In one of the more bizarre moments of the 2016 Oscars, Chris Rock brought out three (impossibly adorable) kids of Asian descent and used them to make a joke about China and Chinese sweatshops.
Rock introduced them as "Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz," the "most dedicated, accurate, and hard-working" accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that tabulates the Oscar votes.
He then added, "If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids."
Throughout the night, Rock made several jokes about race and said a few shocking things, but this one in particular stood out. It was met with polite applause, then criticized the next day for being crass and lazy.
But the other reason it stood out is that it shed light on how, in addressing the #OscarsSoWhite movement and Hollywood's lack of diversity, Rock still left many people out of the conversation who deserve to be included.
Yes, the joke was lazy. But the bigger problem was that it played on Asian stereotypes on a night when diversity was a major focal point.
Before the ceremony, many anticipated that Rock would really dress down the people responsible for the nominees' lack of diversity — including the people sitting in the Oscars audience. And Rock delivered at various points in his opening monologue.
He explained that the lack of people of color in Hollywood is a product of subtle, structural racism. He likened the situation to being at frat party but not being part of a fraternity or sorority, directly stating that this kind of racism results in people not getting jobs.
Indeed, Rock spent most of the show punching up. And the lack of that sensibility is what made his bit with the Asian kids stick out. The heart of the joke is rooted in the stereotypes of Asian people being good at math and China having lax child labor laws, and it made the little kids the punchline.
Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu summarized the problem in a single tweet:
To parade little kids on stage w/no speaking lines merely to be the butt of a racist joke is reductive & gross. Antithesis of progress.— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) February 29, 2016
On a night when Rock was supposed to skewer the racist Hollywood system and make a plea for diversity, he also made a lazy joke about Asian people. (Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Ali G. persona, also made an Asian joke in the segment that followed Rock's.)
Wu wasn't the only person who found the bit harmful. Actor Jeffrey Wright also voiced his frustration via Twitter:
Half-assed Asian joke, #Oscars, and then preach about diversity? #LoseMe— Jeffrey Wright (@jfreewright) February 29, 2016
This isn't to say that Asian and Asian-American people are off-limits when it comes to humor. Hundreds of (better) jokes by comedians like Margaret Cho and Aziz Ansari have effectively skewered the way that Hollywood employs and portrays Asians and Asian Americans, while holding people on both sides accountable. And if Rock had framed his joke differently, or used the kids in a way that didn't turn them into a punchline, he could have changed the way it came off.
But the joke — which, to be fair, presumably involved more people than just Rock himself — didn't get any of that across.
The joke exposed the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood and excluded Asian people from the ongoing conversation about diversity
On the Friday before the Oscars, I wrote an article about the recent frustration felt by many comic book fans, Asian Americans included, in regard to Marvel's decision to keep Iron Fist, the next Marvel superhero with his own Netflix show, a white man. Though the fight over Iron Fist's race is very different from Rock's joke at the Oscars, the anger that both situations have inspired comes from the same place. People are (justifiably) upset over the lack of Asian and Asian-American representation in Hollywood.
Jen Chae, a vlogger and blogger, succinctly explained this feeling on Twitter:
How unnecessary to make fun of Asians on the #Oscars when Hollywood isn't even evolved enough to give Asians Asian-specific roles yet.— Jen Chae (@frmheadtotoe) February 29, 2016
Put simply, there are very few roles for Asians and Asian Americans working in the film and television industries.
According to USC's recently released Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD), a study that examined 109 films and 305 television series from 2014 to 2015, more than half (52 percent) of the cinematic, television, or streaming stories the report surveyed failed to feature a speaking or named Asian or Asian-American person on screen.
That's erasure, in the form of hundreds of pieces of art in which Asian and Asian-American people simply don't exist. It's exactly what the fight over the Oscars' lack of diversity is about.
So it's frustrating that on a night where diversity was a major topic, Asian kids became the butt of a joke, and the struggles of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood went unmentioned.
As Wright later explained on Twitter, the fight over diversity in Hollywood has to be intersectional and inclusive, because if it isn't, it will fail:
'Preciate the response to my note on #Oscars' Asian bit. Simple: Rosa Parks didn't boycott for the right to throw other POC's under the bus.— Jeffrey Wright (@jfreewright) March 1, 2016
During his Oscars monologue, Rock pointed out that many things are more important than the Oscars or any other awards show — that there's something silly about getting worked up over who wins (white people, usually) any given awards. But he also reminded us that for many people, the Oscars represent an important fight about opportunity and people literally being left out of important conversations. His failed joke might be the one that best proved this point.