It was supposed to be funny…

Whether it be “dumb blondejokes, sexist comments, or culturally inappropriate punchlines, almost all of us have been in situations where something offensive has been framed uncomfortably in a joking manner. In attempt to raise concern on the issue, a common response by the other person is “Don’t you have a sense of humor? It was just a joke.” or  “Umm… now it’s awkward… It was supposed to be funny.” To me, comments that are insensitive to large groups of people aren’t funny in the first place. What about perpetuating stereotypes or pointing out unchangeable features on someone is humorous? While it is uncomfortable when people we know make comments like this, it is infuriating when  celebrities who have much attention in the media so publicly display their ignorance and cultural insensitivity.

Case In Point: The Slant Eye

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In 2009, this photo of celebrity Miley Cyrus with friends circulated the internet and caused much controversy among the Asian American population. This photograph caused so much outcry at the time, the teen celebrity was sued 4 billion dollars.

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Just last summer, another celebrity, Kate Gosselin of the former T.V. show Jon and Kate plus Eight was caught pulling the “slant eye.” In her defense, she wrote, “I married an Asian. I have eight biracial children therefore I’m quite certain that I’m the last person that could be called a racist.”

So what’s the problem with slant eye? Miley Cyrus fans have said that she was just being silly and showing a “hidden appreciation for Asian culture.” Pulling the slant eye is NOT an affectionate gesture.  People don’t mock the physical appearance of someone else to show affection. Another argument people have made is that any other teen wouldn’t have been forced to make a public apology. But Miley Cyrus wasn’t a “normal” teen. As a celebrity with a fan base of mostly other young people, she is (was) seen as somewhat of an idol. Celebrities need to realize that their actions do affect those who look up to them. In the past, the slant eye has been a way of mocking and degrading Asians. By her public behavior along with the attempt to silence Asian-Americans who have been offended,  it encourages the taunting of Asians and this type of racism will normalized.

As for Kate Gosselin, what on earth made her think as a mother to eight part Korean children that making the slant eye while wearing that ridiculous, plastic black wig was appropriate at all? Adults making this expression mirrors the mockery of Asian features that many Asian-American children face. If Gosselin’s attitude about race is so cavalier, how will her kids come to her when they undoubtedly experience racism? The slant eye is something I received as a child and turned to my mother to for support and refuge from my classmates’ insensitivity. Despite some of the above mentioned comments justifying this behavior,  I didn’t feel appreciated or welcomed in the classroom when this happened. I felt different and  ostracized, and I can’t imagine how I would have  internalized this racism without my mother’s reassurance.

Interestingly, most of the comments in the defense of these two celebrities as “joking around” have come from white Americans who haven’t experienced this type of racism, while simultaneously there is a huge outpouring of Asian-Americans who say it is demeaning and hurtful. I believe it’s time to listen to the voices of those most affected by these harmful behaviors and admit mistake. I hope that these two stories can become a lesson of cultural sensitivity.

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2 responses to “It was supposed to be funny…

  1. I get this a lot in the UK, the particular “debate” at the moment is Yellowface. Here in the UK it’s not seen as either offensive, racist or derogatory by the culturally dominant i.e. White-Anglo Saxons. I’ve been told that it’s an affectionate way of taking the micky out of Chinese/East Asians, that it doesn’t mean anything or more often than not that I should lighten up and stop making a fuss. Or that it is no way comparable to Blacking-up. I beg to differ, it offends me every bit as much as a Black person seeing someone who has blacked up would offend them.

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