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What Chris Rock’s Racist Asian Joke Reveals About Deeper Racial Tensions

The bit hinted at a history of tension between minority groups in the United States.

Photo illustration by Janice Chang

In the week after the Oscars, I remained fairly silent on the issue of the disparaging jokes host Chris Rock made against Asians and Asian-Americans. I didn’t have the energy to direct attention toward yet another example of the ridicule Asian-Americans receive in the media because dwelling on such negativity often leaves me more exhausted and disillusioned than angry. Besides, other people had already taken to Twitter and other media outlets to express their discontent, and pretty much everything that I had to say had already been said.

But after hearing an interview on Public Radio International with Laura Kung, the mother of the 8-year-old girl hired to act as a prop for Rock’s tasteless, cruel joke about Asian-Americans, I realized there was one crucial, missing part of the conversation surrounding the poor choice at the Oscars. Kung revealed that she had no idea what her daughter Estie Kung’s appearance would entail until the rehearsal, after they had already signed a binding contract, which illuminates a flaw in the casting process.

In the joke, Rock brought out three Asian-American children, introducing them as “Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz” of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that counts the Oscar votes. The bit was supposed to be a reprise of a joke Rock had made when he first hosted the Academy Awards in 2005, but in a ceremony that so pointedly criticized Hollywood for its failure to represent racial diversity, the already bad joke came across as especially awful because of its reinforcement of stereotypes that Asians are good at math and, even worse, condone child labor.

“I did wonder, ‘Why all Asians?’” Kung said of the casting call. “But I assumed there was a bigger picture, a more complex joke given all the emphasis placed on diversity at the Oscars this year.”

After hearing the entirety of the joke for the first time, Estie’s parents were not happy but remained optimistic, hoping it would at least incite dialogue about the treatment of Asian-Americans in the performing arts.

“This was not ok and should never have happened,” Kung said. “But the angrier people are and more people talk about it, the better it will be moving forward.”

And it did spark an uproar—almost every media outlet published a criticism of the joke, and notable public figures, including actress Constance Wu and basketball player Jeremy Lin, took to Twitter to express their rage.

But beyond the obvious insensitivity and hypocrisy of the joke, the exploitation of Estie and the two boys revealed a complex and troubling power struggle among racial minorities in the United States.

Most of the discussion around race in America in recent years has been focused around the black-white binary. Which is fair, I should add, considering the history of slavery and the disproportionate impact that racism has on black Americans, from police brutality to imprisonment to limited access to higher education. But that makes the status of Asians in the United States a difficult one to grasp. On one hand, we enjoy a fairly privileged status as a minority group, mostly thanks to the stereotype of being a “model minority”: hardworking, upwardly mobile, close to imitating whiteness. On the other, Asians still face exclusion, prejudice, and discrimination at the hands of power structures that privilege whiteness above other ethnicities.

Unfortunately, this results in anti-black sentiment in Asian communities, especially immigrant communities, and vice versa. The recent conviction of Peter Liang, the former NYPD officer charged with killing an unarmed black man and the first officer to be sentenced for a line-of-duty shooting in more than a decade, is a prime example of this—many Asian-Americans protested the ruling, brushing aside the fact that he was guilty of murdering an innocent black man and calling him a scapegoat used to appease public outrage over police brutality. Another historic example is the 1992 Rodney King riots, which represented an eruption of race and class struggles between Asian and black communities in Los Angeles.

What Rock’s joke at the Oscars effectively showed millions of people is one of the most insidious and deeply entrenched legacies of racism: minority groups being pitted against each other. It’s an easy, shortsighted fix that elevates one minority group at the expense of others, distracting them from focusing on how to upend racist systems as a whole. Most people don’t realize how these dynamics arise when they engage in this sort of infighting, but unfortunately, Rock knew what he was doing and, worse, didn’t apologize for it.

There is no easy solution, no easy formula to follow to interrogate our own biases and prejudices so that we don’t perpetuate the very racism we seek liberation from. But there are ways to ensure a more accountable society, and one of those is transparency, and the dialogue that arises from it. Not to dabble in hypotheticals, but the Oscars joke may have been avoided or at least written better if Rock had been more up-front about the content during the audition process. Almost everything can benefit from greater transparency, from individuals owning up to their own internal prejudices to organizations opening up their hiring or casting processes. When people become more transparent, they open themselves to conversation and growth in a way that is both responsible and respectful. Rock’s Oscars joke may have sparked a dialogue about perceptions of Asian-Americans, which some argue is better than if he had ignored us altogether, but there are better ways to incite these kinds of difficult and important conversations—through honesty, transparency, and mutual respect.

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