Charlyne Yi Recounts Racist Remarks from Writer and Director David Cross

Charlyne Yi (left) and David Cross (right). (Photo credit: IMDB)

This story was updated on October 17, 2017, October 18, 2017, and October 20, 2017 with new developments. Please scroll to the bottom for updates.

Charlyne Yi — the award-winning actor, comedian, writer, and musician best known for her role as a series regular on House, her voice acting work on Steven Universe, and her starring role in Paper Heart which she also wrote — took to Twitter earlier this week to describe her first encounter with writer, director and actor David Cross.

In a series of four tweets, Yi — who is mixed race Filipinx and Korean American — describes how when she first met Cross, Cross made fun of Yi for her appearance. When she didn’t respond, Cross reportedly said: “What’s a matter? You don’t speak English?? Ching-Chong-Ching-Chong.” Cross went on to mockingly challenge Yi to a karate match.

At the time of the encounter, Cross was over forty years old, and already an established comedian, writer and TV and film actor with several stand-up comedy specials already under his belt. Yi was a veritable newcomer to the comedy and acting scene, and was only about twenty years old.

Cross, who is known for his left-wing political satire, describes himself as a “socialist Democrat” who has previously criticized comedian Larry the Cable Guy for being racist and anti-gay. It seems, however, that Cross himself isn’t immune to being racist: mocking an Asian American woman with “ching-chong-ching-chong” is textbook anti-Asian racism.

Moreover, the privileged entitlement that Cross employed as an industry staple to get away with this racist mockery of a newcomer is clear. Whether with regard to workplace racism or sexual harassment, the ways that people with power leverage their professional positions to intimidate, bully, and silence victims from speaking out against abuse remain the same. For women of colour, the line between racial and sexual harassment are further blurred: many professional women of colour in STEM, for example, recount how the sexual harassment and gender discrimination they fact in the workplace is often highly racialized, and vice versa.

This week’s national conversation around #metoo is not just about highlighting sexual assault; it is about demonstrating the many ways that harassers and abusers are institutionally protected from facing consequences for the abuse they enact. According to Yi, Cross subjected her to racist abuse at their first encounter, and this was so mundane an exchange for him that he had completely forgotten about it by the time of their second encounter. Notably, at that second conversation, Cross treated Yi with the sort of basic respect one expects when being introduced to a peer: perhaps because, by then, Yi was more professionally established? Did he perceive less of a power imbalance between them that he could exploit?

In 2015, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received nearly 30,000 complaints related to workplace harassment and discrimination. The EEOC further noted that this is likely a massive underestimate of the prevalence of workplace discrimination — which includes racial, sexual and other forms of harassment; the vast majority of harassment incidents likely do not result in a formal report to the EEOC. Nonetheless, the EEOC also noted that in 2015, 43% of all complaints filed to the Commission by federal employees that year were related to workplace discrimination and harassment.

Of the nearly 30,000 complaints the EEOC received in 2015 related to workplace discrimination, 45% were related to charges of discrimination based on race and 34% were related to charges of discrimination based on sex; again, some complaints alleged both. The EEOC further notes that prevalence of race- or ethnicity-based discrimination in the workplace is seriously understudied, but that some studies estimate that between 40-60% of employees of colour experience some form of race- or ethnicity-based harassment at work.

There is no excuse for the continued culture of workplace harassment that people of colour must endure on a daily basis. What should be more frustrating about Yi’s story isn’t just that it happened, but also that people like David Cross typically face zero consequences for exercising his privilege and power to victimize an up-and-coming industry newcomer.

As Asian Americans, we talk a lot about wanting to diversify Hollywood and other industries. But, getting actors of colour to the casting couch is not enough; we must also stridently oppose the culture of entitlement, abuse, and exploitation that are endemic to most industries wherein people of colour and femmes are traditionally underrepresented, and that challenge our ability to navigate and succeed in those spaces.

David Cross was a cavalierly racist asshole ten years ago, and literally nothing happened to him. That is not okay.

Update: David Cross has responded on Twitter with basically whatever the polar opposite of #IBelieveYou is. This is neither how an apology nor how contrition works.

Here is his tweet responding directly to Yi, where he also misspells her name to boot:

Yi has yet to respond to the-… I don’t really know what to call it, but “apology” is definitely not the right word.

Please do better, Mr. Cross. Do better.

Update (10/18/2017): Cross has taken once again to Twitter to offer a second version of the events that transpired when he first met Yi. In a two-part tweet, Cross suggests that perhaps he did use “ching-chong-ching-chong” when greeting Yi, but as part of him doing a “asshole racist redneck” character.

In other words, Cross suggests that he would never use the racist phrase “ching-chong-ching-chong”, unless he was playing a racist; and also that it’s not his fault that Yi didn’t understand that he was being satirically racist. Because, as we all know, satire is the white liberal go-to defense for hate.

This latest effort is honestly not even a fraction better than gaslighting Yi with a note that ends with the tag, #Rashomon.

Let’s just start with this: since when does using a racist phrase to greet a person you are meeting for the first time become socially acceptable just because you think you’re pretending to be a racist for funsies?

Please do better, Mr. Cross. Do better.

Update (October 20, 2017): Cross’ wife, actor Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) — who recently penned an editorial about Hollywood sexual harassment critiquing the many ways in which a survivor’s credibility is questioned after they come forward with stories of abuse — has said that she believes Charlyne Yi.

Tamblyn had been critiqued for writing the editorial in defense of survivors of sexual harassment, and then appearing to defend Cross who deployed gaslighting tactics against Yi.

In a series of three tweets, Tamblyn said she had reached out to Yi, and that the two had spoken about the incident. Tamblyn went on to say that she believes Yi’s account of the events that transpired ten years ago. Tamblyn also pointed that women should not be held accountable for the actions of their partners.

Hours after tweeting these messages, Tamblyn said she would be logging off Twitter for awhile.

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  • sister_h

    His use of #Rashomon is basically saying that he doesn’t believe her and that nobody can ever really know what happened. How convenient. And so cute, cuz it’s from a Japanese film. Personally, in my experience, a “ching-chong” shtick is the stock in trade of white guys who entertain. Have you seen Colbert’s exquisite, masterful ching chong? It’s part of the white humor repertoire. It’s part of white culture, folks.

  • Mary Anna Pomonis

    David Cross has felt free to be racist for a while. Check this out. The character he plays on this segment is a horrible racist stereotype of a black preacher.

  • Mídnight Koi

    Colbert’s ching chong was pointing out the racism of the Redskins. It was not said in any intent to harm. It was to bring racism to light. But okay. White people all suck.

  • spiral

    there’s like ONE acceptable response to stuff like this: “oh shit. i said/did that? i’m so sorry. I’m really sorry. i guess i have the capacity to be a bigger asshole than i realize. thanks for calling me out.” THATS IT!!!! NOTHING ELSE! when will dudes learn this.

  • Dan Naturman

    Unless he didnt day what hes accused of saying. You dont know. You werent there. If the accusation is false Cross has a right to say so.

  • spiral

    oh wait – i wasn’t there? i don’t know? how do you know. you weren’t there. i have a right to say so.

  • James Chen

    The problems is that for a long time, even now, Asians just didn’t speak up. And when you are silent it makes it easier for people, even so called “socialist democrats”, to target you. I’ve faced a lot of this growing up. It’s always oh i’m just joking.

    this also has a lot to do with how the US gov’t treats asians. In vietnam we dropped condoms the size of baseball bats to demean the asian males, a stereotype to this day is still around. Using things like backward, infanticide, and other political tools to demean the asian population made the leap to racist personal attacks just that much easier to bridge.

    Look at Ms Swan from mad tv. HOW IN THE WORLD IS THAT OK?

  • okiloki

    I’ve experienced Black and Latino kids use it as a taunt as well, so it’s an universal way to mock Asians. For a full grown man to use it is pathetic and also not very clever.

  • M. Sebastian

    Yes, you’re entitled to blindly defend your faux white ally savior. People like you defending Colbert’s joke assume that the people offended didn’t understand the joke as “satire”. On the contrary, they got the joke because they already know that anti-Asian racism is wrong.

    However, Colbert’s audience was not exclusively Asian. Thus, we can’t assume that the non-Asian folks will get it as satire because they all know that racism is wrong. If that were true, the satire would not be necessary in the first place because they would already know that the original subject, the Washington Redskins, is racist.

    As proof, we know that said assumption is false just by looking at all of the racist anti-Asian comments posted online about people being too thin-skinned about racist jokes.

    The problem is that this white comedian didn’t just use this anti-asian racial slur bit one time for this faux “satire” to prove a point about racism towards native americans, it was part of his periodic routine anti-asian racial shtick on his show then.

    Once Colbert (a white privilege guy) heads home each night, he doesn’t lose sleep or even have to fear/worry/think/stress about facing/experiencing routine racial issues against whites like him.
    But for Asians, the group he mocks, they still have to exist in a world where they are perpetually continually racially bullied, harassed, and/or ostracized for being Asian.

  • Binta

    Does it not matter what the truth is?

  • Binta

    Wow. You know you’re just another torch carrying, Internet lynch mob member, don’t you? Shame on you.

  • Binta

    You’re nothing short of ridiculous.

  • Ad hominem attacks are not permitted on this site.

  • Binta

    Okay. That comment is nothing short of ridiculous.