When I was six years old, I asked my mother how I could “grow” blonde hair and blue eyes.
At the time, I loved the Full House character, Stephanie Tanner — so much so that I chose to name myself after her a few years prior, when my parents told me I could pick out an “American” name before I started nursery school.
Stephanie Tanner had long, golden hair and eyes that were an ambiguous shade between blue and green. She looked like the doll that I kept by my pillow — for bedtime, when my parents turned out the light in my room and I was too scared to sleep by myself. She looked like the Barbies — the dozens and dozens and dozens of Barbies — that I could pull out of my toy chest. She looked like the other little girls I saw on TV who were around my age.
And she looked exactly how I wanted to look.
My mother patiently explained that I would never look like Stephanie Tanner — at least, not naturally. I stomped to my room and sulked in my bed for the rest of the afternoon.
This was the first time I’d ever experienced shame about my ethnic appearance — a problem that worsened during adolescence as the result of becoming privy to media outlets that grossly underrepresented my race. I rarely saw Asian-American actors or actresses in the films I liked or the shows I watched on a regular basis.
Growing up, I watched networks like Disney Channel, ABC Family, the Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon — which played a substantial role in enabling my obsession with Jimmy Neutron. Their live-action programming primarily featured Caucasian characters. Sometimes, they’d throw in a minority character, but that always seemed like an after-thought to please some unspoken racial quota.
The young actresses on these shows — Miley Cyrus, Christy Carlson Romano, Hillary Duff, Emma Roberts, Jamie Lynn Spears, and more — played characters around my age, with whom I was supposed to identify. These girls were tween idols, but they were all varying shades of white. They did not look like me, but I held myself to their physical standards.
Somewhere, in my 12-to-15-year-old brain, I internalized the lack of Asian/Asian-American characters as meaning that there was something fundamentally unacceptable about their — my — ethnic characteristics. I know that is not true, and I am proud of how my ancestry has shaped my appearance. Then, I was foolishly insecure.
Why are my cheekbones so high? I asked myself this. Why is my nose so round? Why is my skin this color, caught somewhere between coffee and gold? Why are my eyes shaped like this instead of that?
Now, whenever I go home, I make sure to take a look at the kinds of TV shows that my 12-year-old brother watches (it seems as though Disney Channel series have just gotten more absurd with time). Although many TV programs geared towards children and adolescents reflect greater racial diversity, they still fall woefully short of the target.
In the past few years, some have starred minority characters. Off the top of my head, I think of That’s So Raven whose main character was African-American and Wizards of Waverly Place, which featured an interracial Caucasian-Latino family. Which ones am I missing? Let me know.
Still, children’s shows that dare to feature a minority character are too far and few in between. For the most part, they still don’t properly reflect the racial/ethnic background of their audiences or that of the broader population. Even when they are present, minority characters tend to take on the sidekick role — quirky, lovable, but peripheral.
This needs to change.
To the TV execs out there, who are currently deciding how to assemble your casts, consider adding more minority characters and actors to your children’s programming and other series. It is 2014. Why does this seem like such a novel concept? Create entire shows that feature minority leads instead of simply relegating them to the background. Actually, don’t just consider doing this. Like Nike suggests, just do it.
Let’s make sure that the people on the screen better reflect those off the screen. Especially the kids watching at home.