But he missed the mark on one crucial thing
The rapper Dumbfounded is weighing in on Hollywood’s pretty big Asian representation problem with a provocative new video for his song “Safe,” and while his outrage is justified, he still manages to miss the mark when it comes to arguing for equality in the popular arts.
But let’s start with the topics of whitewashing and yellowfacing. Both have been getting a lot of attention recently, and deservedly so. The New York Times just ran a story this week called “Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored,” which comes shortly after the uproar around actresses like Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton being showcased in roles meant for Asian characters. There was also the hashtag event #StarringJohnCho in which the actor’s face was photoshopped into movie posters to replace the white male leads.
The Martian, starring John Cho.
Dumbfounded’s new track focuses on #OscarsSoWhite as the song’s catalyzing incident, opening with the lines, “The other night I watched the Oscars and the roster of the only yellow men were all statues / We a quarter of the population there’s a room of fuckin’ 1-percenters laughing at you.”
In addition to a dearth of Asian nominees and attendees at ceremony itself, the rapper, whose real name is Jonathan Park, was clearly offended by host Chris Rock using a group of Asian children as a punch line for his joke about the accountants responsible for tallying Academy Award votes. Rock spent the telecast skewering the entertainment industry for passive racism via non-inclusion… and then went and made a joke about Asians being good at math. It was a racially tone deaf joke made by someone meant to be lambasting racial tone deafness, and it prompted a protest letter signed by 25 Academy members that chided the telecast for “perpetuation of racist stereotypes.” One kind of insensitivity was traded for another.
In reaction to this, Dumfounded used his new video to essentially John Cho himself into iconic film roles throughout history, appearing as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, Rick Blaine in Casablanca and Jack Dawson in Titanic, among others. He critiques the Hollywood habits of either casting Asian actors as villains or casting white people to play damagingly hyperbolic stereotypes of Asian people for the purposes of mockery. “You took me as safe / That was your first mistake / Who said I was safe?” raps Dumbfounded, attacking the notion that Asian people will politely refrain from causing a conflict.
Pulp Fiction, starring Dumbfounded.
The anger in the song is palpable, especially when the chorus kicks in and he says, “I swear if things don’t change my actions can’t be blamed.” It’s also totally justified, but about a third of the way through the track Dumbfounded slips into the exact same trap as Rock, permitting his own outrage to trump the need for sensitivity when talking about any disenfranchised community in the popular arts—in this case, trans people.
When Dumbfounded says, “Bruce Jenner is a woman / O.J. was acquitted / Kim K is a hero / The sky is the limit any minute now they gonna let an Asian brother get a lead role,” he effectively draws a parallel between the absurdity of O.J. Simpson being acquitted of murder with a trans woman finally reconciling her true gender identity after presenting as a man her whole life. Saying Bruce Jenner is a woman undermines the truth and permanence of Caitlyn Jenner, and Dumfounded’s chosen metaphor in this case amounts to, “Maybe we’ll see an Asian guy as a leading man after all because men can up and decide to be women and the world is crazy lol.”
Many people could read that last part and think, “Now you’re just splitting politically correct hairs,” but even the most righteous indignation must be subject to scrutiny. Those who demand thoughtfulness then bear the responsibility of being extra-thoughful themselves. If you demand to be heard, you must also listen, because furthering the dialogue about inclusion can’t mean being selective about who qualifies for the “Included” VIP list. Maybe Dumbfounded isn’t hip to the evolving parlance of trans-positive language, because that’s not the community he lives in every day and those are not the struggles he faces. And that’s okay. We’re all learning here. But that sounds pretty similar to Rock’s Oscar night myopia of selectively employed racist humor.
We can’t allow outrage, no matter how justified, to let us trade one insensitivity for another. Dumfounded’s song taps into a real anger and a real exasperation that deserves to be heard. Let’s just hope that next time he, like the rest of us, can do a little better.
Dumfounded as Captain Jack Sparrow.