In American mainstream media, the push for racial representation has been steadily gaining traction with the push for racial equality as seen through movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the success of movies that champion non-white actors and actresses—”Black Panther” and “Ocean’s 8,” to name a few.
Finally joining the ranks of blockbuster entertainment are Asian Americans, with the highly anticipated drama comedy starring a fully Asian cast, “Crazy Rich Asians,” slated for an August release. However, predating the visibility that “Crazy Rich Asians” promises, Asian American representation was and still is largely only found on YouTube.
Over the past decade, YouTube has seen immense development, with the monolithic platform now viewed as a source for a viable career for creatives.
YouTube still champions the individual creative freedom that it always has, a characteristic that encouraged people from differing spheres, such as comedy, beauty, and music, to begin uploading videos.
A notable aspect of YouTube, especially in its early stages, is that a YouTube influencer does not have an industry standard to appease, meaning that the typical traits we observe in celebrities are not prerequisites for a YouTube personality, including traditional barriers like race. Instead, the relationship between creator and viewer is at the forefront.
As early as 2006, Asian Americans were able to break through and gain a remarkable following through their YouTube channels. For example, Wong Fu Productions, founded by Asian Americans in 2006, continuously features Asian American actors and actresses to tell stories about family, love, and the daily struggles of being Asian American. In 2015, Wong Fu released their first feature length film, “Everything Before Us,” and just this month, they launched “Yappie,” a series specifically about the Asian American experience.
Just as how Wong Fu revolutionized Asian American representation in film and television through YouTube, many other Asian Americans have utilized this platform over the years to transform standards within their respective fields. Ryan Higa, better known as Nigahiga, has over 21 million subscribers to his channel– an amalgam of running jokes, sketch comedy, and parody videos.
Alternatively, within fashion and beauty, Jenn Im empowers her viewers to discover their style through her own eclectic style while also sharing about her travels, her favorite books, and even her insecurities. Last year, Im launched Eggie, her own clothing brand, and fulfilled a personal dream.
Through YouTube, Asian Americans can find role models like Higa and Im who share the same heritage, traditions, and struggles. Jonathan Wang, a first generation Chinese American, grew up in New Jersey watching various Asian American YouTubers throughout his teens.
“I went to a predominantly white high school, and while there were international Chinese students, it was difficult to connect with either group on a deep level because of our cultural differences. Watching those Asian Americans on YouTube gave me that sense of belonging and community I craved so badly,” he shared.
One of Wang’s passions is music, which he actively pursues as the musical director of an acapella group at New York University. He refers to Asian American musicians Kina Grannis and David Choi, who he discovered through their YouTube channels, as his inspiration to begin singing.
“Seeing [them], who were like me, online singing for millions of people was truly inspiring and made me proud to be Asian American,” he said.
Representation is crucial in validating personal narratives, especially for those belonging to a racial minority. Yet just as important as it is to discover the people whose stories resonate with your own experience, it is also extremely valuable for others to witness the multitude of narratives that exist around them.
Wang mentions his desire for broader and more prominent representation:
“YouTube is great because it’s been our haven and a niche environment for a long time, but it would be incredible to see more people step up into the limelight.”
The Asian American community aspires not to be a racial enclave, but a visible identity within America, starting with representation in entertainment and mainstream media.