Before I add my commentary, I thought it would be useful to present some background. Here are the facts, as best I can determine them:
1) On the December 5 episode of "The View," Rosie O'Donnell decided to illustrate the global interest in discussing Danny DeVito's recent drunken television appearances by performing an "imitation" of a Chinese newscaster. Here is the transcript:
"The fact is that it's news all over the world. That you know, you can imagine in China it's like: 'Ching chong. Danny DeVito, ching chong, chong, chong, chong. Drunk. The View. Ching chong.' "
2) Several organizations and individuals, including UNITY (an umbrella organization for minority journalists that includes the associations of Asian American, Black, Hispanic, and Native American journalists) and New York City Councilman John Liu, criticized O'Donnell's actions and asked for an apology.
3) O'Donnell's publicist Cindy Berger's initial response was to downplay the incident:
"She's a comedian in addition to being a talk show co-host. I certainly hope that one day they will be able to grasp her humor."
4) O'Donnell added on her blog: ""I do many accents and probably will continue to. My mom in law impression offends some southerners. What can u do? I come in peace."
5) O'Donnell later responded to the criticisms on air:
After running a clip of the offending segment, which originally ran Dec. 5, she said, “This apparently was very offensive to a lot of Asian people. So I asked Judy, who’s Asian and works here in our hair and makeup department. I said, ‘Was it offensive to you?’ And she said, ‘Well, kinda. When I was a kid people did tease me by saying ching-chong.’
“So apparently ‘ching-chong,’ unbeknownst to me, is a very offensive way to make fun, quote-unquote, or mock, Asian accents. Some people have told me it’s as bad as the n-word. I was like, really? I didn’t know that.”
Where to begin...where to begin.
1) Let me first state that I'm a firm believer in free speech. If Rosie wants to make jokes that I feel are distasteful, that's her right. Just like it's my right to respond as I see fit. Restrictions on free speech, even on hateful speech like Holocaust denials, are wrong.
2) Ultimately, the actual offensive "joke" is less virulent than many of the recent Celebritard outbreaks (Michael Richards and his n-word tirade; Mel Gibson telling the police that Jews start all wars). Rosie didn't intend to hurt Asians, she just didn't care enough to think before she spoke. Or apologize.
3) That being said, what really bothers me are the second-order events--not the event itself, but the reactions to it.
First of all, I'm pretty shocked by how little attention this has received. Sure, it's been in all the celebrity gossip blogs, but these people cover Angelina Jolie's parking tickets. It would be a shock if they didn't cover Rosie O'Donnell insulting Asians on "The View." No, I'm talking about attention in the mainstream blogosphere.
I use doggdot.us to monitor the four horsemen of mainstream social news: Digg, Slashdot, Reddit, and del.icio.us. This gives me a pretty firm handle on the pop culture of the Internet. When Michael Richards had his tirade, it was big news. When Mel Gibson spewed his drunken hate, it was big news. Hell, when racist former Senator George Allen used the word "macaca," it was big news.
But when Rosie slurred Asians? Not a peep.
Nor did I pick it up from any of the other blogs I read, many of whom pointed to the other three episodes I list above and quickly condemned the offending parties.
In fact, I found out about the O'Donnell non-traversy on the radio (usually the last place I expect to learn something new)!
To me, this is much bigger news than an aging comedian making a tasteless joke on national television. The blogosphere (or at least the corner that I frequent) has spoken, and apparently it doesn't think racism against Asians is postworthy.
As an American of Asian descent, this bothers me.
It bothers me because while I don't have to deal with the especially virulent racism that other minorities like blacks face every day, I do have to deal with the insidious racism that those with Asian appearances put up with: That we're not going to stand up for ourselves.
A simple question: How many times have you ever had to wait for a checkout clerk to change the roll of receipt paper?
My wife (who is Puerto Rican) tells me she's never experienced it.
I've had it happen to me well over 30 times.
Now I've thought about this. Figure that a roll of receipt paper can print about 1,000 receipts before needing to be changed. Therefore, every time you get in line, you have about a 1/1,000 chance of having to wait.
To have experienced as many waits as I've encountered, the expected number of checkout visits would be 30,000. Or roughly 1 visit per day for 85 years. I guarantee, I have not gone shopping 30,000 times in my life. Twice a week for the last 10 years is more like it, or about 1,000 visits.
My theory is that checkout clerks, consciously or unconsciously, make the decision to change the paper when they think the customer is patient and/or less likely to make a fuss. Let's see...that fellow is Asian, dressed neatly, wears glasses...I'll bet he won't yell at me or complain--better wait until it's his turn to change the roll.
Think I'm crazy? I'm open to other suggestions.
Of course, the horrible thing is that they're right. I don't complain. Those checkout clerks have a hard enough time as it is without people yelling at them for doing necessary maintenance. But dammit, why do I always have to be the one that suffers?
People don't think that racism against Asians counts because it doesn't result in negative consequences. We don't make the bastards pay. We don't make a fuss. Sure, it's embarassing when someone overreacts (like when Rosie O'Donnell plays the homophobe card at the drop of a hat, as she did when called Kelly Ripa a homophobe for telling closeted singer Clay Aiken, "I don't know where that hand has been," after Aiken jokingly put his hard over Ripa's mouth in an effort to get a word in edgewise on Ripa's show), but it does tend to discourage the next guy.
If Rosie had performed an imitation of colloquial Ebonics, there would have been a firestorm of controversy. Had she taken a Tonto-style swipe at Native Americans, she would have been booed. And I guarantee that if someone had made the same joke using the cruel "flamer" stereotype of gay men, O'Donnell herself would have been up in arms.
Silence--our silence--the silence of the blogosphere--is part of the problem. I've done my part. Will you do yours?