Why “Identifies As Asian” Is Trending Following Michelle Yeoh’s “Best Actress” Win At The “95th Academy Awards”
Actress Michelle Yeoh made history at the 95th Academy Awards by taking home the Oscar for “Best Actress” for her starring role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Michelle Yeoh made history as the first Asian woman to win the award.
For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof to dream big, and dreams do come true.
— Michelle Yeoh, in her acceptance speech
But while netizens were praising the monumental win, some are finding offense with articles and tweets stating that she is “the first actress who identifies as Asian to win.”
Identifies? She IS asian…
— LUNA ZEN ⁷ (@LUNAZEN101) March 13, 2023
"identifies as Asian"
She was born in Asia to Asian parents! pic.twitter.com/3ibzmRUMO1
— Rommel Lopez (@RommelFLopez) March 13, 2023
"Person who identifies as Asian" lmao just say "Asian actor" lol https://t.co/cjhfw0MD3B
— Queer So Back (@WhatQueerIsThis) March 13, 2023
However, despite how the phrasing might seem, netizens are clarifying that the wording is actually intended to acknowledge actors and actresses who hid their Asian heritage in Hollywood to avoid discrimination.
Michelle Yeoh being the "first actress who identifies as Asian" is not about transracialism or wokeness.
It's about Merle Oberon being the first Asian actress to be nominated for Best Actress. She hid her mixed heritage because she knew she would be discriminated against.
— Eric L (@EricReacts) March 13, 2023
Michelle Yeoh identifies as Asian because she is Asian.
Merle Oberon was nominated for an Oscar in 1936 and hid her South Asian ancestry to be accepted in White Hollywood.
THIS is why they made the distinction.
Google shit first before being outraged by some random tweet LMAO pic.twitter.com/K10UPYi3HR
— Jently PLAYS (@JentlyPLAYS) March 13, 2023
For people wondering about the "identifies as Asian" part, there were two previous winners who hid their Asian ethnicity. So, yes, she identifies as Asian.
— Joseph Kolber (@JosephKolber) March 13, 2023
"The caveat "who identifies as Asian" is necessary because two actresses – nominee Merle Oberon and two-time Oscar winner Vivien Leigh – hid their Asian ancestry and chose to pass as white."https://t.co/A9TN6KDUJQ
— Joseph Kolber (@JosephKolber) March 13, 2023
The context here for "identifies as" — please always read the full article! — is because of both the history of racial passing as well as colonization (Wikipedia lists Vivien Leigh as an Asian Oscar winner, but her family was in India because of white colonialism!).
— Rebecca Sun 孫洪美 (@therebeccasun) January 24, 2023
Actresses Merle Oberon and Vivien Leigh are the two names most netizens are referencing.
Merle Oberon was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Actress” for her role in The Dark Angel in 1935. Although she was the first Asian actress nominated for an Oscar, no one knew at the time.
Born in Mumbai, India, Merle Oberon traveled to England to act in films with her grandmother who accompanied her under the guise of being her maid.
After making her first big break in The Private Life of Henry VIII, publicists suggested that Merle Oberon “invent a background story to explain her race,” according to BBC.
Tasmania was chosen as her new birthplace because it was so far from the US and Europe and generally considered to be ‘British” to its core.
— Director Marée Delofski via BBC
Merle Oberon never publicly revealed her Anglo-Indian heritage, instead canceling public appearances when journalists became too curious, and taking lessons to change her accent. The truth of her heritage was only later revealed in a biography written after the actress’s death.
Through his book, Sen hopes to be able to convey the enormous pressures Oberon faced as a South Asian woman ‘navigating an industry that wasn’t designed to accommodate her and producing such moving work while fighting those battles.’
‘Dealing with those struggles couldn’t have been easy. It feels more productive to extend grace and empathy to her than to judge.’
Actress Vivien Leigh also notably won “Best Actress” twice, for her starring roles in Gone with the Wind in 1939 and A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951.
Like Merle Oberon, Vivien Leigh is believed to be of Anglo-Indian heritage, although there is still discussion about the Hollywood star’s ancestry. Born in Darjeeling, Vivien Leigh attended school in England, where she started dreaming of becoming an actress.
Still even if netizens understand the intention of the phrasing, many argue that the descriptor of “the first person who identifies as Asian” needed better context and “wording.”
so i understand why they put "identifies as asian" (bc of actresses in the 30's who needed to be white/white passing for a career that had noms) but like. damn. unfortunate, clunky, shitty phrasing. correct but at what cost. https://t.co/Amzk1ujEfi
— ✨️ too much gene ✨️ (@pontaneously) March 13, 2023
saying "identifies as asian" instead of "openly asian" is actually the worst possible wording you could have chosen
(context: the first and last asian woman to win in fucking NINETEEN THIRTY pretended she was white because she would have been discriminated against otherwise) https://t.co/oZJVX1Vfkr
— bee (@bee_not_hachi) March 13, 2023
Michelle Yeoh herself has acknowledged Merle Oberon’s nomination.
Actually there was another first, Merle Oberon… But she had to hide her identity. She was of half-Asian descent. Her mother was from India, I believe. But she always came out acting purely as a British woman. So she had to hide that.
— Michelle Yeoh
And Michelle Yeoh voiced for hope that Asian actors receiving nominations and “equal opportunity” becomes “a norm.”
I would love to see… where this is a norm that you see faces like ours, that they are up there, being nominated and being given equal opportunity to play those roles so that we can have a seat at the table.
— Michelle Yeoh
Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar win is monumental; hopefully showing the beginning of a long-needed change in Hollywood’s culture.
You can hear more of Michelle Yeoh’s thoughts here.