Last week’s BBC News interview with Professor Robert Kelly where his two small children burst into the room while he was live on air has now been viewed hundreds of millions of times. Commenters on social media and initial reports from news outlets assumed that Jung-a Kim, the Asian woman who ran in to usher the kids out, was the nanny – not his wife. In a world noisy with news of terrible atrocities, why does an assumption about a woman in a comedy viral video matter?
Unconscious bias or outright racist assumptions have real consequences. If we don’t consider certain people to be as human as we are, their happiness or wellbeing is less important to preserve. We get to treat them how we like or we stand by as they are treated badly.
So, to those who assumed that Kim was the nanny, it’s worth thinking about what kind of woman you might have expected Kelly to be married to. Did people assume that the Asian woman in his home was the nanny because she seems to behave in a subservient way? She seems scared, flustered, her posture is low to the ground and she doesn’t make eye contact or speak. Or is it that she can’t possibly be the heroine because Asian women are routinely depicted as secondary figures in the media, if they are visible at all.
If you happen to spot a person of colour represented in the UK media today, they are more than likely to be reinforcing unhelpful racial stereotypes. Of course, stereotypes come from real life – there are east Asian nannies, Thai mail-order brides, “exotic” sex workers, Filipino or Indonesian maids, martial arts experts, sexy mathematicians, scientists or masseuses, fierce tiger mothers, ball-breaking career women in legal or financial firms, dead cockle-pickers, trafficked underage girls, rude waitresses in Chinatown or bored women behind the takeaway counter in real life. Hang on, surely that’s a nice cross-section of society? What’s missing is the woman who happens to be Asian doing “normal, everyday” things.
In fiction, on stage, in TV and in films, we have various tests, such as the Bechdel test (do the women characters talk to each other and do they talk about anything other than a man), and the sexy lamp test (can you replace all the female characters with lamps and not affect the storyline) to check how women are being represented. The most popular storylines for Asian women do not even come close to passing. We generally have:
1) Hero is attracted to Asian woman for a short time but then leaves. She dies. (Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon)
2) Asian woman is distractingly sexy. White man overcomes this and wins mission. He ends up with white woman if there was room for another woman in the first place (You Only Live Twice)
4) Asian woman needs rescuing or a visa (Coronation Street)
Jami Rogers at the University of Warwick researched Shakespearean roles and found that if a production chose to include actors of colour, very specific characters – sidekicks, the baddie or undesirable characters – were allocated to certain races that served the fictitious character’s defining trait. For example, a second-in-command or servant role goes to a yellow or brown actor, as Asians are seen as good at following orders or acting on behalf of a white master.
And these depictions feed into real life. Take the hypersexualisation of Asian women, in particular, east Asian women. Data shows that on dating apps, all men – apart from Asian men – prefer Asian woman. I am interested in whether these men want to marry Asian women or just date them. See above for reminders from media about what to do with an Asian woman once she’s provided sex or assistance. Asians, alongside other people of colour and marginalised groups, are depicted as disposable.
Also ask yourself what goes through your mind when you see an interracial couple on the street? Do you wonder about their lives together in a way you wouldn’t question a couple of the same skin colour? Onscreen, which interracial couplings are you more likely to see and therefore think of as normal (white man with sexy black/Latino/Asian woman), and what disturbs you (black/Asian man with white woman)? The white man is positioned as central and normal and everyone else is usually defined in relation to him.
Does our worth lie in our gender or skin colour? In the sum of our age, accent, life experience, subjective attractiveness or economic value? Look, I love and value entertainment. And I’m not here to police thought. Making a lightning assumption that an Asian woman is a nanny is not the problem. All of us categorise and make sense of the world based on what we see, but too often media depictions make our worlds smaller and more simplistic. It’s when we act unjustly based on those assumptions that it becomes dangerous ground.