#RepresentationMatters for My Daughters – and Me

I’m not joking: I feel afraid. Of what, I don’t yet know.

I’ve only just been watching some of cultural savant Will Yu’s magical videos for #SeeAsAmStar. If you haven’t yet seen them on social media, they’re part of his hashtag initiative to help movie lovers envision legit Asian American leading actors and actresses in really prominent film roles. Will does this by taking short movie clips and replacing a lead character’s face in each with either John Cho’s, Constance Wu’s, Arden Cho’s, or Steve Yeun’s face. It’s quite seamless visually, and much more affecting than I anticipated, at least for me.

SeeAsAmStar Collage
Katniss, Major, and Silver Linings’ Tiffany like you’ve never seen them before. (Images: Will Yu)

I’d actually describe it as jarring, in a good way. Seeing Arden Cho as Katniss Everdeen, or Constance Wu as Major in Ghost in the Shell, or Cho in Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-winning role in Silver Linings Playbook, is startling. I think it throws me because I’m not expecting an Asian American in such a prominent role. Hollywood’s recent slight uptick in racially diverse characters has hardly dented my subconscious expectation, formed over 46-plus years of media consumption, that the leading characters in big shows will still be white.

I experienced a similar jolt when watching the super fun trailer for this summer’s Crazy Rich Asians. It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen a massive movie production with numerous characters that almost all look like me (an Asian American) and sound like me (an English speaker), without it being a martial arts thing. It was fantastic to take in! And simultaneously, it felt truly weird to behold.

But the #SeeAsAmStar video that most shook me was the one where Will makes it look like John Cho is Captain America, preparing to crash his plane while saying a final farewell to Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter:

Watching that bit of Will’s video wizardry made me think of one of his previous diversity campaigns, #StarringJohnCho. That thought, in turn, brought to mind times John Cho played a romantic lead opposite a white actress – for example, in the ABC show Selfie (opposite Karen Gillan, image at top) and in last year’s indie film Columbus (opposite Haley Lu Richardson).

Starring John Cho Crop
#StarringJohnCho. (Images: Will Yu)

Dear reader, are you ready for a psychoanalytic trip through my neural pathways?

Here’s why these things connect for me.

As a teen, I was mostly attracted to Asian American girls; as a young adult, I was mostly drawn to Asian American women. In fact, I married one; my wife and I have now been happily together for over 21 years.

But the times as a teen that I was attracted to white girls were always sad experiences for me. It’s not that they broke my heart, but that I never even tried to ask them out. Some of that grew out of my own insecurity and teenage awkwardness. But some of it, I truly believe, was influenced by portrayals of Asian American men I’d grown up seeing on TV and in movies.

Asian American dudes were universally depicted as nerds – obsessive about good grades, brainiacs with computers, and just not very cool. They were always, if not the butt of jokes, relegated to being the sidekicks of the cool white protagonists – think Sulu on Star Trek and Quincy’s assistant on Quincy, M.E. (See, I can’t even remember his name.) And they never got the girl, much less one who was white.

Quincy and Sam
From Quincy, M.E., which most of you have never heard of. It was sorta like the CSI of the late 1970s, with Jack Klugman (white guy) as a medical examiner and Robert Ito (Asian guy) as his assistant. (Image: Universal)

Combine this with my feeling highly uncool all the time and my nagging suspicion that I couldn’t really do much beyond academics anyway. Then throw on top of all that the reality of 1980s Texas, where there were, relative to today, very few dating or married couples consisting of an Asian American male and a white female. I only knew of one, an older married couple at my church. I never knew any such dating couples until after I’d gone to college.

Now, I never thought consciously, “I don’t have a chance with __________” (insert name of cute and classy white girl), but all of the above came together in my psyche so that I never even tried. I just assumed that I didn’t have what it took.

Looking back, that was more painful than I realized. Perhaps that’s why seeing John Cho opposite these white actresses takes me back to those memories.

Earlier, I said I feel afraid, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I feel exposed.

You see, I talk a lot about diverse representation in media, particularly of strong female characters. That’s because I want my young daughters to feel confident, strong, and capable as Asian American girls growing up in what’s still, essentially, a man’s world, and a white man’s world at that. I even frequently add #RepresentationMatters to tweets or posts because I’m thinking about my daughters. One example:

But suddenly, a question slices through my I-don’t-have-a-problem-with-this-anymore veneer: Don’t I myself also need stories with Asian American male leads, even at my age?

And in the blink of an eye, I’m exposed! I say that representation matters for my girls and other kids as they grow up. But truly, representation still matters for me, too, even at the age of 46.

It no longer has to do with crushing on white gals and thinking that I’m not good enough for them. It’s about my ongoing self-doubt about my ability to make it in a white man’s world. I myself still need to see Asian American male protagonists doing cool, and even heroic, things to encourage me to keep going and trying my best at whatever it is that I do.

At first, that sounds foolish, even to me. Shouldn’t I be past all that? But considering all the years of accumulated microaggressions with occasional incidents of overt racism, beginning in a childhood devoid of heroic characters who looked and sounded like me, and it makes sense. Of course I’m going to deal with feelings of inadequacy about succeeding in a white man’s world.

Jeremy Toronto
F … T … W!!! (Image: TSN)

Why else did I cheer so hard for Jeremy Lin when he first went nuts with the New York Knicks back in 2012? Why did I literally cry after he nailed the three at the end of the game in Toronto? Why have I checked box score after box score in the years since then, even when he wasn’t playing for my beloved Houston Rockets, to see how he’s doing?

Because I haven’t just been rooting for Jeremy. I’ve been rooting for me. Jeremy’s success in a space where Asian American men are outliers, where there are no shortage of folks looking at him and questioning whether he’s worthy of being there, inspires me.

As does #StarringJohnCho and now #SeeAsAmStar.

So I have two messages as I conclude:

First, Will Yu, my friend, bravo! Thank you for the work you’ve been doing.

And second, for storytellers and other creators who develop and promote diverse lead characters, thank you for believing that #RepresentationMatters! Please keep up the good work.

Because you’re not just inspiring my daughters.

You’re also healing me.

Why Does America Still Struggle with Racism?

It will not surprise regular readers of this blog that I believe racism is one of the core dysfunctions gutting American society. It also won’t shock the world that I’m convinced American racism is directly tied to the inability of Christians, our nation’s largest religious group by far, to deal with their history of, and their ongoing participation in, forms of racial oppression.

Such forms have sometimes been overt. For example:

  • Forced conversions of indigenous peoples to Christianity by European invaders
  • Enslavement of indigenous peoples and Africans
  • Ethnic cleansing of Native nations from their homelands
  • The founding of the Southern Baptist Convention to preserve slavery
  • Genocides of Native tribes
  • Ban on Chinese travel to the U.S.
  • Native boarding schools
  • Jim Crow laws
  • Japanese American incarceration
  • Government-imposed sterilizations and experiments on people of color
  • Segregation
Boarding Schools
Native American girls pray at the Phoenix Indian School, June 1900. Over 200,000 Native children, many forcibly taken from their families, “attended” Indian boarding schools, which were mostly contracted by the U.S. and Canadian governments to Christian denominations and organizations. Expressions of Native culture, dress, diet, language, and religion were banned; child abuse of all kinds was rampant. An unknown number of children died. The boarding school experience fits the United Nations definition of genocide. (Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior)

At other times, the forms are masked by institutions or by rule-of-law rhetoric. For instance:

  • Racial profiling
  • Excessive force disproportionately used against African American men
  • Excessive minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders
  • Neglect of the health and environmental concerns of people of color
  • Propagation of the “welfare queen” myth
  • Cruel immigration “enforcement” actions
  • Mass deportations of previously protected refugees
  • The admitted Muslim ban
  • A refusal to condemn the alt-right and white nationalism
  • The latest of many attempts to strip away Native sovereignty
Syrian Refugees
In one of the largest refugee movements in recorded history, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country’s civil war, with another 6.1 million internally displaced. Half of these millions are children. So far in 2018, the U.S. has accepted 11 Syrian refugees. (Photo: National Geographic)

Millions of Christians through our nation’s history have been complicit in these horrible deeds, whether by active means or by silent shrugs. And until modern American Christians find a way to resolve the massive racial rifts among themselves, America as a whole will not.

I say this not out of a sense of American Christian exceptionalism. Rather, it’s because of the sheer numbers of American Christians and their influence on American society, both for better and worse. America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.

Christian Racism
Some context for the first two photos in this post. American Christians have been complicit in many racist deeds, whether by active means or silent shrugs. (Click here for more details about some of these images.)

Last week, an invitation-only group of fifty evangelical leaders gathered at Wheaton College near Chicago to talk about the negative effects of hard-right political influence on the evangelical movement. Matters of race came up, as Katelyn Beaty reported yesterday for The New Yorker:

“Something of a generational gap seemed to emerge among the attendees over the question of whether the Church should seek to rise above contentious political questions or address them head on. With a few exceptions, the older, white cohort stressed civility and unity. What the movement needed, they said, was a gentler evangelicalism that reached across partisan aisles for the common good. Others, especially the leaders of color, stressed repentance; there could be no real unity without white evangelicals explicitly confronting the ways they had participated in the degradation of persons of color and women. They contended that white evangelical churches and organizations had for decades supported a political agenda that deemed unborn lives more sacred than living black lives.”

American Church
America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.

It doesn’t appear that any consensus was forged on race, though it is encouraging that a handful of Christian leaders have begun talking about it across racial, gender, and generational lines. But what happens from here is unclear.

What is clear is that what ails American Christians is much bigger than Donald Trump, though it cannot be fully discussed without addressing his highly influential role in the current situation. He has frequently denigrated people of color, particularly those born in another country, and has bent over backwards to not criticize white supremacists. He often has stoked Americans’ fears of foreigners with weapons of mass destruction and said very little about angry white men who have taken dozens of lives with their own legally purchased weapons of mass destruction. His policies have uplifted the wealthy at the expense of the poor, disproportionately impacting minorities. And few white evangelical leaders have boldly called him out on these.

Complicity abounds.

Would that more American Christian leaders, especially those who are white, spoke truth to power like the prophet Nathan of Old Testament times! When confronting King David for his rape and murderous cover up, he declared, “Thou art the man!”

Nathan and David
Thou Art the Man by Peter F. Rothermel, 1884. (Photo: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

Yet I have to remind myself sometimes, Trump is truly not the enemy. For us American Christians, our true enemy is found deep within our history and our present.

It is our racism, both active and passive.

It is us.

To Houston, with Love

Natural disasters don’t discriminate. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

No matter where I go in the world, Houston will always, in my heart, be home. I haven’t lived there in over 20 years, but that won’t change.

I was four years old when my family moved to H-Town, starting out at the tall Sheraton Hotel over by Memorial City Mall. After moving to Katy for a year, we settled clear across town into the South Belt area house which holds my childhood memories.

That house probably sustained significant damage during Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Houston. I don’t have a picture of my old home during the flooding, but I assume there was considerable damage because my neighborhood was the one most mentioned in tweets for help last Saturday night. As Harvey’s torrential rains pounded furiously and relentlessly, rapidly overwhelming drainage systems, desperate residents in my old community – unable to get through to 9-1-1 or the Coast Guard by phone – tweeted pleas for rescue. Their 140-character posts, listing the number of people trapped, their ages, and the addresses of their flooded homes, were gut-wrenching to read.

I found this photo, taken Sunday, Aug. 27, on Twitter. My old house is just a few minutes’ drive down this street. (Photo: Unknown)

Some of them noted that they were taking shelter in their attics to escape quickly rising waters. Other Twitter users responded, imploring them to take an ax or hammer to break through the roof if necessary.

The lot on which my old home was built was particularly susceptible to flooding, given that it was lower than the others on my end of the street. So half a block of runoff always flowed toward us, and the sewer drain directly across from us, when storms came.

And oh, how there were storms. Most vividly, I remember Hurricane Alicia. Almost exactly 34 years before Harvey, Alicia schooled me in just how many ways water could invade a home.

My City

It would be surreal to behold my old home now, surrounded by a moat. It’s even more devastating to see Houston, my city, MY CITY, looking like something out of a post-polar-ice-caps dystopia. It absolutely breaks my heart, especially to see what’s happened to places I’ve known and even loved.

Freeways everywhere were impassable. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

Most of all, I hurt for my family and friends. Their suffering has constantly been on my mind throughout my waking hours. My wife has a few relatives there, and we have, literally, hundreds of friends who still call the region home.

A number of them have had to leave their residences, some wading through flood waters with kids on their backs and bags of clothing in their hands. Several friends have already begun ripping out floors and breaking down sheetrock, in a race against the spread of toxic mold. Others can’t get to their homes because nearby roads are still rivers. There are even neighborhoods that will remain flooded for weeks because they’re situated near reservoirs that must release water to prevent dam failure.

I have been so proud of my city to hear the many stories of neighbors and even strangers rescuing, feeding, housing, and clothing each other. My heart is touched seeing Greater Houston’s 6.5 million people, spread over 9000 square miles – an area greater than the size of New Jersey – looking out for each other in genuine empathy and compassion.

That’s my city. MY CITY.

A police officer says goodbye to his son in the suburb of League City, where I went to high school, as he leaves for a long shift rescuing others. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

It ain’t perfect, not by any means. It’s got its infamously unbearable heat and humidity, making the city hotter than hell, according to many a visitor – though how would they know? It’s got incredible traffic that daily chokes the patience out of drivers courageous enough to brave its 600 miles of freeways. And it’s definitely got the other problems that big cities usually have.

But it’s got an incredible spirit, one of cleverness and can-do. To me, that’s very aptly symbolized by the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium, which kept legions of mosquitoes out and the air conditioning in. It’s also still a major point of civic pride that the first word spoken from the lunar surface was “Houston,” reflecting the creativity and gumption with which Houstonians led American efforts to put a man on the moon.

But to me, the spirit of Houston is found, as much as anything else, in its ethnic diversity.

They’re All Precious in His Sight

Greater Houston, the fifth most populous metropolitan area in the country, has long been majority-minority. Just 40 percent of folks are white, while 35 percent are Latino. One out of every six residents is African American; around seven percent are Asian. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times declared Houston the “most diverse place in America.” (Yes, the L.A. Times!) CNN’s celebrity chef-turned-globetrekker Anthony Bourdain says it’s “as multicultural a city as exists in the country.”

Harris County Sheriff’s Office sergeants Fernandez, Tran, and Patel help with evacuations. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

This diversity was plainly visible to me in my younger years when I’d drive along Bellaire Boulevard near the Beltway; even back then, street signs were posted in both English and Chinese. The ethnic flavor of that part of town has only mushroomed since then, with Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and mom-and-pop businesses as far as the eye can see.

The heterogeneity was also visible in my deeply refreshing visits to Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Houston’s Fourth Ward. Its pastor, the Rev. D. Z. Cofield, was my first prof in grad school and became nationally known that semester when he officiated the memorial service for legendary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. More recently, D. Z. even served as the head of Houston’s NAACP chapter.

First responders help an elderly couple from their home. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

Houston’s ethnic diversity is also audible. 145 languages are spoken in the Houston area, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, French, Tagalog, Korean, Yoruba (a Nigerian language), and Tamil. Nearly half of Harris County’s residents are bilingual.

(Alas, I took Latin in high school, and my proficiency in Mandarin Chinese can only be described as … mild. Fortunately for me, one of Houston’s 145 languages is English, although it’s not always intelligible to folks from other parts of the country.)

The multi-hued character of the city is also embodied in its favorite sons and daughters. Its best-known citizen is the still-popular, nonagenarian former president, George H. W. Bush. But its most beloved star athlete arguably remains a Nigerian immigrant and proud American citizen, basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon. Hakeem the Dream, as he was called, led the University of Houston to three straight Final Fours and the professional Houston Rockets to its two championships.

The Rockets honored Dream with a unique sculpture in 2008. (Photo: ClutchFans.net)

The sculpture that honors Hakeem outside the Rockets’ home arena, the Toyota Center downtown, is a clear reminder that the spirit of Houston welcomes people from every corner of the world. A devout Muslim who amazed ignorant non-Muslims like me by dominating even during Ramadan, Hakeem wouldn’t consent to a statue being made in his image; that would violate Islamic teaching. So the team made a sculpture of his Rockets jersey, which stands as a testimonial to his accomplishments, his integrity, and the mutual love between the native of West Africa and his adopted city.

Of course, no discussion of Houston’s favorite sons and daughters could exclude the one, the only, the Queen – Beyoncé! Surely she needs no introduction. But I’m old enough to remember when a new girl group called Destiny’s Child signed CDs and posters at the local Blockbuster Music with only modest attention paid to their presence.

Weren’t they cute? (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

Other internationally prominent figures closely identified with the Houston area include the late Tejano singer Selena, champion boxer George Foreman, and Houston Rocket Yao Ming.

Together, they embody what I see as the spirit of Houston: a multiethnic rainbow of resourceful, optimistic people who, when push comes to shove, don’t give a flying Texas cockroach’s ass about how different you are. You’re a neighbor and a human being first and foremost.

Wouldn’t it be something if it didn’t take tragedies to remind us of that?

But that’s one of the things about Houston – as a whole, it doesn’t forget. When things went to hell in Vietnam, Houston took in tens of thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia. (Every Vietnamese friend of mine back then, and I had many, came to Houston shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975.) Houston, in fact, takes in more refugees than any other American city, and most other countries. If it were a country, Houston would be the fourth most welcoming in the world to refugees.

Yes, that causes conflict with the state’s governor. We won’t get into that right now. And of course, Houston has its share of racists and xenophobes. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not usually the ones in charge.

Thankfully.

Not Over Yet

A husband and wife find refuge in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

I very much appreciate the outpouring of generosity that the rest of America is directing toward my city. I do ask that you’d remember that this crisis isn’t close to being over, and it won’t be for literally years to come. Flood waters are still rising in some areas. Folks trapped in homes are still being rescued. Thousands are still without essential services like running water and electricity.

And then there’s the long, arduous clean up, which may take more than a year, if other storms are any indication. Nearly 200,000 homes throughout the Gulf Coast have been damaged or destroyed. Only 20 percent of folks have flood insurance, meaning thousands have lost all their material possessions.

Of those whose homes are currently uninhabitable or are total losses, their owners or renters need to find some place to stay for the next several months, if not longer. These victims especially face difficult challenges. Many potential alternative housing options, like vacant apartments, were also flooded. So then where do these folks go? Some have been evacuated to Dallas and Austin, far from their jobs and schools. How will they make it until they return, if they eventually choose to?

In months to come, when you feel the pain of how much more you’re paying for gas because Gulf Coast refineries are offline, please remember my city. Please keep praying, for human effort alone can only restore so much. Please keep giving, both out of compassion and because Houstonians will be there for you when disaster strikes your region someday, just like they were for Louisianans after Hurricane Katrina.

Houston, I love you. Always.

My Endorsement as a Feminist Dad and an Asian Dad

My Endorsement

Which candidate do I think deserves to call this plane their own?

I’m with her.

Correction: #ImWithHer.

That’s one of the more popular hashtags propagated by the Hillary Clinton campaign during this seemingly interminable election cycle. But I’m not just saying it randomly here, I really mean it: #ImWithHer.

Yes, I – who once despised the Clintons years ago – have become a strong supporter of Secretary Clinton and will happily vote for her, either during early voting or on November 8. It will not at all be a “lesser of two evils” vote for me; I will do it enthusiastically.

I’m not going to attempt to give all the reasons here, and I’m not going to cite much evidence for my reasons, either. That’s not to say that such evidence doesn’t exist; I believe it does. But this is not that kind of piece. This is a simple bit of commentary on WordPress, not Meet the Press.

I’ll just explain my support this way: I’m voting for Secretary Clinton in large part because I am both a feminist dad and an Asian dad.

#ImWithHer Because I’m a Feminist Dad

The boys’ club. Not for long.

In the excellent documentary Miss Representation, my friend Dr. Caroline Heldman, a professor at Occidental College in the Los Angeles area, says:

Little boys and little girls when they’re seven years old – an equal number want to be president of the United States when they grow up. But then you ask the same question when they’re 15, and you see this massive gap emerging.

I believe that one of the reasons this is true is that girls, as they grow up, never see a female president of the United States, whether in the news or in history books. I clearly remember, on the walls of my childhood classrooms, posters showing all the past presidents. And of course, every single one was a white male. Even posters updated for the present time only show male presidents.

From 1 to 44, all dudes.

This is just one more subtle message to girls that says women can’t excel in leadership like men can – not just in politics, but in life, all across the board. It’s not an intentional message on the part of the poster makers. After all, they’re just showing the reality that every POTUS has been a man. But research demonstrates that people are more likely to believe they can do something when they see someone like them doing it. As the saying goes, representation matters.

I am not okay with my daughters ever feeling like men and boys can do things better than women and girls can. I take every chance I get to tell my girls when a glass ceiling has been shattered. It’s not a random thing that one of their Beanie Baby-style bears, one that has the NASA logo on it, was given the name Sally Ride.

A herstory maker, the late Dr. Sally Ride.

I want my girls to grow up in classrooms that display not only male presidents, but female presidents, too. (Yes, I use the plural intentionally.) I want them to know that there’s no job they can’t do because boys and men are supposedly better than they are. I want them to have the confidence that they’re not limited to anything by their gender.

That’s my feminist father reason for supporting Hillary Clinton.

That’s not to say, though, that I’m voting for her just because she’s a woman. She does have a résumé that’s second to none among recent candidates for the presidency. The fact that she is a woman is definitely part of why #ImWithHer, but not the only reason. She’s also immensely qualified.

As a male feminist, and as a father of daughters, #ImWithHer!

#ImWithHer Because I’m an Asian Dad

As American a landscape as there is.

I’m also supporting Hillary Clinton because I’m an Asian dad. My family’s recent trip to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim provided an illustration for this. While we were there, my seven-year-old daughter sang a line that presumably she learned at school:

What’s more American than corn flakes, the Fourth of July, and Uncle Sam?

That sounded pleasant to my ears, especially given that we were looking out over that most American of landscapes in northern Arizona. But what she said next quickly shattered the moment.
“I’m not full American because I’m not white; I’m Chinese.”

My heart sank. I knew this moment would come at some point in her life. It does for so many of us Americans of color, and it is painful. But I didn’t expect it to come so early for her.

“Did someone say that to you?” I asked.

“No,” she said, her eyes beginning to fill with tears.

I proceeded to explain the difference between nationality and ethnicity, and that while she was ethnically Chinese, she was just as American as anyone else.

“I already know that, Daddy,” she sniffled.

I put my arm around her and wondered, if no one said it to her, how did she get that idea at such a young age? I could only imagine that it came from books and media she’d seen, where the vast majority of American heroes, heroines, and average Joes and Janes are white.

But that still didn’t make sense! My wife and I have flooded our home with books that have ethnically diverse characters, especially Asian ones. And we go to some lengths every year to celebrate Independence Day in a bicultural way, inspired by author Janet S. Wong’s and illustrator Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s terrific kids’ book, Apple Pie 4th of July. For four years running now, we’ve celebrated the Fourth by eating Chinese food, watching fireworks, and enjoying apple pie.

One example of Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s beautiful artwork in Apple Pie 4th of July.

But I’ve concluded that all of our efforts are not enough:

  • All our diverse books
  • Our annual celebration of the Fourth of July
  • The appreciation we’ve often expressed for being Americans
  • The daily Pledge of Allegiance the girls recite at school
  • My periodic attempts to channel Lee Greenwood by singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” (known more popularly as “I’m Proud to Be an American”)
  • The stories we’ve told them about the time I sang the National Anthem at a minor league baseball game in Texas

All of it is still not enough for my wife and I to inoculate our girls from the subtle yet powerful social message that to be fully American, you have to be white.

Why do I enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton for president? Because I want a president who doesn’t make my girls feel any less of an American because they’re Asian. I want one that sets an optimistic tone for our society with regard to race and ethnicity. I want my girls to have a president who will remind them and all Americans that no matter the color of their skin, they are greatly valued in the American family and are just as much Americans as everyone else.

That’s why #ImWithHer.

And I believe Secretary Clinton has done, and will continue to do, a strong job in that regard.

So #ImWithHer. And I can’t wait to take my girls to the voting booth with me as I cast my seventh general election ballot for president, my first for a woman.

Time to help make history!

Or, as many have tweeted this year, #herstory!

American Girl Power

As a feminist Asian dad, I am constantly on the lookout for empowering books, toys, and role models. My hope is that these will inspire in my daughters a sense of pride and confidence in being both girls and Asian Americans.

When my wife and I told our seven-year-old daughter the news that the doll was no more, our girl screamed and burst into tears. It was a surprising reaction, considering she did not own the doll, nor had she ever seen it in person.

The doll in question was the Ivy Ling doll by American Girl. And though we didn’t literally tell our daughter that Ivy was “no more,” it clearly felt that way to her.

What we actually said to her was that the toy company (Mattel) which owned American Girl announced that they were “archiving” Ivy, essentially retiring her. That meant there would be no more sales of Ivy dolls or her clothes, and all inventory would be removed from stores.

At the time, we didn’t own any American Girl dolls, which I felt were seriously overpriced at $100 each. But we had been hoping to get an Ivy by watching for the one-day super deals on NBC’s Today Show.

My wife and I asked our daughter if her strong reaction came from her desire to own an Ivy doll. But that wasn’t it. As we talked with her further, we found the deeper reason for her intense response.

It had to do with race.

Ivy Ling, if you haven’t guessed already, was a Chinese doll, and that’s not because she was made in China. Rather, it’s because the fictional character of Ivy Ling, as told in American Girl’s very well-written historical fiction books for young readers, was Chinese American.

wp-1473567416660.jpg
LEFT: Ivy’s everyday outfit, called a “meet” outfit in American Girl parlance. RIGHT: Ivy’s New Year outfit.

Retiring the Ivy doll, then, meant retiring the only Asian doll in the decades-old American Girl historical line. The brand does have other lines of dolls, most prominently the TrulyMe dolls of many hues and hairstyles. It’s a popular line that gives girls a chance to own dolls that look like them. But the original, best-known, and longest-beloved American Girl dolls are still the historical ones.

Now unless you’ve previously encountered the American Girl universe, a quick bit of background info will probably help. Ready?

Each of the historical dolls represents a girl character that’s around ten or eleven years old, give or take a couple of years. Each has her story told in American Girl books and has clothes and accessories that correspond to a particular time and place in American history. These settings include:

  • Mid-1970s San Francisco (as in Ivy’s story)
  • Great Depression-era Ohio
  • The East Coast, both North and South, during the Civil War
  • Antebellum New Orleans
  • Santa Fe shortly after Mexico’s independence from Spain
  • Pre-Revolutionary War Virginia
  • Pre-contact Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) lands
  • And several other settings with special significance in American history.

Each historical doll also has a clearly identifiable racial or ethnic background. At the time of Ivy’s retirement, there were several white dolls, one of which was Jewish. There were also two African American dolls (of which one was retired at the same time as Ivy), one Latina, and one Native (Nimíipuu).

Still with me?

Almost without exception, the historical dolls then fell into one of two categories. Each was either a main doll (my term) or a friend of a main doll.

The main dolls had lots of different outfits, and their stories were told in six-book serials. The friend dolls had but a couple of outfits each, and though readers learned about them in the main doll books, they each only had one book in which they were the central character.

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Riding on a cable car. Because, San Francisco!

Ivy was a friend doll. Her corresponding main doll was a spirited, determined, and delightfully feminist white character, Julie Albright. Ivy appeared prominently in the six Julie books as Julie’s best friend. Good Luck, Ivy, penned by my friend Lisa Yee, features Ivy herself as the central character.

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Author Lisa Yee has written several American Girl books and numerous other books for young and young adult readers.

Congratulations, you’ve completed your American Girl crash course! It was free of charge; thank me later. Now, back to my daughter.

What broke my young daughter’s heart that May of 2014 was her feeling that, to Mattel, Asians didn’t matter as much as everyone else. And because she was Asian, in her mind Mattel was also saying that she was less important than non-Asians, too.

Like I said, her scream and her tears had much to do with race.

But being the daughter of an activist, she wrote an email to Mattel. Actually, she dictated it while I typed. She pleaded with the company for an Asian doll, saying that she was mad and her feelings were hurt.

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Taylor and Ayden Her, awesome young activists!

She wasn’t alone. There arose an outcry on social media that was covered by journalists at ABC, NBC, Forbes, and other news outlets. Asian American advocacy group 18 Million Rising put out a petition, sparked by two nieces of executive director Pakou Her, to ask Mattel to promise that it would soon put out another Asian American doll. They obtained an impressive several thousand signatures.

The news impacted grown-up fans of American Girl as well. Stage and television actor Olivia Oguma, who earlier this year co-founded the Broadway Diversity Project, told me:

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olivia-oguma-ag-tweet-2More fully, Olivia said:

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I absolutely agree with Olivia. Ethnic representation in toys, books, and other media really helps the self-esteem of children of color! There’s research to back this up.

Even anecdotally, I’ve heard so many American women of color over the age of 30 say that when they were little, it was hard to find poseable dolls that looked like them. Mostly, they only had different versions of white, blond Barbie to choose from. This reinforced for them the subtle message, even more prevalent back then, that to be beautiful, you had to be white.

Think of it as a #DollsSoWhite kind of era, from which we’re still emerging.

Mattel was good enough to respond to my daughter’s email with a very thoughtful one of their own. The company rep explained that they were retiring all the friend dolls, not just Ivy. She also stated that the company always listened to consumer reactions, and it would take that input into account when designing future dolls.

She also apologized that the decision to retire Ivy upset my daughter. So while there was no promise to make a new Asian doll for the historical line, at least the company was saying that it paid attention to our reactions. But of course I wondered if they’d really follow through.

A few months later, a friend of ours gifted to my daughters two American Girl dolls that she had received once upon a time. We welcomed into our home Addy, the original African American doll, and Josefina, pronounced “HO-seh-FEE-nuh.” My girls have loved them.

And as that summer turned to fall, my wife and I made the decision to pony up the high cost and buy one of the remaining Ivy dolls before they were gone. We thought the doll had enough cultural significance to justify the expense. Our girls have enjoyed their Ivy, too.

Fast forward two years to 2016.

In response to declining sales, Mattel this year introduced a new line of American Girl dolls, called WellieWishers. These dolls are several inches shorter than the historical dolls, but they’re also less expensive (at $60 each). They’ll be easier to find, given they’re now available at Toys “R” Us and not exclusively at American Girl stores. Soon, they’ll also appear at Kohl’s stores.

I’m genuinely encouraged! The dolls in this new line are unmistakably diverse. And one of the dolls, named Emerson, is Asian! I appreciate that Mattel listened to the concerns expressed when Ivy was retired, keeping it all in mind for this new line.

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American Girl’s newest dolls, the Wellie Wishers, have outfits, accessories, stories, and their own app.

Granted, there’s still not an Asian doll among the historical ones. But with the WellieWishers, Mattel has given me hope that it’s moving in that direction. Just a few weeks ago, it also introduced a new African American historical doll, Melody, whose story is set in Detroit during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Mattel appears to be taking to heart the appeals for diversity, if for no other reason than its bottom line.

From what I’ve seen in recent news, diverse representations in toys and other media is proving to be good for many kinds of businesses. I need to look no further than my own home for evidence. Our younger daughter, who herself is now seven years old, took the 压祟钱 (yā suì qián, the money gifted in red envelopes) that she’d been saving over the last couple of years and bought an Emerson doll. It gave business to Mattel, and my daughter has another doll that she identifies with. She loves it so much that she sleeps with it every night.

Thank you, Mattel! Please keep it going!