“Asian Americans: Last Week Tonight”

I’m actually surprised I didn’t see this video more in my feeds, or even personally sent to me. I suppose the reason why is actually what I’m talking about: John Oliver’s segment on Asian Americans is for those who have never heard any of this before, the exact opposite of “if you know, you know.”

While I think it’s really cool he devoted one of his award-winning deep dive segments to Asian American history, I also know I was not the intended audience for it. And I’m always John Oliver’s intended audience. This was a hyper-crash-course in Asian American history, barely a foundation and more of a base line; which, to Oliver’s credit, he acknowledged that shortcoming multiple times. But it was a good speed run through the highlights of what it means when people say, “Asian Americans are a model minority.” I think as a blanket explainer the segment did what it said; however I wish it had mentioned more of the “Yellow Peril” era that tied Asian (specifically Chinese) immigrants to disease, ie: today’s precursor to “China virus.” I was also surprised by the lack of “do something” kicker that Last Week Tonight is famous for. There wasn’t any call to action, shout-outs to organizations to follow, or even silly PSA on famous Asian Americans. It felt like a history lesson with no follow through to today’s issues. But this just repeats and reiterates the same thing I’ve said in the past: what does history (and in this case, media) look like when it’s from the [outside] crowd versus the [inside]?

As I was brainstorming my thoughts about Oliver’s piece, what ended up coming to mind was contrasting it to Hasan Minhaj. His episode of Patriot Act a year ago in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is something that has stayed with me; trigger warning for graphic content in the beginning of the clip. The overall piece was about the protests and how they were a painted as violent riots and completely ignoring the continued violence sanctioned against Black people in America by the police.

And he says (at the 5:34 mark) “I can’t speak what it means to be Black, but I know how we talk about Black people.” changing the tone from outrage and disappointment at the system to a specific call-in of a community. That “we” is the turning point. Minhaj is a classic example of [inside] vs. [outside] and what you tell your target audience. I bet Oliver and Minhaj share a lot of the same viewers, but Minhaj made the choice to address specific people, from one Asian American to another. Minhaj spoke with a specific intent to call out (not educate) his community-a community that, quite frankly, marginalizes and tokenizes him. His piece was still Asian American history, just a more radicalized and current version; he didn’t set out to introduce or lay down groundwork because his audience was already the “in” crowd.

I don’t have anything more insightful to add to this conversation than that, sorry. But it’s certainly something to think about in the realm of educational late-night deep dives that everyone loves. I miss Patriot Act all the time, Minhaj was doing something really new and refreshing with the format and it’s telling that Netflix pulled it amid all its other mediocre content that continues. But back to that Last Week Tonight segment, I think it’s a great educational piece, the exact kind of thing that you share on Facebook or send to a relative who “doesn’t quite get it.” Maybe bring up at a woke dinner party, or whatever. But if you really want to know the conversations “we” should be having, that’s all Patriot Act.

Bonus: How many people can you name? (I have 12 for sure, 15 counting people I think I know who it is.)

Originally published on Tiny Letter on June 23, 2021.

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