Following the box-office success of several films featuring predominantly minority casts, the Inter-Asian Council (IAC) launched the #FirstTimeISawMe campaign, which focuses on the impact of media representation on underrepresented identities. The ongoing campaign launched in late September.
Students can complete an online form to share their first experiences seeing themselves represented in popular media. The project will culminate at the end of the semester in an event which will display the submitted stories.
IAC’s campaign takes its inspiration from the #FirstTimeISawMe Twitter hashtag started by Netflix on August 1 in celebration of diverse, inclusive media. The original hashtag sparked a robust response from the Twitter community in which many users shared personal experiences about the first times they “saw themselves” in the pop culture.
Evelyn Yeh, president of IAC, sought to build on the momentum of a previous campaign from IAC, which featured a photo collection and personal stories from immigrant students at Hopkins.
“This campaign is a bit of a spin-off of ‘Immigrants of Hopkins’,” Yeh said. “One of the things we — the IAC — noticed was the hype around Crazy Rich Asians, and not only Crazy Rich Asians, but also Black Panther with a majority black cast.”
Yeh also stated that the campaign was a good opportunity to contribute to ongoing discussions about diversity in the media.
“Stuff like media representation has been talked about increasingly in the past few years,“ Yeh said. “We wanted to do something similar that would focus more internally on the school, where we could actually get student responses about a topic that is important to all of us.”
Aran Chang submitted his story to IAC’s campaign because of his belief in the organization’s mission. He also stated that, as someone who is both Asian and transgender, he would be able to contribute a unique perspective to the campaign.
“I liked how they were trying to put in more of an effort to put all Asian-American voices into one big thing,“ Chang said. “I thought it was important because everyone’s going to talk about the first time they saw an Asian-American on TV but also the unique aspect of the first time I saw an Asian transgender person.”
Chang also discussed how the problem of limited visibility and representation is amplified when there is only one or two representatives of certain communities portrayed in the media.
“We have so little representation, so every time there’s one representation of an Asian-American or other underrepresented minority, that one person’s now representing that entire community that we each want ourselves to be a part in,” Chang said.
Senior Kush Mansuria talked about how many TV shows play into certain stereotypes of South Asians.
“One example would be The Simpsons, where you have Apoo. He’s a very stereotypical character, and he’s cast in a way that plays to stereotypes of South Asian people,“ Mansuria said.
However, he also noted that the rise in popularity of Hasan Minhaj, who was a senior correspondent for The Daily Show, could be an indication that underrepresented identities are coming to enjoy greater prominence in the media.
“There’s been a change and a greater push and penetration of minorities into a more significant role in the media and in all places,” Mansuria said.
The issue of media representation can come to inform students’ perceptions of themselves.
Susan You felt pressure from her peers and the media to fit into a certain mold as a Korean attending school with few other Koreans.
“I wouldn’t say it suffocated me but confined me to this role that I felt like I had to play because of the social pressures that were around,” You said.
Shaina Morris, however, talked about how the way mental illness is represented in the show Bojack Horseman helped her feel more comfortable with her identity.
“I think for a really long time, I saw [my mental illness] as being abnormal and as ‘something wrong with me,’ and now, after watching Bojack, which is what I submitted to the campaign, it’s kind of helped me integrate that more into my identity,” Morris said.
This campaign also sparked conversations about the status of diversity and inclusion in society.
In addition to the attitudes of students and the general social climate of the University, several students cite the impact of the University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) on diversity and representation. OMA oversees student groups from various cultural communities.
Chang, as president of the Korean American Student Association (KASA), has noticed a lack of communication between cultural groups. She believes that this lack of communication may breed apprehension about interactions between groups.
“A lot of people find that, once they join an Asian culture group, they don’t really see the other ones and we get a lot of questions of like, if I join KASA, can I be part of [Taiwanese American Student Association]?” she said.
You echoed Chang’s statements about the need for cross-communication to foster a more inclusive campus environment.
“I’m part of a cultural group myself, but I feel that there are still boundaries,“ You said. “Even though I’m part of [Korean Students Association], I don’t really know the other cultural groups, whether it be Asian cultural groups or the other cultural groups under OMA.”
Mansuria also noted that this sense of distance may also stem from differences in the size and prominence of different cultural groups.
“Overall, yes, it is more inclusive and more diverse, but if you look at it a bit deeper, it’s over-representation of certain identities and underrepresentation of others, and leads to struggles for students,” Mansuria said.
Despite the improvements in representation of certain groups in the media, according to Yeh, there is still a lot of progress to be made.
“First of all, there are a lot of underrepresented identities, and this campaign is obviously open to anyone, not just Asians. Yes, it’s gotten better, but I think stuff like Crazy Rich Asians is definitely not an end-goal,” Yeh said.
According to Mansuria, many students are hoping that this new campaign will serve as a catalyst for conversations on campus regarding diversity and inclusion, as well as greater advocacy for underrepresented groups.
“I would hope to see larger numbers of students having these sorts of discussions because it’s perfectly normal to have these discussions, but society has a tendency to view it as an uncomfortable topic,” he said.