Written By: Alana Mirikitani
The other day I was browsing Facebook, as I often do, and stumbled upon this video.
Yes, that is Steve Harvey. I don’t know what’s worse: his supposed “jokes”, or over-expressive reactions to them. In a follow up interview, he apologized, and then said afterwards that he didn’t really say anything wrong. But what if the roles were switched? I’m sure if an Asian comedian made a racist joke about Black men and their masculinity on live television, he wouldn’t be laughing as he did at his own, unoriginal jokes. After all of this thought, I became curious. Why is it so acceptable to mock Asian men and their masculinity or attractiveness? Why is there no sympathy for Asian Americans in the face of comedy? Take Chris Rock at the Oscars for example. His purpose as a host was supposed to make light of the under representation of people of color. Yet, he only highlights how Black people should have been nominated, while at the same time, putting down Asians with another joke. If you don’t remember what he said, he basically brought out three Asian children, dressed in suits, claiming that they were the three heads of a particular company. Clearly the aspects of the Model Minority stereotype exist in this joke, so why did he assume it was an acceptable joke to make?
Throughout history, the Black community has been able to join together and recognize their oppression. In turn, this created a general awareness in society that recognizes there is racism that exists against Black people in America. Now, let’s put Asian Americans in the spotlight for a moment. Do you think Asian Americans experience racism today? If so, would you ever think that these racist jokes affect them? Probably not. Asian Americans have been known to internalize their problems and are sometimes even unaware of the racism occurring. They do not have a collective recognition of the racism around them. The majority of Asian Americans do not think of themselves as an oppressed group. However, there have been many events in which Asians have been racially discriminated against by the American government. Due to the repression of feelings about racism, they also have high rates of suicide and mental illness. The Model Minority Myth is, in part, what has continued this silent struggle with Asian Americans.
Around the time of the Civil Rights movement, Asian Americans were labeled as the “Model Minority.” In many ways, this label told them how to act, to keep white Americans proud. Asians have always been seen as people who cannot conform or assimilate, so they’ve often been isolated from American culture. After WWII and the Executive Order 9066/Japanese Internment, the majority of Japanese people wanted to do whatever they possibly could to appeal to the White American society. So, when they were given the role of Model Minority, they went along with it, and even continued to teach this role to their children so that they would have less of a chance in facing discrimination. In a way, these stereotypes that are often made fun of, were ingrained in Asian American society. The Model Minority label underwent a naturalization process, where these actions and stereotypes became the norm for Asian Americans.
So what makes it okay in the eyes of a comedian to crack a few racist jokes about Asians? Asians do not seem oppressed in the eyes of other races, and sometimes even themselves. They still are not able to recognize themselves as an oppressed whole. This makes it easier for someone to say, “Oh well, other races have endured more.” or “these are good stereotypes!” Also, the existence of the Model Minority Myth and it’s impact on Asian American families. According to this label, Asians have, in a sense, defeated racism and are successful in American society, so they aren’t seen as oppressed. Finally, the silence and internalization they commit can also contribute to the continuation of racial discrimination against Asian Americans.
The only way to begin to sensitize people when it comes to racial discrimination against Asians, is to shed a light on the oppression they actually face in American society. Most racial discrimination is the result of ignorance and being uneducated about a particular race. Like many others, maybe that is Steve Harvey’s problem.