On the YouTube screen, five young Asian American Pacific Islanders are sitting on a couch, introducing themselves to the viewer. “Hi, I’m Kane. I’m the director.” “I’m Farah, the executive producer…” The five are producers of a documentary in progress, “Uploaded: The Asian American Movement,” a project about the effect of new media on API visibility, pan-ethnic identity, and a new form of community in the arts and entertainment.
Many Americans, including longstanding API activists, are familiar with social change movements, from the civil rights movement to Seattle’s Asian Coalition for Equality to the birth of American Ethnic Studies: movements which often used protests, marches, and boycotts as tactics. In this online movement the banners are digital ones, scrolling across the top of a screen, rather than butcher paper held in the streets. What’s their message? Can these new forms of visibility and celebrity, through new media, activate social change?
Recent articles from KoreAm magazine to the New York Times and Marketplace National Public Radio (NPR) speak of a growing visibility of APIs in entertainment, citing numbers that include millions of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter subscribers and followers. The nonprofit organization Kollaboration proudly defines itself as “an event and a movement,” with the ultimate goal of bringing about “a paradigm shift of perceptions and to pave the way for future APIs to accomplish their goals and dreams that may be entertainment related.” The producers of
“Uploaded” have also included this language, subtitling their documentary “The Asian American Movement.”
Can we see the exponential rise and popularity of APIs on YouTube or in entertainment as a social movement?
“That’s a really, really hard question to answer,” says sociologist Larry Shinagawa, professor and director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland. Shinagawa conducts research on Asian American advocacy, national civil rights, and public policy. He also describes his perspective as a “just-after-Civil Rights-activist” one.
“We have to ask the hard questions,” Shinagawa continues. “Who are the leaders? How does it change consciousness? Where are the results? How does this movement address poverty, the underlying issues of racism, sexism, and inequality? And if President Obama’s mantra was, ‘Yes, we can,” we must now ask, “Yes, we can do what?’”
Other API youth activists, even those involved in the arts may also question the possible conflation of visibility with social change. Seattle-born youth activist and performance artist El Dia, a founding member of Youth Speaks Seattle, also wonders at the idea of calling this phenomenon a movement.
“These [YouTube] stars are expressing lived experience of the State of Asian America,” she says, “challenging (or creating) stereotypes surely, but on the whole are not advocating for political action or challenging systemic oppression in the mass-based way that the past US social movements did.”
There are a number of API youth-focused organizations and individuals, she adds, who “carry on [the legacy of APIA activism], creating space, holding events, working with youth, providing support, fighting racist laws and policing and otherwise creating social change within their communities.” However these organizations, such as Oakland’s AYPAL (Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership) have not garnered as much fame as newly visible online stars, including YouTube comedian Ryan Higa, beauty tips guru Michelle Phan, or musician David Choi.
Farah Moriah, one of the executive producers of “Uploaded,” does partially concur with this assessment, suggesting that the film is “not technically social activism, but could work hand in hand with social activism” and eventually lead to change. After some conversation, Moriah suggests that the documentary’s purpose can also galvanize different API constituencies for mutual support:
“Growing up, we saw more Chinese pride, or Korean pride, or Filipino pride…but now we are really seeing new inspiration for youth to come together and support each other, especially in entertainment.”
In the process of making “Uploaded”, she continues, the producers have noticed that this phenomenon has encouraged different API artists to forge a renewed and stronger sense of pan-ethnic API identity, breaking an older generation’s stereotypical vision of the political apathy of API youth.
Clearly, more dialogue is needed between traditional activists, media makers, youth voices, and those who span these populations. Yet El Dia, Kollaboration, and the “Uploaded” producers all contend that the effect of these celebrities on API youth can be huge. “I would be very hesitant to call the rise of APIAs in entertainment, ‘the social movement of our generation’, says El Dia. “I believe that is yet to come.” Yet Moriah and her co-producers are certainly invested in broader representation: “We’d love to hear from more folks, and we’re really interested in including a wide variety of perspectives.”