In honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I had the privilege of being a representative face and voice on RPA’s panel discussion about the Asian-American experience, both in my role as a project manager, and in my life outside of advertising. It really got me thinking about my own heritage in relation to the creative work that we do at our ad agency and in our industry.
I am a first-generation (more like 1.5, to be exact) Filipino-American. Born in Manila, Philippines, I carry cultural values from the land I come from with me, notably the Filipino psychological idea of kapwa. The notion of kapwa is simply that there is a shared inner-self, a shared humanity. Others are a part of me and vice versa, therefore, we should treat one another as we treat ourselves. It’s an idea that intersects in important ways with RPA’s own agency philosophy of “People First,” of empathy and responsibility to everyone we work with and those for whom we create advertising.
In that spirit of understanding, I hope RPA and the greater advertising community become more comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations surrounding race and diversity at large. Diversity is a complex thing, encompassing more than race, intersecting with class, culture, gender, age, orientation, religion, and disability. There’s a lot to unpack there, and as an industry, we can’t be shy about taking it head-on. We can’t because we create marketing content that people see and hear, and it has the power to affect that shared inner-self.
And when we put our creative work out there in the world, we should know that we’ve considered the impact of our ideas beyond just a surface level. Meaning, if we choose to tell stories that touch on important debates about issues like immigration, social protest, or women’s or minority rights, we need to do more than simply co-opt the aesthetics and language of these issues, but make sure that we really understand them and understand how our participation in the conversation will be received. We can all think of examples in advertising that have failed to grapple with the deeper implications of topical debates, casting choices, and underlying subtext. Had these advertisers considered these things more deeply, perhaps their work could make small ripples that would feed into bigger waves of positive change.
These types of changes certainly do not happen overnight. It takes a keen awareness of what’s going on, and sustained action over time by people across many industries and institutions.
Late last year, my friend’s brother, who is Laotian-Thai, was subject to a barrage of racial slurs, and made to duck from a beer bottle chucked at him from a moving vehicle. He had been walking to the dorms on his way from class when they drove by and told him to “go back to Asia” and called him a “job stealer.” Another vehicle rolled up and told him the bottle he ducked “should have hit him,” that he “deserved that.”
Incidents across the nation like this one prompted the first-ever tracker for hate crimes against Asian-Americans. Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil and human rights nonprofit, launched standagainsthatred.org in January of this year to document these experiences.
According to a report from the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, hate crimes against Asian-Americans tripled in L.A. County from 2014 to 2015. In this same report, hate crimes in general were up by 24%. And across the board, race, sexual orientation, religion and gender hate crimes had escalated.
It was hard to believe at first, seeing as L.A. and California are home to many Asian-Americans, the so-called model minority. But it’s all too real. So how do we do our part, at least in our role as advertisers, creators of media? I’ll give you an entertainment example.
This year, Master of None: Season Two, co-created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, premiered this month on Netflix. I loved Season One, particularly an episode entitled “Parents,” for its thoughtful nod to the immigrant narrative, and the notable cultural divide that happens between generations in America. It was ripe with all the feels of being first-generation myself. I applaud the show on so many levels because it offers up narratives for people of color that are complex and powerful and relatable.
All too often, the roles we play are caricatures and stereotypes. Even more often, the Asian-American is relegated to the role of sidekick or supporting character, never the central protagonist of a story. It may be a product of unconscious oversight rather than active exclusion, but it matters. And it needs to be examined and interrogated. Why are we so often the nerd and the doctor, but so rarely the artist and the hero? Why are we so worthy of the role of note-taker, number-cruncher and budget-keeper, but find ourselves struggling to be seen as the visionary leader, the big-picture thinker and industry disruptor?
When we look at magazine ads, when we watch movies, shows and commercials, the images impact our inner-self, our shared humanity — or, as we say in Filipino culture, our kapwa.
Diverse stories are powerful.
Check out the panel, streamed on Facebook: Asians in Advertising: How to Navigate Assumptions, Defy Expectations and Make Your Career.”