“Fresh Off the Boat” actress Constance Wu recently shared allegations that she was sexually harassed by a member of the show’s production team, but was reluctant to speak out. era due to the show’s popularity among Asian Americans.
But the fact that she did not speak out indicates an added layer of hesitation that many women of color face when faced with such harassment, experts say.
Wu, who played matriarch Jessica Huang for five years on the hit ABC sitcom, spoke about the “traumatic experience” during a panel at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, DC last Friday.
“I didn’t want to smear the reputation of the only show we had to represent us,” Wu said to the crowd. “And so, I kept my mouth shut for a very long time about a lot of sexual harassment and bullying that I received the first two seasons of the show.
Wu, who faced backlash in 2019 for a series of tweets expressing disappointment with the show’s renewal, told the crowd that his tweetstorm was a reaction to those experiences on the show. She hoped for a “new start”.
Advocates and scholars say Wu’s comments reflect a familiar issue that women of color regularly face: the pressure to maintain racial solidarity, no matter what harm they face.
In her upcoming book “Making a Scene,” which will be released on October 4, Wu detailed the alleged harassment. Although she said she handled the situation in her own way, she had hoped to move on.
“I loved everyone on this team and I loved working on this show, but it had this history of abuse that it started with,” Wu said. “Even though I handled it after two years, I was looking forward to a clean slate.”
Neither ABC nor Wu’s representatives responded to NBC News’ request.
Wu said her editor encouraged her to write about the experience. And what started out as something she thought of as an “exercise,” she told the festival, ended up becoming a part of her story that she felt essential to talk about.
Connie Wun, co-founder of nonprofit AAPI Women Lead, said Wu’s desire to protect the show’s reputation reflects how women of color become “receptacles of violence.” she declared.
“We actually have to calculate whether or not we can talk and how we can talk and who will be hurt,” Wun said. “As well as the harm we’re going through, we really have to balance and manage everyone’s expectations.”
Nadia Kim, a sociologist and professor of Asian and Asian American studies at Loyola Marymount University, said Wu’s fear of putting a “stain” on the show shows how deeply the experiences of Asian American women are often devalued and overlooked as part of the Asian-American experience at large, Kim said. The expectation women face to place race ahead of any gender-based misconduct or abuse means they often fail to define what it means to be Asian-American, she said.
“The problem with that is that you only start to be able to fight or rise up if the men in the community are silencing or stepping on the women or other marginalized people within the community,” Kim said.
Wu was immediately accused online of acting “in law”, following her tweetstorm, for example. However, few bothered to question the context of the tweets and what she might have faced at the time, Kim said. Wu revealed earlier this year that the harassment surrounding the tweets led her to attempt suicide, particularly after another Asian actress accused her of being a “scourge on the Asian American community”.
But advocates and scholars have pointed out that Wu’s identity as an Asian American cannot be separated from her identity as a woman.
“When you are a woman of color, you experience both racism and sexism. It gets worse. It’s not additive, it’s actually exponential,” said Jennifer Ho, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It’s not about ‘I can put aside my gender identity and my precariousness by occupying a woman’s body, so that I can stand together for the greater cause of Asian-American solidarity.'”
In reality, Kim said it was not up to Wu to maintain the sitcom’s impeccable reputation for the good of the racial group. It should, however, be the responsibility of those in power to ensure that opportunities for Asian Americans continue to expand and that images of Asian men and women continue to diversify. And maybe, she said, it’s time to stop worrying about what white people might think. As Ho said, no TV show, no matter how culturally impactful, is “worth someone’s dignity.”
More importantly, Kim said, dissent within communities matters, and in order to create a safer environment for women and all racial group members, reckoning is needed. Bringing bullying issues into the public domain often forces people to confront long-ignored issues, she said.
“Not all boats go up if you don’t raise everyone in this community,” Kim said. “And does that include women? Damn, yes.”