The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics came to a close earlier this week. While the Olympic Games grant athletes international exposure, they also provide a moment for all Americans to celebrate national pride and unity. This year, Team USA sent its most diverse team yet, with a total of 14 Asian-Americans. Many of these Asian-American athletes achieved international recognition for their performances, including snowboarder Chloe Kim’s gold medal run and figure skater Nathan Chen’s six quadruple jumps in his redemptive free skate.
This recognition has come during a climate of everlasting struggle for adequate Asian-American representation. In entertainment, for example, the rates have been dismal — in more than half of film, television and streaming media, there aren’t any named or speaking Asian characters. More recently, Hollywood’s insidious whitewashing has come to light as Asian roles have regularly gone to white actors.
Representation within the Olympics, though, is not a comprehensive solution to the lack of Asian-American visibility. Sports are fundamentally more egalitarian than film and television casting. Athletic performance is trackable through transparent means like universal scoring criteria, and exceptional performance can secure an athlete’s spot on the Olympic team. Conversely, entertainment can function more covertly with less need to adhere to egalitarian values. Films and television shows are ultimately projects seeking viewership and revenue with casting decided by creatives, directors and production companies.
Despite how Asian-American representation in this year’s Olympics was achieved through merit rather than a conscious effort for diversity, it still provides a powerful avenue for changing the landscape of how Americans perceive Asian people. So far, the lack of Asian-American representation in media has perpetuated the harmful mentality that Asian people are inherently foreign and therefore, un-American. This binary belief seeped into the coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics when The New York Times Opinion editor Bari Weiss retweeted a video of figure skater Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel, with the caption: “Immigrants: They get the job done.” Her tweet garnered attention for inaccurately referring to Nagasu, who was born and raised in California, as an immigrant. Weiss has since deleted this tweet and replaced it with a thread defending herself, linking other articles that refer to Nagasu similarly.
First-generation Americans like Nagasu retain a unique blend of their parents’ culture and American upbringing. This is what Weiss said she intended to highlight. Yet the outrage can be traced to something more formidable than a misunderstanding, as the implications of Weiss’ comment outweigh her intentions. By clumping Nagasu with immigrants solely because of her parents, Weiss effectively undermines her American identity. The stark irony is at its most obvious peak since Nagasu represents the U.S. on Olympic ice. How countless others have done the same to Nagasu doesn’t exempt Weiss from the impact of her comment. Rather, it informs us of the larger picture — the ubiquitous tendency for Americans at large to view Asians as foreign. Chrissy Teigen in a response to Weiss said it best: “No one is ashamed of the word immigrant but it’s tiring being treated as foreigners all the time. You made a mistake. It’s okay. But people are giving you calm, great insight. Just learn and breathe.”
Instances like Weiss’ tweet are inevitable. Comments like Weiss’ will cause identical friction. All of this tension, however, is necessary for progress toward a more inclusive definition of what it means to be American. These microaggressions along the way, if we handle them with perspective and patience, can be our growing pains. The process begins with representation, and this time, it was heralding Asian-American Olympians as our own. Perhaps by 2022, when our ethnically diverse American athletes gather once again, America will be closer to recognizing the duality of Asian-American identity, understanding that “American” is just as relevant as “Asian” in “Asian-American.”
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Email Janice Lee at [email protected].