Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chris Rock Made an Asian Joke: A Confession, and My Thoughts

On Monday morning my husband and I were very romantically hovering over the bathroom sink, sonicare-ing our teeth, and simultaneously scrolling through Facebook on our phones. He paused the vibration of his toothbrush to say, "looks like people are pretty upset over Chris Rock's Asian joke?" He was asking me, because while he was busy prepping for a week of classes on Sunday evening, I will confess that I was watching the #OscarsSoWhite with a dear friend. I admit this sheepishly, as despite my quiet outrage at the fact that no actors of color had been nominated, I looked forward to passive night of viewing awards for movies I haven't seen with a glass of wine and the treat of female friendship post-children-in-bed time.

I'll admit something else. I wasn't paying enough attention at that point during the show to recall what the bad Asian joke was. So, I had no answer for my husband as his toothbrush resumed buzzing.

But I wanted to have an answer. I wanted to have an Asian American answer. I immediately started to ask myself if I had been a bad Asian. Where was my outrage? How did I miss that moment? Am I offended? Should I be? I am an Asian artist. I am a writer. I should have an opinion. This is precisely the moment I need to chime in.

I went back and watched the clip of the joke. If you know me well, it won't surprise you to hear that I have been Asian my entire life. I have encountered racism in various forms over the course of 36 years. Sometimes the form was a joke. Some made me laugh, some did not. Sometimes it was a comment, a situation, a declaration. Sometimes I felt angry, blood-boiling, fire-in-my-face mad in the moment. Sometimes it took years for me to realize the sting. Sometimes it came from a dear and close friend. Sometimes from a stranger on a bus. Sometimes the form was flirtation. Sometimes it came from the parent or grandparent of a friend, of a boyfriend. Sometimes it came from a superior, a teacher, a director.

I watched Chris Rock's joke again. And in the midst of trying to formulate my perfect Asian answer to what I ultimately consider a poor choice that hurt rather than furthered the cause for actors of color, it hit me what I was feeling. And what I was feeling wasn't anger at a racist joke. What I was feeling can more accurately be classified as protective mama-bear horror as I witnessed the faces of three young children, who I have a strong sense did not understand why they were on stage.

Do you think they know why the grown ups are laughing?
I imagined my daughter in their shoes, dressing up, being quiet, hitting her mark (or missing it in the case of the little boy in the middle), and standing still in a Dolby-Theatre-sized room as the laughter of grown-ups creeps up from the audience. My heart is saddened, and there's anger behind my eyes. In addition to seeing and hearing our children, I believe it's our job to protect them, not only from physical harm, but from the psychological and emotional harm that being the butt of a joke they don’t understand can harness. 

I’m saddened and angry because we live in a society where the lure of 15 seconds of fame is stronger than parents' protective instinct against exploiting our kids. And laughing at kids' expense, when they have no agency in the matter, while their brains think concretely and they don't yet perceive the difference between the nuance of a joke and real life, that's exploitation. While we're asking how such a joke got past so many people, based on its racist content, I'd also like to ask how it got past so many parents, how it got past these kids' own parents, based on its exploitation of children.

Those are my thoughts. Today I'm furthering the cause of artists of color by giving myself not just the (per)mission, but "the mission" to use my voice. I am an artist. That I am also "of color" is an added descriptor due to where and when I happen to exist in history (a predominantly white country in the 21st century). Today I contribute to the conversation, which I'll argue is the only way to combat any “fill-in-the-blank so white" situation. I join the conversation even though today I was moved more by my mother identity than by my Asian identity. Alternatively, I don’t need to wait until something happens that involves Asian Americans, to lend my voice. I can lend it anytime, whenever I have something to say. Maybe the more I, and other people like me, join the conversation, and wake up our quiet outrage, the less likely our society will be to allow, or even imagine a joke that relies on the cooperation of silent, obedient, Asian kids. Let's make it so that silent Asians aren't even "a thing."

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