The racism of Fresh Off the Boat

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Asians are cheap, right????

I watched FOTB faithfully for the first season. While I personally didn’t relate to many aspects of the show, I was very happy that any show that portrayed an Asian-American family existed at all. I hoped my views would count on ABC’s website to show networks that people wanted to watch shows featuring Asian people. Sure, they drew on some stereotypes about Asians–tiger mom, restaurant owners, accented English.

And cheap. So, so cheap.

I chose to overlook the show’s use of these race-based tropes in that first season. Like as the creators of the show repeatedly emphasized in interviews, it was acceptable for the actors to use a fake accent or otherwise be portrayed using certain stereotypes because they weren’t making fun of them for having those features. So it was totally okay for a Korean-American actor who normally speaks accentless English to fake a generically Asian accent (while he slips out of it half of the time). Yes, no problems! I still side-eyed that because it would have been perfectly fine to portray the parents without accents–it’s not inconceivable they might have learned very good English in Taiwan, or lost their accents in America as plenty of people do.

But then they did cross the line and made an Asian stereotype the butt of the joke of an entire episode, in the first Season 2 episode, “Family Business Trip”. It’s about a business trip/vacation the family takes together. The running joke of the episode is that the mom, Jessica, is cheap. Super super cheap. She take absurd measures and goes crazy the entirety of the episode trying to maximize what they can get out of a hotel stay, while trying to cut down on the hotel bill by refusing to pay various standard charges like tax. As Jessica’s actions grew more and more extreme, it became downright offensive and I had to stop watching.

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The problem with FOTB is that it’s essentially a whitewashed version of an Asian family. A version that white people can be comfortable laughing at. The creators and writers of the show have taken pains to assure white people it’s okay to laugh, because their intent is not to make fun of these Asians–we’re not laughing AT them, but ABOUT them (?).

But in the end my discomfort comes from my fear. I’m afraid that white people WILL make fun of the accents. I’m afraid white people DO think we are all like that, and the show just reinforces their stereotypes. Comedy is not made for nuance. The creators of the show may not intend for the Huangs’ accents or stereotypically Asian behavior to be the butt of the joke, but that’s not under their control. People will pick what they laugh at. It’s kind of like how Chappelle stopped making his show in large part because of how white people picked up and ran with the jokes on his show in a direction that he never, ever intended (I can’t imagine what people did with the Ni**er Family sketch). He discussed in an interview how he realized this when a white crew member laughed at the wrong part of a race joke they were filming:

Success, however, by creating a bigger and different audience than they ever expected, left them unable to control what people were laughing at. This is what he meant when Time interviewed him in Africa and he kept on repeating, “I’ve got to check my intentions. The example he brought up often after quitting came when shooting a sketch in which, in an attempt to skewer racism, Chappelle was performing in blackface. Chappelle says a white crew member laughed at the “wrong” part of the joke. As he explained on Oprah, it was the fundamental difference between an audience laughing with him and an audience laughing at him. This is a big difference for a comedian who famously will laugh at his own jokes.

There’s probably at least one white person who probably heard Jessica’s accented tiger mom act and laughed AT her. White people probably took away from that season two episode that wow, Asians will go to crazy lengths to save money, because they are so damn cheap! Ugh, those immigrants.

For a while I assumed that most if not all of the writers must have been white. I looked it up and there are a few Asians. I tried to think about how this show still ended up the way it has. One theory I came up with was, most of the writers, to get far enough in their comedy careers to get this writing gig, they had to advance and be considered funny as defined by mainstream comedy, which is white male comedy–not known for their racial sensitivity. They likely developed a good deal of their creative notions while being surrounded by mostly young white guys. This isn’t their fault, but it’s pretty much inevitable that such a circumstance did influence their comedy–maybe they even made fun of Asians themselves, like how Margaret Cho is famous for her bit making fun of her mom’s accent.

I also presume that most of the writers grew up in the US, so probably lack a really good understanding of the people they are writing about. For example, I was confused by Jessica’s accent because her way of speaking would be quite unusual for a Taiwanese woman–Taiwanese people are known for having a very soft, mellow way of speaking, while Jessica’s accent (and spoken Mandarin) is a much louder, assertive version:

In comparison, look at how different the below girls are, and who does Jessica sound more like? (It’s really funny and you should watch anyway)

Obviously not all Taiwanese women are the same, but my point is that the show seems to draw into the loud Asian woman stereotype to poke fun at Jessica, whether the writers intend it or not, and quite possibly without an understanding of what actual Taiwanese people are like.

I guess what it really comes down to is, especially in light of what Chapelle experienced, that your intentions don’t matter. People are going to read into what you create however they like, based on their already-formed perspective about the people you’re portraying. The writers might then conclude that, oh well, nothing you can do, racists will be racists so just do whatever we want with the race things. But I think that’s a lazy view, and using the Huangs’ stereotypically Asian features for humor is lazy, and in a way makes it a minstrel show.

It’s possible to create a show about Asian people or other POC and be funny without using stereotypes. I truly believe it. And I think the show still has the chance to do it. Maybe I was too harsh and even should give it another shot. But I’m still afraid of how this might be the way that a number of people will learn about Asians, and that’s what they will think of us. I don’t want people to see me and have the first thing they think be loud, cheap tiger mom. There’s enough in this world saying that I’m one-sided like that already.

 

 

Why I don’t like Bernie

 

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Not buying the Gospel of Bernie

 

In 2015, Bernie Sanders was asked a question about gun control and answered as below:

Q: The parents of one of the 12 innocent people killed during the Aurora movie theater shooting, sued to hold ammunition sellers liable for the attack, but their lawsuit was dismissed. And one of the reasons was a law that you voted for which protects manufacturers of ammunition from being sued. Why did you vote that way?

SANDERS: We have been yelling and screaming at each other about guns for decades, with very little success. I come from a state that has virtually no gun control. But the people of my state understand, I think, pretty clearly, that guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles. In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they’re used for kids in gangs killing other kids or people shooting at police officers, shooting down innocent people. We need a sensible debate about gun control which overcomes the cultural divide that exists in this country. And I think I can play an important role in this. [emphasis mine]

What the fuck.

So he’s saying that in Vermont, guns aren’t used for violence, only for hunting, while in Chicago they’re only used for “shooting down innocent people” and not for legal self-protection like in Vermont. There’s a problem with each facet of his statement, which a) ignores both inevitable violence when people have guns and b) assumes guns are only used for bad purposes in Chicago–really implying that it’s black/brown criminals who use guns for bad purposes there. Addressing each more in full:

a) Obviously crime happens in Vermont, and guns play no small part. For example, with regard to the number of women murdered by men, Vermont has the eighth highest rate of any state. Of the women killed by men they knew, three-quarters were intimate partners (wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends) and a full two-thirds were shot to death. So yeah, guns are used for “bad reasons” in Vermont, not just for hunting. These numbers get ignored since who cares about violence against women? They probably did something to deserve it.

b) Presumably a great deal of gun ownership in Chicago is for the same reason that Vermonters are obsessed with guns–self-protection. And I imagine a lot of those people, maybe gasp, even black and other colored people, own guns to protect themselves, not to commit crimes! Or people who live in Chicago might like to go hunting too! But who cares, black and brown people are all criminals, they shouldn’t be allowed to have guns. There’s no gangs in Vermont, no no.

This kind of attitude is why a lot of POC don’t like Sanders. He puts us into broadly generalized, usually negative categories and in the process, glosses over tremendously important issues that affect POC and/or women. As a WOC, this infuriates me. When push comes to shove, he is really going after blue-collared white male votes, and if we’re being honest, I don’t think they really care about my right to bodily integrity or wage equality or being murdered by a man whose advances I rejected, at least not in the place of unattainable unicorns like single-payer and free college.

Sanders supporters insist that this kind of attitude is confined to a few bad apple Berniebros, but I don’t believe it. And as much as people insist Sanders is ideologically pure and all that, he’s still a politician in a democratic system–and in such a system, it is his job as the representative of the people to do the will of the people. And whatever he personally believes about gun control, through his record Sanders has indicated that he bends to the will of his constituents. Which he should have done, since that’s what this system is supposed to do–have elected official represent the will of the people.

I get that things are messed up. But as Clinton haters like to say, “I just don’t trust him.” Unlike Clinton haters, I actually have an articulated reason. I know I won’t convince any Sanders supporters to instead support Clinton for this kind of thing, but I hope some Sanders supporters can understand why people like me haven’t jumped on the Sanders ship.

 

In defense of quiet Asian American women

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It’s okay to be shy

There was an article on The Toast a couple months ago about an AA woman, married to a white man, who was at her husband’s family gathering when a white woman made a racist remark at her. She eloquently discussed her experience, about how as much as she wanted to speak up, in that moment she completely froze. Everyone else at the table was white, and she felt pressured to not cause a scene by calling the woman out. She was also feeling baffled and disappointed that none of the white people there, especially her husband, had stood up for her. So she stayed quiet and said nothing.

I recognized that–she felt like she should stay quiet and not create a conflict, and was generally in shock for several reasons. I have been in that situation. I have felt that way, and lots of other AA women and other WOC have.

Not everyone was empathetic to her, though. I saw numerous internet comments about how “Ugh, I would have yelled at her!” or “AA women need to stop being so subservient!” and other variations about how she should grow a pair. They completely ignored this woman’s experience and complex, conflicting emotions, which all happened within a few seconds. that resulted in her reactions (or, non-action). I also noticed that the people making these comments were almost all other AA women.

Look, I get it. I’m also tired of the stereotypes of how Asian women are meek, quiet, unassertive. You’re afraid actually shy, quiet AA women just enforce the stereotype. But it’s not their fault that these stereotypes exist, and it’s not their responsibility to act inapposite of these notions just to prove to white people that Asian women aren’t all obedient modest mice. It’s the responsibility of the people who hold these preconceived notions to personally analyze and dispel their biases. Stereotypes exist in the minds of the people who hold them, and nothing AA women actually do can dispel these notions from their minds.

Besides, even if they are normally assertive, strong women, it can be very challenging for many people to speak up, especially when you’re at work or with in-laws or otherwise in a setting that puts you under pressure not to cause a scene.

This kind of attitude also smells more than a little like respectability politics, which we all know doesn’t work.

Stereotypes really are not about you, and have nothing to do with how you, as an individual, act. It doesn’t help to blame other AA women for other people holding preconceived notions and stereotypes about us. Blame the media, imperialism, poverty, the patriarchy, or any number of actual causes of the awful stereotypes many westerners hold of us. But let’s not cut each other down.