Asians Clap Back At Offensive Oscars Jokes

No one's keeping quiet about the tasteless "model-minority" gag.
Kevin Winter via Getty Images

Asian-Americans are speaking out about the multiple zingers delivered at their expense at Sunday night's Oscars ceremony.

Chris Rock, who did an otherwise terrific job framing the awards show around diversity, indulged in a tasteless gag in which he brought three young Asian kids on stage as "Oscar accountants," a lame exercise of the model-minority stereotype.

“If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,” added Rock. But people weren't having it.

But although jokes at Asians' expense is nothing new, the wave of Asian-American responses -- on social media and in the press -- feels louder. The backlash was swift and coherent, which wasn't exactly the case with previous glib comments such as Jeb Bush on "anchor babies."

Karin Wang, Vice-President of Programs & Communications at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, agreed that the social media response to Rock's joke was significant.

"I noticed this trending during the Oscar broadcast on my social media feeds last night, with a number of Asian-American media watchers weighing in," she told the Huffington Post. "There was already a heightened sensitivity to race more generally in this year's telecast, due to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which I think made the tasteless Asian jokes that much worse."

She suggested two reasons why Asians spoke out so strongly on this issue: social media, and sheer numbers. "My sense is that social media gives people outside of the mainstream media channels a chance to really elevate an issue that is otherwise overlooked, and eventually it catches the attention of someone that is more within the mainstream," said Wang.

She also added that since Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority population in the U.S., mainstream media in general is paying more attention to issues that affect them.

Rock's gag came right after last nights two big Asian winners: British-Indian Asif Kapadia, for his documentary Amy, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for her documentary short, "A Girl in the River." The spirit of the joke seemed strangely contrary to the conversation on diversity and inclusion that Rock himself did so much to advance.

The Asian-American dating blogger Rainer Maningding wrote a strong Facebook post unpacking the many reasons why the accountants gag was problematic: it traded on stale "hard working Asians" stereotypes and was flip about the very real problem of child labor. "Three little Asian kids went up on stage in front of thousands of Hollywood millionaires and were laughed at -- not with -- because of their race," he wrote.

The fact that a tasteless Asian joke was seamlessly included in a diversity-focused night is significant, Lowen Liu writes in Slate. "The Asian jokes were not just a blip in the night. They were a huge deflation."

Rock wasn't even the only one trading on Asian stereotypes last night. Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Ali G, followed up with a crude joke about Asian men. He asked, “How come there’s no Oscar from them very hard-working, little yellow people with tiny dongs? You know, the Minions!”

These jokes, and Rock's suggestion that people shouldn't be offended by them, underscore how discrimination against Asian-Americans is often minimized, as Anthony Berteaux writes in the Huffington Post. "Never mind that in the last 20 years, Asian-Americans have become the fastest growing targets of hate crimes and violence because of the model minority myth that they are 'smart' and 'hardworking'...Never mind that these very youths are being targeted because they are stereotyped as 'submissive.'"

Yet another reason the jokes stung was that there were so few Asians represented at the actual awards show.

You could count on your fingers the Asians in attendance last night: Dev Patel, Priyanka Chopra, Olivia Munn, Mindy Kaling, and Byung-Hun Lee, among others.

"Representation is a problem in Hollywood for all minorities," as Jessica Contrera writes in the Washington Post. It is true, and deplorable, that not a single actor nominated for an Oscar was black. "But they also weren’t Asian or Latino."

Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at U.C. Irvine, points to one more problem that the Asian jokes bring to light: the jokes themselves, which went through rounds of approval and were approved for broadcast. That shows how the industry can be tone-deaf, said Lee. "The writers who created the skit revealed just how much the industry needs to diversify, and diversify beyond the Black-White framework," she told the Huffington Post.

"While Chris Rock was vocal about criticizing the absence of African Americans, he and other writers were ill adept at expanding the criticism to other non-White groups, including Asians and Latinos."

This is an important point about intersectionality that underscores the need for a more expansive idea of diversity that includes Asian-Americans at all levels: in front of and behind the camera, and in writers' rooms. The absence of such diversity allowed these jokes to be broadcast.

"The black-white dialectic is central to the American experience, and other people of color follow and participate in that dialogue with a fighting interest," as Liu wrote in Slate. "But we don’t expect to be the butt of it."

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