their relative privilege.
Aside from racial representation, Liu shows that she doesn’t consider people with counter hegemonic sexualities in her efforts to improve equality. This is made clear when she assumes that any romantic partner for her character would be a “boyfriend.” With such a moderate opinion on racial representation, I didn’t expect much regarding representation of other marginalized groups, but even just saying “boyfriend or girlfriend” would have been better (“partner” would be my preferred term).
When Artists of Color are presented with an opportunity to discuss any social construct/inequality, I typically expect them to acknowledge issues and give some form of commentary on the larger social system. Knowing this, one can be sure that I am disappointed with Lucy Liu’s response (and likely her social lens as a whole). My major issue with her answer is that she ignores the possibility of deconstructivist activism, as well as the possibility of counter hegemonic sexualities. This ignorance supports the hegemonic goal of complacence; utilizing only a minoritizing approach to activism is likely to convince people that we cannot exist in a society with different values from this one. Unfortunately, our current societal values are flawed on a large scale. Because of this, I think that combining both deconstructivist and minoritizing approaches to activism is most effective in bringing about positive change. The minoritizing approach is necessary to allow privileged individuals to know and hopefully understand the experiences of marginalized people, and the deconstructivist approach can be used to reimagine our social systems in a more equal way.