For those of you who don’t know, over a month ago I created a petition asking Google Play to remove the “Make Me Asian” app from their digital store. The app perpetuates and normalizes the use of offensive and degrading stereotypes of Asians, is insulting and hateful, and so is in clear violation of the rules which developers are supposed to adhere to. And I’m not alone in this perception, as some 4000 people agree wholeheartedly with me, many of them not Asian themselves. But at the same time, I know that many regard this app as a joke, and have said that I should just lighten up.
Haha. There, I laughed. See, I’m not without a sense of humor.
Listen, I truly don’t consider myself a crusader for racial sensitivity, and have never initiated anything to this end before. In fact, some of the most important statements I have made about race are based around the central idea that we need to exercise self-control when it comes to our response to race, and NOT identify every single situation as racist. So I understand the idea of just laughing this off, I really do. But a couple of thoughts for those who say it’s just a joke, and I should lighten up:
First, the Chinaman image is not an inactive trope that rarely rears its ugly head – it is being used to humiliate and isolate Asians right now. Just ask Lady Chinky Eyes. Just the other day, some punks passed by me in a car and used their fingers to slit their eyes at me, laughing like donkeys the entire time. Really no comeback to that. And in that context, you can understand how the use of such characterizations in an app is much harder for me to laugh off as irrelevant or not personally affecting – it IS relevant, and it IS personally affecting and insulting. For people who have been called a chink or had someone turn the corner of their eyes at them, I think such sensitivity is natural. Insensitivity to racism is a privilege largely reserved for the ignorant.
Also, at some point in American history, it was also considered funny for white people in theater to put on blackface and dance around in an exaggerated imitation of what they believed black people to be: the happy-go-lucky darky. Rather than being intentionally racist, it was supposed to be all in good fun…I guess. But it began to dawn on people that even if intended to be humorous, these characterizations were actually offensive and even dangerous because they served to perpetuate stereotypes of blacks: the image of black people as clownish, subservient, and good only for entertainment. And the use of these images in a supposedly humorous context actually normalized those stereotypes for others in turn. And so society realized that despite its humorous intent, blackface was indeed racist, and that the humor and entertainment value of blackface were not enough to justify its use. Thankfully, the use of blackface has become far more rare, although still not totally non-existent, especially on college campuses around Halloween.
There is a similar dynamic at play with this app – I understand that it is supposed to be light-hearted, maybe even an ironic jab at the practice of stereotyping itself, although I have a suspicion that ironic racism is still racism at its very heart, as so eloquently described by Lindy West. I would even assume that the creator of this app did not intend for this app to be racist. But at the same time, that light-heartedness does not abrogate the fact that the portrayal of Asians in such a narrow and dated manner is offensive, to me and a great many others. And what’s more, it perpetuates the use of these stereotypes, normalizing a terrible depiction of Asians that should be abnormalized, if anything. So even if the app is humorous, and even if does not intend to be offensive or racist, it still IS offensive and racist.
Please don’t get me wrong, humor is a great thing, one of the best things in life. And like I said, I am not at all an advocate for being hyper-sensitive when it comes to race. But humor alone does not justify the use of such characterizations. Because as wonderful as humor is, we should never forget that it can still be used as a cover for our contempt for those we consider to be “others”, and a means by which racism is perpetuated and spread.