By Gender & Society editorial board member, Miliann Kang *
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a statement two days ago regarding offensive jokes about Asians at the Oscars over two weeks ago. It was a kinda-sorta-apology, although an underwhelming one at best. Actor George Takei referred to it as patronizing.
I’m proud that twenty-five Academy members of Asian descent, including Takei, director Ang Lee, actor Sandra Oh and documentary maker Freida Lee Mock, wrote a joint letter that influenced this apologetic gesture. It takes some of the sting out, but not all of it. I wish for a more full-throated apology from the Academy, and that Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen would apologize too.
Many Asian Americans have already commented incisively about the racist jokes toward Asian Americans at the Oscars—including Asian American bloggers and organizations, Twitter, and public figures such as Jeremy Lin and Constance Wu.
What I offer here is less media analysis, and more mother love, or ache. For my own child, and for all the other Asian American children who watched three children who looked like them being made fun of on a world stage.
We were cheering on Chris Rock as he killed it in his Oscar opening monologue. This had been a much anticipated moment, as anyone who is at all tuned into pop culture knows about #OscarsSoWhite. For the second year in a row, all the nominations for the major acting awards were White, and it was Chris Rock’s job to make clear that this was not okay. From jokes about “Black Rocky” to the Academy being “sorority racist,” Chris Rock made the audience squirm, but also forced them to think, in the biting way that only comedy can accomplish.
But then things took an odd and unexpected turn. Out walked three Asian American children, wearing tuxes and thick glasses. Chris Rock introduced them as accountants from the prestigious firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers—Ming Zu, Bao Ling, and…David Moskowitz? Then anticipating the pushback, he added that if anyone was upset they should “just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”
I looked over at my sixteen year-old daughter who looked stunned. Was this really happening? She loves Chris Rock. She loves movies. We were right there with him, so what happened?
What happened is that Chris Rock, and many in the audience of the Academy Awards, decided that it is okay to make racist jokes about Asians and Asian Americans.
I don’t know why this surprises me, but it does. These are the oldest tricks in the racial playbook—kick the next person down on the rung. Divide and conquer. Shame and blame. Dump the pain on someone else. I know Chris Rock did not create these problems, and he has done much to try to address them. And whether or not Chris Rock made racist jokes about Asians, Hollywood would still have a race problem. But on this night, he also added to them.
My first reaction—after shock—was maternal. What if those were my kids up there? The youngest of the three looked about five years old, and as the audience laughed, he got confused and started to wander around on the stage. How must the parents of these children have felt watching their children paraded around as racial stereotypes in front of one of the most high profile, widely broadcast media events in the world? How will these children look back on this experience—will they be scarred, angry, confused, embarrassed, or just incredibly sad?
While there were eventually a few hisses and boos, initially it seemed as if this was one of the few moments of unforced laughter that evening. The overwhelmingly White audience letting loose with a tangible sigh of relief that they were no longer the butt of the jokes.
In the bigger scheme of things, I know that there are a lot more important issues than mean jokes about Asian kids at the Oscars. But this is precisely what makes it so difficult to complain, without being written off as thin-skinned ingrates. When other children are being shot by police officers, or washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean, or being forced to carry guns through desserts or jungles, or “simply” growing up in environments with inadequate food, shelter, education, opportunity, affection and respect, it seems ridiculous to complain about our children being teased for being math geniuses? Get over it.
As an Asian American family, we do get this, but it still hurts. I would never assert that the level and kind of discrimination that my family experiences as Asian Americans is comparable to other racial groups. We are not black, but we can identify with the experiences and critique that Chris Rock is raising. We know what it feels to be left out, or “included” as expendable sidekicks or sexual conquests.
But then things diverge, slightly. We are now the bespectacled nerds who are taking over the world. This is the relative and insidious privilege of being the model minority.
Still, the “model” part can never erase the “minority.” The “positive” math whiz stereotype quickly flips into the child sweatshop worker. This makes a joke of child labor exploitation while also managing to elide Asian Americans and Asians, one again, as a single homogenous and “forever foreign” group.
Like other people of color, or members of the global majority (a term I didn’t come up with but strongly prefer), I grow weary of always being the one to raise the race issue. To always be clamoring from the sidelines, what about me, what about us!
Part of me wishes I could be the superhero who saves the planet, or the love interest who wins the heart of the dashing romantic lead, or the investigative reporter who uncovers the cover-up. Even more, I long for new parts that reflect and can be played by my child, my nieces and nephews, my students, all Asian Americans, all people on the planet. Parts that are full-bodied, full-feeling, fully human, yet grounded in the glorious particularities of individual selves and lives, rather than token nods to diversity.
I thought we were further along than this. I thought my child would not have to endure the same inane, stupid racist jokes that I grew up with, not on the playground, not in the movies, not on a night that was supposed to highlight the importance of diversity in the movies.The open letter from the Asian descent members of the Academy asked, “We’d like to know how such tasteless and offensive skits could have happened and what process you have in place to preclude such unconscious or outright bias and racism toward any group in future Oscars telecasts.”
I’d like to know how this happened, too, but I have both a simpler and more difficult question to ask Chris Rock, the Academy and all those who laughed at his supposed jokes–how would you feel if that were your kid up there?
Miliann Kang is Associate Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work . Her writing has been published in Newsweek, Women’s Review of Books, Huffington Post and the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
*Cross-posted with permission from Contexts, March 17, 2016.