More than 200 participants gathered in Little Tokyo on Saturday to talk - and tweet - candidly about persistent negative images damaging to their ethnic group, especially when it comes to family, education, politics and news coverage.
Participants converged on Little Tokyo for "Beyond the Bad and the Ugly," the first ever summit on Asian American stereotypes. Some sported buttons with labels touting them as thugs, geeks, players and FOBs, or "fresh off the boat."
"Don't be afraid," a moderator urged at the start, and participants didn't hold back, attacking offensive stereotypes of some members of their ethnic group that ranged from sexless nerds to predatory temptresses.
To counter such notions, organizers invited some of the most visible Asian American bloggers, activists and academics to share their views. Speakers set a frank tone from the opening session, with poet and author Beau Sia noting, "You think I know martial arts? I don't. You think I'm smart? I'm dumb. We decide how to build or how to react to our environment. We can turn … into gold."
Actor Parvesh Cheena, from NBC's "Outsourced,” debated the onscreen images of Asian culture that he and others grew up with, largely negative and filled with accents and limitations.
"We need to search for writers, producers, directors of all color. We are criminally underrepresented," he said. "It's nice to see makeup people, camera people of different backgrounds, but to really reflect our lives, we've got to be able to see our grandparents and family" with multiple views, in multiple dimensions.
Gene Yang, graphic novelist of "American Born Chinese" and "Level Up" fame, told the crowd at the Japanese American National Museum, "It's more important to tell your own stories than to tell other people's stories."
If you don't see stories that resonate with you, Jen Wang, creator of Disgrasian, a top Asian American blog with its list of "Hall of Shamers," said the digital revolution offers options to highlight personal voices. “Content production has transformed," she added, "it's not the big machine of Hollywood driving everything," pointing to Kickstarter as one of the platforms where people can raise funds to pursue projects. "You don't have to only knock on the doors of Paramount" to do what you want.
This event "really is the culmination of a dream, seeing people not only talking about these issues - but doing something about it," says organizer Jeff Yang, co-author of "Shattered, the Asian American Comics Anthology" and a cultural columnist for the Wall Street Journal. "The point is to empower everyone, telling them, 'Change is happening, and it's happening inside - with us.'"
[For the record, March 24, 6:22 p.m.: An earlier version of the headline on this post referred to participants in the summit as "Asians."]