Chris Rock and Ali G are the latest to crack wise at Asians' expense, but they're hardly the first.
Facts: On TV, you can completely get away with make making fun of fat people, disabled people, old people, trans people, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians. There's no word you can't call them; even the obvious slur, chink, generally goes unbleeped. Ashton Kutcher can wear brownface, Tina Fey can create a character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt named Dong who speaks broken English and is good at math, and Shaq can say, "Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh" to Yao Ming on cable TV.
So it was both surprising and not-all-that-surprising that during this weekend's Oscars, when host Chris Rock joined in the mockery of the awards' glaring whiteness he also threw in a weak-ass bit about Asians. To be fair, Rock's joke was more awkward than offensive. He introduced some "accountants" from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that tallies the Academy's votes: "They sent us their most dedicated, accurate, and hardworking representatives: Ming Xu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz." Three Asian kids entered, unsure of where to stand, while Rock continued, "If anyone's upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids."
Yeah, it's a trivial gag, a corny riff on two obvious stereotypes. But even worse, it's incoherent. They obviously tossed the Jewish name in to avoid looking like they were exclusively targeting Asians, but then the sweatshop joke doesn't fit with the Jewish stereotype—so it wasn't even a good racist joke.
It is an uncomfortable truth that a joke can be both funny and racist, which is different than saying that racism is funny. Consider the time Sarah Silverman went on Conan O'Brien and joked about being told to write "I hate chinks" on a form to weasel out of jury duty: "I said, 'I'm not going to put that on there just to get out of jury duty. I don't want people to think that about me. ' So instead I wrote, 'I love chinks.' And who doesn't?"
The humor in Silverman's joke is structural, turning on Silverman's faux ignorance of the offensiveness of "chink," and it doesn't reference any Asian stereotype. Any slur would've worked the same, and in fact, according to her memoir The Bedwetter, the original version used the N word. The important point everyone seems to miss in discussing this incident is that Conan's producers actually asked her to change it to "spic," because they considered it less offensive. She bargained, and "chink" was the compromise. That's what's offensive: the idea that targeting non-blacks in a joke is less offensive than targeting blacks.
Anthony Jeselnik, another comic agent provocateur, has a bit where he recounts having a joke about Asians running laundry services nixed by a Jimmy Fallon producer and replacing it with Asians building railroads—"a billion times more offensive," he boasts. The producer replies, "Anthony—build a railroad? That's perfect." And so Jeselnik got to tell the offensive joke, and he ends his bit by saying, "The point of that story is that people who get offended by jokes are fucking stupid."
He's wrong but not completely. There is definitely such a thing as reacting badly to a bad joke, or even a racist joke, and becoming this caricature of a sanctimonious, pearl-clutching, oversensitive, liberal killjoy who can't fathom why anyone would find a racist joke funny. (Racists find racist jokes funny because it feels nice to have your prejudices affirmed—see Thomas Hobbes's superiority theory of humor—and anti-racists can also occasionally find racist jokes funny in spite of themselves, because sometimes a joke's humor comes from its form and delivery, not its content.) Even more complicated is the fact that analyzing jokes, like I am right now, makes you look like you're missing the real point of a joke, which is to just sit back and not take it seriously.
But what Jeselnik and other try-hard edgy comics usually don't acknowledge is that what should and shouldn't offend, like any other matter of taste or opinion, isn't his call to make, any more than someone can tell you that you shouldn't like anchovies. This goes double when you're someone who has no idea what it's like to be a target of racism and will therefore look pretty dumb for running your mouth about it.
There came a second jab at Asians later in the Oscars show, when Sacha Baron Cohen (in his wannabe-black Ali G persona) pointed out that other minorities were also left out: "How come there is no Oscra for dem hard-working little yellow people with tiny dongs—you know, the Minions?" He uses the same combo of misdirection and faux buffoonery that Silverman used in her "chinks" joke, though this one is specific about playing on shared stereotypes—he's making the audience complete the racist thought.
Which doesn't make it any less racist, but it does make it clear that he expects the audience to already understand these prejudices. And where did they come from in the first place? These days, racism in the media against Asians often comes in the form of comedy. There's the obvious ridicule and minstrelsy, like the clownish roles on Two Broke Girls or Dads. But it's easiest to get away with a more modern form of ironic, self-aware racist comedy, delivered by confirmed liberals against non-black minorities, where the joke is based on the audience's awareness that racism is offensive—not only Rock, Silverman, Jeselnik, and Cohen's jokes, but also Stephen Colbert's tweet about starting "the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," and Amy Schumer's many bits about Latinos.
No one really believes those comedians harbor any real malice for Asians or Latinos, and surely the main reason they're reaching for this material is to deliver a little shock with their punchlines, but their intent isn't the point. The point is that there's hardly any media representation for Asians, Latinos, and other non-black minorities except in the form of these insipid comic tropes; it's hard to take jokes when we're never taken seriously. (Hey, did you know more white actresses have won Oscars for playing Asian women than actual Asian women have?) Give us a few Asian Oscar nominees, and (why not?) an Asian Supreme Court Justice and an Asian president, and it'll be easier to laugh it off.