Where is the public face of Asian Americans in our society? As we follow the case of Kenneth Bae, the only Asian American faces we see on the television news are those of Kenneth Bae and his family. Relatively few Asian American analysts, commentators or advocates (with the exceptions of Connie Chung, Julie Chen, Ann Curry, Sanjay Gupta, and Kaity Tong) appear on the news media.
How can this be?
These important voices need to be heard and understood, but how can a deeply Asian American social issue have no Asian Americans directly addressing it within the public sphere? How can the news media not incorporate Asian American commentators, leaders, analysts who can specifically, and more importantly accurately, address Kenneth Bae’s situation and the context within which it occurs? Given that the story involves the complex relationships between South Korea and North Korea and between North Korea and the United States, how can the news media not bring in an expert who can address these issues with authority? Rather much of the media surrounding Kenneth Bae’s case has been around Dennis Rodman and his comments on CNN.
The invisibility of Asian Americans on the issue of an Asian American’s situation should astound and alarm us. When a news story involves a person in central Europe, the commentators usually include a bureau chief in Berlin, Prague, or Vienna who knows German, Czech, and Russian. Where is the bureau chief in Seoul who knows Korean and can speak to Kenneth Bae’s situation? If this issue involved an African American, many African American analysts and leaders would be invited to speak such as the case surrounding Trayvon Martin. Many African American religious leaders (Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson) and Political Analysts (Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. James Braxton Peterson, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Barbara Arnwine) were interviewed and consulted on the news media. If this case involved Hispanics, the same courtesy would be given to Hispanic leaders and analysts. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Janet Murguía, Civil Rights Activist Dolores Huerta, and many others are consulted and interviewed in the news media about immigration reform and its impact on Hispanic communities in the U.S.
Why is this not the same for the Asian American leaders and analysts in a situation involving an Asian American? When Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean American went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, the news media did not consult the Asian American community. There was certainly the issue of mental health involved, but there were also issues of racism and marginalization, which also played into the mental well being of Cho. Since the case of Kenneth Bae is a Korean American issue, wouldn’t the news media want to search out prominent Korean American leaders who can address this issue intelligently, insightfully, and critically?
Instead, Asian American voices are not included in the commentary and reflection. They are silenced. This silence reinforces the invisibility of Asian Americans within the media, society, academia, and culture.
This deafening silencing may be due in part to society’s acceptance of Asian Americans as the “model minority.” This concept of “model minority” is a myth based on the faulty misconception that since Asian Americans work hard and have succeeded, they must not have suffered the difficulties or hardships of racism, prejudice, and stereotyping as the other ethnic communities. As the model minority, the plight and hardships of Asian Americans are not recognized by the wider society.
Asian Americans are also understood to be “honorary whites,” which indicates they are viewed as almost like the dominant community. As such, they do not need a specific Asian American voice or leader to share their thoughts on the release of Kenneth Bae. Furthermore, the dominant culture, and news media views injustices endured by Asian Americans as not including a racial dimension because Asian Americans are “honorary whites.” As a result, the fight to free Kenneth Bae has not been framed as a civil rights issue.
These misconceptions and myths further marginalize Asian Americans as a subordinate and subjugated group within the white American society. White America indicates to society, that, unlike the voices coming from “genuine minorities,” Asian American voices are not different from white voices. Asian Americans are often understood or portrayed as fragile feminine figures that should be seen but not heard. Even Asian American men are often feminized by white society as they are often viewed in roles as cooks and launders. (Note, above, that almost all the prominent Asian American newscasters are women and there is nothing wrong with prominent women Asian American newscasters. It is only noticeable in a patriarchal context when most prominent newscasters are men.)
The silencing of Asian Americans needs to be challenged. Our voices, which come from the medical, religious, political, social, scholarly and other dimensions of society need to be voiced and heard. I am counting the days until a news media outlet will seek the voices of responsible Asian American voices that can wisely address the case of Kenneth Bae. This failure to cultivate comments from Asian American communities perpetuates the racism felt by Asian Americans in this country.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim obtained her M.Div. from Knox College and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She is a Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. She is the author of 5 books, Contemplations from the Heart (forthcoming), Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers, Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology & The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology. She is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora”. Kim is especially active in the American Academy of Religion (AAR), serving on the Research Grants Jury Committee, the Women of Color Scholarship, Teaching, and Activism Consultation steering committee as a Co-Chair, and a Religion and Migration Group steering committee. She also serves on the Editorial Board for the Journal for Religion and Popular Culture, and is a referee for the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion, the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and The Global Studies Journal. Most recently, she co-authored, with Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Op-Ed American Missionary Kenneth Bae Languishes in a Pyongyang Prison for The Nation.