Hey, Fox News: It's NOT Okay To Mock Asian Americans

It’s a mindset that’s long overdue for an overhaul.


Five days after a casually (and jaw-droppingly) racist segment aired on Fox News, the Asian-American community is denouncing the network.

If you haven’t seen it, the segment is disgraceful. A reporter, Jesse Watters, walks around Chinatown asking people whether they do karate and whether they could take care of North Korea for us. North Korea? In Chinatown?

After one elderly woman who did not respond to the idiotic reporter, a clip was added – from the film “Young Frankenstein,” where Madeline Kahn yells, “Speak, speak, why don’t you speak?”

The response across digital media at least, even some conservative blogs, was swift and brutal. Even right wing blog Hot Air called it a crime against comedy.

Bill O’Reilly, the host of the show where the segment aired, has responded to criticism saying it was all in good fun. The question is, fun for whom?

The fact that O’Reilly and the many producers who signed off on the piece thought it was funny, or at least not offensive enough to dump in the trash, speaks volumes about its intended audience. It also must be pointed out that Fox’s audience skews much older than other networks. The median age of a prime-time Fox News viewer is 68, according to Nielsen. And the network’s audience is 92% white. Older, whiter, more conservative Americans may be less likely to see anything wrong with the stereotyping that Asian-Americans find offensive.

But it’s not just older white Americans. Asian-Americans are routinely mocked and ridiculed without much backlash. In fact, Asian-Americans are the only racial group it seems to be still okay to stereotype. And most media professionals and entertainers know this well.

That neither Watters nor O’Reilly nor Fox saw fit to issue a sincere apology – and will suffer no retribution – says all you need to know about who it is okay to mock.

Legal scholar Frank H. Wu, in his book Yellow: Race in America beyond Black and White, describes the bundle of stereotypes he encountered growing up Asian in America. In the eyes of white Americans, because of his race, he found projected onto him, any one of dozens of images attributed to Asians:

I could turn around and find myself transformed into Genghis Khan, Tojo, Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Hop Sing, Mr. Sulu, Kato, Bruce Lee, Arnold on Happy Days, Sam on Quincy, M.E. I was the Number One Son, intoning “Ah so,” bending at the waist and shuffling backwards out of the room, with opium smoking, incense burning, and ancestor worshiping … My mother and my girl cousins were Madame Butterfly from the mail order bride catalog, dying in their service to the masculinity of the West, and the dragon lady in a kimono, taking vengeance for her sisters. They became the television newscaster, lookalikes, with their flawlessly permed hair.

Being racialized as “perpetual foreigners” is another challenge that Asian Americans face. While stereotypes such as the “yellow peril” may be fading into the background of history, with immigration rates from Asia at an all-time high, Americans of Asian ancestry find themselves still having to constantly prove that they are “truly American.” 

Historian William Wei writes:

Whether negative or positive, stereotypes are essentially false images that obscure the complexity and diversity that is an inherent feature of Asian Americans as well as other people. Whether it be the Chinese launderer, the Korean grocery store owner, or the South Asian Maharaja, this kind of imagery reinforces the stereotype in the American mind that Asians, American or not, are ‘other’.

Those who traffic in clichés and stereotypes about Asian-Americans might not realize what they’re doing. Who wouldn’t want to be called smart or good at math (or good at karate, as in the Fox segment)? It’s the myth of the model minority, which began as an “anti-black” meme. The thinking went, and still goes: “African Americans should just be more like those Asians who work hard and don’t complain.”

It’s a mindset that’s long overdue for an overhaul.

I’m far from the only one who’s called out this problem. As a contributor to the HuffingtonPost pointed out just a week before the Jess Watters Chinatown segment aired, Americans are still getting away with stereotyping of Asian Americans.

Just a brief glance at media and pop culture and the stereotypes come rushing forth. Exotic? You got it. Extremist? There he is. Nerdy and uncool? Yup. Docile and servile? At last! Most of these go unnoticed, because there’s little chance of being called out on it. Far from merely being a matter of political correctness, research has shown that media images can have a negative and undermining effect on the psychology of children who take in these stereotypes.

Six months ago, Oscars host Chris Rock had a bizarre bit using Asian-Americans – real kids no less – as props in a series of jokes, touching on Chinese sweatshops and of course that knee slapper that Asian kids are better at math than your kids.

Rock introduced them as “Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz,” the “most dedicated, accurate, and hard-working” accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that tabulates the Oscar votes. He then added, “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”

It was at the very least, tone deaf, on a night that was supposed to celebrate diversity in Hollywood.

As for the Watters’ segment, tellingly, Asian-American groups did not cause a huge stir. And those who did speak out received little coverage. As for the Jess Watters piece, the Asian-American Journalists’ Association (AAJA) is demanding an apology.

The group said in a statement:

The AAJA MediaWatch team reviewed two other “Watters’ World” segments — one onmillennials and the other on the role of  race in Philadelphia.  Although both segments might indeed be “tongue-in-cheek,” neither was as blatantly racist as the Chinatown segment.

I wish the AAJA good luck in getting that apology.

But where are the other non-Asian groups who should be demanding an apology? Not only does there need to be a public discussion about what’s offensive to Asian-Americans and why, there should be allies pushing it. There ought to be some solidarity. And it would be extra nice if more White people stood against it too.  

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