Answer by Elynn Lee:
It is a sad day when we start comparing racism against certain groups, as if any sort of racism is really “more tolerable” just because we’re talking about one group instead of another.
I don’t have an absolute, concrete answer as to why racism against Asians isn’t considered as evil as racism against other groups. I’ve wondered this for a long time though.
I am an Asian American – I was born in the US and grew up here. I went to a daycare where I was very much the minority – I was one of two Asians in the entire facility (the other was my sister). Even though I attend a university that has a fair amount of Asians, that feeling of being a minority is hard to shake. I remember being teased for having small eyes or even having “black” eyes. No one ever said anything about those comments to the other kids to them, either. No one told them not to tease me or to stop pulling their eyes back to look like slits. As a child, you don’t understand why others are so mean or why people are making fun of you for your looks. All you know is that you’re different, and people are treating you like you’re an outsider. And, I reiterate, Asians are a minority in the United States. I feel like people sometimes forget that.
East and Southeast Asians come from a culture that is naturally non-confrontational and places a strong emphasis on respect for others. When someone makes an “Asian” joke, like a “ching chong” joke, I feel like I’m more likely to internalize it or just shake it off rather than call them out or argue. Does it make that joke okay? No, it doesn’t.
That really got me thinking – if every joke was met with a shrug and no one who was offended ever said anything, how would anyone know that anything was wrong? They wouldn’t. Instead, they would see the laughing faces and think that their jokes were funny to everyone… when, in fact, there is a stereotype that is being cast upon an entire population.
I think we’re also quick to consider that some things are racist while others are not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I got a good grade on a math test “because I’m Asian”. Here’s a secret – I’m actually terrible at math. It hurt when people dismissed a high math test grade because of my race. A good grade on a math test was actually rare for me, and meant that I actually really achieved something. I would be proud of my achievement until others blew me off. It hurt. Or, even worse, when I said I was worried about failing a class, people would ask if I meant “failing for an Asian”, which meant getting a B, rather than actually failing. Some people will argue that this isn’t racist, but in my opinion, assuming that I am a certain way based on the color of my skin is a form of racism, even if it’s “in my favor”. Why do people get away with this? Probably because no one calls them out for this. Before someone tells me that this isn’t really that bad, imagine if you were someone who didn’t want to go into a math related field. Think about the amount of flack you’d get from people, even if it’s joking, assuming that you were “less of an Asian” because you didn’t want to be an engineer or doctor. I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine that as a good thing.
As to how so many songs, movies, articles, ads, videos, and people get away with portraying Asians in a stereotypical light… it probably has to do with the fact that no one is really doing much to stop it. As I mentioned before, I feel like most Asians are culturally non-confrontational. Even then, no one stands up and calls others out on the joke. When someone makes a racist remark about another group, how quick are we to call them out on it? Maybe it’s because I’m Asian and I have personal experience with my particular group, but I feel like it doesn’t happen often for us. It’s just seen as “funny” and tossed aside as “just a joke”.
The media has also had a huge part in defining and perpetuating the stereotypes. When Asians actors first entered Hollywood, they were cast into specific, often subservient, roles rather than leading or even important supporting roles. This seems to be true about a good number of minorities in movies. Part of this might have been because most Americans didn’t know much about Asian culture, which results in skewed views when portraying Asian culture. Since this happened decades ago, it means that in order to change this mindset, it will take a lot of work. In more recent times, Asians are usually cast as nerds or socially awkward. Unsurprisingly, this makes some people believe that all Asians all fit into this stereotype. I feel like the portrayal of minorities in the media is a heavily documented issue, so I will leave it at just another reason rather than elaborating.
Lastly, it may be the case that a strong movement hasn’t come about yet because the movement is quite young. I’m starting to see an increased number of Asian Americans voicing their concerns. Our history in this country is still relatively young compared to other groups, so it may be a couple of years before we start to see a bigger, stronger movement. Additionally, I feel like there are other movements right now that are being given more attention (eg: the women’s movement and same sex marriage legalization). That’s not to say that I think we should all of a sudden stop caring about movements for other groups – we should be excited for the headway that they’re making and the ground they’re breaking. I point this out in order to mention that while a movement regarding the racism against Asians isn’t drawing the same amount of attention, that’s not to say that it isn’t happening quietly or won’t happen some time in the future.
To summarize, no, those jokes aren’t okay. It’s not okay to make others feel bad about their differences, especially ones that they were born with and can’t change. Racism against a particular group isn’t more or less “okay” than racism against any other group. I acknowledge that racism exists and I understand that it’s never going to go away, but hearing people through the years say that statements against Asians aren’t racist or aren’t “that bad” really pains me. We’re all human beings and all have different backgrounds and experiences. We should all be allowed the same chances instead of being labeled with assumptions based on the way that we look.