Monday, October 15, 2007

Breaking Our Stereotype

NEWS STORIES in the mainstream press about the negative reaction of Filipinos to the “Desperate Housewives” denigration of physicians with diplomas from “med schools in the Philippines” caused AOL to conduct a nationwide poll and ask its Internet users whether there was “good reason for some to be offended by this joke” (AOL already presumed it was just a "joke").

Surprisingly, notwithstanding the bias of the question, 27% of those polled agreed with the view that “it has racial implications.” This percentage is the same statistic as the number of Americans who still support President Bush’s handling of the Iraq War, according to recent surveys. The AOL poll also asked what ABC and “Desperate Housewives” should do about the outrage that Filipinos have expressed towards the episode. They “should not worry about it” garnered 69% while “apologize” received 31% of the vote.

If any TV show receives 31% of the total TV viewing audience on any given night, it would top the Nielsen ratings for that week. It is an incredibly significant percentage considering that the 3 million Filipinos in the US constitute only 1% of the total US population.

While the AOL poll was encouraging, the report of Asianweek columnist Emil Guillermo about the inaction of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) on this issue was downright dismaying.

MANAA’s mission is to educate the public and the media about “what persons of Asian Pacific descent find racially offensive, stereotypical, and/or inaccurate and why it is harmful.” Towards this end, in 2003, MANAA organized a nationwide protest action against a FOX TV show called “Banzai” which depicted Asians in a negative manner. MANAA successfully persuaded advertisers to pull their ads from the show which was soon removed from the network.

MANAA regularly monitors TV shows and movies to make sure that anti-Asian racial slurs like "chink," "Chinaman," "Jap," "Nip," "gook," "slope," "slant-eye," and "wog" are removed from TV/movie scripts or, if retained, that they are properly “contextualized as negative and insulting.”

But racial slurs and epithets have generally lost their power to hurt. Their use now reflects more on the hateful bigotry of the user than any shame or pain it may inflict on the subject of the verbal attack. If Terri Hatcher’s character had merely referred to Filipinos as “dumb Flips”, the anti-Filipino pejorative commonly used in the 1930s, it would not have been nearly as pernicious and damaging as the bigoted inference that doctors from the Philippines have sub-standard and inferior education, subliminally suggesting to American patients to avoid them or be wary of them.

Surely this anti-Filipino insult would have drawn MANAA’s attention. You think?

Emil Guillermo e-mailed Guy Aoki, the head of MANAA, to inquire as to what action his group took on the “Desperate” slur. Aoki e-mailed back: "You'll probably hate me for saying this, but we didn't think it was a big deal. If they mention any foreign country, people descended from that country are going to be upset. We have no idea about the caliber of doctors from the Philippines, only that there are a lot of Filipino nurses. Besides, we don't usually get involved when foreign countries are involved."

What? The insult to the 22,000 Filipino doctors practicing in the US did not meet MANAA’s standards for what is “racially offensive, stereotypical, or inaccurate”? As Guillermo observed, “To many, Filipinos still don't rate on the "offend-o-meter."

MANAA’s ignorance of how the “Desperate” remark severely wounded our integrity as a people and our pride in the quality of the medical education in the Philippines was shocking but understandable.

When Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco, she told her close friends that the Filipino community was her favorite. While other ethnic groups would demand that she appoint their people to various major commissions and funding for their community programs, Filipinos were content to simply having their photos taken with her. The other ethnic groups got what they demanded and were empowered. The Filipinos got the photo-ops but received appointments only to minor commissions and virtually no funding for our community programs.

The fury of the Filipino community’s reaction to the "Desperate" slur caused ABC to dispatch Robert Mendez, their "Vice President for Diversity" to take care of the problem. After all, that's what they created his job title for. Anytime ABC has problems with any minority group, it's Mendez Time.

So when a Filipino community leader suggested to Mendez that ABC "agree to explore a program that might help increase opportunities for Filipinos at ABC", Mendez quickly accepted the proposal. After all, what would it cost ABC to simply "explore a program"? The proposal wouldn't even require that it actually result in increased opportunities for Filipinos at ABC, it was enough that it "might help increase" it.

But creating a larger “talent pool” of Filipinos for ABC is totally useless if ABC doesn’t even care to use the Filipino talent pool it already has. Sumi Sevilla Haru, a veteran Filipino-American actress, received an audition call for the “Desperate Housewives” episode with the hateful “med schools” remark.

“On Monday, July 30, I was to have an audition for the episode in question at Universal Studios,” Sumi wrote. “The part was for an older Asian woman with her daughter. In the scene in the waiting room, I was to assure Hatcher that the doctor was competent. At 10:30 a.m. just as I was to drive into the gate, I received a call from my agent that the part was written out. I suspect it was a last minute change, possibly to save paying two actors, or possibly to write in the joke about the doctor's credentials.”

Despite requests from certain leaders to tone down the rhetoric and activism, the Filipino community in the US is finally waking up to the realization that if you ask for little, you get exactly what you ask for, little.

Because of the community's agitation, ABC caved in to the community's demand that it remove the offending scene from the episode so that the show will not continue to inflict its pain on future viewers. That was a good start. But what about dealing with the 25 million viewers who watched the September 30 episode and whose minds were subliminally poisoned by it?

More needs to be done and will be done if the Filipino community continues to advocate for them. A public service announcement (PSA) on the show itself honoring Filipino physicians (like former White House physician Dr. Connie Mariano) as part of Filipino American History Month is one proposal that will show ABC's good faith.

But more leverage is needed. The threat of a class action defamation lawsuit against ABC and the call for a nationwide boycott of ABC and Disney may push ABC to grant further concessions.

These calls do carry the risk that if we succeed, we may no longer be considered for the top spot in the show “ABC’s Favorite Ethnic Community.”

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