Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Oscars "Joke" & How We're Failing Our Multiracial Asian Children

by Sharon H Chang

By now you've probably heard about the so-called Asian "joke" made at the 88th Oscars during which three Asian children - including 8-year-old biracial Estie Kung - trotted onstage and Chris Rock made awkward reference to them as PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) accountants and then child slave labor. Given that the multibillion-dollar PwC is headquartered in New York City and smartphone child slave labor is typically connected to overseas production, the skit attempted to nod (among other things) at typical U.S. model-minority-versus-forever-foreigner stereotyping of Asians. And of course this moment was supposed to be sharp provocative comedy that made scathing racial critique and edgy social commentary. But I think most of us also know by now that that didn't work. At all. For various reasons, among them the fact that it simply wasn't funny, any reach for irony totally failed, delivery was far-less-than-confident by the typically confident Rock himself and children were used like race pawns to play. AND the reality backdrop that Asians have been practically invisible in Hollywood forever so that a sudden 30 second spotlight to poke fun at Asian stereotypes (by a non-Asian person) upon "silent" "submissive" young Asian bodies who don't get to say anything - let's be obvious - really just rewrites those same stereotypes.

Oh and as a critical sidenote: PricewaterhouseCooper's leadership (the largest professional services firm in the world with a net worth of over $30 billion)? Not looking very Asian. Another fabulous job at failing the point; not calling out the white elephant in the room (ironically at an awards show highly criticized for being white dominated) by throwing people of color under the bus. And when the throwing is done by another person of color? Bonus points for white supremacy. Whites in power do nothing, sit back and laugh like they literally did at the Oscars, all the way to the literal bank.

PwC leadership from www.pwc.com

But you know what. I don't want to talk about the grownups anymore. I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about the children.

"Kids would make racial jokes about Chinese people all the time. And I thought they were funny when I was a kid...I didn't realize they were making fun of me."

I've interviewed hundreds of POC about their experiences with discrimination. Many have been Asian, multiracial Asian and/or Asian Americans who have recounted childhoods rife with being treated like 2nd class citizens; called slurs and profanities; made the butt of racial jokes and put downs; victims of daily micro-to-overt aggressive oppressions. Us adults love to argue, debate and get gritty about these things called race, racism, privilege and oppression. We talk about which voices are the most marginalized and need to be centered. We talk about how we grew up, our painful memories which began when we were young, and how we want things to be different. And then we turn around and completely leave out or use those at the opposite ends of the age spectrum. Our young children and our elders. Those who hold the potential future of change, and those who hold our political memory, the history we need to inform that future.

Scan the Oscar headlines and you'll see the same thing a gazillion times. It's all about what the grownups did, how the grownups feel, what the grownups think and what the grownups are going to do. But here's something very few grownups know. Research shows race learning begins as early as 6 months. By 2 years children can be seen using racial categories and white ideas to reason about people's behaviors. By 3 years children already exhibit internalized prejudice and preprejudice towards others. And by 4-5 years children can be observed strongly rejecting themselves and others based on racial difference. Let's stop talking about and centering ourselves for just a moment and shift our focus.

Of the 75 multiracial Asian young children represented in my new book Raising Mixed Race at least HALF had already experienced racism. A quarter of the parents I interviewed identified as mixed race themselves and every single one of them recounted discriminatory experiences causing lasting emotional injury. It usually starts in childhood - but it hurts for a lifetime. "Kids would make racial jokes about Chinese people all the time," one Chinese/white father told me. "And I thought they were funny when I was a kid...I didn't realize they were making fun of me" (p. 52). A Black/Korean mother said because of the way she looks others often mistake her as an Asian woman. As a result, "They think I'm like this meek - I'm not going to talk back, or I'm not going to fight you," she explained, "and so they treat me very rudely" (p. 51). As Estie Kung's unfortunate casting in Chris Rock's Oscar skit wholly evidences: If a child scans as visibly ethnic in any way, being mixed race offers them no immunity against society's prejudices.

These marginalizing, sometimes deeply oppressive experiences children then have as racial minorities undeniably fold into their developing sense of self. U.N.D.E.N.I.A.B.L.Y. Though adults are loathe to admit it (even when, again ironically, they themselves have testified to it in their own lives; apparently racism is full of ironies). Despite the inarguable hard truth that all the parents I interviewed for my book had encountered racism either as a targets, perpetrators or witnesses - at least half of those same parents did not believe race and racism could be significantly impacting their young mixed race Asian children's lives. Parents were prone instead to optimism, post-racial fairytales and self-deceiving fantasies.

These marginalizing, sometimes deeply oppressive experiences children have as racial minorities undeniably fold into their developing sense of self.

I believe we can see proof of this playing out for the Chinese/white Estie Kung who, as a child actor and minor, needed her parents' permission to participate in the 88th Oscars. When Kung's parents recently interviewed with PRI about the debacle they alleged that: (a) they had been mislead about the Asian joke by casting (unsurprising); (b) by the time they saw the whole joke played in its entirety they were already under contract (unsurprising); but then they (c) "decided to take the optimistic point of view, believing that an inappropriate Asian joke that might provoke a difficult public conversation." I'm not sure how it's possible to take an "optimistic point of view" on "an inappropriate Asian joke" that will use your child as a mute prop punchline on national television. Case in point, further disturbing detail reveals Kung "didn't initially understand" understand the joke and Kung's mother explained it only after the fact (why not before??) presumably because it all went wrong. But still, PRI concludes happily, the young actor is relatively unaffected, "taking it all in stride," and "as far as she's concerned, her job is done."

She's fine, everything's okay, it was all for a greater purpose, no harm done right? I find this framing upsetting beyond belief. But also not uncommon. Unfortunately I saw it a lot while researching Raising Mixed Race. The way adults minimize children's racial experiences is how we manifest our own discomfort about race and rationalize our avoidance talking about it - until it's too late. It's how something like the Oscars Asian joke happened in the first place after having passed through the hands of many, many adults (importantly not just Kung's parents). It's how we indoctrinate our kids, often unintentionally, into racial thinking by our silence. And it's how racism continues to be perpetuated across generations.

As I demonstrate in my book not only are children much more race savvy than we give them credit for they also hide what they know from adults whom they understand are sensitive to race. Whether you agree or not that the 88th Oscars Asian joke "worked" I implore you to remember that it is Asian CHILDREN who were at the center of this and consider the very real impact for them. Did they get to be people of worth in this debacle or just racialized bodies, tools for adults to wield at will? Before Estie Kung and her family came forward I searched for an hour to find out about the children and I couldn't find their stories or lived lives anywhere. Not easily anyway. Begging other questions. Whose idea was the skit in the first place? Who wrote it? Who was in control of the situation? How many grownup gatekeepers gave that moment a green light so that it could be produced and performed and aired on TV? What agency did those Asian children have in the process? When it was happening, how many people laughed? Were the children in on the joke? If not, what is now the lifelong memory the children will keep having been racialized onstage, on national television, and laughed at by an auditorium full of the world's most famous, elite and rich people?

I'll end on this note. It wasn't funny or ironic. No witty point wasn't made. Society wasn't changed. And we may have (probably) hurt young children in the process. Then we talk about everything else but that. All else aside - In what world it is okay for adults to treat youth of any race in this way?


This post was updated at length Thursday, March 3, to reflect Estie Kung coming forward via PRI report.


  1. Great post, Sharon! So true.

  2. Hi Sharon! I stumbled across your blog while searching for children's books on mixed Asian kids. I am Korean and married to a white man and have two awesome kids (a 7 yo girl and 3yo boy). I love your blog! However, my question to you is, at what point do we draw the line between comedy and getting our feelings hurt? I grew up in A small conservative, mostly white city in texas, and I was always "the only Asian girl". I joined the marine corps afterwards, and we would sit around at work or in Iraq making fun of each other based on stereotypes. It was done in fun and never to hurt anyone. Marines have a saying that "we are all green".....every comedy show I've been to is hilarious because of jokes that exaggerate racial stereotypes. Just wanted your opinion!