Part of Issue #10 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Rosie O’Donnell apologized if there were any Indian people in the room during a standup set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, this past July. Sitting far to one side of the stage, I felt my stomach lurch. I was the only Indian person in the beachside club, and O’Donnell couldn’t see me as she launched into a story about her 2012 heart attack and recovery.
A doctor she described as Indian played a central role, and she proceeded to tell the joke using a caricatured Indian accent. The near-death experience she described wasn’t funny; it was her performance of the doctor’s voice that got the room laughing.
The friends I’d come with, who were white, looked at me with uncertainty. I took a big sip of cheap Sauvignon Blanc and felt my forehead beading with sweat. I laughed despite myself. When the bit was over, heat drained from my cheeks and my body flooded with post-adrenaline relief.
O’Donnell hadn’t said anything overtly derogatory; in fact, she used the doctor as a foil for self-deprecation. But O’Donnell had made his ethnic difference — and mine — the butt of the joke.
Later, I expressed my discomfort on Twitter, pointing out the blind spot that even someone as progressive as O’Donnell can have when it comes to race. I’d imagined myself in an especially liberal and accepting space, given O’Donnell’s politics and Provincetown’s history as a haven for queer travelers, and it was jarring to be proven otherwise. O’Donnell replied on Twitter a few days later, claiming she’d performed many accents that night (if she had, I couldn’t recall the others). “That doctor was from Bombay - if u were offended - my apologies,” she later added.
he was not the doctor who saved my life - he was one of many who came in to see how i survived - he brought me a fruit basket - i ate and went into shock - that dr was from bombay - if u were offended - my apologies— ROSIE (@Rosie) July 8, 2019
Fans of O’Donnell came to her defense on Twitter, piling on. “It’s comedy … grow up,” was a common refrain in my replies. “In this new liberal progressive PC world nothing is a joke anymore,” one user wrote. But that’s the thing. Even in the most liberal environments, comedy at the expense of Asian Americans feels socially permissible.
When SNL hired then quickly fired Shane Gillis in September over homophobic statements and racist remarks about Asians, a 2016 interview surfaced in which the comedian discussed testing new material in small clubs.
“You throw stuff out there and you get to see them react to things, like yea or nay, what’s funny and what’s not,” Gillis said. “You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out.” In response to his dismissal, Gillis called himself “a comedian who pushes boundaries,” as though floating racist jokes were groundbreaking instead of outdated. Using an accent as the butt of a joke is nowhere near as egregious as the remarks that led to Gillis’s firing. But it illustrates how Asian Americans still occupy a position as punchlines, which other minorities have more forcefully sought to vacate.
Take O’Donnell’s bit: She positioned her doctor as a model minority. Because it didn’t seem as though she were punching down — how could she be, from a hospital bed? — making a joke of his accent felt like fair game. Maybe she was emboldened by the makeup of the club that night, or her perception of it. I was the only non-white person in attendance as far as I could tell, and obviously the only Asian American. She apologized, knowing she’d likely offend someone like me while letting her audience know that it didn’t matter.
The casting of Asian Americans as model minorities, along with the impression that we’re insignificant in numbers — disinclined to band together or to speak up — are some of the factors that perpetuate humor at our expense. But in fact, Asian Americans are the most rapidly growing minority group in the US, and income inequality is rising faster among Asian Americans than among other racial or ethnic groups. We are also a vastly diverse population, with critical voting power politicians are increasingly taking into account. Though Asian American representation in Hollywood has grown slightly more varied in recent years, casual and overt racism at our expense has long resisted taboo.
Why hasn’t pop culture caught up?
Deep roots of racism in pop culture
Examples of odd and exaggerated Asian movie and TV characters abound. Mickey Rooney played as Holly Golightly’s Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Peter Sellers painted his face brown and adopted an accent to play an Indian-born actor for The Party (1968), and Alex Bornstein donned less literal yellowface as Ms. Swan on MADtv in the 1990s. Favorite movies and shows for many kids of my generation were peppered with outrageous Asian caricatures, such as Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong and of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, voiced by Hank Azaria.
“American culture has a long history of denigrating and casting Asians, or what people used to call ‘Orientals,’ as entirely different than white Americans,” says Ellen D. Wu, director of Asian American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. “When these differences weren’t thought to be threatening, another framing was that [Asian Americans] were considered comically strange.”
“It has such a big impact,” comedian Hari Kondabolu said of The Simpsons’ three-decade run, speaking to Emily VanDerWerff on the Vox podcast I Think You’re Interesting. Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu brings together a chorus of perspectives from South Asian actors and comedians on the cartoon convenience store owner who speaks with a heavy Indian accent, has eight children, and whose catchphrase is “Thank you, come again.” I remember watching Apu on TV and wondering if that was how other kids imagined my parents. Or if customers considered my uncle, who owned a Subway restaurant and worked hard to support his family, as comic relief.
Apu is just one of The Simpsons’ several ethnically stereotyped characters, including Scottish groundskeeper Willy. But he was one of very few, and certainly among the most prominent, representations of Indian Americans on TV when the show premiered in 1989. That’s why, Kondabolu told Vox, “There’s a little bit of the poison of racism” in Apu. (At a TCA panel this month, Azaria announced that he would no longer voice the character, though it remains unclear whether The Simpsons will retire the Apu character.)
Comedy, particularly American comedy, has a long history of mining racial and ethnic differences for laughs. The emancipation of black slaves and successive waves of immigration from around the world have brought minority groups into conflict with a dominant culture whose whiteness came to be defined by differences. Othering humor still lingers today; just last year, a series of scandals surfaced involving old photos of politicians including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wearing blackface, seemingly as a joke.
But the general reception toward ugly, racist humor is changing, sure enough. “There’s been a raising of consciousness about what we laugh at,” says Shilpa Davé, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film. “Humor reveals something about institutionalized inequality and prejudice and discrimination — racism, sexism, and classism — that’s ingrained in our culture.”
And, as Jeet Heer pointed out in his response to The Problem with Apu for the New Republic, caricatures of other minority groups have historically faced concerted pushback as those groups gained cultural and political power.
Amos ‘n’ Andy and Happy Hooligan [popular minstrelsies of black and Irish Americans, respectively] became anachronistic because the communities they caricatured acculturated and found their political voice. Irish immigrants gave way to the American-born Irish, who had less tolerance for ethnic jokes and felt empowered to speak up. Amos ‘n’ Andy, meanwhile, was really a comedy about the first generation of African Americans who left the rural South for a life in the urban North. As those migrants settled in cities and became politically active, they too began to challenge how they were represented in pop culture.
Asian Americans have approached a similar turning point only in recent years. “You’ll always have people who are going to objectify” minority groups, Davé says. “But can you drown out that objectification with new visions of what we see as funny, and also who we see as comics? I think we’re there,” she says. “We just don’t have the numbers necessarily yet.”
Standing in the way, perhaps, is that “We don’t have a lot of power in American society, and then we can’t even agree among ourselves,” Wu says. “We’re not one cohesive block.” The term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by activist and historian Yuji Ichioka, who saw the potential of uniting around shared identity in the wake of the Black Power movement.
But sustained solidarity has been elusive: With origins in nearly 20 different countries, Asian Americans don’t share a common language, culture, or civic agenda. Even now, I wonder if it’s presumptuous of me to make an argument on behalf of such a broad and disparate group. Though I might more readily identify as desi, or South Asian, I recognize the utility of banding together as Asian Americans in contexts like this, as well as the limitations.
In addition to gaining political voice, Irish and African Americans, to use Heer’s examples, also grew in affluence and became consumer markets to which products — including pop culture — could be sold. “When people in power have an idea of their market share, it must be that they don’t really think of Asian Americans,” Wu says. “That calculation of comedy as a business has to be part of the nexus of factors.” Asian Americans currently make up 6 percent of the population, just less than half the number of African Americans, according to US census data.
An increase in Asian American visibility in public life is turning the tide
Asian American representation in comedy and pop culture, and our power as both consumers and voters, has grown significantly, even in the past few years alone. The commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 has proven the box-office appeal of Asian American actors and stories; its romantic lead, Henry Golding, has even moved into headlining mainstream rom-coms like Last Christmas.
Riz Ahmed and Kumail Nanjiani have propelled from small-screen roles into two of Hollywood’s biggest fantasy franchises, Star Wars and the Marvel Universe. SNL hired this season’s breakout MVP Bowen Yang in the same round as Gillis. Ali Wong has released two smash Netflix specials and a movie, and comedian Hasan Minhaj has his own show, Patriot Act, and dedicated a recent episode to the rising significance of the Asian American electorate in 2020. Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate, remains in the race, polling at 3 percent.
Yang’s strategy around his identity has included embracing Asian American stereotypes with a knowing wink, by wearing campaign gear that simply reads “Math,” or remarking on the debate stage, “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” On the one hand, Asian American demographics, as they have been shaped by American policy, bear some resemblance to popular assumptions.
On the other hand, “Especially for people who might not have a lot of daily contact with Asian Americans, the information they’re getting” — as to who we are or could be — “is mediated through popular culture,” Wu says. In other words, Yang is likely reinforcing the stereotypes he plays into rather than indicating their limitations. While I can understand his wanting to get out in front of them, watching Yang lend credence to stale jokes also makes me cringe — not least because I wish by now they were too cliché to seem funny.
But the idea of a model minority suggests its opposite, and stereotypes like those he embraces do ideological work to perpetuate a system of racism that places black people at the bottom.
As Brando Simeo Starkey put it at The Undefeated, “the model minority stereotype is a myth that white supremacy devised partly to defend American society from the charges of racism leveled by Black folk. … The notion that one racial minority group was advancing by working hard, minding their own business, and not complaining about the system was a rhetorical tactic for those who sought to justify their inaction on civil rights.”
The work of demanding more is on successive generations
Being the target of model minority stereotypes is conflicting. When someone assumes I’m good at math, my impulse is to roll my eyes, not punch them in the teeth (then confess that I’m terrible at math). I recognize it’s nowhere near being on the receiving end of a slur or worse. “People tend to say, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with the model minority stereotype? Why wouldn’t you want to be thought of as smart and successful?’” Wu says. “So you can make a joke about something like that because it sounds positive and, oh sure, everybody’s got their Indian doctor.”
As I mentioned in my reply to O’Donnell, everyone in my family is a doctor except for me. It would be no great surprise if her doctor really were from Bombay. But oddly enough, when O’Donnell recounted that same story in her 2015 HBO documentary Rosie O’Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand Up, she didn’t give the doctor any particular accent. Maybe her recollection of him has since improved, or maybe she thought the bit might be funnier if he sounded Indian.
If it had been one of my parents she were up there imitating, I would have been furious. So when I visited my family over the holidays, I described the moment in her set and asked how it might have made them feel.
“Comedy is just comedy,” my dad said. “They’re making fun; it’s all fine.” Patients have actually confessed to him that they were specifically looking for an Indian doctor because of his presumed competence. “I don’t feel like an oppressed minority group, we’ve already proven [ourselves].” He’s right; they have. My parents emigrated to America in the ’70s with very little but their medical degrees, and are both comfortably retired. But doesn’t a room full of people laughing at the way they talk mock or, at the very least, minimize their achievements?
“It doesn’t make me feel good,” my mom replied. “But you know what? There are 40 Indian accents in the country,” she pointed out, and people from different regions of India might have a laugh at one another’s. “If that’s all she did, and she didn’t make fun of it,” like with exaggerated facial expressions or body language, “then that’s okay,” she said.
One difference between my parents’ mindset as first-generation immigrants and my own is they’ve never expected to see themselves reflected back in their adopted culture. An occasional glimpse of an engineer or taxi driver with a thick accent, played by a brown actor on TV or voiced by a white comedian behind the mic, may have felt like enough, a novel thrill.
So, should I just lighten up? Why had O’Donnell doing that accent gotten under my skin? I asked Davé. “Because you were highly aware of the environment she was using it in, when there was no one else around, and why she was using it,” Davé told me. “In the moment that we’re in, especially as Asian Americans and for people who are doing comparative race studies, that laziness of just going back to a particular stereotype is reinforcing the status quo rather than moving things forward.”
Continuing to push forward sure feels like the goal for me and millions of Asian Americans and other minorities who were born here but are consistently othered by comedy, whether offensive or lazy, and the first-generation immigrants who will continue to arrive here and be marked as foreign by how they look and talk. “The question is not so much what would make Asians stop [seeming] foreign,” Davé says. “But instead, what’s become the political controversy and dialogue of our time is, what does America look like?”
The answer has grown increasingly clear: It looks like Awkwafina. It looks like a growing class of South Asian comics coming up online and in standup clubs. It looks like six seasons of Fresh Off the Boat, Netflix rom-com queen Lana Condor, and yes, Keanu Reeves.
It looks like a generation of artists and comedians remaking the culture in their image. And viewers seated front and center, not content with crumbs but demanding and expecting more.
Naveen Kumar covers entertainment, culture, and lifestyle for outlets including them.us, Vice, the New York Times, and Towleroad, where he serves as theater critic.