Is Andrew Yang 'reclaiming' stereotypes with Asian jokes? Experts say not so much.

“The reality is that Asian Pacific Americans are much more diverse and by playing into stereotypes without challenging them, Yang minimizes the challenges faced by many in the Asian Pacific American community.”
Image: Andrew Yang
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang departs after a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on April 15, 2019.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

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By Kimmy Yam

As 10 Democratic candidates take the stage Wednesday for the fifth Democratic presidential debate, many Asian Americans are keeping their eyes on Andrew Yang, and not solely because of his proposal for universal basic income or his increasing momentum in the race.

Many will be on alert for another Asian joke from Yang, as his representation of Asian Americans remains a source of division within the community.

From his campaign slogan “Make America Think Harder,” also referred to as MATH, to his quip on the debate stage about knowing a lot of doctors because he’s Asian, the Taiwanese American candidate has ignited criticisms that his Asian jokes just perpetuate tired “model minority” stereotypes.

In an October interview with the Washington Post, Yang argued that most Americans are “very, very smart and if I make a joke that I’m an Asian guy that likes math, they don’t think, ‘Oh, all Asians like math.’” He further rationalized his self-deprecating humor in the same interview by claiming that “by bringing these stereotypes into the light and poking fun at them, you’re actually dispelling them and making them weaker.”

Many experts, however, aren’t so sure. They agree that it is undeniably powerful to see the first Asian American man to run for president as a Democrat, particularly since members of the racial group are stereotyped as obedient workers, not capable of leading a company, let alone a country. But sociologists and other academics said that the candidate’s jokes aren’t doing the Asian American community any favors.

The candidate declined to provide further comment to NBC News.

“I'm thinking of all those Americans who have never met an Asian American in person and how this is going to reinforce a one-dimensional picture of who Asian Americans are,” sociologist Anthony Ocampo, who focuses on race, immigration and LGBTQ issues, said.

While Yang’s comments are in jest, feeding into the model minority myth has damaging effects on the Asian American community and beyond, Ocampo said. For Asian Americans, the stereotype creates an environment in which they feel pressured to adhere to standards of academic perfection, and Yang’s jokes could send the harmful message that “the only way they’ll be able to be heard is if they are willing to play off the model minority stereotypes,” he said.

The jokes also gloss over problems experienced by more vulnerable populations of Asian Americans, John C. Yang, president of public policy and civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said.

According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans have the largest income gap compared to all other groups. In New York City, they have the highest poverty rate compared to other racial groups with certain Asian subgroups, like the Bangladeshi community, that experience particularly alarming rates. However, over a 13-year period — between 2002 to 2014 — they received only 1.4 percent of the city’s social service funds. Advocates cite the model minority myth and the perception that Asian Americans are financially well-off as a key reason for the insufficient funding.

“The reality is that Asian Pacific Americans are much more diverse and by playing into stereotypes without challenging them, Yang minimizes the challenges faced by many in the Asian Pacific American community,” John C. Yang said.

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Ocampo pointed out that historically, the model minority myth has been weaponized by “neoconservatives to diminish the black social movements.” Historian Ellen Wu explained that politicians and media propped up Japanese American “success stories” after World War II as a tactic in reframing Japanese American incarceration — as well as to weaken the civil rights movement by perpetuating the idea that compliance with, rather than opposition to, the state would bring rewards.

“The insinuation was that hard work along with unwavering faith in the government and liberal democracy as opposed to political protest were the keys to overcoming racial barriers as well as achieving full citizenship,” Wu writes in “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.”

Reclaiming stereotypes? Not so fast.

The consequences of Yang’s jokes largely depend on the audience, sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, an associate professor at Biola University in California, said. For those aware of Asian stereotypes, the quips could be interpreted as parodies or even qualify as insider humor, she said. But for those who “harbor latent or overt stereotypes of Asians,” his statements could serve to only reinforce the existing math nerd tropes.

John C. Yang agrees. He underscored that while some forms of racial humor can be appreciated within the community, those remarks shouldn’t be performed for people outside the group without nuance “because others won’t understand the context or limitations of the jokes being told.”

Andrew Yang may assert that he’s reclaiming stereotypes, but experts disagree, saying more depth and context must be added to his quips for that to ring true. Throughout history, people of color have used humor “in a transgressive way to reclaim agency” and succeed in doing so because they use stereotypes as a springboard to then critique society or present more complex narratives to the communities they represent, Ocampo said.

“Humor often can be used to open doors. Unfortunately, reclaiming stereotypes requires much deeper conversation."

John C. Yang

“Humor often can be used to open doors. Unfortunately, reclaiming stereotypes requires much deeper conversation,” John C. Yang said, echoing the sociologist’s thoughts.

Yuen worries that because the candidate is Asian, he could even legitimize the jokes he feels he’s reclaiming.

It’s not difficult to understand why he would lean on the schtick in his campaign and likely the candidate felt his jokes would build bridges in the way comedy often does, experts say.

Yuen, who attended an October meeting Yang held with Asian American activists, scholars and journalists in Los Angeles after receiving criticism for his jokes, explained that the candidate was transparent about his objective in appealing to a wider audience, including conservatives. Ocampo also added that Asian Americans as a group have remained fairly invisible, and there is a “temptation to play on racial stereotypes in order to become visible.”

A culturally significant campaign

Though Yang’s jokes may not be an effective tactic in unifying the Asian American community, his presence in the election has significance. While Asians are typically seen as compliant, hard workers, they are rarely pinned as good leaders. Research shows that Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group, compared to any other race, to be promoted from individual contributor roles to management. Whites are roughly twice as likely to be promoted to management than Asians. In the political sphere, Asian representation is sorely lacking. Currently, just over 2 percent of Congress is Asian and that’s a record high.

Yang’s physical representation of Asians carries weight.

“He sure is paving the way for some Asian American kid out there to believe that they can viably run for the presidency. And one of these days, that Asian American kid will actually go all the way,” Ocampo said.

When Yang gets candid about his heritage, he helps Asian Americans feel seen, the sociologist said. The candidate has previously detailed the racism and bullying he’s experienced, growing up as one of the few Asian kids in upstate New York, oftentimes opening up in front of primarily Asian audiences or with Asian interviewees.

“I appreciate Andrew Yang for unapologetically identifying as Asian American, especially in a country where so many Americans forget that Asian Americans exist,” Ocampo noted.

The presidential hopeful still has some work to do when appealing to Asian American voters. A recent informal survey polling Asian American voters across three states — Virginia, Texas and Pennsylvania — showed that if they had to choose a presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would emerge the Democratic front-runners. A survey of Asian American voters in California revealed that Yang placed fifth among Democratic candidates with 41 percent of voters claiming they “hadn’t heard enough” about him.

Regardless, Yang’s candidacy still carries cultural significance and therefore his words aren’t innocuous.

“He is one of the first Asian American candidates in the history of this country, so his words do matter,” Yuen said. “But ultimately, I hope that he inspires more Asian American political participation so that future candidates can learn from his mistakes and advance the community without resorting to Asian jokes.”

But Ocampo adds that it’s important to remember Yang himself is just as complex as the Asian American community itself.

“The punditry around the Andrew Yang has to move beyond just talking about his Asian dad jokes. Like the Asian American community, Andrew Yang is complicated and nuanced,” he said. “That's the beauty of it all.”

CORRECTION (Nov. 20, 2019, 4:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Andrew Yang as the first Asian American to run for president as a Democrat. He is the first Asian American man to do so; Patsy Takemoto Mink was the first Asian American to run, in the 1972 election, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, whose mother is from India, is also seeking the party's nomination in 2020.

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