“Do you want to see the latest really wrong Youtube hit?” my daughter asked. “It’s really disturbing.”
“Why would I want to see something like that?” I asked, but watched anyway:
“So what’s so bad about this?” I asked her, curious to see what she would say. “Apart from all the artistic reasons, I mean.”
“It’s so racist!”
“What makes it racist?”
“Well it’s parodying Chinese culture. She sings out that she loves chop suey and fortune cookies and they’re not even real Chinese food. She and her friends dress up in kimonos—not even Chinese clothes. It’s just so wrong.”
Wow. She gets it. Given that this is my kid who “passes” the most easily, I wasn’t sure if she would.
Now I grew up in Hawaii where our humor was ethnic and talking about ethnicity constant. Our comedians poked fun at ethnic quirks, our friends poked fun at ethnic quirks. The first question you’d ask someone was, “What nationality are you?” (or “What are you?”—with everyone knowing the question was about ethnicity). My good friend joked with me about being a stingy Chinese and I’d shoot back about him being Jewish.
Ethnic humor and talk worked in Hawaii because it was all in the family. No one was immune, everyone got their turn, and because there was no dominant culture, everyone knew they came from a culture, had culture, and their culture had quirks. So we laughed.
Here on the Mainland, a dominant culture exists. When someone makes an ethnic joke about another group, it feels different. It’s not all in the family. There’s not the same sense that I make fun of you because you’re going to make fun of me.
And sometimes it’s seems that making fun of Asians is OK in a way it’s not with other ethnic groups. Perhaps because our country tends to think in “Black and White,” over the years folks have said things, or slanted their eyes, or made jokes to my face that I don’t think they’d ever say or do to a Black person.
And because I don’t want to create a stir, because I take their ability to joke as maybe communicating to me that I’m “safe” and they can be free, I’ve often said nothing.
When I have said something, I’m sometimes told I’m too sensitive.
A couple weeks ago, one of my colleagues asked me to sign An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church. Since then, I’ve learned that a skit parodying the Karate Kid at a major Christian conference out West precipitated the letter, as well as Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback, a megachurch in CA, posting the picture of a Red Guard on Facebook and making a joke about it. A bunch of my friends and colleagues responded. Read it if you’d like a window into what Asians might be feeling about “Chinese Food” and other jokes.
We had a conversation later around the dinner table about whether “racist” was the right word. Raising the “R” word can shut down conversation unhelpfully since few people see themselves as purposefully racist. I’m sure Allison Gold had no idea that her video would be offensive to my kids.
But imagine what the reaction would have been if Allison Gold sang about “Soul Food.”
My son kept asking, “Why is it wrong to sing about Chinese food if it’d be OK to sing about scones?” I guess, as in all things, it’s always better to laugh or talk about yourself than others.
She should have just sung about hamburgers.