At the age of 51, Chris Rock has evolved far beyond being the brash stand-up comedy of his early days. His latest film projects (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife, and Top Five) are characteristically funny, but what makes them resonate is their meta-textual commentary on race, politics and Chris Rock’s personal life. With his latest slate of films, Rock no longer simply entertains; he expresses himself and explores the world around him as part comedian, part philosopher, part public intellectual.
In particular, Top Five offered insight into Rock’s reflections – oftentimes wistful and self-critical — on being a Black man in White Hollywood, and the distance that this placed between him and the rest of Black America. It’s a fantastic, deeply intimate film that deserves a wider reach than it received, but it is not without its flaws. Others have written about Top Five’s bad gay joke, but fewer have mentioned that Chris Rock slipped in some cringe-inducing and completely unnecessary anti-Asian jokes over the course of the film.
It has been a little while since I’ve seen Top Five, but at least one joke involves Rock grilling Rosario Dawson’s character – who plays Rock’s love interest — about her dating history, incredulous that a past boyfriend was Asian. The implication, of course, was that Asian and Asian American men are bad in bed. Dawson rejects the remark by pointing out that Asians make up a large segment of the world’s population and therefore – of course – Asian men are good at sex, but the damage is done. As others in the theatre laughed at yet another comedian made yet another joke about the (untrue) stereotype of the “small Asian penis”, I felt angered, betrayed and marginalized as an Asian American woman.
What was perhaps even more frustrating was that the inclusion of these objectively racist jokes in Top Five was totally unnecessary. Top Five is otherwise a smart, well-written, and racially nuanced film that offered a compelling deep dive into contemporary Blackness. So: why did he also include the totally pointless, unfunny, and lazy humour of Asian-bashing and gay-bashing?
That’s pretty much how I feel about Sunday night’s Oscars.
Full disclosure: I’m late to commenting on Rock’s hosting of the Academy Awards because I was traveling internationally this weekend and did not watch Sunday night’s awards ceremony (though, not for lack of trying). I just now returned States-side, and am writing this post having not seen the full ceremony. However, the Asian American community is already in an uproar over a shitty segment involving Rock dragging three young Asian/Asian American children on-stage and introducing them as the Academy’s “accountants,” – a joke that invokes as its punchline Model Minority stereotypes of Asians being both good at math and engaged in illegal child labour practices.
There’s no need for me to rehash why the Model Minority Myth is both offensive to Asian Americans and a tool of anti-blackness; I’ve already done so in another context in this widely shared post (“The Culture Canard of the Model Minority Myth”) and many others have also already written on this topic. Meanwhile, global exploitation of child labour is a major human rights issue that predominantly impacts Asian children among other children of colour. The United Nation estimates that of the 1 in 5 of the world’s children who are forced to work, 60% of those child labourers are in Asia and approximately 11 million children under the age of 14 are forced to work under physically demanding and life-threatening conditions in China alone. This is, quite simply, no laughing matter.
What’s worth asking is why Chris Rock — who is clearly capable of offering nuanced and sophisticated insights on race, racism and identity politics as he capably demonstrated at other moments Sunday night as well as in this widely shared essay — so frequently also reaches for the low-hanging fruit of anti-Asian jokes?
Sunday night, Rock offered acerbic commentary that simultaneously accused Hollywood of (“sorority”) racism while he challenged protesters to contextualize the #OscarsSoWhite controversy against other issues of the day, such as Michigan’s poisoning of Flint’s water supply which has disproportionately impacted the city’s mostly Black residents. (Incidentally, a star-studded fund-raiser for Flint was also held Sunday night, with disappointingly minimal press coverage.)
And then, he reached for a shitty Asian joke. I shouldn’t be alone in demanding to know: what the fuck?
A recent study showed that Asian Americans make up less than 1% Oscar nominees, and Angry Asian Man recently pointed out that more White actors have received an Oscar for playing an Asian in yellowface than have actual Asian or Asian American actors. By any definition, Asian and Asian Americans are – like anyone who is not a straight White man – invisible in American media.
Because of our overall invisibility, Chris Rock’s Asian joke – along with Sacha Baron Cohen’s equally despicable double entendre about Asian male sexuality – carried the full weight of our community’s representation on Oscar night. What resulted was a night that simultaneously called for greater inclusion in Hollywood while it portrayed a flattened, tasteless, cringe-inducing caricature of the Asian American community. In his widely shared essay about Hollywood’s race problem, Chris Rock points out that “change takes time.” But, it takes no time to not be an asshole to other people of colour.
I do not agree with others who demand that Black liberation activists center non-Black communities to the exclusion of themselves in their activism. We do not need to push Blackness out in order to make room for our own politics.
Nonetheless, an industry-wide call for greater inclusivity in Hollywood need not come at the expense of the Asian American community. There was no need for Chris Rock to mock and denigrate the Asian American community at the Academy Awards through behavior that can only work across the purpose of inter-community solidarity between Asian Americans and the #OscarsSoWhite movement. Asian Americans are not your accountants. We are not your child labourers. Our men are not the butt of your misogylinist jokes. Many Asian American race activists are proud and committed progressives with a long history of working in partnership with other communities of colour to demand racial justice. Sure, there is, as Hari Kondabolu puts it, historically some tension between the Black and Asian communities. But, we deserve better than our treatment Sunday night.
Chris Rock spent his time as host of the 2016 Academy Awards calling for Hollywood to be better than they are when it comes to their treatment of marginalized peoples. When it comes to Asian Americans, he should take a minute to listen to his own messaging.