Somebody On TV

29 Jun

The news of Ann Curry’s departure from the Today Show hit me surprisingly hard. I get most of my news online, and I almost never tune in to Today or any of its competitors. Sure, I take a look now and then. After all, these shows are among the drivers of American culture – they help to shape the American worldview.

I guess that’s why losing Ann Curry as a host of one of the more watched TV news and entertainment programs felt like a loss to me. Asian Americans are next to invisible in popular media, especially strong, intelligent Asian American women.

Each time an Asian American appears on TV, even as a weather reporter or occasional guest, it feels like a bit of a win. The more visible Asians are, the logic goes, the harder it is to marginalize or vilify us, even when, as in the case of Ann Curry, being Asian and addressing issues of special interest to Asian Americans isn’t the main event.

These appearances remind me of a time when any person of color appearing on TV was cause for excitement. As a child growing up in Hawai’i, I still remember neighbors yelling, “somebody on TV!” anytime a person of color popped up on a national program. As a kid, I was aware of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and farm worker movements because features on black and brown people as real life leaders on national TV were special events.

But my favorite somebodies on TV were people like Gail Fisher who played the character Peggy Fair on Mannix, and Connie Chung, a woman who was in charge of news, making her seem to me to be one of the smartest people in the world. And I remember cheering on Latina tennis star Rosie Casals. I was proud of her victories and inspired by her bold belief that she could climb to the top of a very white and male sport.

Of all the somebodies on TV, my favorites were Kam Fong Chun and Gilbert Lani Kauhi who played Chin Ho and Kono on Hawaii Five-0. I paid very little attention to the details of their characters. To me, what mattered was that they were like us, but they dressed up for work in a fancy office. They helped me see that there was a world outside the little plantation town I grew up in that included people who looked like family, expanding my imagination of the things I could be and the places I could go.

Mind you, this was Hawaii. Even in the 1960s there were lots of images of people of color on local TV, especially on the news. But national TV was special. Even as a child, I understood that what appeared on national TV shaped the nation’s consciousness. Moreover, I understood that the absence of people of color in white dominated media was an indication of something deeply wrong with how we were viewed by society.

It may not be the 60s anymore, but Ann Curry is still somebody on TV to many Asian Americans. That’s why the criticisms driving her dismissal – being cold, aloof, too remote – mirroring stereotypes concerning Asian women, feel personal, hurtful.

So, while I can honestly say I don’t give a rip about the Today Show, and I certainly know nothing about Ann Curry as a person, about her values or her personal commitments, I feel sad that she’s being cast aside. In a world where few visible leaders look like us, people like Ann Curry are important markers of the possible.

3 Responses to “Somebody On TV”

  1. Krysti Kay July 18, 2012 at 3:42 am #

    Hey Scott, as a haole from Hawaii, I am totally touched to hear how the folks in your neighbohood would react when a person of color was on TV. I always have felt, now living in the whitest city on earth (Portland), that I was lucky to live in Hawaii and around people of so many cultures and identities. Now I realize that my whiteness prevented me from even noticing that the Brady Bunch didn’t look like the families and kidds on Pukoa street or Kainui Drive or going to school at Kalaheo.
    Anyway, I felt the same way about Ann Curry and her dismissal. To me she was wonderful and I kept wishing for her to get kicked up to that top spot a long time ago and I’m sad to see how she was let go.

    • Race Files July 18, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

      Aloha Krysti!
      So nice to hear from someone with some Hawai’i experience. I know exactly where you grew up and even know those streets. I grew up on the North Shore, but I spent some time in Central O’ahu as a social worker, and I had clients from your area. I also lived for 25 years in Portland. I know what you mean about it being the whitest city on earth, but it’s also full of terrific people. Hopefully you’ll find your way to some of them. A good place to start might be the City of Portland Human Rights Commission. I believe they have some interesting programs and good community involvement.

      Take care and thanks for writing.

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