In college, I worked in an office with an eccentric older woman. She had a PhD in Chinese history, her office was full of trinkets from around the world, and she spoke with a melodramatic flair, extending vowels and silences longer than necessary. She wasn’t my favorite person in the office, but our working relationship was passable.
I was sitting in the common area one day, leafing through a magazine, when she wandered over me and started telling me about a phone call she’d just ended with the parent of a student. The parent was Asian and overinvolved, apparently, and she told me about all the ridiculous, unreasonable things the parent had said and the cunning responses she had delivered — these Asian helicopter parents, she lamented. And she told me about the gift she had received from another such parent, a hideously tacky Minnie Mouse telephone, and she laughed and wasn’t it hilarious how tasteless this gift was.
I sat quietly as she spoke, uncertain of how to respond. I was young, and I didn’t have the wherewithal in those days to tell her that she was being inappropriate. Because she was white, and the simple truth is that when it comes to race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability — any social identifier, really — you cannot make jokes about a minority group you don’t belong to. Period. It didn’t matter that this woman had a PhD in Chinese history; even though she knows more about Asian history than I ever will, she is not Asian, and thus it will never be okay for her to make jokes about Asian parents or Asian taste. Coming from her mouth, these comments weren’t funny; they simply sounded bigoted and patronizing.
I’m regularly surprised by the number of people who don’t know that these kinds of comments aren’t appropriate — that if you aren’t black, you can’t make generalized statements about black people; that if you’re not gay, you can’t make jokes about gay people; and on and on and on. I can make jokes about being Asian because I’m Asian, but if you aren’t Asian, you better not be making Asian jokes. It doesn’t matter where you grew up, how many Asians you went to high school or college with, where you studied abroad or went on vacation, or where you live or work now; you aren’t one of us, and thus you can’t make generalizations about us without sounding like an a-hole. To steal a friend’s analogy: I can make fun of my mom, but you can’t make fun of my mom.
I’m never sure where people think they get permission to say these kinds of things.
… Is it because one of their friends made them an honorary person of color? I get that it’s high praise to be called an honorary person of color, but those designations aren’t universally recognized. The rest of us don’t get a memo saying that it’s okay for this person to make these jokes because they’re one of us. Many of us don’t acknowledge the validity of honorary people of color in the first place, because they aren’t people of color and are thus not privy to that experience. So in case anyone out there isn’t clear, just because your friends don’t mind you saying these things doesn’t mean that other people of color will be okay with it. And if you’re cracking these jokes because you think it’ll make you sound with it — “Asians, amirite?” — it’s probably having the opposite effect.
… Is it because we make these jokes about ourselves, and that makes other people think they’re free to make them too? I feel conflicted about this on a regular basis, whenever I see an Asian person — be it a friend, a comedian, or a celebrity — make generalizations about Asian people in mixed company. On one hand, it’s great that Asians have other Asians in their lives, either in person or on screen, who can make observations and poke fun at familiar experiences. That’s a beautiful, cathartic thing. But on the other hand, I always tense up a little, worrying that the non-Asians in the crowd will take this person uttering these words as license to do the same. So to anyone who may be uncertain about this: A person of color (or a gay person, or a woman) making fun of their group does not give you permission to make the same joke. (I understand that this is a big part of the reason why Dave Chappelle stopped making his show; he was uncomfortable with who was repeating his lines back to him when he was out and about.)
… Or — the option I fear the most — is it because they don’t know that stereotyping is harmful, as it reduces an entire group of people, with all of their complexities and differences and varying experiences, to a single trait? So it’s therefore dehumanizing, even when the stereotype is supposedly positive? (A professor in grad school once mentioned an old song that described Chinese people as happy and eager to please and then said, “Hey, Liz is like that!” I had to painfully explain to him why that was offensive, even if being happy and eager to please aren’t negative traits.) So in case anyone isn’t clear on this: Stereotyping is bad because it’s dehumanizing, no matter how innocuous it sounds or how true the stereotype has been in your experience. Just to be clear.
Whatever the reason, I hear comments and jokes like these far more often than I’d expect in this day and age. I get that everyone makes generalizations in their heads — that’s a natural part of being human and having the brains that we have — but saying them out loud is a different story. When we have these thoughts, we’d do well to mentally counter them in our heads — and, when we’re tempted to articulate them, to ask ourselves if it would be helpful for us, the people around us, and the group in question to put that out in the world. The answer’s probably no. So if you’re looking for a group to make fun of, it’s safest to stick with your own.