The news of Ann Curry’s departure from the Today Show hit me surprisingly hard. I get most of my news online, and I almost never tune in to Today or any of its competitors. Sure, I take a look now and then. After all, these shows are among the drivers of American culture – they help to shape the American worldview.
I guess that’s why losing Ann Curry as a host of one of the more watched TV news and entertainment programs felt like a loss to me. Asian Americans are next to invisible in popular media, especially strong, intelligent Asian American women.
Each time an Asian American appears on TV, even as a weather reporter or occasional guest, it feels like a bit of a win. The more visible Asians are, the logic goes, the harder it is to marginalize or vilify us, even when, as in the case of Ann Curry, being Asian and addressing issues of special interest to Asian Americans isn’t the main event.
These appearances remind me of a time when any person of color appearing on TV was cause for excitement. As a child growing up in Hawai’i, I still remember neighbors yelling, “somebody on TV!” anytime a person of color popped up on a national program. As a kid, I was aware of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and farm worker movements because features on black and brown people as real life leaders on national TV were special events.
But my favorite somebodies on TV were people like Gail Fisher who played the character Peggy Fair on Mannix, and Connie Chung, a woman who was in charge of news, making her seem to me to be one of the smartest people in the world. And I remember cheering on Latina tennis star Rosie Casals. I was proud of her victories and inspired by her bold belief that she could climb to the top of a very white and male sport.
Of all the somebodies on TV, my favorites were Kam Fong Chun and Gilbert Lani Kauhi who played Chin Ho and Kono on Hawaii Five-0. I paid very little attention to the details of their characters. To me, what mattered was that they were like us, but they dressed up for work in a fancy office. They helped me see that there was a world outside the little plantation town I grew up in that included people who looked like family, expanding my imagination of the things I could be and the places I could go.
Mind you, this was Hawaii. Even in the 1960s there were lots of images of people of color on local TV, especially on the news. But national TV was special. Even as a child, I understood that what appeared on national TV shaped the nation’s consciousness. Moreover, I understood that the absence of people of color in white dominated media was an indication of something deeply wrong with how we were viewed by society.
It may not be the 60s anymore, but Ann Curry is still somebody on TV to many Asian Americans. That’s why the criticisms driving her dismissal – being cold, aloof, too remote – mirroring stereotypes concerning Asian women, feel personal, hurtful.
So, while I can honestly say I don’t give a rip about the Today Show, and I certainly know nothing about Ann Curry as a person, about her values or her personal commitments, I feel sad that she’s being cast aside. In a world where few visible leaders look like us, people like Ann Curry are important markers of the possible.