Actress Madeline Kahn was yelling at me to take action, but I was too blinded by my own anger to listen.
“Speak! Speak! Why don’t you speak?” Kahn screamed in a scene from “Young Frankenstein.” The clip is spliced into the now infamous “O’Reilly Factor” segment after Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters asks an elderly Asian woman, who clearly doesn’t understand English, how she feels about Donald Trump. She stands silently as the Mel Brooks classic is defiled by being in this piece. The clip is played for laughs, but it’s really just played out.
The Video That Forged an Awakening
By now you may have heard or seen the video that GQ tweeted is probably “the most racist Fox News segment ever.” The rough assignment was for Watters to head to Chinatown to get Chinese opinions on Donald Trump. As Watters faced an onslaught of backlash, he tweeted a flippant non-apology that his segment is meant to be “tongue-in-cheek.” Unfortunately, the foot-in-mouth piece misses its target like Dick Cheney hunting with Harry Whittington. Watters manages to check off a litany of lazy Asian stereotypes, including broken accents, foot massages, and Mr. Miyagi. The latter a timely reference that “The Daily Show” comedian Ronny Chieng compared to “making fun of Americans for ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and Mr. T.” In fairness, ridiculing Mr. T is never acceptable.
A particularly ignorant touch in this story about the Chinese involved Watters asking a man if he knows karate (Japanese), then sparring with him in a taekwondo studio with a South Korean flag in the background. As it were, that karate man, Qanta Shimizu, said on Facebook the experience left him uncomfortable and ashamed. This is how it transpired:
He asked me about "What do Chinese people feel about Donald Trump?" and of course I replied to him like "Oh I'm Japanese, not the right person to reply to that question?".
Ridiculously, he didn't ask what I feel about Trump as Japanese, instead of that, he asked me "Do you know Karate?"
Non-Apologies and the Attempted Politicizing of Racism
The criticism of the Watters segment has been strong and steadfast, culminating thus far in a protest outside of Fox News headquarters in Manhattan, led by several elected officials and different minority organizations, not just from the Asian community. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted: “the vile, racist behavior of Fox’s Jesse Watters in Chinatown has no place in our city. @FoxNews – keep this guy off TV.” Watching public outcry has been heartening, but Watters’ own non-apology tweet was equally disheartening. His defense: “As a political humorist, the Chinatown segment was intended to be a light piece, as all Watters World segments are.” In a second tweet: “My man-on-the-street interviews are meant to be taken as tongue-in-cheek and I regret if anyone found offense.”
How insulting. This is the worst non-apology since Ryan Lochte lied about getting robbed in Brazil during the Rio Olympics. Watters is telling the offended that it’s their fault for not understanding the segment was intended to be funny. Obviously, we know that the piece was meant to be fun. The piece failed when all it did was mock Asian people in Chinatown, most of whom did not understand what Watters was saying. Bill O’Reilly threw fuel on the fire when he defended Watters to Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday”:
I would have edited it a little bit differently than it was edited. But, no, it wasn't over the line. We ran that piece on Monday of last week. 5 million people, plus, saw it live-time. You know how many negative letters we got? Less than ten. You know how many phone calls came in to Fox News? Zero, as far as I know. We checked. It was 36 hours later that this outrage appeared. And where did it appear? Far-left websites, far-left precincts. I read every single one. They're all the same.
So this is an attack on Fox News. That's what it is. It's happened before. I thought it was a gentle piece. There were a few things in there I felt were over the line. The old lady, I would have taken that out. I should have seen it before, but I'm so busy with the election that I didn't. But, [Jesse] Waters is a gentle satirist. He's worked very well for us. We're proud of him. This is an organized campaign. This is what they do. They've done it before.
You can make an argument that politics plays a role in this outrage. Then again, you can make an argument that socks look good with Birkenstocks. My point is, you can argue anything. For me, politics has nothing to do with my indignation and it’s infuriating to see O’Reilly attempt to politicize the response. There’s nothing Republican or Democrat when someone uses the N-word or loops all Asian cultures into one karate-knowing group. That’s just ignorance. O’Reilly uses the term “gentle satirist.” Humor is always the easiest defense. Watters defenders are hiding behind the cloak of comedy. Can’t you take a joke? Stop being so sensitive.
The Silence of Asian Culture
Therein lies the problem that’s long faced the Asian community. Silence. The Asian culture has always emphasized being quiet and steadfast. Work hard, be rewarded. Ask any Asian you know how their parents raised them, and the odds are the answer will be to work diligently, ignore the noise, and be respectful of others. That’s not a stereotype, that’s a cultural priority. It’s why Asians are referred to as the “model minority,” a myth that emphasizes Asians’ focus on educational and financial success, all as passive and “model” citizens. Compared to stereotypes that affect blacks and Hispanics, it sounds like Asians have won the racism lottery. But it’s not all affirmatively awesome. The myth makes Asians appear less threatening and more susceptible to inconsequential racism. That silence has allowed for derogatory language and stereotypes to persist over the years that other minority groups would never stand for.
Can you imagine Jesse Watters waltzing into Harlem and asking black residents: “Do they call African food in Africa, just food?” “Can you guys stop terrorism in Somalia?” “Are you good at basketball?” The answer is no. I’m firmly aware of this because I subjected myself to watching two more Watters Fox segments in which he went to Harlem to do man-on-the-street interviews, and he didn’t attempt any of those offensive moves at “humor.” Yet, those are essentially the questions Watters asks the people of Chinatown: “Do they call Chinese food in China just food?” “Can you guys take care of North Korea for us?” “Do you know karate?” Watters asked these questions because he was unconcerned about the repercussions. Even Bill O’Reilly knew the bit was “probably going to get some letters,” so he brushed it off as “gentle fun.” Crying Jordans memes are gentle fun, this was a gross misuse of journalistic influence.
When Jeremy Lin and Linsanity shook up the NBA (I’m being modest, really the country) in 2012, the word “chink” was still cavalierly used. ESPN was even guilty of using it as a pun. I was recently at the LA Rams preseason camp when the spouse of a player used the phrase “chinky eyes” right in front of me. She didn’t do it maliciously, it came naturally. The point being that many people don’t realize that word is the Chinese equivalent of the N-word. How has the Asian community not created enough backlash to make it clear that vernacular is not acceptable? Because speaking out is not embedded in our culture. Name a black civil right activist. Easy. Name one who’s Hispanic. Cesar Chavez. Name an Asian civil rights leader. Honestly, I can’t either.
The Long Duk Dong Effect
The identity problems in the Asian-American community run deeper than decibels. That’s where media portrayals enter the scene. I lived in Alabama and Wyoming, both of which have miniscule Asian populations, and I’d receive many seemingly ignorant questions about my ethnicity; but the questions were rarely ever based in malice, instead it was general curiosity from residents who’ve never had an extended conversation with a Chinese man. In rural America, the Asian population is so sparse, how besides media do people learn of Asian culture?
That’s where Watters’ racist caricature carries so much power. Take the late John Hughes, creator of iconic ‘80s films; beloved filmmaker of films like “Ferris Bueller” and “The Breakfast Club.” For many Asian males, he’s deeply resented for creating a socially awkward, emasculated nerd that was a walking punch line, Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles.” There were so few Asians in popular media, that Long Duk Dong became the prototype for the Asian-American man.
One might point out Asians have Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan as cultural role models. Lee is certainly an icon, but he died in 1973. Chan’s first US movie wasn’t until 1995 (“Rumble in the Bronx” which was originally filmed in Cantonese and dubbed in English). Plus, these guys are both martial artists, which only perpetuates the stereotype that all Asians know karate, ultimately leading to Watters’ question.
Don’t get it twisted, these tired portrayals (or lack thereof) take their toll on the Asian identity. Name some Asian stereotypes: bad driver, broken accents, anatomic shortcomings, etc. When you’re young and don’t look like others, don’t eat the same food, and that’s all you see of your culture on TV growing up – who wants to be Asian? African-Americans must deal with far more racial strife than Asians, but from a strictly pop culture standpoint: black culture is cool (as witnessed from its constant appropriation); Asian culture is not. Mainstream TV shows like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Master of None,” and “Dr. Ken” are changing that, but that’s a recent revolution.
I don’t speak for all Asians here, but I know I don’t just speak for myself either. The Watters segment triggered memories of identity suppression, self-doubt, and ridicule. I grew up in conservative, affluent, white Orange County, CA, in the ‘80-90s, which was pre-Asian boom. My friends were predominantly white and I loved being the “cool” Asian kid that was accepted to hang with the white kids. There were times I mocked the handful of other Asians who spoke with a broken accent and packed mapo tofu dishes for lunch. There was also a time when a group of Asians even bullied me. The problem, so evident now, was that I was ashamed of my identity. I didn’t want to be Chinese. I wanted to be white so I could fit in. My father once told me he tried to set me up with all white friends as a child to make it easier on me. I can only imagine the merciless racism immigrants like my dad faced when he first moved to the US in 1959. He didn’t want his only son to face the same plight and I understand that, but it came at the expense of cultural pride. I purposely did not learn kung fu because I didn’t want to be a stereotypical Asian. That same stubbornness led to my refusal to learn Mandarin, a decision that continues to haunt me and has prevented me from having more meaningful relationships with family members who don’t speak English. That is the cost of complete cultural assimilation, but it need not be so drastic. To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” There is no shame now. I’m woke.
Watters took advantage of a race he thought would not fight back, because historically, Asians have not. He bullied those who had no idea they were being bullied. He’s no stranger to controversy, either. He once followed, ambushed, and harassed a blogger on vacation who was critical of Bill O’Reilly’s comments about a woman who was raped and murdered (according to her article in the Huffinton Post, O’Reilly implied the victim was partially at fault because of what she wore).
Now Watters’ racist story woke a sleeping tiger, as Nielsen research estimates the Asian-American buying power will be more than a trillion dollars by 2018. A month ago, NBC was set to develop a TV show about a mail-order bride from the Philippines, but it was canceled immediately after the AAPI community criticized the premise for making light of human trafficking and racial stereotyping of Asian women. Under pressure from the Asian American Journalist Association, an “O’Reilly Factor” executive producer has agreed to meet with AAJA and several community leaders to discuss the Oct. 3 segment of “Watters’ World.” A New York Times op ed about everyday racism further invigorated Asian-Americans to tell their stories. It has taken the AAPI community a long time to be more vocal, but it’s happening.
Speak, you say? Done. But will you listen?
I leave you with this exchange that gave me so much hope, from Twitter no less: