Last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Maya Rudolph opened with a bit on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, and happily, it was a surprisingly sophisticated take.
As I’ve said before, I have not been crazy about SNL‘s portrayal of Asians in the past, so this is more good news. Given the varied public reaction to Linsanity in general, and ESPN’s horrible “chink in the armor” headline in particular, I can’t help but wonder how many SNL watchers out there didn’t immediately get that the joke was not racial humor itself, but the double standard. If you know me, you may know that one of my favorite hobby horses is when people (usually conservatives) freak out over the alleged excesses of political correctness run amok. If you know me, you probably also know that I am not overly optimistic about humanity’s ability to not be racist, or Internet comments to be anything but cesspools of idiocy. Yet I was still astounded that anybody – including heaps of Internet commenters with handy links to definitions and previous media usages of the phrase – could think that the headline “chink in the armor” could, in this context, be anything but completely unacceptably racist. To complain about the outcry over the headline is to suggest that your obsession with the fantastical political correctness police, or your freedom to be edgy or make asshole-ish jokes, is more important than the ability of Asian-Americans to be free of racial harassment, and that is truly absurd.
Personally, I think what’s most offensive about the headline is that so many people at ESPN apparently failed to recognize that it featured a highly offensive racial slur. Even assuming that the headline writer is not racist and did not intend to pun on a racial slur, he’s still guilty of being ignorant — not that he’s the only one, of course. I grew up in central Connecticut, not far from Bristol, where ESPN is headquartered, and got called “chink” (and taunted with “ching chong” nonsense) plenty of times on the playground in recess and, most memorably to me, in middle school gym class, and not once did the (all white) playground aides, teachers, or other school authorities ever intervene or respond when I complained. I think that’s why it’s important that there be public accountability for this – so that people learn that really, it’s not okay.
The guy at ESPN who actually penned the headline has been fired, although he claims it was an innocent mistake – of course, the issue is, if you accidentally use a colloquialism in the wrong context such that it becomes offensive, you still messed up. And furthermore, if it’s your job to write for the nation’s premier sports outlet, it’s also your job to not make such mistakes.
Back to the point: at The Nation, Dave Zirin summed it up well:
No one at ESPN would talk or write about a lesbian athlete and unconsciously put forth that the woman in question would have a “finger in the dike.” If an African-American player was thought of as stingy, it’s doubtful that anyone at the World Wide Leader would describe that person as “niggardly.” They would never brand a member of a football team as a “Redskin” (wait, scratch that last one.)
This is probably only the first blog post I’m going to make about Jeremy Lin, because I’m pretty obsessed with him. (As my boyfriend says, I should just get a poster and hang it up in my locker.) But I’m sticking to my line that the Jeremy Lin story is interesting for good reason, because of how it reflects and magnifies critical issues in society. For example, here’s this opinion piece by NYU History of Education professor Jonathan Zimmerman, published by the Washington Post:
…I’m troubled by the much-heard refrain that Lin — whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants — has “overcome the Asian stereotype.” In the popular mind, this story goes, Asian Americans are quiet, studious and really good at math. By scoring 20 or more points in each of his first six NBA starts, including 38 against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Lin supposedly dealt a decisive blow against an insidious ethnic caricature.
But isn’t that stereotype — especially the part about studying hard — a very good model to follow? Why should anyone want or need to “overcome” it?
I just don’t know how this Ivy League-educated professor could write this entire 700-word piece without once using the phrase “model minority.” The least you would expect is some brief lip service towards, I don’t know, the problem of stereotypes in general.
Zimmerman makes a good (and topical!) point about the the unfair discrimination against Asian-Americans that is flagrantly practiced at elite universities. But that doesn’t excuse his willful ignorance/incuriousity/unprofessional omission about the many reasons stereotypes in general, and the model minority stereotype in particular, are bad for society.
For starters, the view of Asian-Americans as a monolithic model minority masks the very real needs of the diverse community that falls under the rubric of “Asian-American.” The model minority stereotype also likely plays a role in the high incidence of depression among Asian-American women, and affects the way that Asian-American students learn.
Personally, I can attest that the model minority stereotype has made my own academic successes feel less legitimate, and my own academic failures feel worse. Growing up in a nearly entirely white suburb in Connecticut, where things like athletic virtuosity were admired, the stereotype only compounded my feeling of otherness.
It is probably good for society if virtues like studiousness and hard work are more widely promoted and emulated. But there’s no good reason that it should be done through harmful racial stereotypes.
I can be really nitpicky about language sometimes, especially when it comes to matters of race, ethnicity, and nationality, since sloppy language on these issues tends to only entrench and worsen negative stereotypes and biases. It seems to me (a Chinese-American with a grouchy streak a mile wide) that the American English language community is particularly bad at characterizing Asian-Americans. It’s not helpful that newspapers – which for some reason, we continue to look to as standard-setters for language use – frequently drop the ball on this front. For example, last year I was bothered enough by a Washington Post article that conflated (Chinese) ethnicity and nationality that I wrote a cranky letter to the editor complaining about it.
As a member of the reading community, I’m pretty disappointed when sloppy writing crops up in what I read — which brings me to last week’s NYT article about San Francisco political figure Rose Pak. Overall, the piece is interesting and the language unobjectionable, but this one sentence struck me as a little strange:
She is “tenacious as a pit bull,” said an ethnic Chinese lawyer who, like most Chinese interviewed, spoke about Ms. Pak only on the condition of anonymity.
For me, this sentence raises a ton of questions: who were the people among the “most Chinese interviewed”? Did they have anything in common besides being, apparently, ethnically Chinese? (For example, did they have ties to San Francisco/Bay Area politics or business?) What about the anonymous “ethnic Chinese” lawyer? When is the last time you read a newspaper article that primarily characterized an anonymous source by their ethnicity (and not, for example, their nationality)? I don’t know for sure, but I would wager that the anonymous lawyer would be better characterized as Chinese-American.
Personally, I don’t like the usage of “Chinese” as a third person plural noun: in general, I prefer “the Chinese people” over “the Chinese,” and in this case, I would prefer something like “most Chinese politicos interviewed.” Granted, it’s considered acceptable to talk about “the blacks” just as it is to talk about “whites” or “Hispanics.” But I think the key distinction here is that Chinese is less a race than an ethnicity, so a better analogy, in the American context, would be to the Irish, Italians, or Mexicans.
For comparison, I tried a quick search on NYTimes.com for “Irish” and “Italian.” One result, about an Irish-speaking garbage collector in New York, never characterizes anyone by their ethnicity, even though the bin man in question seems to be of Irish descent. Another recent article, about an academic conference on MTV’s Jersey Shore, consistently uses the term “Italian-American” throughout. Because of more similarly fluid recent immigration patterns, Mexican-Americans might make a more apt comparison to Chinese-Americans. The NYT seems to refer to Mexican-Americans in various manners as appropriate to the context of the story: “Mexican immigrants” in an article about immigration, “Mexicans in New York”/”Mexican New Yorkers” in a city-specific piece, and “Mexican-Americans”/”people of Mexican origins” in a report on nationwide migration and birth rates.
Of course, the Rose Pak article is not just about Pak’s role in San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, but also about her ties to China. And it’s certainly true that the Chinese-American community in San Francisco is primarily identified with and organized around Chinese ethnicity and heritage. Nevertheless, I still think that one sentence sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s not clear from the context why the anonymous source’s ethnicity is what matters. Was it the case that most Chinese people of American and other nationalities were the only people who spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity? Or was it just people involved in the nascently-powerful San Francisco Chinese-American community? As readers, we don’t know, but I would like to know! At best, referring to Chinese people who live and work in the U.S. simply as “the Chinese” erases the (long, established, and much-ignored) story of Chinese-Americans in service of the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype; at worst, it portrays Chinese people as a part of a monolithic yellow peril, one so numerous and foreign that it merits a mass noun resistant of standard American English pluralizing, and is simply racist.
Updated to add: Compare the Rose Pak article with today’s well-written story about the arrest of a fundraiser for New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, which does not gratuitously mention anyone’s ethnicity and only discusses heritage in the appropriate context of heritage-related community groups.
Actually, I don’t know if “Japanophile” is the right term, but you know what I mean, right? Angry Asian Man calls it “the over-excited, obsessive (and often misguided) American fans that populate otaku culture.”
I agree with AAM that it was dead-on — and surprisingly complex, especially with the inclusion of the disavowing “Sensei Mark” character and “I’m not racist. My girlfriend is Japanese!” bit. I’ve found Saturday Night Live to be pretty tone-deaf (if not outright racist) on Asian/Asian-American issues on the past, most recently with its portrayals of China’s President Hu Jintao, so this is a marked improvement.