Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Free Lunch For Racists

 When Is a Hate Crime Not A Hate Crime?

In a predictable follow-up video to an incident at a comedy club in which an Asian audience member reacted to comic Brett Eidman's racial baiting, Eidman is given the opportunity to exclaim "Me? Racist caricatures? No!" to an uncritical interviewer............

Of course, it is commonplace for America's celebs, and wannabe celebs alike, to racially bait Asians, and is the clearest indication of the pervasiveness of attitudes of casual anti-Asian prejudice. The dichotomy created between America's self-image as a society that opposes prejudice, and the fact of America's acceptance and normalization of racism towards Asians provides sufficient ambiguity to enable a plausible deniability allowing perpetrators to back-pedal with flimsy apologies and genuinely ambiguous remorse, all the while hinting at misunderstood satire or an ungenerous interpretation by an overly sensitive minority.

Thus, apologies serve a couple of purposes none of which benefit Asian-America; they allow America to reaffirm its identity as a society that has largely overcome racism, perpetuates the myth that racism against Asians only exists mainly as the mis-perception of an overly-sensitive minority, which in turn, enables racial baiting and harassment of Asian-Americans to remain the normal mode of interaction between mainstream America and its Asian minority.

Insanity has been described as doing the same thing over and over again whilst expecting a different result. If this is true then the response from Asian-America to this type of prejudice has become insane - we always demand apologies which we know are going to be disingenuous and which never seem to change the culture of casual racism against Asians that exists in media and entertainment. Because anti-Asian prejudice in society is normalized by an popular culture that makes light of violent race-crimes and equates racial baiting with fun activities as normal as a day on the beach, the effects of an apology are far outweighed by the negative outcomes and do little to balance them.

This why we need to re-think the way we approach our dialogue on anti-Asian racism in the entertainment industry by, perhaps, focusing less on our tendency to express our offence as the basis for an industry response.

Demeaning depictions of Asians in the media and individual acts of racial-baiting by celebs or writers are really no different than the casual day-to-day harassment that Asian-Americans experience in their daily lives. The only difference is that the media targets the group whereas in daily life it is typically an individual that is targeted. The latter act is a criminal offence, yet the former, though potentially more damaging, continues as an acceptable way of representing Asian people in the entertainment industry. For example, if someone came up to you on the street and mocked your racial characteristics, and verbally harassed you by imitating an "Asian" accent, then this could be ruled a hate-crime. Yet, the entertainment industry routinely does this exact thing but these ubiquitous demeaning and dehumanizing representations are not viewed as hate-crimes even though the difference is vague.

The question is; can a legal case be made that individuals and companies in entertainment and media are committing hate crimes when they knowingly and deliberately racially bait, and mock Asians? If there is no one individual victim of media racism and the target is generalized and dispersed can a case be made that a crime is being committed that causes harm to Asians both as individuals and as a group?

Hate Crimes can encompass several things....
"Hate crime" generally refers to criminal acts that are seen to have been motivated by bias against one or more of the types above, or of their derivatives. Incidents may involve physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse or insults, or offensive graffiti or letters (hate mail).
Of the above definition, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse, and insults, are all qualities that characterize media racism (be it demeaning stereotypes or one individual being racist). Bullying includes verbal harassment (celebs "ching-chonging", for example), but significantly it is a phenomenon that can exist between.... groups, social classes, and even between countries (see jingoism).
Bullying is the use of force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. This media bullying through cultural expression can also easily be shown to bear characteristics of harassment.....
Harassment.......covers a wide range of behaviors of an offensive nature. It is commonly understood as behaviour intended to disturb or upset, and it is characteristically repetitive. In the legal sense, it is intentional behaviour which is found threatening or disturbing. 
For example, repeated depictions of "Asian" characters whose main role in the dialogue of the production is to serve as the target of racialized jokes, or joke scenarios, that regurgitate racist stereotypes, as well as celebs or cultural figures mocking Asian accents, physical characteristics, mannerisms, or using known racial slurs, are all aspects of America's culture that resemble harassment. If an individual were to do these things in the real world (for example assuming the "character" of an Asian by imitating an accent, and using gestures to mimic racial characteristics) they could easily be charged with racial harassment. Demeaning characters in film and television that are used as a means to propagate demeaning stereotypes are simply elaborate forms of racial harassment.

Of course, the issue of verbal abuse and insults targeting Asians in the media are the most self-evident aspects of America's normalization of anti-Asian racism. For a society that is prone to deny the very existence of racism against Asians, the prevalence of racially based verbal abuse and insults from the media directed at Asian people is quite remarkable. Whether it be obvious abuse (like this), abuse disguised as a comedy routine, or craftily ambiguous, like the "chink in the armour" headlines used in association with Jeremy Lin, the verbal abuse of Asians by media figures betrays the depth of casual anti-Asian attitudes in American society.

Clearly, the way that Asians are represented in film and television, in the print media, spoken about by media figures, and in most areas of American cultural expression, exhibits many of the most heinous characteristics of racially biased hate crimes. In this light, to put forward the response of being "offended" seems a somewhat insufficient response to a profound culture of racial baiting. Simply being "offended" in some ways allows the magnitude of America's media hate to be diminished and enables perpetrators to avoid addressing the issues that propagates the culture of casual anti-Asian racism. For instance, if you are simply offended, then the response is to apologize  - and this is what tends to happen. End of story. And the next week, another celeb, television show, or movie depiction, commits another hate-crime under the guise of creative freedom, free speech, or simply "jest". Proclaiming offence and demanding an apology has failed to change the culture of media prejudice against Asians - that is why we have just got to stop framing our concerns about media racism in this way. Instead, let's call it what it is - a hate crime and let's, furthermore, expect a more genuine response from the media than faux apologies.

Some might argue that defining casual media racism as "hate-crimes" is somehow going too far and at the very least is overly sensitive and at worst is an unjustified censorship of free speech or the creative process. This is a poor argument for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to describe the dehumanizing portrayal of Asians in the media and the casual race-baiting by some media figures as "creative" is a stretch to say the least. Regurgitating decades-old stereotypes is not creative and race-baiting of Asians is not cutting edge culture. The media fosters attitudes towards Asians that promote demeaning behaviours, and hostility, and thus normalizes such negative attitudes which is far from creative. Furthermore, if it can be shown that media depictions amount to little more than sophisticated hate-crimes, then ending them becomes a matter of common decency, and legal necessity.

Changing the way that we conceive of media dehumanization of Asians changes the scope of what we can achieve through activism. Instead of demanding meaningless apologies we can target more meaningful engagement between the corporate media and the individuals who comprise it that will yield more tangible results. I see no reason why an industry that fosters racial prejudice both within its own enterprise and in general society, should not be required to tangibly rectify their infringements. I see no reason why a studio that discriminates against Asian actors should not be required to sponsor Asian actors and ease them into more prominent lead roles. I see no reason why a television show that writes a demeaning Asian character into their script, who is racially baited and whose presence serves as the inducement for regurgitating racist stereotypes which are repeated by schoolkids all over the country, can not be required to financially support groups fighting against bullying of Asian children in America's schools. And I especially see no reason why individual celebs who are smug in their race-baiting of Asians should not be legally held accountable for their hate-crimes.

Some may see this as an over-reaction to petty racism, yet although individually these incidences of race-baiting seem minor, it is the accumulation of stereotypes, dehumanization, and race-baiting from the media and entertainment industry that paints a disturbing picture of a culture of normalized anti-Asian prejudice that is pervasive throughout society. Our proclamations of offence have done little to create a shift in the media's hostile depictions of Asian people, nor have they succeeded in dis-empowering the casual race-baiting by individual celebs. This is why we must target a more genuine response from the media that provides us with a more tangible  outcome that benefits our community. The way to go about this is to recognize that media race representations are actually little more than racial harassment for which the media must be held accountable.

After all, what is the difference between the mockery of Asian racial characteristics by Miley and the daily racial harassment of Asian kids in America's schools whose tormentors also use the same racial mockery? Likewise mocking of Asian accents or the use of racial slurs is racial harassment whether it happens in the workplace, randomly on the street, in a restaurant, or is broadcast through the television, radio, or over the internet compliments of a media figure. As I mention elsewhere in my writing, media racism not only promotes and normalizes negative attitudes and behaviours towards Asians, the process by which it does this is often a hate crime in an of itself.


  1. extremely well written and thought out piece, bro.

    I also think that Asians have to stop supporting the racist mainstream media and start to boycott and call it out for the racist caricatures.

    we should also denounce the Asian "hop sings" who are subservient and even promote the media racism like KKKen Jeong and his sponsoring organizations like CAPE.

  2. Anon

    Welcome and thank you!

    I tend to agree with that - I think that a full boycott will send the most powerful message of intent. But even this wouldn't be as effective if Asian actors and actresses also do not boycott demeaning roles.

    Plus, I think that a case can be made that media and celeb racism can be defined as racial harassment. I'm not an attorney, so I don't make a legal claim, but at the very least in terms of the court of culture and public opinion I think we have a strong case. We just have to be wılling to make the arguments effectively through the media.