“It was just a joke. It’s not a big deal.”
For decades, American society has normalized the presence of anti-Asian humor. Caricatured on television, belittled at comedy clubs, targeted on social media, and mocked in private conversations, this subtle, yet widely accepted form of racism dehumanizes the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
From Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to Hank Azaria’s voicing of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons, to Jay Leno’s history of telling anti-Asian jokes, employing the use of Asian American racism in comedy reduces AAPI identities into demeaning parody. The continual practice of mocking accents, use of yellowface, and stereotypical portrayals, perpetuates acceptance of this sense of “humor” and further suppresses AAPI stories and voices.
Especially when the media actively exhibits and ridicules two common stereotypes — the “perpetual foreigner” and the “model minority member” — it removes the common humanity from members of the AAPI community and constrains them to the status of a forever outsider. Furthermore, maintaining these divisive labels for supposed comedic relief creates real bias and hatred, allowing systemic racism to remain embedded within our culture and institutions.
As Dr. Raúl Pérez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of La Verne, explains in his research, humor is often a social experience that connects people, but when humor is racist, it adds another dimension. These discriminatory, targeted jokes have the power to not only increase social bonding, but they also reinforce existing racial and social hierarchies at the expense of dehumanizing others in both a conscious and unconscious manner.
Reflecting in a recent post for the SAGE Perspectives blog, Pérez writes, “the reality is that racist fun and amusements has long played a significant role in normalizing and reproducing racism in society, past and present.”
Through the decades of discrimination and dehumanization, the damage has been done. These prevalent appearances of racist humor amplified the United States’ violent history of anti-Asian sentiments and paved the way for unrestrained actions spurred by hate and fear.
During early March of 2020, researchers studied the relationship between bias and racially charged COVID-19 media coverage, analyzing trends like the 650 percent increase in Twitter retweets of terms like “Chinese Virus” and the 800 percent increase in use of these terms in conservative media channels. The results reported that the spread of these derogatory labels increased bias against Asian Americans, and the increase was substantial enough to counteract the three previous years of decline in bias.
And this prejudice goes beyond jokes, derogatory terms, and retweets on Twitter. By spreading an image of the “perpetual foreigner” across media, anti-Asian jokes, phrases, and sentiments initiate serious acts of hate and harassment. In large U.S. cities like New York City and Los Angeles, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by nearly 150 percent in 2020, while the overall hate crime rate declined across the country. These drastic spikes in verbal and physical attacks leave a long-lasting mental health impact on the AAPI community, often resulting in racial trauma like race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), with symptoms including depression, anger, anxiety, and sleeping disorders.
However, while these acts of physical, verbal, and mental harassment appear across numerous headlines today, anti-Asian bias is not a novel occurrence. Rather, this underlying xenophobia has long been prominent in the United States, buttressed by racial humor and rhetoric.
Following the long history of Anti-Asian violence and US imperialism from lynch mobs, murders, and campaigns specifically targeting Asians, these acts of hatred generally occurred during periods of fear, resulting in the continual scapegoating of Asian-Americans being viewed as “the alien.” Ingrained in the core of America’s past, this enduring anti-Asian perception sustained feelings of hatred and cultivated an environment where anti-Asian amusement, discrimination, and exclusion could persist longer than it ever should have.
The impact of racist comedy and rhetoric lingers far beyond any initial statement, preserving racist ideologies of false stereotypes and inherent othering within our very communities. By no longer normalizing anti-Asian humor, we will be one step closer to dismantling the systemic racism strangling America and taking a stand for a more inclusive and equitable world.
No, it is not just a joke. Yes, it is a big deal.