Hollywood’s Asian Punching Bags: Why There Shouldn’t Be a ‘Safe’ Minority to Joke About

Chris Rock trotted out a bunch of Asian kids during the Oscars, while Ali G compared Asians to Minions. Emma Stone played an Asian character in a film. Where does it end?

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Let’s take it back to 2014. Let’s talk about #CancelColbert.

A few things: The Colbert Report shouldn’t have been canceled (unless it was to promote him to hosting The Late Show, which did in fact happen). Stephen Colbert isn’t a racist—or, rather, not any more of an overt, malicious racist than I am, or anyone else is. #CancelColbert was a terrible hashtag idea and showed terrible judgment.

Chris Rock shouldn’t be “canceled,” or whatever that means in this context, either. It would be great to see him back at the Oscars next year. He is and always has been one of the world’s finest stand-up comedians. He likely isn’t racist, or anti-Asian—or, rather, not any more of an overt, malicious anti-Asian than I am, or anyone else is. #CancelChrisRock would be a terrible hashtag idea and would show terrible judgment.

But there is, in fact, a real issue here.

“Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” was not Stephen Colbert literally saying “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” He was brutally—and correctly—mocking Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s incredible hubris in thinking that there was nothing offensive about starting a foundation for Native Americans that still had “Redskins” in the name.

Also, the whole point of Chris Rock’s joke about bringing the “PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants” onstage at the Oscars wasn’t about the stereotype that Asian kids are all math whizzes or that the only Asians in Hollywood work in corporate. It was about the fact that we all got offended over it, and then he zinged us with the punchline: “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”

Get it? It’s not really a joke about Asians, it’s a joke about “outrage culture,” and about the relative unimportance of outrage over racism in media when we’re complicit in evils like the exploitation of child labor. It’s a joke that required bringing three real children onstage to use as mute props, who will now always have a story about how they were the butt of ironic racial humor at the 88th Academy Awards, but hey, omelettes, eggs, etc.

Just like Sacha Baron Cohen, whose whole shtick is to bury everything he does under enough layers of irony and costume pieces to render it harmless, did a bait-and-switch joke about industrious little yellow guys with tiny penises that, yes, turned out to be about the Minions, and was, yes, a “meta” joke about how everyone at last night’s Oscars was on edge about race and how the outrageously politically incorrect character Ali G was totally “ironically” failing to respect that.

Get it? All these jokes aren’t actually jokes about a specific racial stereotype. They’re meta jokes—they’re jokes about how politically and socially fraught it is to talk about race! They’re jokes about racist jokes, kind of like how Seinfeld was a sitcom about “nothing” in that it was essentially a sitcom about being on a sitcom!

And such jokes, with predictable, tiresome regularity, end up using Asian-Americans as their “example” race to make their “ironic” racist jokes about. This includes Seinfeld, by the way, which regularly mined Chinese stereotypes as its preferred vehicle for making its white characters confront uncomfortable self-judgment about whether they were racist. Indeed it includes most “edgy” humor.

Or take South Park. Take the famous “Red Man’s Greed” episode: for all its boastful pride in breaking all boundaries of common decency, the show does in fact acknowledge its own edgy high-wire act trying to do a metaphor about Native Americans and colonialism with a role reversal (“Chief Runs-With-Premise”) but when the tension rises a little too high they break the ice with an outrageously, shockingly, “ironically” offensive bit with a gaggle of ching-chong speaking SARS-infected Chinamen used as a biological weapon (as a reference to real-life smallpox blankets).

Get it? It’s funny because it’s a surprise bit of context-free racism that has nothing to do with the episode’s premise and therefore jolts you into a guilty laugh. And when they needed to pick a bit of context-free ironic racism-for-racism’s-sake to shock us with, they picked… a joke about Asians.

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It gets tiring, everyone. It gets tiring to be treated as a kind of abstract hypothetical all the time, as a “safe” way to discuss racism in the abstract. It’s especially tiring when for quite a few Asian-Americans it isn’t abstract at all, when we have stories of Asian-Americans shot dead or beaten to death because of our being stereotyped as strange, different, other.

It’s annoying that, for instance, we all get why the fact that President Obama is biracial wouldn’t make it OK for Daniel Day-Lewis to play him in a feature film, but a major studio still puts out a film with a multiracial Asian and Hawaiian character played by Emma Stone. It’s downright upsetting that with the Marvel Cinematic Universe talking up racial diversity with the upcoming Luke Cage Netflix series and Black Panther film, Marvel saw fit to completely ignore the viral campaign to have kung fu-themed superhero Iron Fist be played by an Asian actor, without even making a token effort to address why people might be upset about the history of having a white guy be the kung fu hero in every kung fu movie that comes out of Hollywood.

But let’s pause for a second, because this is the point in the angry op-ed where the Asian-American writer tends to step in it.

The biggest way Asian-Americans step in it when we try to talk about Asian-American “invisibility” is to claim that black people being less “safe” to joke about is some kind of privilege or advantage black people have over us. Master of None did it with their joke about how we don’t have an “Al Sharpton” to force people to apologize to. The Twitterati on Oscars night did it with their complaints about how Chris Rock was obligated to mention bias against Latinos and Asians in his monologue, leading to the viral #NotYourMule backlash.

Just like the people who had the most right to be upset about the #CancelColbert fiasco, in my opinion, weren’t Stephen Colbert or his staff—since his show was, in actual fact, never in anything remotely resembling any danger of being canceled—but Native American protesters seeing one badly judged one-liner eclipse the issue that one-liner was addressing, namely that the nation’s capital’s football team has been named after an outright racial slur for the better part of a century.

The reason the Colbert joke worked is because there isn’t, in real life, a “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation” because there isn’t, in real life, an NFL team called the “Chinks”—our country would have to have a very different history for that to be the case. The reason Chris Rock’s monologue was about black representation and not Asian representation is that #OscarsSoWhite trended in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter—and while the American people do also need reminding Asian lives matter, they don’t need that reminder to the same absurd, horrifying, tragic degree.

I’m going to plant my flag on this, because it needs to be planted: No, it is not black people’s job to advocate for anyone else just because they’re more visible, as though their visibility is some kind of unearned gift. No, it’s not an enviable advantage to “have an Al Sharpton.”

Al Sharpton, for better or for worse, holds the position he does because slavery was the great shame of our nation in the first two centuries of its existence and Jim Crow the great shame of the third. Black people can’t be “invisible” in culture the way Asian people can because American culture was constructed from the beginning to put down and dehumanize black people in order to justify a slave economy. Blackface isn’t the same as other forms of dress-up precisely because blackface was once actually required of white performers—pretending to be black was the universal cultural symbol for clowning, comedy, and affected melodrama.

So yes, the third rail of racial politics is quite a bit higher-voltage when we’re dealing with anti-blackness than discrimination against people who look like me. That’s justified. “How bad” racism is for any individual is an unanswerable question; it was certainly as bad as it could get for Vincent Chin or Yoshihiro Hattori, who lost their lives. But on the level of society as a whole, yes, people who look like me have it quite a bit easier than people who look like Chris Rock.

So yes, when Chris Rock makes fun of people who look like me as being awkward dorks who are good at math, that’s frustrating, sometimes enraging, and ends up being a serious barrier to people who look like me being able to get the same opportunities as our white counterparts. But it’s not the same as being stereotyped as an evil, superhumanly powerful monster such that I’d be liable to be shot dead by a cop despite being unarmed and have a jury defend the cop’s decision to do so. Chris Rock isn’t “lucky” people are generally more sensitive to racism toward him, especially because that sensitivity often doesn’t stop them from just going ahead and being racist anyway.

Guess what, though: That doesn’t make it OK for Chris Rock to joke about Asians.

No, it’s not his job to fight for Asians. The point of the #NotYourMule hashtag is that telling black people they have some kind of obligation to stand up for us is treating black visibility as though it’s some kind of unearned privilege as opposed to a burden in its own right, any temporary advantages it may give more than paid for by a lifetime of marginalization and abuse.

But going along with the idea that the “Asian joke” is in some sense acceptable, that because it’s “more OK” to say “Ching Chong Ding Dong” than to say the N-word that you should go ahead and do it to make your point, doesn’t help. If it helps anyone, it helps guilty-feeling white people by normalizing the idea that “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (a song which also uses anti-Asian racism as its “safe” example of racism to poke fun at, while we’re keeping score). With Rock’s joke, that was explicit—the whole point of his joke was essentially giving his almost-entirely-white audience permission to laugh at racism sometimes—because it was meant tongue-in-cheek, because there are bigger problems in the world, because it’s all just entertainment anyway and who cares.

In all the examples I’ve given of meta jokes about hypothetical stereotypes that just so happen to also be actual jokes about actual Asian stereotypes, the only joke I think was remotely funny enough to be worth making was Colbert’s—and even then, Colbert’s joke was trafficking in comforting his audience rather than confronting them. It’s the kind of “irony” that only works because it presumes the audience already all knows that racism is bad and therefore we’re all Good People who can joke about racism through an ironic lens and freely “play with” racist tropes because we know none of us really mean it.

“Playing with” racism is playing with fire. Dave Chappelle got that. He was willing to say that if he was going to be “ironically” racist he would be fully 100 percent committed (to the degree of dressing up as a blackface minstrel) ironically racist. When he realized that wasn’t working—that, underneath all the layers and layers of irony, some people in his audience were just accepting his permission to straight-up laugh at minstrelsy—rather than try to tweak or save that one bit, he ended the whole show.

Playing into the idea that differing degrees of severity of racism mean that some are “OK” or “acceptable” ends up enabling those people who are looking for their racism hall pass. The white dude who’s deeply internalized the “rules” that you can’t say the N-word or wear blackface on Halloween but who picks up the message that “playing with” anti-Asian stereotypes is on some level “more OK”—that guy isn’t coming from any complex understanding of racial hierarchies, he’s just checking to see what he can get away with. And if he comes to understand that sometimes you can get away with being shitty to Asian people he’ll find ways to low-key “play with” anti-black stereotypes that just aren’t as obvious as saying the N-word or wearing blackface. (I would argue that Ali G falls into this category.)

I don’t argue for an anti-racism that goes beyond “black and white” out of simple self-interest as a non-black person, though sure, that’s part of it. I argue for it because an anti-racism that only really notices and stigmatizes egregious racism like the N-word is a shallow, fake anti-racism that will at some point fail everyone, including and especially black people.

There shouldn’t be any “safe” targets for racism, even “mild racism.” The problem by no means harms all of us equally or in the same way, but dehumanizing people and turning them into flat cartoons based on their skin is the problem and there shouldn’t be some level of it we find tolerable.

Asian invisibility and black hypervisibility, the “model minority” Asian nerd stereotype and the underclass black “thug” stereotype—these aren’t two separate problems competing for attention. They’re two symptoms of the same root problem, which is an overarching cultural system that puts people into boxes and robs them of humanity for the sake of convenience.

It’s convenient to have Asians as a “safe” ethnic minority, one perceived as outside the system of horrible racial conflict we see on the news every day, so that you can “play with” racist humor without getting immediately jumped on. I get how convenient that can be, as someone who tries to write jokes myself. Sacha Baron Cohen (whose whole career I’m still deeply ambivalent about) found something even more convenient than Asians, an ethnicity most Americans and Brits knew nothing about that he could just make shit up about, getting plaudits for exposing racism and hypocrisy among white people while getting away with “ironically” being massively shitty to the real, actual people living in the real, actual country of Kazakhstan.

Well, there are more important things in the world than the convenience of comedians. Find a better way to make the joke or just don’t make it. You’re right, Chris Rock, Asians weren’t put into the world to be cheap labor. We weren’t put here to be cheap punchlines, either.