Wall Street Journal: Asian Americans have a different relationship with Mickey Rooney


Wall Street Journal (Tao Jones):

At the age of 93, actor Mickey Rooney has passed away. As his many lengthy eulogies have made abundantly clear, his was a life of stratospheric highs and humiliating lows. He was one of the biggest stars in the world as a teen; he fell into bankruptcy and irrelevancy as an adult. He reinvented himself and rebounded. He crashed and burned. Few lives have had as many epic twists and turns, making his obituaries obsessively engrossing reading.

But there’s one thing the newspapers have generally danced past, and it happens to be the role that has cast the longest shadow out of a career of thousands: His performance as Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi in the classic 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

In the decades since the film was released, Rooney’s portrayal of Yunioshi — taped eyelids, buck teeth, sibilant accent and all — has become one of the persistent icons of ethnic stereotype, brought up whenever conversation turns to the topic of Hollywood racism. The depiction has prompted widespread protests whenever the film is screened; Paramount, the studio behind “Breakfast” has now acknowledged Yunioshi as such a toxic caricature that its canonical “Centennial Collection” DVD release of the film includes a companion documentary, “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective,” which features Asian American performers and advocates in conversation about the role’s lasting cultural impact and the broader context of Asian and other racial stereotypes in entertainment.

Six years ago, after four decades of stolidly defending the role, even Rooney himself finally expressed some regrets, stating in an interview that if he’d known so many people would be offended, “I wouldn’t have done it.”

Would that he hadn’t. The spectre of Yunioshi continues to haunt Hollywood and Asian America today. Rooney’s broadly comic performance, repurposed from his early vaudeville days into the brave new world of the cinema, is the godfather of the “Ching-Chong” stereotype that continues to rear its yellow head today — as the recent “Colbert Report” flap underscores. Though I wasn’t a supporter of the tactics or stated objectives of the #CancelColbert campaign, the point made by the activists behind it is a valid one: Racially stereotypical images are problematic even when presented as progressive satire, because many who see them won’t understand the context and will laugh for the “wrong reasons.”

And even when laughed at for the right reasons, they’re problematic. As many have pointed out in the wake of that campaign, the mainstreaming of these images has the unfortunate side effect of making them seem safe for public consumption…so long as their intent isn’t to “harm.” The danger of allowing intent to be the sole arbiter of whether something is acceptable can be seen most obviously in the depictions of another marginalized American population — ironically, the one whose interests were drowned out in the wildfire aftermath of the #CancelColbert campaign: Native Americans.

Last Friday, an image of an incredibly awkward encounter between a Cleveland Indians fan and a Native American protester went viral. The photo, taken by Cleveland Scene staff writer Sam Allard, shows the fan in a plastic feather headdress and grotesque “Chief Wahoo” makeup, face to face with an expressionless demonstrator, a member of the Apache Nation.

Allard quotes the unrepentant Clevelandite as proclaiming that his costume wasn’t racist: “It’s Cleveland pride, that’s all it’s about.” But the fact that he and hundreds of thousands of other sports fans still shamelessly refuse to acknowledge the offensiveness of such depictions, even when staring a real, live Native American in the face, shows that that isn’t all it’s about.

Racial mascots like the Indians’ Chief Wahoo aren’t something to be proud of; they’re a lingering disgrace. They serve to dehumanize a people who’ve been subjected over the span of America’s existence and beyond to an innumerable series of abuses and betrayals. They bury some of the worst aspects of our nation’s history under piles of printed polyester and plastic gimcrackery. They encourage new generations of young Americans to believe that racialized imagery is acceptable and appropriate, just so long as it’s being used for fun, for laughs, for entertainment….even when the subject of that imagery is not the one having fun, laughing or being entertained.

It took Mickey Rooney 40 years to regret his role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but he had little leverage to redress it even if he’d wanted to. He couldn’t change his filmed performance or ban its distribution. As an entertainer, it is a permanent part of his legacy. Maybe the biggest part: Most of his movies, from the Andy Hardy series to his partnerships with Judy Garland, have largely passed into the category of quaint, half-remembered nostalgia. But “Breakfast,” with the luminous Audrey Hepburn at its center, has not. And even those who decry the PC police can’t deny that Rooney’s performance, the one that has likely been seen by more people than any other, is the most unpleasant and uncomfortable part of an otherwise classic film.

Sports teams like the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins have a luxury that Rooney didn’t have as an entertainer. They control how they’re depicted; they own their brands. Which means it’s fully within their power to eliminate the ugly trappings of racial mascotry from their corporate identities and merchandising.

And while they may pay a short-term price for doing so, the long term benefits more than outweigh it: They will have removed a set of cancerous growths from the face of our popular culture, and established new legacies for their franchises, marked by goodwill, grace, humility and sensitivity. That would be something to truly make their fans proud. That’s what it’s “all about.”

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Asian Americans have a different relationship with Mickey Rooney


#CancelColbert : The campaign to cancel Colbert Report over “Ching Chong Ding Dong” joke

The New Yorker:


On Thursday night, the official Twitter account for “The Colbert Report” committed the comedic sin of delivering a punchline without its setup. The offending tweet, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” was meant to be a satirical analog to the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, whose creation was announced earlier this week by the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder.

The joke, which originally aired on Wednesday’s episode, is not particularly complicated: Daniel Snyder created a charitable organization for the benefit of a community and used a racial epithet for that same community in the organization’s name—so here’s an absurd fictional extrapolation of Snyder’s own logic. Everyone who hates both racism and Daniel Snyder laughs.

On Twitter, where words often slip free of their contexts, the unaccompanied punchline sparked a firestorm of outrage, which quickly escalated into a campaign demanding the show’s cancellation. The hashtag #CancelColbert became one of Twitter’s trending topics across the United States, and prompted Comedy Central to point out that the tweet in question, which was soon deleted, was posted by a corporate account that Colbert did not control.

#CancelColbert started with Suey Park, a twenty-three-year-old writer and activist, who, in December of last year, came to Twitter prominence when she set up #NotYourAsianSidekick, an online conversation that encouraged Asian-American women to voice their frustrations with traditional feminism. The hashtag has generated tens of thousands of tweets, which in turn led to wide coverage from mainstream media organizations. Park has gone on to start, or facilitate, several other successful hashtags, including #POC4CulturalEnrichment and #BlackPowerYellowPeril. For her efforts, she was named one of the Guardians “top 30 young people in digital media.”

Park, now a veteran of so-called “hashtag activism,” started the campaign with the following tweet: “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.”

As #CancelColbert grew, Park acted as something of an online personal trainer, exhorting her followers to push the hashtag up the list of Twitter’s trending topics. In response, tens of thousands of people came to Colbert’s defense, many of them apparently outraged at the outrage. By lunchtime on Friday, when Deadspin published a post by two Korean-American writers with the tongue-in-cheek headline “Gooks Don’t Get Redskins Joke,” #CancelColbert had become another online feeding trough, attracting heated commentary from everyone who has ever thought anything about race in this country. (As Deadspin noted, it had also shifted the debate away from Daniel Snyder and the name of his football team.)

I called Park on Friday to ask her about how #CancelColbert got started. She said she saw the offending tweet while eating dinner Thursday night and decided to respond to it. Despite her online profile—and the forceful, yet sometimes decidedly academic, tone of her advocacy—Park does not consider herself a “full-time” activist and claims that she does not particularly enjoy hustling along a hashtag. Her degree of involvement in a hashtagged cause, she said, depends on how much “free time” she has at the moment, and whether a particular issue piques her interest. “It’s not like I enjoy missing ‘Scandal’ to tweet about ‘The Colbert Report,’” she said.

Every debate on Twitter gets put through the platform’s peculiar distortion effect. The form’s inherent limitations—the 140 character limit and a fleeting shelf-life—reward volume, frequency, and fervor rather than nuance, complexity, and persuasion. This might feel unseemly to those who value a more refined conversation, but there is no denying the viral power of hashtag activists who capitalize on the speed at which a single tweet can multiply into something that resembles a protest rally. A new Twitter outrage seems to detonate every week, and, in many cases, the voices raised in these social media movements belong to groups that do not have equal representation within the mainstream media. But they should not therefore be immune to questions or criticism: If an activist hashtag becomes a trend, has a broad, important conversation taken place? It is no simple thing to determine whether Twitter outrage can itself expand the terms of discourse and challenge the status quo.

At its best, #NotYourAsianSidekick provides a channel for thousands of Asian-American women and their allies to discuss the tokenism that so often accompanies broad conversations about diversity in this country. Dissatisfied with the idea of a “seat at the table,” Park uses social media to facilitate a self-contained conversation among Asian-Americans that does not require any explanation or translation of our shared cultural norms. The ultimate significance of a string of tweets can always be questioned, but that a hashtag conversation on Twitter could have such resonance speaks to just how desperate Asian-Americans have been to talk about identity without deferring to the familiar binaries that shape most discussions of race in this country.

#CancelColbert could be seen as a similar attempt to carve out space for Asian-Americans to discuss something that has nothing to do with parody, Daniel Snyder, or the good intentions of “The Colbert Report.” There’s a long tradition in American comedy of dumping tasteless jokes at the feet of Asians and Asian-Americans that follows the perception that we will silently weather the ridicule. If I were to predict which minority group the writers of a show like “The Colbert Report” would choose for an edgy, epithet-laden parody, I’d grimace and prepare myself for some joke about rice, karate, or broken English. The resulting discomfort has nothing to do with the intentions of the joke or the political views of the people laughing at it. Even when you want to be in on the joke—and you understand, intellectually, that you are not the one being ridiculed—it’s hard not to wonder why these jokes always come at the expense of those least likely to protest.

In our conversation, Park admitted that despite the hashtag’s command, she did not want “The Colbert Report” to be cancelled. “I like the show,” she explained. Instead, she said, she saw the hashtag as a way to critique white liberals who use forms of racial humor to mock more blatant forms of racism. “Well-intentioned racial humor doesn’t actually do anything to end racism or the Redskins mascot,” Park told me. “That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.”

It’s important to note here that Suey Park identifies herself as an activist, and does not make any claim to objectivity or fairness. #CancelColbert might have rankled and annoyed people who got Colbert’s joke, but Park says that the point of the “movement” was to argue that white liberals who routinely condemn what she called “worse racism” will often turn a blind eye to, or even defend, more tacit forms of prejudice, especially when they come from someone who shares their basic political beliefs. “The response shows the totality of white privilege,” Park said. “They say, ‘Suey is trying to take away a show we enjoy, so we’re going to start a petition to take away her first amendment rights and make rape threats.’ All this happens because they were worried that a show they enjoyed might be taken away.”

If we are to take Park’s explanation in good faith and see #CancelColbert as the work of a master provocateur who held up a mirror up to the way that self-identifying liberals of all races respond to criticism from people that they assumed to be allies, then it should be hailed as a rousing success. In interviews and on Twitter, Park has repeatedly pointed out that she does not subscribe to a traditional distinction between liberalism and conservatism. She does not defer to white liberals who point out that the joke was meant to satirize white racists; nor does she believe that a debt of gratitude is owed to the good intentions of white liberalism. During our conversation, she mentioned Kanye West and the politics behind his public persona. Park suggested that she, like West, is playing to a part and, in the process, satirizing what we might expect from a twenty-three-year-old hashtag activist. “There’s no reason for me to act reasonable because I won’t be taken seriously anyway,” she said. “So I might as well perform crazy to point out exactly what’s expected from me.

I am ten years older than Suey Park, and, like her, I grew up in a suburban Korean household, read critical theory in college, and now make my living peddling words on the Internet. Like Park, I am a fan of “The Colbert Report.” I did not find Colbert’s joke offensive in any way. But, while I was initially turned off by what I saw as a disingenuous and self-aggrandizing attempt to blow up a joke into a national issue, I also found myself agreeing with what Park has to say about the roles we, as Asian-Americans, are called to play in America’s ongoing diversity drama. Unlike Park, I tend to keep my political beliefs close to the vest, especially when talking to white, liberal friends, because I assume—fairly or not—that they expect me to laugh at whatever gets mocked on “The Daily Show” or satirized on “The Colbert Report.” Like Park, I have seen how quickly a presumed collegiality can turn into a mocking, almost threatening, tone whenever I stray from the assumed consensus that we all hate “worse racists,” Fox News, and gun nuts. Like Park, I have always assumed—again, fairly or not—that white liberals believe that as a person of color, I owe a debt of gratitude to the generations of well-intentioned white people who have fought hard for my right to write for prestigious publications.

I do not know if I believe that Park set out to incite this particular riot when she first tweeted #CancelColbert, but I also do not believe that any activist really owes an explanation for the mess she leaves in her wake. Over the past two days, much of the debate about #CancelColbert has been about the efficacy of hashtag activism and whether the act of dissent has been cheapened by the ease, and sometimes frivolity, of Twitter protests. As the debate intensified, I, too, thought that we had reached a point where hashtag activism had circled back onto itself—a moment when the earnestness of a conversation like #NotYourAsianSidekick had been compromised by self-promotion and race hustling. But journalists and pundits are particularly sensitive to charges of self-promotion and hustling because we so often use Twitter to self-promote and hustle. Unlike Park, we usually do this without any particular ideological motivation—and if we are honest with ourselves, I think we can admit that one reason we may find Twitter activism distasteful is because it interrupts our online socializing with questions we might not want to answer.

#CancelColbert may have been silly and dumb and wrong in spirit, but it’s worth asking if those of us who find it distasteful know as much about the intentions of the hashtag activists as we think we do. If we take #CancelColbert at face value, we can easily dismiss it as shrill, misguided, and frivolous. But after speaking to Park about what she hoped to accomplish with all this (a paternalistic question if there ever was one), I wonder if we might be witnessing the development of a more compelling—and sometimes annoying and infuriating—form of protest, by a new group of Merry Pranksters, who are once again freaking out the squares in our always over-reacting, always polarized online public sphere.

Photograph by Cliff Owen/AP.


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#CancelColbert : The campaign to cancel Colbert Report over “Ching Chong Ding Dong” joke