Oscars’ race problem more than a black and white issue

(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Last Sunday at the 88th Academy Awards, the annual celebration of the very best in motion pictures was must-see TV for many cinephiles, fashion fiends and pop-culture connoisseurs.

However, last Sunday’s Oscar telecast was also must-watch television for a very different and serious reason.

Much controversy and debate had been made since the Academy announced the nominees for its 24 categories on Thursday, Jan. 14. Out of the 20 nominees nominated for acting, not one black performer’s name was announced. This was, of course, problematic on a number of levels, but when coupled with the fact no black performer was nominated the year prior, well, it’s quite understandable why the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite became as wildly popular as it did.

So when emcee for the 2016 Oscars and comedian Chris Rock took the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles and performed a shocking yet humorous vivisection of the institutional racism embedded deep within the Academy Awards – and by extension Hollywood –  many, myself included, laughed and applauded.

“You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist, but not the racist that you’ve grown accustomed to,” Rock said. “Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.”

While Rock’s jokes elicited much later from the celebs in attendance, the now two-time Oscar host took a more serious tone to his humor when he said prior black performers did not voice their concerns over underrepresentation at previous Academy Awards as they had larger, more pressing issues to contend with.

“We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer,” he said. “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”

He would go on to joke that the Oscars annual “In Memoriam” staple would consist only of “Black people who were shot by the cops on the way to the movies.”

In a night that was destined to be shrouded in controversy, awkwardness and palpable racial tension, Rock’s humorous yet brutally honest monologue was much needed. Rock should be lauded for his brilliant opening monologue which saw the well-respected humorist perform a precarious tight-rope act of exhibiting righteous anger while also delivering the comedic brilliance he is known for.

While no one expected the ceremony to become a hotbed for racial equality, Rock started the night off right by addressing the concerns of the #OscarsSoWhite movement and holding the Academy’s feet to the proverbial fire.

All was well.

Until a random and crass Asian joke was cracked on the telecast.

Then another.

And another.

Before I begin to describe and unpack the racist text of the Asian jokes bandied about, let me go ahead and say the blame should not rest solely at the feet of Rock and the army of comedy writers he amassed for the event.

No doubt the Academy read and approved all jokes submitted by Rock and his team multiple times. This was of course supposed to be an event where the Academy could convince others they were not only inclusive, but that they were also willing to be the butt of many pointedly harsh jokes.

So while racially-charged jokes were to be expected from Rock – the vast majority of them at the expense of the predominantly white male Academy – I can’t help but scratch my head at the inclusion of three very offensive and painfully unclever jokes.

The first offense occurred when Rock invited three PriceWaterhouseCoopers “accountants” – the company which tabulates the voting results of Oscar voters – onto the stage.

One by one, three young Asian children dressed in business suits carrying brief cases awkwardly walked onto the front of the stage.

Their names, according to Rock?

Bao Ling, Ming Zu and David Moskowitz.

Because if there is one thing Asians excel at, it’s mathematics. Oh, and if you’re wondering why an Asian child would be named David Moskowitz? Well, hardy-har-har, if there is one rival Asians have in the field of accounting, it’s the Jews of course.


Mere moments later, Rock preemptively rebutted those who would call him a hypocrite. Rock himself had just become racially insensitive – albeit for a few laughs – at the very event he had transformed into a comedic hitman who proudly, and unwaveringly, silenced the Oscars’ racist predilections.

“If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,” he said.

An obvious reference to the ongoing issue of child labor that has plagued many Asian nations, Rock seemed either unaware or indifferent to how utterly tone deaf his Asian jokes were when juxtaposed with the, so far, otherwise racially sensitive Oscar event.

As Managing Editor of Slate Lowen Liu said, Rock’s joke relied on “equally base premises: Asian kids are either accountants or child laborers.

“But is he talking about privileged Asian Americans, raised in graduate-degree households,” Liu wrote. “Or is he talking about kids from a mostly rural China, whose population is trying to leap into the middle class by soldering circuit boards?”

I would agree with Liu that Rock perpetuated the tiresome and offensive stereotype that all Asians are the same.

To quote a tweet sent out on Sunday night by Asian-American actress Constance Wu, who stars in the Asian-American ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” “To parade little kids on stage w/no speaking line merely to be the butt of a racist joke is reductive and gross.”

Reductive and gross indeed.

Chris Rock was not the only one to crack derogatory jokes about Asians. Actor Sascha Baron Cohen, who you may know better as Borat or Bruno, would not be out done.

Adorned in a jumpsuit, a beanie and ski-goggles, Cohen appeared on stage as his popular character Ali G. In his trademark exaggerated British-cum-gangsta accent, Ali G said, “Ow come there’s no Oscar for dem very hard-working little yellow people with tiny little dongs?”

Now, now, reader, surely someone as progressive in his comedy stylings as Cohen wouldn’t be referring to Asians. He surely can’t be cracking wise about the emasculating and offensive stereotype that Asian men have small penises? He also wouldn’t call Asians yellow skinned, right?

This is the Oscars after all, right?

“You know,” he said. “The Minions.”

Oh thank God. He was just referring to the popular, tiny banana-peel colored cartoon characters from the “Despicable Me” films.


So what the hell happened at this year’s Oscars?

Well, nothing out of the ordinary, really.

We shouldn’t be surprised the Academy Awards – an industry mostly owned and operated by old white men – would find it appropriate to green light jokes which only serve to debase Asians. I mean, this is the very institution which has snubbed black performers in all acting categories for the last two years in a row.

However, while those who run the Oscars were willing to take a few lumps from the critics – Rock in particular – who charged that the Academy Awards overlooks the work done by black actors and actresses, the Academy Awards received yet another free pass on its nearly century-long dismissal of Asian performers.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in my opinion as many people flocked to Twitter Sunday night – Asian and non-Asian – to voice their annoyance at the Academy’s hypocritical stance on racial diversity. In fact, before the Oscar telecast ended, a popular Twitter hashtag #OnlyOnePercent began to trend.

The hashtag brought much needed attention to the appalling statistic that only one percent of Hollywood films feature Asians in leading roles.

Atendees of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony seemed primed to discuss and tackle the issue of racial diversity.

Instead, what we got at the 88th annual Academy Awards was an out-of-touch racist entertainment institution propping up one minority group to look good while at the very same time holding down the head of another.