An Open Letter to Lawrence O’Donnell

In response to this segment via MSNBC

Dear Mr. O’Donnell,

I think we can all agree that former Congressman Pete Hoekstra’s campaign ad featuring a woman of Asian descent riding a bicycle through what appears to be a rice paddy, boasting in broken English about her country’s thriving economy and smiling as she threatens to steal American jobs is repugnant and deeply racist.

What I take issue with is the manner in which you criticized the actress who appeared in that commercial. As an Asian-American actress, the vast majority of roles I audition for are prostitutes, illegal immigrants or massage parlor workers. It doesn’t matter that I’m an actor trained in the Meisner technique or that I studied English literature at Oxford. The roles that are available to me are severely limited by people’s refusal to see women who look like me as anything but bumbling foreigners or sex objects who can’t string together a coherent sentence.

It is easy for you, as a Caucasian man, to hold high-minded ideals and make moral judgments about the kind of roles this woman should not accept. The sad truth is that these grotesque stereotypes and racial caricatures are not limited to just one xenophobic politician’s offensive commercial. People are rightfully outraged at Hoekstra’s ad, but they should be equally outraged any time they turn on their televisions or go to a movie theater.

Actresses of color from Hattie McDaniel to Lupe Ontiveros to Lucy Liu have long had to play to stereotype. While I wish they’d always had work that was worthy of their talents, I don’t blame them for playing what was available to them with dignity and grace. The fact that Hollywood was not (and is still not) willing to give them parts that were as three-dimensional as the ones offered to their white counterparts did not prevent them from working. They did what actors do: they acted.

Even if this actress, at whom you verbally wagged your finger in a paternalistic tone, had taken your pledge for “simple decency” and turned down Hoekstra’s commercial, what else would have been available to her? An immigrant prostitute with one line of broken English on a TV show? To shame this woman, to conjecture that she’s “happily personifying the racial stereotype” is to ignore the fact that there is basically nothing better out there for Asian-American actresses.

While Hoekstra’s message is abhorrent, his portrayal of an Asian woman is sadly no worse than most of what is offered up to Americans on a regular basis. This is not about one woman’s bad decision. This is about an entire culture complicit in perpetuating these ugly stereotypes. Instead of chastising this young woman, you might have used your platform to discuss how pervasive this problem really is.

I have spent the last several years writing, directing and acting in films in an effort to put more nuanced portrayals of Asian-Americans onto the screen but it is a continuous struggle. I’m currently in the process of putting together the financing for my first feature film. The number of challenges it will face with an Asian-American female protagonist are numerous, but I believe the world is ready for something other than the same worn-out, racist caricatures.

Even if I manage to scrape together the funds to make my film, there will still be studio executives and distributors who do not believe that people want to see an Asian-American woman as anything other than a hooker in the background and it may never see the light of day. You ended your segment by declaring “I’ve done things in show business…that I’m not proud of. But I’ve never done anything that I’m ashamed of.” That’s very fortunate for you but not everyone has the luxury of your options.

Posted in Uncategorized by / February 8th, 2012 / 8 Comments »


  1. Chris L says:

    Even when taking racist roles, there’s a pretty big difference between playing a massage parlor prostitute and playing an outright Yellow Peril caricature for a largely white and conservative audience in Michigan. Moreover, the “actress” in question is not even a full-time actress but actually works in education, so this is not a case of a starving artist doing anything to get by.

    Minorities in America have the blessing and the burden of often being more than just individuals, and Asian-American actors should always be conscious of this fact when deciding to go into the business. You can’t go to Hollywood with the bright hopes of being the Great Asian-American Star, only to cast off that racial opportunity/burden when it gets difficult. Like it or not, a few racist roles that you take on could have huge implications for Asian-Americans for a long time.

  2. As someone who has traveled to China to pursue making movies with Chinese and who has studied China I really really appreciate this post. It is concise and beautiful and poignant.
    I have been struggling to write a short movie script to make a short movie while in Beijing because I fear that I might write incorrectly for a Chinese actor, but I wonder if on a small level that that is racist, not in the sense that I am writing it with a rice paddy in mind, but in the sense that I am forgetting one of the greatest lessons that I have learned while studying abroad. That people are people no matter where, and that I shouldn’t write stories about cultures, I should write them about people, because that is what the world is full of.
    Thank you for this post. It really made me tear up because it has inspired me to be a better writer and to continue in my own efforts to bring this world further together. I promise you this. I will always work to make sure that I have people playing any role I may have, not cultures, not races, but people.

  3. pjturner12 says:

    Asian actors playing stereotypes in american cinema is no less shameful than caucasian actors playing stereotypes in hong kong cinema. Every culture has their biases and much like music and sports, it takes a nuance to break into different markets. JLin pretty much outlined his struggles against stereotypes to make it where he is today. Neither Chuck Norris nor Steven Segal never made any movies to be accepted as a martial artist in the East. That being said, the pop group ‘Michael Learns to Rock’ somehow manages to be more successful in Asia than in America or in their homeground in Europe. My point is that when the actress chose this role, who knows what context it was. Who really knows what was in her mind, her situation, her politics when she chose to do this? How did we assume that she did not really protest against this role? How do we assume that her politics is not one that is aligned with Hoekstra’s? At this point, we are all just pundits like Mr. O’Donnell who, like this misguided lady, is just doing her job to pay the bills.

  4. stentor tropicalia says:

    Oh look what you made me do! Passive-aggressive role-taking. As the first comment points out, she isn’t exactly a starving artist. She is responsible for crossing an obvious line into blatant mockery. It’s more the case here of how dare a white liberal guy with an audience take up the cause, because he can’t possibly have a clue.

  5. actress says:

    she’s a uc berkeley graduate with plenty of experience empowering youth to attain post-secondary education. do you really think she did not know what she was doing? Of course Hoekstra and this society is a problem, but you can’t scrape blame off the actress too. How can you not blame someone who’s had her education and yet does not understand the racist in her role and script? There is definitely responsibility on her part. You can’t say all of Hollywood is sexist and thus agree to play an Asian hooker. Don’t take the job, like seriously, I promise you would die. ethics over fame. Imagine how hollywood would perpetuate stereotypes if Asian American actresses refuse to take roles that objectify themselves. I blame the media, but individuals cannot shed be free of responsibility.

  6. [...] a victim of Asian American “cyberbullying.” An Asian American actress named Joyce Wu criticized O’Donnell, saying to O’Donnell that that is often the only kind of role available to Asian actresses, [...]

  7. Straight -Up says:

    Pleeze U Asian women bitching about racism is so phoney. All of U women like white meat. I know so. Every Asian women I been with would rather be with us then some gook male. U full of shit.

  8. [...] Read on to learn what inspired Wu to create The Real Mikado. Plus, check out her open letter to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. [...]

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