‘Faces of Change’: Sandra Oh brought tears of joy to eyes of Asians and here’s why

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The outlook for communities of color has been bleak in this country for a long time. From slavery and segregation to racial disparities in incarceration and education, this country has a dark history — and present — of racism.

With seemingly few safe havens for people of color in our government and other institutions, many of these communities are turning to media and television to reflect a reality they desire. A reality honoring diversity and culture was highlighted at the 76th Golden Globes Awards Sunday night, making the event bright with emotion and tears of joy.

“This moment is real,” Sandra Oh told us, and we felt it. The emotion that characterized the night resulted from a long-overdue victory for many minorities — especially Asians in film and television.

Oh was not only the first Asian to host the Golden Globes, but also the first Asian woman to win in multiple categories. After winning her first Golden Globe in 2006 for Best Supporting Actress in a television series, Oh won her second Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama series on Sunday night, making history. While she had numerous successes to celebrate for herself, the host made sure to uplift other successes in diversity as well.

In the opening monologue for the ceremony, both Oh and her co-host Andy Samberg listed out notable nominations for the night. Oh made sure to underscore the success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which boasted an all-Asian cast and made over $200 million in the box office.

The movie was released Aug. 15 of last year and was a breakthrough in representation — Asian-Americans, who made up 6 percent of the population in 2017, represent only 1 percent of all leading roles in Hollywood, according to a recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. On top of that, Forbes released a list of the highest paid actresses in 2018 which revealed that only one of the top ten was a woman of color, and none were Asian.

With Asian-American faces getting so little screen time, each success comes with huge celebration and emotion for the community. As New York Times writer Thessaly La Force points out, it’s also about how Asians are portrayed:

“It’s a Western myth that those we love distinguish themselves by their differences, that their faults are their virtues. Asians are seen differently: pathetic perfectionists who never got the meaning of life, who’re unable to live with abandon and therefore with romance. And that is why we will never be compelling enough to be the hero in your eyes,” La Force writes.

La Force emphasizes it’s too hard to forget times when yellowface was the mode of operation in Hollywood — whether it was in 1961 with Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney) in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or in 2017 with Major Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson) in “Ghost in the Shell.” This is why Oh’s successful position as lead actress in “Killing Eve” is important. As an actress, she has paved the way for Asian-American artists, becoming the first Asian-American person to win Best Actress in a Television Drama. As host, she highlighted her community and called out examples of whitewashing:

“‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is nominated tonight for best picture, musical or comedy. It is the first studio film with an Asian-American lead since ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Aloha,’” said Oh, intentionally snubbing movies in which Asian characters were played by white actors.

In response, Emma Stone, who played an Asian character in the movie “Aloha,” yelled “I’m sorry!” from the crowd.

Thus, the night not only represented victory, but also apology, as Emma Stone’s response garnered positive feedback on Twitter:

Whether we actually forgive Emma Stone or white Hollywood in general, for erasure of communities of color on television is a whole other story. But we made a step forward, and we have Sandra Oh to thank for this.

“I said ‘yes’ to the fear of being on this stage tonight because I wanted to be here to witness this moment of change,” Oh said at the Golden Globes. “Right now, this moment is real. Trust me — it is real, because I see you and I see you. All of these faces of change, and now so will everyone else.”

Of course, Oh also said that the representation of people of color in 2019 might be a different story. Progress is incremental and after this step forward in 2018, we might just see two steps back. As Keah Brown, writer for Harper’s Bazaar, says: we must always view with a critical eye.

“It is imperative that we continue to critique both the shows and movies we love until they properly reflect the world we are living in—and the people who live in this world,” Brown writes. “The fictional characters I love shouldn’t have to eclipse their sun to shine.”

The sad reality is that as people of color, we keep ourselves humble to the fact that some things about this country, namely race, have never changed. But when we turn on the TV and see Sandra Oh on the main stage, bowing to her parents and telling them she loves them in Korean, we know that this is what progress looks like. We can see the faces of change.

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sandra Oh is Asian American. In fact, she is Canadian, not American.

A previous version of this article misspelled Scarlett Johansson’s last name.