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Harmless or hurtful? Getting hot under the collar about ‘Yellow Fever’

There’s a place for jokes about race, but such humour must strike a fine and difficult balance, Luisa Tam says amid uproar over Asian eatery’s name

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 12:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 10:38pm

Sometimes when we go to a stand-up comedy show, the comics make a disclaimer at the beginning stressing that their jokes are not intended to offend, belittle, marginalise or make anyone feel uncomfortable. That got me thinking: are we as a society becoming too sensitive and intolerant of seemingly harmless humour?

Last week, Amazon’s Whole Foods Market became embroiled in a social media controversy after its newest outlet in California partnered with an Asian restaurant that had the racially charged name “Yellow Fever”. The name of the eatery is perceived to be a derogatory term describing a “condition” whereby non-Asian men, often Caucasians, are attracted to or obsessed with Asian women.

The Asian, female-owned business had had no such complaints about its name since it opened over four years ago. Its Korean-American co-founder Kelly Kim insisted that the name was meant to “celebrate all things Asian” but admitted that it was somewhat “tongue-in-cheek and kind of shocking, but it’s not exclusive”.

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The eatery caught public attention only after it paired up with Whole Foods. Maybe it’s because Whole Foods is considered mainly a “white” establishment, and hence the name Yellow Fever suddenly became relevant in the anti-racism public discourse.

Kim and her business partners obviously thought the name was fine and would serve its purpose for being attention-grabbing; they were certainly right about the latter. But honestly, can someone be racist against members of their own race?

Sometimes, we hear people defend themselves by saying, “I am married to a Chinese person, how can I be racist?” or “I am Hong Kong Chinese, how can I be racist against our mainland counterparts?”

Having a close affiliation with another race or other races is not the ultimate proof that one is not racist. It also has nothing to do with skin colour. Ultimately, racism is an attitude or manifestation of a mindset of superiority.

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In the case of Yellow Fever, it cannot be explained away as an innocuous oversight just because its Asian owners thought it was merely a “tongue-in-cheek” name. The racism uproar was long overdue; it should have taken place back when the restaurant was first set up. 

The racism uproar was long overdue; it should have taken place back when the restaurant was first set up. 

Furthermore, those who chose to realise the racist undertone of “Yellow Fever” only when it was against the backdrop of a “white” establishment shouldn’t throw stones either, as they too live in the same racist glass house.

Whatever your stance on said issue, you shouldn’t make light of this profound topic. People should have the right to feel offended and hurt when they are the victims of a racist or racially insensitive encounter.

I agree that most of the time, racially charged jokes could be harmful because they can encourage discrimination, as well as foster prejudice and hatred. That said, we do sometimes have to appreciate the power of self-disparaging racial humour to challenge the status quo of racial inequality.

But this is a fine and difficult balance to strike. In order for this kind of humour to have the desired effect, the audience must understand and appreciate that well-hidden, good-spirited intention. Some people are more likely to focus on the words rather than the tone of such subversive humour. As a result, they are most likely to misinterpret these jokes with negative intent and overreact. 

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In everyday life, we either play down or overreact to race issues, and it all depends on which camp we belong to. But we, and society as a whole, would benefit if we tried to understand them through the lenses of different races and to view matters from their perspectives to foster understanding and seek common ground.

Like I said before, racism is like a virus; everyone is exposed to it at some point in their life, but some can fight it off while some unfortunately succumb to it. At the end of the day, it is important to be attuned to the feelings of others, because however well meaning an apparently harmless joke may be to some, it may be hurtful to others.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post