Reviews have been mixed to negative on Chris Rock’s performance as host of the Oscar’s on Sunday night. And while there are a number of critiques that break down Rock’s performance well (see here), I want to give the spotlight to two articles in particular.
First, Grace Ji-Sun Kim — an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion — over at Time magazine put out a quick piece highlighting the failure of Chris Rock to break out of the black-white binary. And in the process, perpetuate the same kind of tokenism and racism that so many black people are upset at hollywood about directing towards them.
In one skit, Rock brings out three Asian children (KIDS! CHILDREN! BABIES!) whom he refers to as his accountants (get it, because all Asian people are successful and good at math) — and then, kicks it up a notch by telling the crowd that if they had a problem with his jokes they should tweet about it on the phones that were also made by those kids (get it, because child labor is fucking hilarious).
Many Asian-Americans watching took umbrage to the jokes — including NBA player Jeremy Lin:
— Jeremy Lin (@JLin7) February 29, 2016
The only word that comes to mind for me is disgusting. It’s disgusting to put children on stage and make jokes at their expense. It’s disgusting to be the only person of color with a microphone — and any semblance of power –in front of a predominantly white audience and crack jokes on other people of color. And as the author rightfully points out, this would have been wholly unacceptable if a non-black host had trotted out three black children for a similar type of joke. We have to do better.
The second article is from Arthur Chu, over at the Daily Beast. I’m highlighting it because it brings a slightly different take on the evening — although, some of his points I don’t entirely agree with — and I think on the whole his voice is very important here.
Importantly, Chu lifts up the issue that Rock’s anti-asian jokes gave the largely white audience a racism release valve of sorts.
…going along with the idea that the “Asian joke” is in some sense acceptable, that because it’s “more okay” to say “Ching Chong Ding Dong” than to say the N-word that you should go ahead and do it to make your point, doesn’t help. If it helps anyone, it helps guilty-feeling white people by normalizing the idea that “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (a song which also uses anti-Asian racism as its “safe” example of racism to poke fun at, while we’re keeping score). With Rock’s joke, that was explicit—the whole point of his joke was essentially giving his almost-entirely-white audience permission to laugh at racism sometimes—because it was meant tongue-in-cheek, because there are bigger problems in the world, because it’s all just entertainment anyway and who cares.
This is huge. Our goal isn’t to end anti-blackness. Our goal is to arrest racism — asian, black, latino, native, or otherwise, full stop. Hollywood isn’t just black people and white people and #OscarsSoWhite isn’t just a battle to bring more black people to the screen (at least it shouldn’t be). It’s about creating a Hollywood that more realistically depicts, respects and humanizes people of color. If the work ends at just a seat at the table for black people and we’re still ok with jokes about everyone else — that’s not liberation. That’s tribalism. That’s just wanting privilege.
Chris Rock missed the ball in a million ways on Sunday — and this was a huge one. We can’t continue to keep failing here.