Racism in Hollywood: it’s high time Asians started fighting back, as the Oscars reminds us

Yonden Lhatoo says Asian Americans are speaking out more against discrimination, but it would help if they were more aggressive about it – like the black community

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 March, 2016, 6:27pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 March, 2016, 7:09pm

Why are Asian Americans – and, by extension, other Asians living in the West – so feeble in standing up to racism?

I find many people asking this question after the Oscars this week.

After so much butthurt among the black community over the shameful dearth of African-American nominees for Hollywood’s biggest awards, comedian Chris Rock did the whole Uncle Tom routine as the host, with lots of jokes about the lack of diversity – but only in the black context.

Then he trotted out three Asian-American children in business suits on stage, making fun of them as hard-working accountants. “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids,” he added.

So, while a much bigger black star, Will Smith, boycotted the ceremony in protest, Rock – with the approval of the organisers, who would have vetted his routine – thought it would be funny to punch down at a smaller and even more underrepresented minority.

Then Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen took it even further, in character as Ali G: “How come there is no Oscar for them very hard-working, little yellow people with tiny dongs? You know, them Minions.” Real classy.

Thank you, NBA star Jeremy Lin, for setting the ball rolling with the backlash online. He sent out a message on Twitter: “Tired of it being ‘cool’ and ‘ok’ to bash Asians.” Respect for the man – that’s spelled r-e-s-p-e-k, aiight?

Don’t forget, the Taiwanese-American basketball celebrity was the butt of a similarly crude sexual joke by a black sports journalist that was widely publicised in 2012.

America’s race-relations paradigm has always been black and white, but what about yellow/brown? Asians are the little guys even for the larger Hispanic and Latino minority.

I suppose that’s why it’s always been more OK to insult Asians than blacks. The stereotypes are unlimited for bullies to take advantage of – passive, submissive, nerdy, puny – and they don’t have the kind of backing by prominent advocacy groups that are influentially vocal when protesting against racism or discrimination directed at dominant minorities.

There are at least 15 million Asian Americans living in the US, the fastest-growing minority population as well as the fastest-growing targets of hate crimes. Asian Americans have been discriminated against for more than 200 years, starting with the early Chinese immigrants who slaved away in gold mines and on railroads when the US was nation-building. You don’t see much mainstream acknowledgement of their struggle.

On the bright side, it seems to me that, this time, the usually limited bleating sounds of protest among Asian Americans are a little louder and a bit fiercer. The backlash is much more visible because of social media, which has encouraged other Asians around the world to speak out. Let’s hope this is a growing trend.

I’m so sick of seeing Asians in token roles in Hollywood cinema – usually pretty women playing the white, or sometimes black, man’s exotic love interest. It’s mind-boggling that in this day and age, when humans are planning to colonise Mars, yellow-face portrayals of Asians by white actors are still acceptable.

Even Asian superstars like Hong Kong’s Chow Yun-fat and Korean heartthrob Rain can’t get far in Hollywood. Yes, Jackie Chan has made it further, but as a kung-fu clown rather than a serious actor. Sorry, fanboys, there’s a difference.

I have to say American writer Toni Morrison was spot-on in her observation: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post