(A lot of very well respected and intelligent people have already posted their responses to this advertisement – I suggest you read them first, and then come back and read this one if you aren’t satisfied!)
When I saw it, I was shocked and outraged that anyone would have the audacity to produce such an offensive advertisement, during the Super Bowl of all times…and in a race for the U.S. Senate! It seemed scarcely comprehensible that in this day and age, someone would think that a commercial like this might possibly be appropriate, and I’m sure many felt the same way. But as I perused news articles and blogs about the subject, I realized that this was not how everyone felt. There were a lot of people who had no idea why this was offensive, and were left scratching their heads at the vocal response of the Asian American community. One of those people was definitely Pete Hoekstra, who defended the ad by calling it a “home run”.
I was taken aback at first, but then realized that “offensive” is a very relative term, that what is offensive to one is not offensive to another. In fact, it might be mildly humorous to them, or even a home run. But because of this relativity, the only real way to explain why you are offended by something is to do so not on an intellectual level, but a personal one. And so what I want to do is share why this commercial is personally offensive to me. And as I say these things, I realize that other people will not be offended for the same reasons, and some may not be offended at all. So this is not an explanation as to why you should be offended – it’s an explanation as to why I am offended.
1. The wounds are still raw
Some people’s responses on blogs and feeds state that it’s not offensive for someone to use a fake Chinese accent, not any more offensive than it is to hear a person speaking in a Scottish accent or an Italian one. Why is it offensive for someone to sound Chinese, but not offensive for someone to sound Australian? I can understand this way of thinking, and think that there is some merit to this idea.
But you need to understand this: for Asians, many of us are very recent immigrants who have come to this country within the past one or two generations. Many of our parents spoke broken English, or no English at all, and fake Chinese accents or what have you were used to mock them, and to mock us, their children. I am only one generation away from prejudice against immigrants. I still live with the personal memory of kids that I didn’t even know shouting at me, “Ching chong, ching chong!”, while squinting their eyes. So we don’t have the benefit of chronological distance that other groups have, where being mocked for their clothes and language is a distant memory that their grandparents can scarcely remember. And if we could go back to that time, perhaps their great great great grandparents were wounded by the catcalls of others who pointed out their foreign dress and accents, in the same way I am today.
The wounds of those experiences are still raw for me, and for many Asian Americans. And until they heal, or enough time goes by, whichever one comes first, I am not going to appreciate the use of Asian stereotypes in media.
2. We are not all the same…but we are
Some people question why this offensive to all Asians. Hoekstra’s ad was targeting the nation of China itself, not Chinese Americans per se. And it wasn’t calling out Koreans, or Hmong, or anyone else. Why is the entire Asian American community up in arms about this, as if it targets that entire population? Again, I have to admit that I understand this train of thought, and can understand why this would cause confusion.
But again, here is my personal explanation. For many, many years, people here in the States never differentiated between Asians. We were all the same – Chinese…or maybe Japanese. It reminds me of this clip from King of the Hill:
And even though there are literally thousands of ethnic and cultural identities found in the section of the WORLD known as Asia, comprising 60% of the world’s population, we were all the same to most people. I bristled at this over-generalization, and found this practice to be pretty offensive by its own right. But at the same time, there developed in me a type of camaraderie between myself and other non-Korean Asian people…we were forced into the same over-simplified pool together, but that created a bond of sorts. And so even though I am Korean, I still resonate with the discrimination that Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino, Thai, Hmong, and South Asian people feel. Because even though I am not of the same background as they are, I share similar experiences with them.
And so, even though Pete Hoekstra’s ad was supposed to be targeted at the nation of China, a lot of other national and ethnic groups get splash damage as a result. And what do you expect? If you lump people together too closely and throw a water balloon at just one of them, others are bound to get hit as well.
3. YOU don’t get to do that.
If Pete Hoekstra were Asian, this commercial would still be offensive to me. But at the same time, there would be an implicit understanding that he would be allowed to say such things by virtue of the fact that he was Asian, understood what that means, and had paid the price. Heck, if he were married to an Asian person I might have more mercy on him. People would just think that commercial was some incredibly ironic jab at American culture as a whole, who knows? Again, this principle is well illustrated by this clip from Seinfeld:
You can make jokes about your own people, but not about others. Sorry Pete Hoekstra, but you don’t look Asian to me. And that means you haven’t earned that right . And so when you say things like this, it’s not a joke – it’s offensive.
4. We are NOT post-racial.
One of the more common responses that I saw on newsfeeds was that people were being way to over-sensitive, that we as a culture need to get to the enlightened place where people don’t take race so seriously, and are able to laugh at themselves as well as others. And I would agree. I would love for the United States to become a post-racial culture, where we defend and affirm not just our own cultural identities, but the identities of others as well.
But we’re not there yet.
As much as everyone was hoping that the election of a black president would usher in a new era of race relations in the United States, that hasn’t happened. As much as they might deny it, there is a portion of Americans who dislike the President because he’s black. High school students wear monkey suits and throw bananas at black basketball players. Baristas and burger flippers across the nation are serving up orders for “Ching” and “Chong”. So maybe Pete Hoekstra’s ad wouldn’t have been as offensive in a post-racial world, but that fact is that we are not post-racial. And so it is still offensive.
5. YOU’RE RUNNING FOR U.S. SENATE.
“What’s the big deal? People are saying this like this all the time nowadays! Just look at Dave Chappelle, and Sarah Silverman, Russell Peters. They all use stereotypes and ethnicity to make their point. This is the new norm, and many prominent people are doing this. Pete Hoekstra is not the only one.” (Not a real quote, but not far from what I’ve read.) Good point. There are lot of people who do and say things similar to what Pete Hoekstra does in this commercial and in his website as well. With one major difference:
THEY ARE COMEDIANS. HE IS RUNNING FOR U.S. SENATE.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t hold comedians up to the same standard as I do candidates for national office. Sure, comedians and other people in media may do this, but I don’t expect anything more from them. They do it for laughs – sometimes I laugh, and sometimes I don’t. But for leaders, and those who want to run this country, this kind of cultural ignorance and insensitivity is ridiculous. You are supposed to be representing an entire state – more than that, the entire country. It is therefore beholden on you to make sure that you are not using hurtful language and stereotypes to make your point about economics. Sure, you may not have known it was offensive at the start, but now that you know it is, a good leader apologizes for the mistake and makes amends. A good leader does not call it a “home run” and continue on the same path, the legitimate history and feelings of others be damned.
So Pete, if you want to be a clown, stuff like this is fine. But if you want to be a leader, apologize and take it back.
I remember when I was in junior high, I called a good friend a “camel jockey”, not knowing in the least what that word meant at the time. I literally thought it was a funny expression, and never even thought it might be hurtful to someone with darker skin. When he heard me say this to him, he looked at me in fury, turned away, and never spoke to me again. Ever. I still regret that day terribly.
Now, did I do it on purpose? Of course not. Was I even aware of how stupid my comment was? No, I swear I wasn’t. And so in some way should I be given a measure of grace and understanding? I think so, yes. I am not immune to to saying stupid things in ignorance, and understand completely. And to be honest, I think Pete Hoekstra is ignorant – not in a bad way, either. I have a feeling that he, like many others in this country, just did not even realize that the use of this kind of language and stereotype would be offensive to people. And because these actions were based on ignorance more than a explicit intent to offend, I think we need to moderate our response. Saying something stupid because you didn’t know any better is understandable, and happens to everyone. I don’t think we should take offense when none was intended.
But what if, even after my experience in junior high, I persisted in calling people “camel jockeys”. What would that say? Could I still claim to be innocent by virtue of my ignorance? Of course not. I would rightly be called a racist. It’s hard not to come to that conclusion.
Pete Hoekstra knows that his commercial, and his website, are insulting and offensive to a great many people in this country, including myself. Maybe he didn’t know before, but he knows now. And what he does next will reveal the true measure of the man.