This month, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) — the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans — is celebrating its 25th anniversary in changing the mass media by holding them accountable for their portrayal and coverage of Asian Pacific Americans.
MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki remembers being motivated to form the all-volunteer, nonprofit group in the middle of 1991 when the media was doing half a year’s worth of stories building up to the 50th anniversary of the bombing Pearl Harbor:
“They weren’t offering any deeper insight into the circumstances which led to it. Many reporters just stuck their microphones into the faces of old people who lost friends in battle and asked how they felt. Well, how do you think they felt? Racial slurs flew. Some tried justifying the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. That was a sore point, because I was one of 140 people who had lobbied Congress to pass the redress and reparations bill in 1987, so this was an issue close to my heart.
“I knew there’d be hate crimes. And there were. The Norwalk Japanese Community Center was vandalized twice in two weeks with ‘Japs’ and ‘Nips Go Home’ spray-painted inside their offices. Someone defecated on the porch of a Japanese American man in Claremont. That was it! I swore I’d never again be caught unprepared to respond to an irresponsible media. We were going to have a rapid response team in place.”
At the time MANAA was founded on April 9, 1992, the first Bush was in the White House, Johnny Carson was still hosting “The Tonight Show,” and among the four television networks, there was only one Asian American regular on a prime-time show (Steve Park in “In Living Color”).
Since 1999, MANAA has been part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition meeting annually with CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC to push for more meaningful inclusion of Asian Pacific Islanders. Today, the total number of Asian/Pacific Islander regulars has increased to 55. In the 2016-2017 season, ABC has a record 22 of them.
Paula Madison, former executive vice president of diversity for NBC, has been on both sides of the table after coming to a MANAA meeting this year to support its work. She said: “MANAA is a bold and necessary voice for the AAPI community. MANAA has consistently been in the vanguard in the fight for media accuracy, fairness and access for people of the Asian diaspora.”
MANAA consulted on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and Disney’s “Pearl Harbor.” In addition, the organization has met with the presidents of Paramount, Universal Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. As part of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition (which includes the NAACP, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and American Indians in TV and Film), MANAA has discussed broadening efforts to include more people of color with talent agencies ICM Partners, WME, Paradigm and CAA, and is seeking to do the same with movie studios.
In 1993, MANAA launched a nationwide protest against the movie “Rising Sun,” based on the novel of the same name. In 1995, its picketing of KKBT’s “House Party” led to the station agreeing to end skits that mocked well-known Asian Americans with fake Asian accents.
The following year, after MANAA threatened to go after his sponsors, KFI’s Bill Handel issued his first-ever apology for saying he was “tired of seeing slanted-eyed figure skaters winning all the time.” CBS Radio introduced racial sensitivity training after Adam Carolla aired a skit mocking Asian American actors with people saying nothing but variations of “ching chong” for almost a minute.
In 2001, comedian Sarah Silverman did an off-color joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” using the slur “chinks.” After Aoki protested and got national coverage on the issue, Silverman went on “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” and lambasted him. Aoki demanded equal time and confronted her on the program a month later, making for one of the most fiery debates in the show’s history (in her biography, Silverman spent 14 pages talking about Aoki and MANAA).
The show can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsNoO8xMs04. (Note that there is a three-minute gap between the first and second segment, and the third segment has yet to be uploaded.)
Last year, Aoki chastised Chelsea Handler for making racially stereotyped jokes about Angeline Jolie’s then-three-year-old Vietnamese son Pax (“He’s going to be a horrible driver… He’s going to be amazing at doing nails!”) in the Netflix documentary “Chelsea Does Racism.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) released the following statement: “For so many years, Guy Aoki has been the conscience of the Asian American Pacific Islander community, watching out to ensure that there are fair portrayals in the media. I am thankful that we have had him there to question negative portrayals and to promote more accurate and balanced images in film and television. When there are more accurate portrayals of AAPIs, all of America benefits.”
To see a history of MANAA up to 2006, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUQHlhn3KUM.
Lately, MANAA has been at the forefront of educating the media and public about the increasing problem of “whitewashing,” where white actors play Asian/Pacific Islander characters like in “21,” “The Last Airbender,” “Dragonball Evolution,” “Aloha,” “The Martian,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Dr. Strange,” “Ghost in the Shell,” and Netflix’s upcoming “Death Note.”
“Though Asian Americans have come a long way in 25 years, there is still a long way to go,” says MANAA President Rob Chan. “We are still not mainstream in the media, especially in film, where we’re rarely the star. We are still whitewashed and made fun of. The ‘perpetual foreigner’ stigma from decades ago is still alive and well in 2017, so the fight for fair representation continues.”
MANAA wishes to thank all present and past members who have helped fuel the organization’s accomplishments, including co-founder George Johnston, Daniel Mayeda, Philip Chung, Rita and Jeff Hollingsworth, Ben Bulatao, Edwin Zane, Kathee Yamamoto, Ken Kwok, Dr. Jeffery Mio, Phil Lee, Aki Aleong, Rob Chan, Miriam Nakamura-Quan, Tom Eng, and the current board.