2.23.2007

Paul Kim, A Role Model

I don't watch American Idol, but I was pointed in the direction of
contestant Paul Kim, who hails from the Bay Area and apparently has a
smokin' voice. I appreciated his comments about wanting to represent
Asian America on the same stage that William Hung had previously made
his presence known to the national consciousness. His stated desire
was to offer to viewers another, alternative Asian persona to the
stereotyped one William Hung represented.

This is why I think Charles Barkley and Lucy Liu have it wrong and why
the discussion of whether Barack Obama is really black is so darn
interesting. Paul Kim realizes that, whether he himself desires to
represent Asian America, the fact that he is Asian American means that
viewers will associate his persona with Asian America. And he takes
seriously that there's some responsibility, then, to present something
different and better than what had previously and narrowly been
presented on that stage.

Charles Barkley and Lucy Liu, on the other hand, believe that being a
role model is something we decide solely as individuals, rather than
have foisted upon us. Charles Barkley didn't want the burden of young
kids looking up to him, and Lucy Liu wondered aloud why she had to
necessarily represent the Asian American perspective. And while it is
true that our burden and perspective is more than one aspect of who we
are - for Charles Barkley being a basketball player and for Lucy Liu
being an Asian-American - it is also true that wherever we go, we are
representing not only ourselves but also the groups people associate
us with.

Is it fair to place upon young athletes and public stars such a
responsibility? On the one hand, just because you can run fast or are
really pretty doesn't make you any more or less qualified to be an
ambassador or a saint. On the other hand, if you're in the public
eye, you're speaking for more than just yourself, and should speak and
act accordingly.

Which, again, is why the hub-bub about whether Barack Obama is really
black is so darn interesting to me, because it and he are the nexus of
the extent to which culture is define internally vs. externally, and
acknowledging the diversity of external opinions about the same person
or persons. And which is, again, why I appreciate Paul Kim being
willing to step up and say, "Like it or not, when people see me, they
see an Asian-American, so I best represent Asian America
appropriately, particularly in light of stereotype-reinforcing
representations that people tuned into this space have been bombarded
with."
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