What David Cross Doesn’t Get About Racist Jokes And Power Dynamics

When you make a racist joke, you don’t get to decide how people of color should receive it.
David Cross, "comedian."
David Cross, "comedian."
Jonathan Leibson via Getty Images

As far as I can tell, David Cross is not an Asian woman. He certainly isn’t Charlyne Yi, the Asian-American comic and actress who recently revealed that Cross made racially insensitive jokes at her expense when she first met him, aged 20. So it’s unclear why he seems to think he would understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a racist joke.

According to Yi, Cross said to her at one point during their exchange, “What’s a matter? You don’t speak English. Ching-chong-ching-chong.” Yi says the incident had her on the verge of tears.

David Cross is not Asian woman named Charlyne Yi, and yet he felt perfectly fine responding to her story by first doubting its accuracy (“I don’t remember this at all!”) and then suggesting that, had Yi really been that offended, she would have said something.

In a statement posted via Twitter on Wednesday, Cross explained himself by, ever so subtlely, blaming Yi for being unable to take a joke. The “Arrested Development” actor did not deny the incident, but explained that he was meeting his friend Michael Cera’s girlfriend for the first time and, perhaps in the interest of breaking the ice, decided to play “some asshole racist character.” Yi simply did not “understand” his special brand of humor. He claims he had no idea she was upset, or he would have apologized.

The issue with claim he was simply playing a character is that he crossed a line from lampooning racism to using loaded words so insulting that the joke itself was racist. There’s pain and struggle tied up in actual words like “ching chong.”

Rep. Judy Chu of California has pointed out, for example, that the words “ching chong” make her think of a history of discrimination against Chinese people when they were “called racial slurs, were spat upon in the streets, derided in the halls of Congress and even brutally murdered.”

Ignoring the fact that according to Yi, Cross actually did see that she was offended but continued to make racial quips about “karate” anyway, here’s something that Cross and other white people need to understand: it should not be the sole responsibility of people of color to explain issues of racial sensitivity at any given moment.

In other words, Yi shouldn’t have had to explicitly tell him he was being offensive for him to realize he was being offensive. This is an easy out for white people, especially those who like to think of themselves as “woke” or “progressive.”

If the concept of race, or more specifically white supremacy, is all about power as currency, then Cross should know that he had far more currency in that moment. Yi, a 20-year-old Asian woman whose career at that point was just getting started, was in a room amongst several of her then-boyfriend Michael Cera’s costars for an upcoming film. The social dynamics of that situation, especially if she was the only person of color present, put her at a huge disadvantage.

Sometimes, calling out an older, more successful white man in a position of power on his bullshit, no matter how abusive, can put your career or your relationships at risk. Perhaps Cross, who, again, is not an Asian woman, did not take this into account in that moment.

And indeed, therein lies the true danger of racial power dynamics. Cross did not consider this because he has never had to. Making what he thought was a funny joke was far more valuable to him than the possibility of offending Yi. Indeed, whether Yi was offended or not was irrelevant ― who was she going to tell? Who would even care?

In his Twitter statement, Cross has painted Yi and this entire situation as an example of the internet’s glee in moral witch hunts. It’s easy, predictable and lazy when people who get checked on their bullshit blame political correctness or outrage-culture for their own mistakes.

Of course, Cross has a history of blaming political correctness for why people don’t like his unfunny jokes. On July 7, 2016 he tweeted: “Just heard the news about Alton Sterling. Can’t believe the police shot and killed an unarmed law firm.”

In the last several days, if there’s anything we’ve learned about marginalized people opening up about their traumas, it’s this ― instead of coming up with excuses, just listen. And do better.

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