Race Still Matters…Especially if it's Funny

You know how you catch the last part of an ongoing conversation and they weren’t even talking to you?

At work recently, my manager was talking to someone else and he ended with the phrase, “…that was the chink in the armor.”

I spun around in my chair and said, “What did you call me?!” It sparked surprise and then laughter in the people within earshot.

But this is a double-edged sword, where I can make a racial joke, but it bothers me when others make that joke. It’s like someone not black trying to make use of the “N” word. It simply doesn’t work, does it? And here Rosie O’Donnell is juxtaposed by making a racist joke against Chinese on the one hand and quick to spot homophobia on the other.

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Now I’m not saying that Rosie is a terrible racist for doing this. After all, she got her start as a stand-up comedian. And let’s be frank, comedy is really the place for racial and cultural commentary, right? I mean, if I were to be objective, perhaps I’m simply mad at Rosie for not working at her Chinese impersonation as hard as Russell Peters.

Racial/cultural comics are a hot item from Margaret Cho to Dat Phan to many, many others. And despite their desires to transcend their cultural joke material (which after all, pigeonholes people into a caricature), it seems almost an obligatory rite of passage that they make commentary on what it’s like to be Asian in America. It’s something that hails back to Richard Pryor and Red Foxx (in terms of how they commercialized and humorized Black angst), and it’s an interesting phenomenon accelerated by media that perhaps has as much or more impact on how we come to view ourselves than our immediate social circles. In other words, these voices with those faces, do more than comment on Asian-ness in America, they define it and they help me determine who is capable of speaking for me and who is incapable of speaking for me.

But ultimately the part that bothers me most, laughter notwithstanding, is that in doing so, the “Other” (people who are not like me and the land that is not my motherland) have a significant role in determining what I think of my “Self”. Granted, there are many spokespersons (comedians included) who speak for my Self, but the Other seems more free to be themselves than I can be my Self. Sure, now that we’re in the egalitarian 21st century, I can delineate what the Other can say about me, and I can reciprocate the attitude of exclusivism or even imperialism that they can, but by then, I have wanted for too long to be the Other and not my Self.

Indeed there are many chinks in my armor — and so for a laugh, I will take the offense as often it seems my only defense. I will in essence, laugh at my Self for I do not know how to hate the Other and love them too. Race matters indeed, to disagree is laughable.

Thank God that Jesus died for Asians as well, I would not know where else that freedom might come from. To God, the Great Other, may you mold my Self.

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Comments

  1. elderj says:

    uhhh…. yeah

  2. djchuang says:

    Comedy is the probably the best platform to address the touchy and sensitive issues of life, like race & ethnicity, like politics, and perhaps even religion and sexuality. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves, and WITH one another, not AT one another, to really appreciate different perspectives, to not take ourselves so seriously, to deflate the toxic build-up of resentment and unintentional and even intentional offenses. Life is richer for having comedy around.

  3. andre says:

    David

    Thanks for your post – I’m not sure I take quite a light view of Rosie as you do, but I understand your point. I think racism is first an affront to God before it is a social ill. If we don’t grapple with that, we miss addressing it. I also believe that it is THE STRATEGIC ISSUE for contextualizing the gospel (yes, I was shouting).

    Incidentally, I just posted on this, not because I was piqued at Rosie but because I was intrigued by something Malcolm Gladwell said. Here’s my post, if you’re interested =

    http://everysquareinch.blogspot.com/2006/12/deconstructing-racism.html

    I’d love to get your thoughts.

  4. David Park says:

    Great comment Andre. I assure you my tongue was planted firmly in cheek both in the title of my post and when saying that Rosie should work on her Chinese accent. Racism is a key issue that ethnic churches and the second generation need to address. I’m surprised it’s not addressed more in Asian churches actually as I believe it is a key rallying cry in the churches of our African-American brothers.

    Racism is an affront to the Gospel, there’s no doubt about it, but in the spirit of confession, I’d have say that Koreans (I can say this firsthand) happen to be very racist so while I agree that we should be sensitive about being the victims of racism, we should also be cognizant that we transgress here as well.

    It is furthermore very intriguing that you make the point that racism is the strategic issue for contextualization (even shouting to make your point!). Here’s where I was trying to go with my post even, was that racism from the other has a part in defining us. Much like Miroslav Volf talks about how our enemies help to define us and bring clarity to our own identity. When we say that racism is the strategic issue for contextualization, I agree with you in that sense that it helps decipher who we are. But to a large degree, and perhaps I’m wrong, many Asians want what the majority has — whether it be economic success, technological know-how, or simply dominance and respect. That is why I feel that we are not engaging our selves and our identity in a way that would prevent the sin of racism from recurring if and when we should become dominant to whatever degree. We certainly have been reticent and slow to do that as a church.

    So the comedians, all laughing aside, are more effective than our pastors in relating our story, our ethnic character, our narrative to the mainstream. But it’s still a defensive move because it doesn’t lead to acceptance of the other, but in some strange ways, excludes them even more. Our churches have the power to leverage that story to include God’s counter-cultural narrative of racial reconciliation, but many churches fall short. But we do not. And for this reason, I contend that it is because we are ourselves, racist and still not free to claim others as worthy of being called brother.

  5. andre says:

    David

    Thanks for your kind reply. My point on contextualization is to emphasize that Christians are uniquely positioned to speak redemptive truth into a problem that the “world” largely acknowledges it can’t solve. By holding firmly to our identity in Christ, our association with other believers as primary while maintaining our ethnic uniqueness, we testify greatly to God’s glory.

    You said –
    Many Asians want what the majority has…economic success

    I completely understand what you mean by this – I think this is natural to every new immigrant group but I think especially pronounced in Asian culture. As Asian Christians, we have a responsibility to show a different way and chart a different course.

    Thanks for all you’re doing! Keep blogging on.

  6. John Lee says:

    Rosie just apologized, and if you’re like me, then I think you might find her “apology” more offensive than her ching-chong statements.

    Apologies are supposed to be heartfelt and contrite. An apology which insinuates that some people are simply overly-sensitive, and that she might say something similar again within a week – that’s not an apology.

    Asians are getting shafted again, and need to stand up to this offensive apology. Unlike her ching-chong statement which was arguably spontaneous and off-the-cuff, Rosie had time to think about and construct her apology. And she comes out with this?

    Imagine Mel Gibson coming out with the same apology after his drunken tirade, i.e., some Jews are overly sensitive and he might do it again within a week because that’s just who he is.

    Here’s the article:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061215/ap_en_tv/people_rosie_o_donnell

    If you can, see the CNN video report since watching her make the “apology” better captures the artifice of it.

  7. Thorne says:

    churchtogether.blogspot.com

    “In the first case, when the ruling group determines what is “good,” the exalted, proud states of the soul are experienced as conferring distinction and determining the order of rank.” Friedrich Nietzsche from Beyond Good and Evil.

    It’s so often the ruling majority that defines the conversation. Underneath the humor is something that’s not funny- that both comedians are of the ruling majority so in their jokes keep the minority the minority and powerless.

  8. sam says:

    Fuck koreans and chinese for hating us brown and black people

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