#StarringAffirmativeAction: How #StarringJohnCho Debunks Recent Asian American Complaints Against Ivy League Universities

Artwork submitted to #StarringJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter)
Artwork submitted to #StarringJohnCho. (Photo Credit: Twitter)

By Guest Contributor: Christopher M. Lapinig

Are you all about the #StarringJohnCho posters, the Photoshop phenomenon that reimagines posters for recent Hollywood blockbusters with actor John Cho in their leading-man roles? Then you should be equally as excited about supporting race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions, too. 

To understand how John Cho relates to college admissions, let’s first take a closer look at why #StarringJohnCho matters.

#StarringJohnCho and its counterpart #StarringConstanceWu are reactions to the abysmal underrepresentation of Asian American actors in lead roles in both television and movies. #StarringJohnCho ponders why Asian actors continue to be shut out of lead roles in entertainment, even when “studies show that films with diverse casts result in higher box office numbers and higher returns on investments for film companies.” #StarringJohnCho challenges Hollywood to break out of tired templates and think more expansively about casting and storylines.

Of course, there have been some signs of progress — on the small screen, at least. For example, Fresh Off the Boat — recently renewed for a third season — became the first sitcom focused on an Asian American family to thrive past its first season. Critically acclaimed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend not only features an Asian American man as the protagonist’s primary love interest, but showcases a Filipino American family for the first time in network television history. And Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix hit Master of None—which, in one episode, poignantly depicts relationships between immigrant parents and their U.S.-born children— recently won a Peabody Award.

All of these recent breakthroughs resulted from intentional actions to depict characters and stories that have historically been shut out of television.  These breakthroughs only happened because network executives intentionally took a chance on airing the first Asian American family sitcom on television in twenty years. They happened only because show creators actively chose to cast an Asian man as their romantic lead — in part because that was something they had never seen on television before.  And they happened because writers decided to translate their own relationships with their immigrant parents into a script.

For studios, the lesson is clear — diversity pays off.

These breakthroughs don’t just benefit the Asian Americans working on and off camera; they benefit audiences, too. Not only do the characters and stories begin to look more like our country as whole, these changes in the industry make for better stories.  As the New York Times recently wrote, “The less homogeneous TV is, the less boring it is.”

What Hollywood needs — and what #StarringJohnCho demands — is more affirmative action. For decades, race-conscious college admissions has been the Fresh Off the Boat — or even the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — of higher education. Race-conscious college admissions acknowledges that many groups — women, minorities, LGBTQ individuals, and others — have historically been denied access to college.  Affirmative action is a conscious effort — just as casting John Cho as James Bond would be — to include “characters” and “stories” that have long gone ignored in higher education.  

And just as in entertainment, the benefits of this inclusion inure to the entire community. After all, the less homogeneous a college is, the less boring it is. More diversity, in other words, leads to richer conversations inside and outside the classroom.

That’s why the recent complaints filed by the so-called Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) against Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale are misguided. The complaints overlook the myriad ways in which Asian Americans have benefited from affirmative action in education and elsewhere in American society.

Indeed, for example, Asian Americans have been direct beneficiaries of affirmative action at Yale. The rich Asian American community that Yale boasts today only exists because of the gains in representation that Asian American applicants received through affirmative action. And Yale still can do more to improve Asian American and Pacific Islander representation — certain ethnicities, including Southeast Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander ethnic groups (all conspicuously absent from AACE’s list of coalition members), remain woefully underrepresented on campus. As Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown have all recognized, strengthening student body diversity is in everyone’s interests. Just as all viewers benefit from diversity in Hollywood, all students — Asian American or otherwise — benefit from a diverse student body that enriches classroom discussions and campus life.

So your excitement about #StarringJohnCho likely reflects just how much Hollywood needs affirmative action. College campuses still do, too. And defending race-conscious college admissions deserves just as much of your enthusiasm as casting John Cho as Captain America.

Join Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles in defending affirmative action by signing our open letter here.

Christopher Lapinig
Christopher Lapinig

Christopher M. Lapinig is a Skadden Fellow and Registered Legal Services Attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, the country’s largest legal services and civil rights organization serving Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Born and raised in Queens, New York, Chris graduated summa cum laude from Yale College with a B.A. in Ethnicity, Race & Migration and Linguistics and from Yale Law School with a J.D. Chris previously served as a law clerk to the Honorable Denny Chin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a law clerk to the Honorable Lorna G. Schofield of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and as a Fulbright Scholar in the Philippines.

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  • alevelthreethinker

    I do find it amusing, that despite the fact that quotas, alone at academic institutes hurt Asians, the fact that they get scholarships more than Whites is proof that Whites are the victims. Ah, but what can you expect from Trump supporters?

    On a positive note, I believe Asians will reach the ‘threshold’ so to speak where executives feel the need to represent them at notable, perhaps even proportionate, levels.

  • alevelthreethinker

    On a positive note, I believe Asians will reach the
    ‘threshold’ so to speak where executives feel the need to represent
    them at notable, perhaps even proportionate, levels.

  • r648

    This isn’t exactly a fair comparison, since affirmative action is a governmentally regulated quota system, whereas #StarringJohnCho is just a collection of people on the Internet with hashtags. The false equivalence being drawn between the two is mind boggling.

    In keeping with the affirmative action analogy, the equivalent would be if a quota system were established, whereby a certain number of romantic roles in all film and tv productions were required by the government to be given to Asian men.

    As an Asian man, I have nothing against affirmative action, but in keeping with the same spirit of fairness and addressing griveances that affirmative action promotes, I would certainly like to see a push for a government mandated quota system that insures major tv networks and film studios allocate a certain number of romantic roles to Asian men. Such a system would be a far better analogy to affirmative action, than a movement that is in the end just a bunch of people tweeting.

  • MelaninManson

    Affirmative action is not a quota system of any kind. Quotas in hiring and higher education are illegal.

    And it’s curious that anyone would request a quota system in mainstream entertainment, especially given the extreme interest diversification allowed by internet-based competition with traditional broadcast and cable networks. It’s so easy to enjoy specialized content now that government visibility mandates would have next to no discernible impact, were they even legal.

    But given basic affirmative action jurisprudence over the past forty years, such a scheme would face massive hurdles. Affirmative action does not feature or use quotas.

  • r648

    My understanding of affirmative action was mistaken, I have taken the time to research it a bit further. Thanks for the correction.

    By the same token by which you argue the Internet makes representation in entertainment no longer an issue… given the extremely broad range of educational materials now available over the Internet, as well as the proliferation of non-university degree based certifications leading to high paying employment (i.e. dev bootcamps, Coursera certifications), isn’t university affirmative action also increasingly irrelevant?

    (I’m speaking here as someone whose place of employment hires numerous candidates whose credentials come from these alternate educational avenues, so I’ve seen first hand the opportunities these alternative education options can provide)

  • MelaninManson

    No. While alternative educational opportunities proliferate, a person’s ability to navigate the global marketplace still requires a basic educational foundation most commonly telegraphed to potential employers and investors alike through associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from widely respected public and private colleges and universities. To achieve any prominence in the humanities or the sciences, in business or in law, completed bachelor’s degrees are but a initial step.

    Entertainment presents a different animal. There, formally educated citizens largely convince owners/ operators of the means of production (movie studio execs, broadcast television execs, cable programming managers, Netflix personnel, etc) of the advertising utility/ box office appeal of their ideas. Here, technological change diversified meaningful consumer options. In the 1960’s, three broadcast television options meant that decisions made in corporate boardrooms about what to show in public enforced public standards that largely obscured people of color and women from the public imagination.

    Fast forward to today, and entertainment options prove as diverse as ever. People interested in independent Asian American cinema from third and fourth generation perspectives can find such material, and enjoy it in their own homes, with little difficulty. This was not possible even a decade ago. In that climate, the ability for corporate executives to erase people of color and women from the public imagination becomes vastly reduced.

    Even a show like Master of None, a quirky Seinfeld-esque character study of a mild-mannered Millennial, can find a robust audience. Such a show would be unthinkable within the constraints of broadcast television; now, Aziz Ansari reaches real stardom. All this, from a show that’s not even funny!

    So no, the claim that Asian Americans, in whole or in part, would be served well by some government mandated entertainment visibility quota does not persuade. If anything, Asian American helmed shows and movies will find their audiences, and encourage broadcast television and tentpole movies to use writers and actors and directors and showrunners from that community in more mainstream fare. This is already happening, given the success and longevity of shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Fresh Off the Boat.

    With education, affirmative action is an attempt (largely neutered today) to provide opportunity for women and people of color to gain the training and credentials needed to compete in the global marketplace, with the recognition that such measures both acknowledge systemic failures within American education and widespread unwillingness to enact more comprehensive solutions to address those systemic failures.

    With entertainment, the answer to historic and current White supremacy is independent media that latches onto specific audiences. Tyler Perry’s movies are absolutely terrible, but his success offers testament to the ability of enterprising members from ethnic enclaves to promote culturally specific material to their communities and achieve vast success. Just a thought.

  • r648

    Just as affirmative action acknowledges systemic failures within American education, wouldn’t, for example, additional funding for Asian American media acknowledge systemic failures in American media to portray Asian Americans in a positive light? In effect, a disproportionate share of entertainment media being created by Asian Americans (as well as other people of color) to address historical grievances.

    The importance of education may not be denied (regardless of differing opinions of how that education might be obtained), but the influence of the media on public perceptions is also important — look no further than the power of the work of Goebbels and Riefenstahl for proof. Generations of American media has promoted the image of me (and people like me) as the enemy, whether the faceless torturing vietcong or the evil Chinese gangster. It certainly serves to prepare the American populace, should I need to be rounded up and sent to the internment camps at some future date. My desire for better representation is rooted in a desire to balance out these enemy imaging narratives.

    And above all, I must virulently disagree with the notion that Master of None is “not even funny”.

  • MelaninManson

    A desire for better media representation to combat anti-Asian stereotypes may be understandable, but it relies on the assumption that positive media representation of a particular group can alter public perceptions of that group. I’m not sure the historical record supports that assumption. Certainly, African Americans have not benefited as a group from positive media representation afforded individuals within that group.

    Shows like A Different World didn’t convince a majority of Americans that African American college attainment proved a laudable goal worthy of public support. Decades of images of Black collegians in television and movies still have not prevented most people from imagining a Black face when someone mentions the word “convict”. No, I believe that you overestimate mass media ability to alter racial group fortunes through representation.

    If anything, people who wish to believe the most negative stereotypes about people of color will gravitate toward entertainment that confirms their biases. It is easier — because of foul anti-Asian stereotypes — to imagine Asian American men as mild-mannered, meek, nerdy urbanites, almost totally devoid of traditional masculinity. None of that bs is true, but decades of anti-Asian stereotyping resonates in this fashion. Shows like Master of None owe their success in part to their open confirmation of these biases. Ansari’s character on the show responds to the world with wit and impish sarcasm, because he exudes no real control on his life. He’s comfortable with his mundane existence in a way I find difficult. Further, the jokes don’t make me laugh, so the show as a whole is hard to watch.

    But it found a following on Netflix, where the parameters of success are vastly reduced in comparison to a successful cable show, much less broadcast. This suggests that a top-down governmental approach, with outright quotas or even direct funding, to achieve higher minority representation standards in live-action entertainment may not prove a needed approach. Master of None’s success argues that given favorable conditions Asian American sitcoms can prove economically viable for content providers. This conscripts owners of the means of production in entertainment into supporting your representation goals through self-interest, not government fiat.

    Incidentally, this lies at the heart of the diversity rationale in favor of affirmative action’s continued viability as public policy today. It is in corporate America’s self-interest to hire and promote people of color and women, to maintain profit margins in a number of different industries. Given the collective American shrug toward fixing public education, affirmative action offers some minor chance to achieve diversity objectives with talented candidates. In this way, corporate self-interest, not top-down governmental commands, achieve the desired diversity objectives with minimal state intervention into the market.

  • r648

    Wow, interesting… you’re like a… free market pro diversity person? Really a unique mix of traditional liberal (diversity!) and conservative (free market solves everything!) talking points. In this case, do you also believe in the complete absence of government enforced diversity efforts, outside of extreme cases involving life and death (i.e. members of law enforcement gunning down African American citizens)?

    Is there a large movement of “free market diversity” advocates such as yourself? I haven’t encountered this type of thought before. That being said, I have direct experience with this sort of capitalist argument against racism: I was recently in Seoul for a customer meeting with a large Korean electronics company, where I convinced a Korean executive to buy millions of dollars of my company’s services instead of our competitor’s. This Korean executive pointed out that the (white American) man representing our competitor called him a “dog-eater” during business discussions. Truly amazing when people let racism get in the way of potential profits.

  • MelaninManson

    Do I believe in the complete absence of government enforced diversity efforts? No. But I recognize the danger in using government mandates to enforce open respect for cosmopolitan diversity. We should reserve these direct intervention measures for the most obvious and clear-cut situations, places where unmolested market forces and unregulated citizen interaction have not produced inter-communal respect for other people’s rights.

    A clear example involves the Supreme Court’s rollback of the protections and oversight of the Voting Rights Act. This decision was in error; the popularity of voter identification laws within Republican-led state legislatures makes clear that the partisan desire to curtail minority voting among movement conservatives results only in reduced liberty for individuals from racial minority groups. In many locales, historic and current racial voting patterns lead one to reasonably assume that minority citizens will never elect leaders that would maintain respect for their voting rights.

    When local government disrespects a group’s suffrage, that group loses any consistent ability to protect itself from government-assisted theft of it’s labor and property; the Justice Department’s overview of the situation in Ferguson, MO offers stark example. In these places, where employment is scarce and local governments fleece citizens to keep budgets in the black, federal government intervention is to my mind required to ensure liberty and justice for all, maintained through free and fair elections in which all citizens may take part.

    The situation with Asian American media representation is, to my mind, not similar, and does not require federal intervention into the free market. I’d feel differently if there were zero Asian American representation in Hollywood, if television overtly ignored all Asian faces. I’d feel differently if one could establish a direct correlation between absent and/or negative Asian American media representation and a loss of voting rights and/or economic opportunity for Asian Americans. That’s not what we find today, especially for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even Filipino Americans, by and large. Smaller Asian American groups face different challenges, but the vast majority of Asian Americana does not endure the effects of a loss of participation in the American social order because of or as related to media representation.

    I’m not a market non-interventionist, but I strongly believe that sensible anti-racist action conscripts every member of the entire body politic to respect the voting and economic rights of every other member of the entire body politic through basic self-interest, not through overt suasion imposed by governmental authority. Government market interventions impose bureaucratic costs; when people of color seek governmental redress to combat racist anti-capitalist barriers to their meaningful life choices, they may deserve such redress. But we must acknowledge at that point that our system has failed to enact our ideals.

    With our public education system, this is the situation we find: for people of color, it is likely that neighborhood wealth and implicit bias directly impede meaningful choices and harm one’s ability to gain a decent education. People with resources, financial, intellectual, or otherwise, may effectively navigate this system, but people without resources do not, and require some type of government redress to achieve the barest inkling of what may be termed justice. Asian Americans who wish to combat stereotypical media representation with government action should explain why free market remedies are unworkable and/ or inappropriate to address their concerns.

  • r648

    Really appreciate the detailed response – I’m still caught up in this idea of “corporate America’s self-interest to hire and promote people of color and women, to maintain profit margins”. Have you promoted this line of reasoning to others in any way? If so, how have you done so, and how receptive have audiences been to this message? It seems like you’ve given this a lot of thought.

    I’m really excited by this idea, especially since I have a similar line of reasoning with regards to certain issues faced by Asian American men. In my line of work, I interact a great deal with high level executives in Asian electronics companies (Samsung, Huawei, Mediatek, etc). A shockingly disproportionate number of these executives are Asian American. Many of them went to Asia to work for Asian companies, because they faced the bamboo ceiling in the US corporate world; having their careers capped due to their race.

    What happens when these highly capable and hardworking individuals, with top notch American educations and solid work experience in American tech corporations, go back to Asia? Well, in the past 10 years, Samsung’s market capitalization has quintupled, Huawei’s has quintupled, and Mediatek’s market cap has doubled; and these are only a few large corporations that have benefited from an influx of Asian American talent.

    Meanwhile, American competitors to these Asian technology firms have struggled; Huawei’s competitor Cisco has had numerous layoffs, as had Mediatek’s competitor Qualcomm. Imagine the economic benefits to the US, if those Asian Americans who faced the bamboo ceiling were instead given opportunities to thrive in the upper echelons of corporate America? At the very least, the Asian competition most certainly would not have ramped up quite as quickly without the knowledge imparted by their Asian American top talent (note that in this case, I’m not talking about Asian Americans stealing technology, but about them applying skills and knowledge imprinted into their minds through years studying and working in the US). Imagine the economic benefits to America, if Apple’s number one competitor in the smartphone space, was a company headquartered in America and employing many Americans? America would have a quasi-monopoly on the smartphone. (I personally know, for a fact, that the high level management and engineers on the Samsung smartphone team are about 1/3 Asian American, many of whom formerly worked for Apple or Intel or other top US tech firms).

    Up until now, these efforts by Asian tech companies to poach talent from the US have focused on 1st generation AsAms, but in recent years me and my 2nd gen AsAm friends in the industry have noticed them trying aggessively to poach us. In fact, I myself have recently been contacted by Asian electronics corporations to go work for them, in Asia. During my interviews, when they tried to pitch me on the job, they spoke of one massive benefit: being able to move to a place where Asian men are respected. In one meeting (with a certain large Korean corporation that isn’t Samsung), the VP of Engineering pitching me on the job even directly told me: “Asian men are treated like shit in America, you’re disrespected, you’re told that no woman will want you, they mock you in their TV and movies. In Korea, Asian men are the sexy ones, the cool ones.” I should note here that I am not of Korean descent myself.

    It will be interesting to see if more Asian men are persuaded to take jobs in Asia using arguments like this. I’m well aware that the people I’m discussing here are incredibly privileged to have access to the education and knowlege that makes them so competitve in the global marketplace; myself and the other AsAms I’m describing here are the very definition of #FirstWorldProblems. That being said, an exodus to Asia of talented Asian Americans has already catapulted Samsung from a minor player in the electronics world to an absolute tech behemoth. The acceleration of such an exodus would certainly have some sort of economic impact on the US; it would be interesting to see if corporate America takes note, whether it would understand the underlying (racist) causes of what’s going on, and how it would react.

    Perhaps the best way for AsAm men to send a message by economically impacting the US, is for them to leave and go to Asia, to (with all due apologies to LeBron James) “take their talents to Seoul / Taipei / Shanghai / Bangalore”. And of course, an added benefit of this is that the ecosystem created by successful tech companies in Asia would help lift more Asians in say, China and India, into the global middle class.

  • MelaninManson

    I’d suggest that the idea of corporate America justifying diversity to itself through naked self interest is mildly common. Many Fortune 500 companies realized during the 90’s that people of color had buying power in a number of industries worth accessing. To win that business, they began to hire diversity consultants, marketing personnel, and other people designed to help the companies “get” minority communities. News organizations and entertainment conglomerates and political campaigns have all manner of people devoted to minority outreach.

    Also, the dynamic you note, where Asian companies try to improve their human capital by hiring Asian Americans is an old, old trope, one that stretches back decades. Many of the first Chinese American students at my alma mater attended school with the explicit purpose to return to their countries of origin to work to modernize business and technological practices. This is nothing new. Yes, a extreme prejudice curtails Asian American professional advancement in the States in ways not found in Asian nations; what’s also clear is that Asian companies exist with such stability and success that they can provide attractive arenas for Asian American professionals.

    All of us do not have the luxury to leave America. But it is true: rational action from American corporations would reduce bamboo ceilings and other anti-Asian prejudices within their companies to retain the obviously talented Asian American professionals, along with all professionals of color.

  • Vadtal


    Asian women do have a legitimate case to vindicate governmental intervention suitable for severe caricature stereotypes that reduced Asian women’s image to mere effigy of sexual aphrodite demigods pleasuring the appetites of patriarchy society consumption. In consequence, Asian women have been victims of international embodiment of human sex trafficking worldwide and in the USA.

    The few non-dehumanized representations in television and youtube alone are not enough, the severe invisibility and nonexistence delineation in Hollywood big screens and the music industry will take generations to eradicate the damage done to public perceptions of Asian women. Merit alone have not been enough to champion Asian women into these arenas, K-Pop doesn’t help either with their glamorizing of AF sexiness appeal. Asian women need to play strong character roles that Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence perform to embody an image that public perception don’t often see Asian women as hyper-sexualized, and only federal intervention can help by rectifying with affirmative action.

    The American federal government should intervene to reduce sex trafficking of Asian females in the USA, and rectify the inherent quandary chauvinism in the free market media of casteism and sexism that marginalized Asian women into monodimensional oversexualized caricature symbols.

    “It is in corporate America’s self-interest to hire and promote people of color and women, to maintain profit margins in a number of different industries.”

    That should cohort to include Hollywood, an industry casting employee actors for profit margins, it is a hiring entity. To reiterate your statement, it is in corporate and Hollywood America’s self-interest to hire and promote people of color and women, to maintain profit margins in a number of different industries including Hollywood.

    As a mixed Indian/Chinese I know many Indian women have endured rape in our culture and Asian women as a whole endured sex trafficking not just in Asia, but also in the USA. I’m sure the majority of white roles in Asian movies were portrayed by white actors. For illustrations, when I saw Indian movies regarding the history of India during the British Raj, all of the British officials and commanders were always played by white British actors, which the Indian film makers went out of their way to hire, rather than local Indians because obviously a British colonial administrator such as the Viceroy of India, or a British military leader in India should be played by a white British actor.

    In fact, all Indian movies which had white characters were always played by white actors despite less than 0.08% of the people living in India were either white or Anglo-Indian. Mind you, Bollywood and other non-Hindi Indian movies were viewed by millions of people in the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka), the most populous region in Asia and the world, and none of these people mind that there were white people on their TV screens because they knew that the roles of white characters should be played by white actors.?

    The Chinese government provided Hollywood with benevolence, but Hollywood is always selfish and ungrateful. The CCP did Hollywood a favor by allowing them to import 34 films quota per year, when they could’ve easily banned all Hollywood films. The U.S. federal government should do the same by interposing decrees to help out Asian women actresses.

    Hollywood Film Studios should indenture to Fair Hiring Practices and conform to Equal Employment Opportunity Act Laws just like any other privatized Corporate entities, it is a form of affirmative action in the free market enterprises. Corporate America, News organizations and entertainment conglomerates are required by laws to diversified, that should apply to Hollywood as well.

    Antitrust Laws prohibit the spreading of false information about the quality or characteristics of a competitor’s products, is prohibited by common law. Stereotypes to pigeonhole Asian actors as evil antagonists and villains to appear worthless and undervalue, yet rarely casted Asian actors in anything positive to counterbalance, is a form of sabotage to constraint competition. The Sherman Act makes it unlawful for Hollywood to monopolize to exclude competing leading Asian actors from entering the market. They flooded the market with white actors, even flopped ones, listings each year of flopped movies and cancelled TV shows where over 90% were protagonist leading white actors. This tactic restraints competition from breaking into the market and therefore against the law.