As fans celebrate the birth of Macaulay Culkin and Brenda Song's son, comments Culkin made in a past podcast interview are drawing criticism among Asian Americans.
During a 2018 episode of "The Joe Rogan Experience," Culkin said Song is “Asian, so I'm gonna have tiny little Asian babies,” comparing their would-be offspring to Sean Lennon, the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
“It's going to be adorable — a bunch of Sean Lennons running around the house, that's what I'm looking for," Culkin told the host, before claiming that he feels entitled to “make Asian jokes because I have an Asian girlfriend kinda thing.”
Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College, told NBC Asian America that Culkin’s comments are problematic as they objectify his own family.
“More than anything, he's exoticizing his partner, and the babies, who were at that point not even born yet,” Dhingra said. “I think that's a problem in and of itself — when you are turning a person into an exotic object because of their race, or their biracial heritage.”
When asked about the criticism, Culkin did not address the remarks specifically, but he provided details on his child’s birth in a statement to NBC Asian America.
“Mother, Father and Baby are all healthy and happy,” the statement read. “Says the new parents, ‘We are overjoyed.’”
Dhingra said many people who are multiracial are reduced to comments around their appearance purely because of their biracial identity, calling the practice “demeaning.” He said such statements obscure the challenges that those who are biracial regularly confront.
Culkin, best known for starring in “Home Alone,” went on to make additional comments about Song’s race during the full podcast interview, laughing that the first Asian joke he made to Song was, "'You know how I know you're Asian?' She goes, 'Why?' I said, 'It’s the shape of your eyes. It's a dead giveaway.'"
“I do it with her all the time, but I don’t do it in public,” Culkin said of making Asian jokes. “It’s like, oh, baby, you’re my Yoko.”
Dhingra said that in most of the jokes Culkin described to the host, the punchline itself was Song’s identity, something he felt was “belittling.”
“The jokes he was saying to his girlfriend at the time, about the driving and about how she looks, the punchline to all those jokes is being Asian,” he said. “I don't want to speak about their relationship in any way. I don't have any bearing on that. But it does kind of fit a very tired belittling of Asians — that we are the joke. We don't do anything funny. We can’t make a joke. We are the joke.”
At one point, Culkin told Rogan that if he had Asian children, he would be “allowed” to make those comments. He added that because he’d have to deal with the children’s race every day, he would therefore “understand the struggle,” before eventually agreeing with the host, who reminded him that he is a “wealthy white male who’s famous.”
There’s a long history of white people, in particular, falsely claiming that they can identify with those from other backgrounds as they’re able to universalize their experiences and relate to others as a result, Dhingra said.
“If you think you understand someone's struggle, just because you're a parent of someone who has a different race than you, then you're really not putting yourself out there to learn about what it means to be Asian American or be biracial, what it means to be like a person of color,” Dhingra said. “Because you have this sense that you’re an omniscient person who feels privileged to be able to identify with any kind of culture or background.”
Just as men who have daughters can still be sexist and are not immediately in touch with women’s issues due to their parenthood, those with multiracial children can similarly lack knowledge about the experiences and burdens that people of color carry, Dhingra said.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, said the misconception that white parents will understand the struggles of their kids of color often comes from a well-meaning place, but a misguided one. But Culkin’s comments, she said, make it seem as though he’s using his relation to “the struggle” as a “passport to make Asian jokes and basically use your children as an excuse to dehumanize Asian Americans.”
“It's not even, ‘Oh, now I understand the struggle,’ which is bad enough. … But he's using that as the premise to be able to make jokes about Asian people, which is even worse,” she said.
Both Culkin, who praised Song’s ability to laugh at his jokes, and Rogan, who said individuals used to be able to make such gaffes “if you were married to an Asian woman 10 to 15 years ago,” were ignoring the fact that politically correct culture exists because there is tangible harm done when such two-dimensional images of Asians and others are perpetuated, Dhingra said.
Choimorrow said the way in which Culkin spoke about his partner and would-be children reflects harmful stereotypes that lead to particularly dangerous consequences for many Asian Americans, especially Asian women. Choimorrow said Culkin’s comments echo the historical dehumanization of Asians as well as fetishization of Asian women, which has made them uniquely vulnerable to sexual and physical violence.
According to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, 21 percent to 55 percent of Asian women in the U.S. report having experienced intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. The range is based on a compilation of studies of disaggregated samples of Asian ethnicities in local communities. In comparison, 43.6 percent of women in the general U.S. population experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.
“You actually implicitly participate in ways that perpetuate the stereotypes about us, that make it dangerous for us as Asian American women,” Choimorrow said of Culkin’s jokes.
When it comes to Culkin’s fatherhood of a multiracial child, Dhingra emphasized that parents need to try and comprehend the world from their kids’ point of view, rather than assume they understand how the mind of a child looks.
"What he can do as a parent is to recognize his own gaps of knowledge," Dhingra said. "That's not how people should learn about who they are, as being the butt of a joke, developing their racial identity."