Growing up I recall only one Asian personality represented anywhere across traditional media (this was before the internet). David Suzuki hosted a weekly TV show called, “The Nature of Things” (yay science!) shown on the public broadcaster here in Canada. (The show is still going as many Canadians know. Suzuki’s kids are now running it.) At the time, I wasn’t aware how rare Asian representation was which might explain my affinity with the show—someone who looked like me was on TV. Representation mattered a great deal because it was so rare. Today it still matters, however, I’m curious what it would look like if Asian folks sought to represent rather than reaching for representation.

Representation in North America means Asians (along with others) are a minority vis-à-vis the normalcy of whiteness. On one hand, representation legitimizes the existence of minority groups. It can even shape how we perceive ourselves individually and collectively. On the other hand, striving for greater representation at the top of any media food-chain that’s neither ours nor equitable is problematic. Namely, in order to participate we must adhere to the terms and conditions. Media, in all of its forms, is not innocuous. They are systems designed to favor that dominant gaze of whiteness while trying to define broader cultural ethos in its image. That’s why I don’t think it’s necessary to pursue the “top”. Getting to that “top” requires participation through acquiescence—it demands participants give up a piece of themselves by assimilating prior to catching a whiff of maybe success. It’s playing into an already rigged game where minority groups can never exceed the quota. In other words, the pursuit requires playing within the parameters that maintain white supremacy. For example, in cinema there is only one exceptional Michelle Yeoh. Yet in the cinema industry there can be only one Michelle Yeoh at a time, and every Michelle, of which there are few, must be few and far between. For the individual, the top is an achievement. Perhaps collectively it even gives us something to cheer for. But it’s not an example I want to contend with or even dream of. (Easy for me to say as someone who will never make it big, but would also love to have a best-selling book someday, for reasons I’m now unsure of.)

Asian folks sit in the dubious “middle” of racialization, where if we play our cards just right, whiteness promises to crack open the gates of belonging and even power. Playing into the “model minority myth” builds the caricature that Asians will match the prerequisites of whiteness for those partial rewards. Yet participation comes with consequences. Contorting to the demands of whiteness can be stripped away in an instant. At any moment whiteness (as a system) will vilify “foreign” bodies—including the token few. That was one of the many painful features of the early global pandemic. Anti-Asian hate skyrocketed where any face looking remotely Chinese to the general population absorbed increased violence that comes attached to those terms and conditions of white supremacy. Suddenly, we were reminded that pretending to exist in the middle ground between Black and Indigenous on one side, and white on the other, was (is) a fraud.

So maybe representation isn’t the goal? After all, whose approval are we trying to solicit with perceived success? Is it really that important to garner top accolades? Is the top a worthy American Dream to purse? Don’t forget there’s that quota…. All of these reasons sound compelling enough to reach for a different way. Pathways where Asian folks continue to find and raise our voices for the things we’re good at, while simultaneously participating in ventures that seek not merely individual success, but collective liberation. That’s a very different goal than what the American Dream purports. That model minority myth crumbles when we choose the side we’ve already been placed, and then work intersectionally with Black, Indigenous, and other folks towards new ways of being. I’m seeing variations of these decolonial ways of being coming into focus more and more, especially every May for Asian History Month (what we call it in Canada). I get to see and learn from more and more Asians sharing stories about who they are and where they are from.

There was a time, and in many ways it still is, when Asian participation in collective liberation movements led by Black and Indigenous kin was few and far between. Now I’m seeing a change. It’s affirming to watch the growing movement of voices reclaiming and celebrating our people. But it’s not only volume, it’s the type of messaging I’m hearing more and more too—the collective voice reaching for that collective liberation. Not just for Asian folks to be represented at the top, but for all marginalized folks holding space for one another to thrive. A rising voice representing a more just way of being, not only for Asian folks, but a shared hope for a more beautiful future where all can belong in their own skin and flourish.