Of all the tasteless jokes spouted by host Chris Rock at the 2016 Academy Awards, the Asian one stung the most. The Internet exploded in commentary when Rock, decidedly tone-deaf in an otherwise self-aware ceremony that addressed the Oscars’ whiteness, trotted three briefcase-carrying Asian children onstage and introduced them as accountants from the firm that tallies Oscar votes. If the unimaginative nerd stereotype didn’t seal the offense, the child-labor jab did: “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,” Rock said.
Admonishment came swiftly on Twitter, where Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu called his comments “reductive and gross, the antithesis of progress,” and pro basketball player Jeremy Lin said he was “tired of it being ‘cool’ and ‘ok’ to bash Asians.” Variety film critic Justin Chang wondered incredulously if “that appalling joke about Asian kids” had actually happened, and the next day, a Washington Post headline asked, “If the Oscars were all about diversity, why the crude Asian joke?” Awards aside, the incident raises a larger question about race relations in America: Why is it more acceptable to make fun of Asians than other minorities?
It’s not because they’ve skirted oppression. Though Asian-American plight doesn’t rival that of black Americans, the experience hasn’t been rosy, either. During the mid-1800s, Chinese workers faced abhorrent discrimination on the railroads and in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and only 70 years ago, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. And while today’s taunts are seemingly benevolent, even complimentary—what’s so bad about being upwardly mobile and good at math, right?—they’re problematic because they perpetuate the stereotype of a high-achieving “model minority,” a myth that offends other minorities, no doubt, but also troubles Asian-Americans because it generalizes a diverse group and minimizes their struggles.
Asian-Americans are both white- and blue-collar workers, outgoing and shy, nerdy and not. They’re as socially varied as any other ethnic group, but you’d never know that by Hollywood portrayals of Asian women as sex symbols or subservient wives, and Asian men as wimps or headband-wearing gang villains, all of whom are targeted by jokes. That skewed representation is upsetting for the same reason it’s upsetting that the Academy’s two-year streak of all-white acting nominations don’t reflect the racial makeup of Hollywood as a whole. It’s not accurate, and it’s not okay.