Change the Image, Change Perceptions: Telling Asian American Stories through Visuals

Asian American family hugging

By Reya Sehgal, Creative Insights Manager, Getty Images

Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. While they represent ​​an integral part of America’s past, present and future (and hold significant buying power), the images that capture Asian American experiences fail to account for the diversity and dynamism within this community. Three in five Asian Americans do not feel represented in ad content and 35% of media representations of the AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islander) community portray at least one stereotype.

Two major myths have dictated how Asian Americans are seen in popular American media and visuals have been central to building these stereotypes. The myth of the “Model Minority” depicts Asian Americans as docile, high-achieving workers with little creative or emotional capacity, individuality or interest in social progress. Rather than celebrating identity and uniqueness within Asian American communities, popular visuals overwhelmingly highlight sameness and feature people of Asian descent as workers above all else. The “Perpetual Foreigner” myth portrays Asians as exotic, threatening, unassimilable and never “American” enough. Though this myth has become less common in visuals, it is still prevalent in racist rhetoric—and has fueled the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes targeting Asian American communities since the start of the pandemic. While on the surface these two myths seem quite different, they in fact work hand in hand to treat Asian Americans as “others” in the country they call home.

While the most popular visuals at Getty Images feature a growing number of people of Asian descent—rising nearly 50% between 2015 and 2021—these visuals still reinforce stereotypes and leave a vast swath of Asian American communities both underrepresented and misrepresented. However, by opting for inclusive visual storytelling, brands can not only make choices that are more reflective and genuine in depicting the entire Asian American spectrum but can also better connect with Asian American audiences and positively shape how people of Asian descent are seen in American culture.

Below are some best practices for brands on how to expand and deepen Asian American narratives in visuals.

Acknowledge the Nuances of Asian American identities

Marketers often have a hard time answering the question “who are Asian Americans?,” and for good reason. Asian Americans are not a monolith—they have wide socioeconomic diversity, have a range of immigration experiences and are made up of more than 20 ethnic origins, all of which have nuanced cultural traditions. Often, marketers lump these nationalities together under the banner term “Asian” without truly understanding the different experiences, perspectives, traditions and aspirations among this diverse group. In doing so, they’re actually deepening mis- and underrepresentation by relying on generalizations and one-size-fits-all assumptions.

Although more than half of Asian Americans say their race and ethnicity is central to their overall identity, Getty Images research shows that less than 1% of top visuals include culturally-specific aspects of Asian American life, such as food, dress, household structure or decor.

When utilizing visuals, marketers need to understand the intricacies of the cultures they’re depicting and how Asian Americans of different origin groups might choose to represent themselves and engage with day-to-day life. To drive deeper representation and tell more authentic, relatable stories, marketers should take strides to include Asian Americans from a variety of nationalities, paying attention to the nuances within Vietnamese, Korean, Indian or Filipinx Americans. In doing so, brands can better highlight underrepresented groups within the Asian diaspora.

Reflect Body Diversity

Creating authentic representation also stretches beyond just race and ethnicity. It’s necessary to use an intersectional lens when choosing visuals and consider factors like body shape and size, as well as skin type and skin color. Asians with larger bodies are seen in less than 1% of Getty Images’ most popular visuals and Asian women are 60% more likely to be seen with larger bodies than men. Visuals also overwhelmingly feature Asians with light, clear skin.

Asians with larger bodies are often depicted as unhappy with their weight, reinforcing the idea that Asian American women, in particular, are valued for their petite size. The scarcity of representations of darker skin tones reinforces the colorist hierarchy that is so prevalent within communities of color, especially among South Asian American communities. Marketers can fight this bias by reflecting a variety of body shapes and types, as well as skin colors, within visuals.

Reimagine Community

In addition to rethinking how individuals are depicted, marketers must also consider how they’re portraying Asian Americans within larger groups. Recently, Getty Images found that 75% of group photos show Asians alongside people of other races and not among fellow Asians. This often results in tokenism, using Asian Americans to depict diversity rather than showing Asian Americans in community with one another.

Instead of plugging Asian Americans into the backgrounds of white storylines, marketers should instead depict the strong ties these individuals have within their own community, tapping into shared identities and experiences. Family ties are extremely important in the Asian American community, with more than a quarter of Asian Americans (27%) living in multigenerational households. With Asian American affinity groups, creative collectives, and professional organizations on the rise, showcasing relationships beyond the family also speaks volumes to how Asian Americans self-organize today.

Community extends to romantic love, as well, with Asian Americans rarely featured in romantic stories. Only 9% of top visuals feature Asians exhibiting love and less than 5% of Asians are seen in couples. Visuals of LGBTQ+ Asians are even rarer. The model minority myth continues to perpetuate the perception that Asian Americans are cold, emotionless, and success-obsessed. Showing Asian Americans in loving relationships debunks stereotypes about their emotional range or desirability.

Enrich the Portrayal of Asian Americans With Passion Points

Just as diverse as Asian America’s ethnic and cultural makeup are the community’s interests, activities, hobbies and values. However, the current media landscape takes a one-dimensional approach, primarily showing Asian Americans in white collar workplaces. Amongst popular Getty Images visuals, only 4% of Asians are shown pursuing creative hobbies, such as music, visual art or dance and just 1% are seen playing sports.

When creating campaigns that embrace Asian Americans, marketers must take a holistic look at representation beyond box-checking to fight common tropes. Instead of showing an Asian American as an office worker first, be sure to give a nod to the “life” part of “work/life balance” by celebrating their passions, talents and forms of self-expression.

Visuals impact our understanding of ourselves and the world around us and can have a large effect on fighting — or reinforcing — stereotypes. More accurately, authentically and generously representing the Asian American community can help drive cultural change.