Note: This is an opinion piece that does not necessarily reflect the views of TutorMing or any of its affiliates.
During this year’s Oscars’, host Chris Rock decided to bring three children of Asian descent on stage for a joke that involved the stereotype of Asians being “smart and hardworking.” The three children, “Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz”, were introduced as the “most dedicated, accurate, and hard-working” accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that is responsible for counting up the Oscar votes.
As if anticipating the later backlash, Rock then added that “if anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,” which was another dig at Asians regarding child labor.
It’s easy to take a surface level look at this and dismiss Rock’s words as a mere joke that isn’t worthy of extra scrutiny. However, I think that this incident deserves more context in order to understand why Asian-Americans in particular are upset by this.
This year, #OscarsSoWhite was a trending hashtag, and diversity in media for people of color became a hot topic of discussion. Chris Rock used his position as this year’s host to speak out about this. Yet on an awards show that continues to show a glaring lack of diversity in its nominations, a crude joke about Asians using old tropes like the model minority myth just rubbed salt into the wound. While black actors and actress were clearly missing from the nominees list, Asians are typically omitted from the cinema scene altogether; representing 1 out of 20 speaking roles and only around 1 out of 100 lead roles.
Even the movies that cast Asians typically do so in side roles, and often in a very stereotyped part. Asians are either “the nerd,” “the side-kick,” or the “kung-fu master.” Of course, popularity of the latter may be due to prominent stunt-actors such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, as well as films from China that have received western cinematic recognition.
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However, if Asian actors are stuck in a rut, it is not entirely of their own doing. Hollywood fails to give them any opportunity. Parts that were specifically meant for Asians are usually white-washed as well. Emma Stone was controversially cast in Aloha, whose character was written as “one quarter Hawaiian-Chinese.” The director of The Martian was also accused of casting non-Asian actors in the parts of Mindy Park and Venkat Kapoor, who were described as Korean-American and Indian-American in the novel.
The fact is, Chris Rock’s PwC skit reflected the exact dilemma that Asian actors face in Hollywood today. These three Asian kids were put on the stage as props, without any other point other than to be the butt of a tired stereotype joke: that Asians are supposedly good at math (and are the new “Jews”?) What kind of message is this sending the aspiring Asian actor? Or to young Asian minds who are already hard-pressed to find a role model they can relate to in mainstream media?
Perhaps this joke would’ve stung less in my community if there’d been more Asian actors on the Oscar stage.
“Asians Are Smart and Hardworking”, The Model Minority Myth
A critical aspect of this conversation that isn’t often brought up is how the model minority myth came to be. During the Cold War, the United States looked to recruit skilled labor from all over the world in order to compete in the global arms race. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was subsequently relaxed, which allowed many people of Asian descent to immigrate to the States due to their professional skills.
Because many of the Asians arriving in the States in the 1960’s were professionals, American media began describing Asians as the “model minority.” This perception of the hard-working, undisruptive Asian still persists today.
Ultimately, this stereotype was used politically in order to invalidate the struggles of other people of color. “If those Asians could survive discrimination and thrive afterwards, why can’t Black and Latino people do the same?”
Asian-Americans gradually became the “model minority” that the media compared other minorities to. People began to ignore the specific histories that affected specific minorities, and instead, tried to put all minorities on an even scale. A scale that doesn’t recognize the different journeys that brought these different populations to the United States.
So, ironically, Chris Rock chose to invoke a stereotype that has been used for decades to invalidate the struggle and discrimination faced by people of color.