The year was 2016. I was at one of those kitschy Brooklyn hole-in-the-walls-turned-hipster-haven when a bartender, apparently unhinged, turned to my white male friend with whom I was sitting and said, “You know you can’t trust her. She has slanty eyes.”
I could see in the bartender’s non-slanty eyes that perfectly align with Western beauty standards that he realized he had done something wrong. He knew he had said something racist. (It was also sexist if we’re being real ― but that’s a whole other issue.) He had really poured me a double with that one.
The bartender assured me he was “kidding,” and that he meant no offense. But that’s not really how delivery and receipt of jokes works. You can’t say something offensive about attributes someone can’t change ― attributes as inherent as ethnicity ― and call that a joke. Plus, he didn’t even apologize.
A similar, though much more extreme, scenario played out on a national scale this week. And like that friendly bartender, Fox News’ Jesse Watters made no apologies after his racist Chinatown segment aired ― and received a barrage of criticism. For anyone who hasn’t watched the viral-for-all-the-wrong-reasons segment, Watters went to New York City’s Chinatown and asked its residents questions such as, “Am I supposed to bow to say hello?” and “Do you know karate?”
It was a 5-minute segment with no purpose other than overt racism for “entertainment.” But the reality is that Watters, as well as the bartender, probably didn’t apologize because racist Asian jokes have always been seen as acceptable.
Watters tweeted, “I regret if anyone found offense,” but he explained away his segment as simply being the tenor of his political humor.
Political humor typically uses hyperbole or parody to show how outlandish something is. If there’s no greater purpose, like exposing an injustice, you run the risk of simply insulting the subjects. And that’s exactly what Fox News did. It painted Chinatown residents into caricatures who are politically uninformed, lacking opinions and basically bumbling fools.
Great political humor lampoons unjust policies and election-season gaffes from candidates.
You don’t go to Chinatown and lampoon non-native English speaking elderly people – a group of people Asian culture holds in the highest regard. You don’t lampoon Asian kids as being human trafficking victims when they’re on stage at the Oscars. And you don’t lampoon Asian mail-order brides.
Somehow Asians often seem to fall victim to this type of humor, and nearly always it’s laughed off as a joke by the larger culture.
Like when Sacha Baren Cohen said at the Oscars, “How come there is no Oscar for them very hardworking, little, yellow people, with tiny dongs?” Or when Stephen Colbert used an offensive Asian statement as satire to peel back the layers of Native American stereotypes. Or when ESPN used the headline “Chink in the armor” for a Jeremy Lin story.
Or when the bartender’s comment on my untrustworthy slanty eyes referenced the oppression and exoticization of Asian women as untrustworthy dragon ladies. Lolz?
Basically, if you’re part of the culture in power (i.e. white people), it’s best not to joke about things that make minorities feel even further “othered.”
So why do we allow Asians to continue to be the butt of the joke?
Asian culture is both derided and praised for valuing deference, humility and forbearance. We typically don’t speak out, and we know our place. We’ve even been deemed as a model minority ― for all the other minorities to follow!
But much of that image of Asians was actually manipulated by U.S. stakeholders, Ellen D. Wu, a history professor at Indiana University Bloomington, points out.
Wu, author of The Color Of Success: Asian Americans And The Origins Of The Model Minority, described in the LA Times a period during World War II when Americans became worried that the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to prevent one specified ethnic group from immigrating to the U.S., could negatively affect U.S. ties with China against Japan. So U.S. groups worked to repeal the law, which lasted from 1882 to 1943, by coming up with a new campaign:
“The Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion recognized that it would have to neutralize deep-seated fear of ‘yellow peril’ coolie hordes,” Wu wrote. “So it strategically recast the Chinese in its promotional materials as law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us.”
And that stereotype of obedience stuck ― and remains harmful, The New Republic pointed out earlier this year. Karin Wang, the Vice President of Programs and Communications of nonprofit advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told the site: “It’s easier to target Asians because it seems safer. It’s a community that’s viewed as less likely to rise up en masse and speak out.”
But in 2016, there is more vocal pushback than ever from Asians who have had enough of the casual racism they encounter every day.
And advocacy around Asian issues is advancing as groups speak out both IRL and online. Progress is evident in Asians protesting the Watters segment outside Fox News offices. And it’s evident in Asians creating online movements like #ModelMinorityMutiny, which have helped the White House realize the real economic harm the Model Minority Myth can do to Asian populations with high poverty rates and low education levels.
Progress is especially visible when it comes to seeing Asian actors, actresses and directors demanding representation and an end to detrimental stereotypes in Hollywood. And let’s be real ― if there’s anyone who can convince Jesse Watters and the rest of America that ridiculing someone based on their ethnicity is reprehensible, it’s this national treasure below: