Ronny Chieng is in his bright blue suit spotlighted on the center stage. In his signature serious tone and indifferent posture, he begins a joke about discovering Asian stereotypes for the first time. “All these Asian stereotypes like, ‘Asian people are good at math’,” he starts. “I didn’t know that.” He pauses, then he delivers the punchline: “In Asia, we’re all good at math.” The audience cracks up.
Just like that, Chieng was able to use the baseless generalizations society made about his race, a minority race, as a comedic tool to make people laugh, topped with a sprinkle of sarcasm. But it isn’t solely in the name of comedy. Behind the mic, behind the blinding blue lights, behind the curtain, maybe there stands some secondary purpose to make a point about how ridiculous these sorts of categorizations are about such a large community of individuals. And he is obviously not the only one to expose racism through comedy, whether the remarks are made subtle or not.
Along with the political analyses Hasan Minhaj does on his show, “Patriot Act,” Indian and Muslim jokes are what the public deems as large components of his identity as a comedian. That is especially prominent in his Netflix special, “Homecoming King,” where he talks about his experience as growing up Muslim in America. A New Yorker article praises, “Minhaj smartly leverages his identity—son of immigrants, Indian-American, Muslim—giving himself license to expose realities that his monocultural peers can’t, or won’t, perceive.”
Race jokes have other positive effects within racial minority communities as well. They are not just intended to call out the patronizers. Because of the sense of “relatability” that the subjects of the jokes elicit, people, especially minorities, are able to formulate racial identity without changing who they are to fit the system.
And it’s not just in stand-up. Especially in the age of social media, people no longer need a mic, an in-person audience and a stool on a stage to get a bunch of people to giggle and release endorphins in their brains. This versatility of the internet has translated into racial communities online finding consolation and a sense of belonging in a world that often segregates individuals based on their appearances and cultural backgrounds– sometimes even taking advantage of this fact. The Facebook groups Subtle Asian Traits and Subtle Curry Traits are composed of East Asian and South Asian members that share memes reflective of their culture’s commonalities.
“Black Twitter” is a term used to refer to the wide online interconnections of black life on the popular social networking platform. Along with it having, on multiple occasions, an impact on making major differences in the real world, it has also become a space where black users can share humor and connect on another level with an understanding only those of their culture genuinely hold.
White Twitter vs Black Twitter pic.twitter.com/LMSSbIImYC
— White Vs Black Twit (@WhlteAndBIack) October 8, 2014
But as with all good things on the internet, racial satire can backfire in so many ways. For instance, there’s always bound to be someone to misuse it, whether they do it with malevolence, indifference or carelessness. Since comedy can often be so controversial, especially if race is part of the equation, comedians are vulnerable to slips of the tongue that offend their audience.
Trevor Noah faced glares from the public eye when a video of a racist joke about aboriginal women resurfaced, and Shane Gillis was immediately fired after hire when past footage of racist and sexist remarks circled the internet. And these are only a few of the numerous accounts of celebrities pushing the boundaries to be “funny enough”.
And then there’s also the question of whether publicly imitating accents of a different ethnicity is acceptable.
A comic takes up the mic and smoothly transitions into a story about an encounter with an Asian. “Don’t mess with Asians,” he starts. “If you ever get in a fight with an Asian and he says, ‘Please, I don’t want any trouble’,” he imitates in a Chinese accent, “you really should run.” The crowd erupts in laughter.
As casual of an interaction that stand-up may have with an audience, it’s still difficult to witness this show without cringing a little bit– especially as an Asian myself. Accents in comedy have been around for a while, and are often popularly used even in regular conversation. I’m certainly not guilt-free of doing so in the past, or of laughing along when someone else did an impersonation of a “stereotypical” racial figure.
But, taking a step back, we can see that this is fundamentally unjust. What this really is is another exemplification of segregation taking a “less threatening” form in our lives. Serious or not, by displaying a certain image to be characteristic of a certain race you are marketing that stereotype to people, ultimately spreading and solidifying it as another inaccurate, offensive way to define a group of individuals.
Perhaps I’m being sensitive, but I can’t shake the gut feeling that something is off when a non-Indian person nods their head while a butchered up, fake Indian accent leaves their lips. Or when someone casually teases an East Asian friend about their ability to see. Maybe it’s different if the jokes are shared within the racial community they’re about, since within that boundary, people consciously or subconsciously understand the authenticity behind the joke and it becomes relatable humor. But when others do it, especially if they’re uneducated on and unrelated to the culture their funny remark is trying to pick at, they are promoting something that isn’t at all wholly reflective of the people actually involved.
I believe in the good that racial satire can do for minority groups. It brings them together emotionally and spiritually in such a positive way, sometimes taking form as a coping mechanism for racism. But sticking to the boundaries and knowing the importance of those boundaries before uttering your words is critical. People of the 21st century, let’s not add oil to the fire we’ve been trying to blow out, no matter how concealed it may be. Being attentive to issues like these is not being soft or butthurt, it’s making due progress.
Image via YouTube