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Margaret Cho unpacks Asian-American ‘aspirational whiteness’ | Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

Margaret Cho unpacks Asian-American ‘aspirational whiteness’ | Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

Comedian and actress Margaret Cho on racism, Asian erasure from US history and inspiring a new generation of Asian-American entertainers

  • Comedian and actress Margaret Cho talks to the Post about racism in the United States, the absence of Asians from American history and ‘aspirational whiteness’
  • She reveals what she thinks has been her greatest achievement, and considers how she approaches comedy now compared to when she started in the 1990s

Earlier this year, Asian-American comedian and actress Margaret Cho was walking her dog in Florida when “30 18-wheeler trucks” began following her down the street, she says. The convoy honked at her aggressively in protest at the US state’s mask mandate to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

One truck came close to running her over.

“That’s quite a dangerous thing, to have a 18-wheel truck with no licence plates, actually trying to get you. It’s like a horror film,” she recounts in an interview on Talking Post with South China Morning Post chief news editor Yonden Lhatoo.

“Those kinds of things are happening to Asian-Americans, to people who are wearing masks. ... It’s a very strange thing to feel attacked because of your race. It’s not supposed to happen in America, yet we’re the most racist country.”

Cho in a still from Fire Island. Photo: Hulu
While the Emmy- and Grammy-nominated Cho is one of the most prominent Asian-Americans working in Hollywood today – her latest movie is the romcom Fire Island – she’s had to contend with racism, Asian stereotypes and “aspirational whiteness” throughout her life.

“Aspirational whiteness is a very big deal for the generation that I grew up in,” the Korean-American comedian says. “Our parents came to America escaping war, really a lot of incredible poverty and a lot of generational trauma. To come here, to have American children, they did not want us to have accents.”

As a result, growing up Cho did not speak Korean at home, and only learned the language as an adult. She also notes that lots of Asian parents would name their children with “older white lady names”, such as Margaret, Helen and Eleanor.
While her own parents were unconventional in some ways – they owned a gay bookstore in the 1970s – they still hoped she would attain certain universally accepted goals that couldn’t be diminished by identities, such as being Asian-American, a woman or queer. Cho is also an outspoken LGBT rights activist.

“You wanted your kids to go to an Ivy League school, you wanted to have them ride horses, and play tennis and have this sort of white living,” she explains. “If you can be anything, you have to aspire to whiteness.

Cho in a still from US high school comedy Sex Appeal. Photo: Hulu

“Aspirational whiteness isn’t a negative thing, necessarily. It’s more that we need to survive our own trauma, so we take on the dreams of other cultures, because our culture has been so damaged.”

Now, as an adult, it’s clear that Cho has broken many Asian stereotypes and defied expectations to become a pioneer in Asian-American entertainment.

Aside from inspiring a new generation of comics, the actress starred in the first prime-time sitcom to feature an Asian-American family (All-American Girl) and appeared in US shows such as Drop Dead Diva and 30 Rock.

In the past, racism, homophobia, sexism – all these things that were really difficult – were very commonplace in comedy. But now the perspective is shifting
Margaret Cho

“My mission now is to [make sure people] understand Asians as Americans, and we’ve been here since the railroads,” she says. “Our story in American history has really been largely erased.

“I’m hoping to bring those stories to life, whether it is from 1849 on, chronicling all of these events, whether it’s the Chinese Exclusion Act [an 1882 law prohibiting immigration of Chinese labourers to the US], whether it’s the Japanese internment camps [of the second world war], to the [1992 Los Angeles] uprising after the Rodney King riots to now.”
Given the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, Cho turned to her roots – comedy – to process the shocking and traumatic events.

“The only way that I can find any way to have hope in it is to find humour in it, which is really quite difficult to do, actually. But that’s my job – to try,” she says.

“You have a responsibility to your community to present it in a way that is very meaningful and respectful, but at the same time, it has to be funny.”

Cho is known for her unapologetic, brash and bold style of comedy. Photo: Margaret Cho

The political landscape has changed since Cho started her career doing stand-up at comedy clubs in the 1990s. Now, among some comedians and audiences, self-censorship, wokeness and political correctness have all been criticised as impediments to true comedy.

Cho herself is known for her unapologetic, brash and bold style of comedy, but she recognises the importance of being mindful and nuanced when talking about specific subjects – especially topics like anti-Asian hate crimes – with consideration of how her material might be viewed in 20 years’ time.

“In the past, racism, homophobia, sexism – all these things that were really difficult – were very commonplace in comedy,” she says. “But now the perspective is shifting, and so we’re asking comedians to be more thoughtful about what their words are saying.

“I appreciate that … I have very strong beliefs and I really do also want to be a good comedian. So there’s a lot of challenges, but I think it’s just about trying to meet that challenge.”

Cho performs in California during Stephanie Miller’s Sexy Liberal Blue Wave Tour in 2018. Photo: Getty Images

Asian-American representation in the media has come a long way – when Cho began her career, she did not have anyone to look up to. The racism, she says, came from the “invisibility” that Asian-Americans faced.

As one of the first Asian-Americans to make it into mainstream media, she considers younger comedians like Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang – both also star in Fire Island – and Ali Wong to be her “children”, and hopes that there will be more representation in the future.

“It’s really exciting, because people give me a lot of credit too, for inspiring them. So I think it’s really my greatest achievement to have inspired a new generation to take on Asian-American entertainment, comedy, stand-up comedy in particular … I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to do,” she says.