A Look Back at the Campaign: Asian American Political and Cultural Representation
Konrad Ng / University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
During the recent presidential campaign, I found myself thinking about this question: How is new media affecting the political and cultural presence exercised on behalf of communities of color? This piece is an attempt to make sense of this aspect of the campaign by focusing on Asian America. In this regard, Obama is instructive. First, Obama’s campaign engendered vibrant grassroots new media participation and organization. Second, Obama has a unique relationship to Asian America. He grew up in predominantly Asian milieus and has family members of Asian descent. Obama has been called “the first Asian American president”1 and won the election with 62% of the Asian American vote.2 While Asian America is not a monolithic community in terms of composition and support for Obama, my sense is that the Obama campaign inaugurated new forms of political participation and cultural expression exercised on behalf of the Asian American community. What interests me is how the activities of Obama’s Asian American grassroots supporters reveal political objectives that go beyond simply rallying around the candidate. These supporters used new media platforms such as YouTube to campaign for Obama and engage the representation and meaning of Asian-ness in American political and popular culture.
One can point to the critical work of scholars like Lisa Lowe (1996) and David Palumbo-Liu (1999) to understand the complexities of Asian American cultural identity. Asian America has been a site of “contradictory, confusing, [and] unintelligible elements to be marginalized and returned to their alien origins,”3 giving rise to representations of Asian Americans as exotic and forever foreign people. At the same time, Asian Americans have also come to be treated as the “model minority,” a discourse of assimilationist cultural values “deployed to contain and divert civil rights policymaking, to neutralize activism, and to promote a laissez-faire domestic urban policy.”4 Enduring Asian American stereotypes like the passive model minority or suspicious alien5 have meant that Asian voices and issues have been underrepresented or misrepresented in political and cultural discourse. Indeed, during the 2008 presidential election, Democratic Members of Congress sent letters to CNN and MSNBC to criticize each network’s poor coverage of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in relation to other constituencies.6 The letter also affirmed the importance of Asian American and Pacific Islander participation in the political process and emphasized the media’s responsibility in “recognizing or ignoring these voices.”
Grassroots Obama supporters such as the Asian American filmmaker collective, United for Obama,7 were cognizant of the cultural and political dissonance that characterizes Asian American representation. The idea behind United for Obama was to use their collective skills and networks to “amplify Obama’s message on YouTube and offer visible, tangible evidence that this movement [to support Obama] is real and spreading.” As Asian American filmmakers, however, their experience in the entertainment industry provided an additional purpose to their work. The filmmakers in United for Obama are part of an industry where the meaning of Asian America is contested cultural terrain; Asian identity is defined in and against the normative representations and narrative and aesthetic form of “American” cinema. Film theorist Peter Feng aptly describes this tension for Asian American film and filmmakers as an attitude of “ambivalent dis-identification.” That is, Asian American cultural production often highlights the exclusion and misrepresentation of Asian America in the medium of its production. For Feng, ambivalent dis-identification is to be “engaged in a project of signifying on cinematic convention, using cinema to critique cinema, using a mode of communication to convey messages that subvert that mode”8 as a way to fill gaps in American history. Many of the thirty-one videos by United for Obama embodied this practice. Through aesthetic and narrative choices, their YouTube videos expressed support for Obama, but they also attempted to associate Asian-ness with political agency and cultural presence. A particular set of videos stands out: the videos of an Asian American actor discussing why Asian Americans supports Obama and how Obama has motivated Asian Americans to be active in politics, in spite of the cultural pressure to do otherwise.
In Kelly Hu, Asian Americans for Barack Obama,9 actress Kelly Hu (Martial Law, 1998-2000; The Scorpion King, 2002; Undoing, 2006; Americanese, 2006; Shanghai Kiss, 2007) hosts an Asian American discussion about reasons for supporting Obama and becoming involved in the political process. Hu opens the video by explaining why her involvement in the election is related to increasing Asian American participation. In Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar) for Obama,10 actor Kal Penn (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, 2004; The Namesake, 2007) appears at an Obama rally and discusses how he “never campaigned with anyone before” meeting Obama.
In Yul Kwon with Asian Americans for Barack Obama,11 Yul Kwon, the winner of Survivor: Cook Islands (2006), interviews several Asian Americans who describe how Obama resonates with their politics and how he leaves them feeling empowered as cultural and political citizens. In Ken Leung (Rush Hour, X-Men 3) for Barack Obama,12 actor Ken Leung (Rush Hour, 1998; X-Men: The Last Stand, 2006; Shanghai Kiss, 2007) discusses how Obama compels him to be political in a way that goes against type. Early in the video, Leung states, “I’m trying to learn how to, how to express myself, politically, and he’s moved me to do that and I think that is the biggest impact he has had on me so far…You know, I was raised with, my parents are part of a generation that never felt that they were in a position to embrace or own the process.” Leung’s comment captures the theme that runs throughout the videos. In each of the videos, Asian American popular culture figures express the importance of civic engagement – first, as a way to support Obama and second, as a way to improve the ways in which Asians have been represented in American cultural and political culture.
In terms of aesthetics, these YouTube videos embraced the platform’s “do it yourself” style and the aesthetics of cinéma vérité. These videos embody aesthetic techniques that present the on-screen action as real and natural rather than try to imitate the commercial, high-production value, large bandwidth gloss of Hollywood cinema. The videos were shot on digital video, composed of long takes and hand-held camera movements. All the videos were shot on-location using the available lighting and did not try to tame the location’s ambient sound. The videos also featured everyday Asian American people as main characters and included shots of Asian Americans as background figures. This realist aesthetic prompts the viewer to see Obama’s grassroots Asian supporters and their campaign activities as authentic, organic and earnest. Throughout the videos, Asian bodies are displayed as natural political agents. By doing so, the videos offer a distinction between the imaginary of Hollywood cinema, which has misrepresented and under-represented Asian Americans, and an imaginary grounded in everyday life.
United for Obama was one of the many novel forms of new media practice that emerged during the presidential campaign. Their focus on combining support for Obama with critical comment on the history of Asian American representation offers some insight on how communities of color are using new media platforms to articulate a theory of agency as a way to participate in civic life. It is a development that I continue to study with great interest.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.
Palumbo-Liu, David. Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999.
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- Jeff Yang, “Could Obama be the first Asian American president?” SFGate, July 30, 2008, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2008/07/30/apop.DTL (accessed July 30, 2008); June Shih, a former Whitehouse speechwriter for the Clintons, and news agency Agence France-Presse have since made the same claim: June Shih, “Barack Obama – America’s first Asian-American President?” Arcof72.com, http://arcof72.com/2009/01/30/barack-obama-americas-first-asian-american-president/, January 30, 2009 (accessed February 1, 2009); Shaun Tandon, Agence France-Presse, “Obama the first Asian-American president?” April 27, 2009, http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20090427/pl_afp/uspoliticsobama100daysasia (accessed April 27, 2009). [↩]
- CNN Election Center 2008, http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#val=USP00p1 (accessed November 5, 2008). [↩]
- Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 4. [↩]
- David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999), 172. [↩]
- Wen Ho Lee, My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Accused of Being a Spy, New York: Hyperion, 2001. [↩]
- “Members of Congress Write to Jonathan Klein, CNN President,” The Democratic Party, February 15, 2008, http://www.democrats.org/a/2008/02/members_of_cong_1.php (accessed February 15, 2008) and “Members of Congress Write to Phil Griffin, Executive-in-Charge, MSNBC,” The Democratic Party, February 15, 2008, http://www.democrats.org/a/2008/02/members_of_cong_2.php (accessed February 15, 2008). [↩]
- http://www.youtube.com/unitedforobama. [↩]
- Peter X. Feng, Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 14-15. [↩]
- UnitedForObama, “Kelly Hu, Asian Americans for Barack Obama,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW_AXO8wCj0 (accessed January 16 2008). [↩]
- UnitedForObama, “Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar) for Obama,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJvw1-oZCNM January 16, 2008 (accessed January 16, 2008). [↩]
- UnitedForObama, “Yul Kwon with Asian Americans for Barack Obama,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZ8-s8jf_pc January 27, 2008 (accessed January 27, 2008). [↩]
- UnitedForObama, “Ken Leung (Rush Hour, X-Men 3) for Barack Obama,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LCde5gFNDA February 5, 2008 (accessed February 5, 2008). [↩]