A few years back, I was excited to finally score tickets to attend a live taping of one of my favorite shows, "The Colbert Report.” As we sat in the risers, a warm-up comedian came out to make sure we’d be clapping robustly when the camera panned the studio audience at the beginning of the show. He stood before us and immediately singled out two young Asian American men sitting at the other end of my row. His patter went something like:
“Hey, you, blue jacket — ”
The abashed young man pointed to himself, “Me?”
“Yeah, you: You go to a good school, I bet. Your friend, too.”
Sheepishly, he answered: “MIT.”
The comedian made some kind of joke about them being smart and then said something equally brilliant along the lines of, “You like math!” To which both of the Asian Americans chuckled uproariously (as did the audience) while I cringed. I recall little of the comedian’s words after that because I was too busy ducking in my seat and willing myself to be invisible, worried I’d be singled out next, and then — also being a good sport — would offer a performative laugh, while raging inside.
When the news broke this week that “Saturday Night Live,” a show I watched as a child, had hired comedian Shane Gillis, who delights in using racial slurs, accents and other aspects of anti-Asian racism in his comedy, I could only think: “Here we go again.”
The model minority myth about Asians — that we are all rich, we all study hard, we all go to good schools — has persisted because, like most racist tropes, it is useful for maintaining the current white power structure. For too long we’ve played along. Now it’s time to call this “comedy” what it is: racism. And to stop pretending that saying “chink” is a witticism. Asian American comics and actors are coming into their own, and with that we should be leaving behind the comics who rely on racism as a crutch.
There’s no better example of the way that Asian stereotypes support the status quo than the current debate over whether affirmative action in elite college admissions privileges black and Latinx candidates over Asians, even though whites have been, since these universities were founded, the chief beneficiaries of all admissions policies (and devised myriad ways to skirt the system, including high-level bribery, when their access is threatened). Instead, Asians are used as a wedge against other minorities while white-favoring sports and legacy systems, to name just a couple, go largely unnoticed and untouched.
By being white-adjacent, whites tell us, we should be happy they are inviting us to the table.
My Asian family has often been called “honorary whites” by both friends and random strangers who mean it as a compliment, but this is merely racism dressed up in condescension and contempt. By being white-adjacent, whites tell us, we should be happy they are inviting us to the table. So when they make comments about our eyes and our accents, they’re just having fun, and can’t we take a joke? That since we are almost-white, it should be “OK” to make racial jokes about us. Gillis himself told WHYY’s Billy Penn that an experimental comedy project he was running gauged what kinds of jokes audiences would tolerate. “You throw stuff out there and you get to see them react to things, like yea or nay, what’s funny and what’s not,” he said. “You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out.”
Conversely, since Asians are not white, we also support the white status quo by providing an opportunity for white comics to use us as punching bags (and for punch lines) by deploying anti-Asian racism in the service of “pushing boundaries” and “taking risks” (as Gillis describes it). But Gillis and his ilk are the opposite of bold risk-takers; they are merely counting on another stereotype, that Asians are meek. We don’t like confrontation. We are stoic, quiet and try to conform at all costs.
This gaslighting is so unrelenting, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang self-incorporates these stereotypes into his campaign: His office sells hats emblazoned with MATH. At the most recent debate, he self-deprecatingly answered a question about health care with, “I know a lot of doctors” — as if evoking these prefabricated racist tropes will in turn make him seem familiar to white voters. He is performing a version of Asianness that is nonconfrontational and “safe” — including safe for the Gillises of the world. Thus, instead of joining the glorious swell of outrage that ultimately resulted in “SNL” firing Gillis, saying they’d been unaware of his history of anti-Asian (and homophobic) rants, Yang publicly extended an invitation to Gillis -- who had earlier called him a “Jew chink”— to sit down and show him that he, an Asian, is human.
That we have to prove to white people that we are human and not a monolithic yellow swarm is emotional and intellectual labor we shouldn’t have to expend, but it at least exposes the lie that we are honorary whites. Whites don’t have to explain the value of their existence; they occupy and maintain the center of culture.
Since the entertainment industry is the motor that builds a lot of popular culture, it’s been heartening to see this has been a banner year for Asian Americans redefining comedy and race on their own terms. In fact, one of the many negatives of the Gillis story is that it has unfortunately overshadowed a different “SNL” story: that the iconic show had made the groundbreaking decision to hire its first Asian American cast member, comedian Bowen Yang. He is certainly worth more attention than the Gillis controversy has allowed him.
On the other hand, it’s disheartening that it took 45 seasons for “SNL” to have its first Asian American regular. It’s not like there hasn’t been a plethora of talented artists of Asian descent long available for the show to hire.
Representation matters, and the new generation of Asian American breakouts will have the chance to demonstrate that with even more force.
One such culturally relevant and influential performer, George Takei, recently come to Columbia to meet with students at the invitation of myself and several colleagues. Naturally, a star-struck student asked him about “Star Trek,” to which he quipped: “I broke that Asian driver stereotype by being the best helmsman in the galaxy.” Now, that’s funny.
Whereas Gillis creates and exploits anti-Asian stereotypes, and Yang has to some degree reinforced and capitulated to them, Takei ferociously punctures them and takes them back. His presence at Columbia showed that representation matters, and the new generation of Asian American breakouts will have the chance to demonstrate that with even more force. Humor can be a cover for racism — and it can also be a useful weapon of resistance.