Chris Rock and the Oscars

Using comedic racial stereotypes to highlight racial inequality is always fraught and problematic. The success of the joke comes down to whether your audience gets the irony. But when it comes to racial stereotypes, there’s often too much emotion involved; and when there’s too much emotion involved, people don’t tend to be at their clearest or most reasoned.

Another way to put it is that most people who aren’t part of the demographic you’re addressing are likely to get the irony — they likely have not been exposed personally to the sort of inequality the joke is trying to highlight. Most people who are part of the demographic probably will not get the irony — it cuts too close to the bone, especially when the people who belong to the demographic have historically been subjected to demeaning stereotypes and racial slurs.

Consider the backlash against Chris Rock’s Asian stereotypes at the Oscars on Sunday night, which was part of a skit involving Rock’s ‘accountants’ from PricewaterhouseCooper. The joke was largely ignored until the actress Constance Woo brought it to everybody’s attention[1]. But consider that until this morning the commentary on Rock’s performance was almost unanimously positive. Most commentators gave him credit for calling out racism in Hollywood, even if they also concurred that Rock wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t already been said (in other words concluding that nothing Rock said is likely to change many attitudes). Until this morning nobody seemed to be saying anything about the Asian stereotypes. But that’s the thing about outrage: people tend not to be outraged until they’re told that they should be outraged. In today’s environment, that usually equates to mainstream news sources reprinting three or four angry tweets and asserting the amount of outrage that people feel.

I’m not trying to call out Woo here, or claim that she’s wrong to be annoyed. Her anger is understandable: you’re not likely to be happy if you’re part of an under-represented minority watching another under-represented minority making jokes at your expense. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t feel like the targets of Rock’s Asian joke were Asians or Asian-Americans[2], it feels like Rock’s real targets were the Asian stereotype itself and an organisation (meaning Hollywood) that perpetuates the myth of the Asian stereotype. It’s admittedly not a funny joke; but that alone doesn’t make it racist. Plus, it’s hard to reconcile the image of Rock as racist towards Asians when he made this comment about child labour in China

If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids

If anything, the quote above suggests that the purpose of Rock’s joke was multi-fold: in addition to targeting Hollywood it also targeted manufactured Internet outrage. It also targeted the hypocrisy of people using devices made by child slave labour claiming outrage about the mis-representation of minorities. But this is a lot of information for one stereotype to get across; it’s no surprise that the point of the joke got lost in the emotion of physically seeing the racial stereotype.

This emotional reaction stems back to horrible racial stereotypes that are in no way ironic nor directed back at the people who believe the stereotype. (Consider, for example, Mickey Rooney’s definitely racist performance as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) The cultural fallout from this is that today we have an inherently violent reaction to racial stereotypes on screen, a reaction that is purely emotional and takes no account of context. We understand at a gut level that you do not make fun of racial stereotypes. In other words, seeing racial stereotypes on screen brings back, by association, memories of Mickey Rooney and Al Jolson, et al. If it needs to be said, those are not good memories to associate with. Which is one more reason why ironic jokes designed to poke fun at racial stereotypes tend to get mis-interpreted as reinforcing the stereotype.

Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The bigger problem here is that post-Woo we’re in danger of taking the conversation away from what’s important. We’re in danger of making the conversation about Chris Rock and not about racism in Hollywood (or racism generally). This of course is not a problem for national newspapers which, while struggling to stay relevant in the 21st Century, have discovered that manufactured Twitter outrage is a guaranteed and proven method to get people clicking and reading. And it’s not a problem for those people/organisations who have a personal interest in not discussing the mis-representation of minorities in Hollywood (so it’s not a problem for Hollywood if people are talking about Chris Rock and not minority representation in American cinema).

So instead of talking about racism in Hollywood we’re in danger of getting sidetracked into talking about whether Chris Rock is racist; and if we’re asking whether Rock is racist we’re getting into an ad hominem argument in which anything Rock says can be dismissed on the grounds of racism. Any good work Rock might have done highlighting the inequality of black people in Hollywood (which is, admittedly, contentious) is in danger of being undone by the charge that he and other black people are in turn racist against Hispanics, Latinos and Asian-Americans.

You can decide for yourself by watching the sketch here.


  1. At least it seems, from what I’ve been able to make out, that Woo was the first to draw attention to the joke. That’s the problem with Internet outrage: it’s hard to figure out exactly where it came from.
  2. Nor, if you want to get technical about it, Jewish people. Rock introduced one of the Asian children as David Moskowitz.

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