Actor Constance Wu of "Fresh Off the Boat" recently shared allegations that she was sexually harassed by a member of the show's production team but that she was hesitant to speak out at the time because of the show’s popularity among Asian Americans.
But the fact that she did not speak out points to an added layer of hesitation many women of color face when confronted with such harassment, experts say.
Wu, who played the matriarch Jessica Huang for five years on the hit ABC sitcom, talked about the “traumatic experience” during a panel at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C., last Friday.
“I did not want to sully the reputation of the one show we had representing us," Wu said before the crowd. “And so therefore, I kept my mouth shut for a really long time about a lot of sexual harassment and intimidation that I received the first two seasons of the show.”
Wu, who faced a backlash in 2019 for a series of tweets expressing disappointment over the show’s renewal, told the crowd that her tweetstorm was a reaction to those experiences on the show. She had been hoping for a “fresh start.”
Advocates and scholars say Wu’s comments reflect a familiar issue that women of color regularly contend with: the pressure to uphold racial solidarity, regardless of the harm they face.
In her upcoming book “Making a Scene,” which will be released on Oct. 4, Wu detailed the alleged harassment. While she said she dealt with the situation her own way, she had hoped to move on.
“I loved everybody on that crew, and I loved working on that show, but it had that 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 representatives for Wu responded to NBC News' request.
Wu said her publisher encouraged her to write about the experience. And what started off as something she viewed as an “exercise,” she said at the festival, ended up becoming a part of her story that she felt critical to talk about.
Connie Wun, co-founder of the nonprofit AAPI Women Lead, said that Wu’s yearning to protect the show’s reputation reflects how women of color become “receptacles of violence,” she said.
“We actually have to calculate whether or not we can speak and how we can speak and who will be harmed,” Wun said. “In addition to the harm that we are experiencing, we have to actually balance and manage everyone else’s expectations.”
Nadia Kim, sociologist and Asian and Asian American studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, said Wu’s fear of putting a “stain” on the show speaks to how the experiences of Asian American women often get devalued and overlooked as part of the Asian American experience at large, Kim said. The expectation women face to place race before any gender-based misconduct or abuse means that they often do not get to define what being Asian American means, she said.
“The problem with that is, you only start being able to fight or rise up if men in the community are silencing or stepping on women or the other people who are marginalized within the community,” Kim said.
Wu was immediately accused online of acting “entitled,” following her tweetstorm, for example. However, few bothered to question the context of the tweets, and what she may have been confronting at the time, Kim said. Wu revealed earlier this year that the harassment surrounding the tweets led her to attempt suicide, particularly after a fellow Asian actress accused her of being a “blight on the Asian American community.”
But advocates and scholars underscored that Wu’s identity as an Asian American can’t be separated from her identity as a woman.
“When one is a woman of color, we are subjected to both racism and sexism. That gets compounded. It’s not additive, it’s actually exponential,” Jennifer Ho, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, explained. “It’s not a matter of, ‘I can put aside my gender identity and my precarity in occupying a woman’s body, so that I can be in solidarity for the greater cause of Asian American solidarity.’”
In reality, Kim said that it’s not up to Wu to uphold the sitcom’s spotless reputation for the sake of the racial group. It should, however, be on those in power to ensure that opportunities for Asian Americans continue to broaden and images of Asian men and women continue to diversify. And maybe, she said, it’s time to stop caring about what white people may think. As Ho said, no television show, regardless of cultural impact, “is worth someone’s dignity.”
Most importantly, Kim said, dissent within communities is important and, in order to create a safer environment for women and all in the racial group, a reckoning is necessary. Bringing issues of harassment into the public domain oftentimes forces people to contend with long-ignored problems, she said.
“All boats don’t rise if you don’t bring up everybody within that community,” Kim said. “And does that include women? Hell, yes.”