Is Hollywood Dividing Asian and African Americans?
2016 has been a banner year for black and white relations: Proof of Bernie Sanders’ civil rights record leaked on the internet, Beyonce’s white fans are making peace with her blackness, and Rachel Dolezal had a baby named Langston Attickus. But we’re not all getting along just yet. Black and Asian relations took a serious hit this weekend when the Academy Awards’ off-color joke put Twitter in the mood for a fifth season of Everybody Hates Chris.
And Chris Rock isn’t the only one accused of tarnishing black and Asian relations. As both ethnic groups enjoy more prime time power, there’s a new racial tension rearing its head in Hollywood. But why are two of America’s minorities having so much trouble getting along, and just who is writing these jokes?
Chris Rock has certainly been taking a lot of heat for the Oscar’s joke that put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth; the cheap “Asians are good at math” jab that trotted out three uncomfortable-looking Asian children to stand on stage and be its punch line. It was an awkward joke for a black man to make. One that almost necessitates imagining the shoe on the other foot: three little black children dressed as examples of their stereotype with stereotypical names like “Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz.”
NBA player Jeremy Lin certainly wasn’t laughing when he post-Oscars Tweeted, “Seriously though, when is this going to change?!? Tired of it being ‘cool’ and ‘ok’ to bash Asians smh.” But when “model minority” qualities are the butt of the joke, people forget that even “positive” stereotypes burn — or that they’re used against other minorities, backfire even on Asian American communities and allow pundits like Bill O’Reilly to turn them on African-American communities to ahistorically dismiss racism’s effects by comparing Asian “success” to black “failure.”
In fact they’ve done their fair share of making black and Asian relationships awkward since long before the Oscars. Like that time they embarrassed Mindy Kaling (herself a beneficiary of affirmative action) by encouraging her brother to put on black face and call himself “JoJo” in a bid to prove (he couldn’t) the widely-held belief that top universities pass over qualified Asians to “admit blacks and Hispanics with lower scores because of their history of disadvantage.”
When it comes to minorities of choice, there just isn’t that much room at the top: whether you’re talking quota-based admissions or slots for tokens on white shows. It’s a natural breeding ground for discomfort — and off-color jokes like the one on on Master of None that caused one writer to accuse its star Aziz Ansari “and other anti-Black people of color” for “throw[ing] Black folks under the bus.” If you didn’t tune in, it went like this:
“People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only really risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about black people or gay people.
I mean, if Paula Deen had said, ‘I don’t want to serve Indian people,’ no one would really care. They’d just go back to eating the biscuits.”
And, Ansari has a point: there was no Asian Twitter to come to come down on the Oscar’s. But when Black Twitter is in part a product of a long legacy of the type of institutional racism and police brutality that spawned movements like #BlackLivesMatter, petulantly insisting on sharing some of that outrage too is always going to sounds… petty.
It shouldn’t be lost on the conversation either that it was exactly the discomfort in that joke that made it one of Master of None’s most buzzed-about ones, just like the Oscar’s racist moment.
It might also pay to ask just who finds those kinds of jokes funny? Or at least harmless enough to be worth a few ratings? The laughs certainly seemed lost on the fans of the stand-up comedian who endeared himself to his audience with jokes about his love of hip hop and black culture. The cheap shot at the Academy Awards also seemed lost on the fans that Tweeted back at Chris Rock king of social commentary, not low-balled racism.
Of course, no comedian, no matter how talented, writes his show alone. Every writer’s room is staffed with multiple-voices: some of them from the network itself. The same goes for the Oscars. Chris Rock may be an award-winning writer, but writing jokes for the Oscars is the purvue of stand-up comedian and former Hollywood Squares staple Bruce Villanch. And whether Chris Rock actually did write one of his own jokes, or reluctantly delivered someone elses’ material, we’ll probably never know — most celebrities keep quiet about the executive decisions that go on in the boardrooms that keep their shows and sources of income afloat.
But most celebrities aren’t Eddie Huang: the outspoken fitted and fresh Timbs-loving Vice food personality who ate sloppy burgers with rapper Danny Brown in Detroit, fished poolside for “skrimps” in Taiwan and showed the world that “Mongolians know ain’t no such things as halfway cooks.”
Those who don’t know Huang from Vice probably better know him as the memoirist and narrator behind ABC’s recent hit, Fresh off the Boat. Unfortunately for his relationship with the show, Huang is also the author of a zero-chill Vulture exposé on his own show that called everyone in ABC’s board room out for turning his life story into a “reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen.”
In it, he blasted execs for making him swap Gravediggaz for Beastie Boys, for hiring zero Taiwanese or even Chinese writers and for telling him that the gentrification was necessary because “white people keep you on the air. They have to feel included… We gotta hold the viewer’s hand through this because they’ve never been inside an Asian-American home before.”
But while Eddie Huang is one of the only writers taking network executives to school, his isn’t the only show with a “whitewashed” label attached. The Mindy Project skewed so white, that they had to write the apologetic episode, “Mindy Lahiri Is A Racist,” in Season 2. They even attempted to add a black love interest, but wrote actor Larenz Tate’s leading man eligibility away at the last minute by having him say “I’m dating Tyra Banks.”
We may never know who was responsible for those decisions. What does seem certain is that when minorities don’t support one another, the sting has extra burn.
One true-to-life scene that did make it into Fresh off the Boat, was the moment when Eddie Huang’s black classmate — the only other person of color at his school — told him to “Get to the back of the line, chink!” Huang calls it “the most formative moment of my childhood; the first time someone ever called me a chink… Two kids of color forced to battle each other at the bottom of America’s totem pole on ABC.” And a lot of Asian stars felt the sting when Chris Rock, of all people, seemed to throw them under the bus.
Maybe it’s because minorities of all ilks do have a lot in common, especially those of us who grew up phenotypically isolated in suburbia; who were raised on Friends, who struggled with not having blonde hair or blue eyes, and had white friends who had dinner at our houses and squinted at our spicy food. Maybe it’s because watching those three Asian kids stand there as props for the butt of a joke reminded us all of the days when we dreamed of the time when we would see people on TV that looked like us who were neither stepping nor fetching it.
I do know that it felt good when Mindy Kaling had Chrissy Teigen’s back when she was a victim of racism, when we learned that she cut her teeth on The Chappelle Show, or when Hari Kondabolu Tweeted, “Grew up seeing whites in films. Had to relate to enjoy anything. Saying Minorities aren’t ‘relatable’ means we’re not seen as equally human.”
But, I can’t help but wonder what might happen if we all stuck together’ if #OscarsSoWhite emphasized everyone who’s missing in the awards, if Shondaland produced Hari Kondabolu’s next sitcom, and we all took a stand against taking jabs at each other to deliver a quick TV laugh.