What's So Funny About Racism For Sale?

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I asked to speak to the person in charge of ordering the costumes, and was directed to a manager who identified himself only as “Charlie.” He assured me that the costume was not racist.

But the squinty-eyed, bucktoothed image portrayed by the “Kung Fool” costume has long been used to dehumanize and degrade people of Asian descent. Those who say this type of caricature is not racist may be unaware of the historical legacy of racism and oppression that has faced Americans of Asian ancestry.

Our history is rife with episodes of institutionalized anti-Asian racism and discrimination. In 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese could not testify against Whites, noting that they were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference” and as such had no right “… to [participate] with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, barring the immigration or naturalization of people from China. In 1922 and 1923, court cases established that Japanese and Asian Indians were also ineligible for citizenship on the basis that they could not be considered White. Alien land laws prohibited these same people from owning land. It was clear that Asians were unwelcome--America’s laws defined the country as belonging to Whites only.

During World War II, anti-Asian sentiment led to the internment of tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent under the guise of national security. Those of Japanese ancestry were not to be trusted. They were the enemy, the “Yellow Peril.” Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was among the cartoonists who portrayed Japanese and Japanese Americans alike as ugly, bucktoothed savages. Yet not a single act of espionage by an American of Japanese descent was ever documented.

From “Chinaman” to the “Yellow Peril”--these types of images, beliefs and expressions reinforced the purported inferiority and subhumanness of a disparate group of people based solely on race. And seeing the “Kung Fool” mask at Wal-Mart made me wonder if the year really is 2002.

I was not surprised to have an older Caucasian man tell me the costume was not racist. But I was surprised to find that apparently his view must be shared by others. Party City, Spencer Gifts and Target also carry the “Kung Fool” costume. For its distribution to be so widespread, I can only imagine that the image portrayed by the mask raised no qualms among the various companies’ managers or buyers.

The Wal-Mart manager went on to assure me that there were costumes that portrayed “Caucasians” and “Blacks” as well. (I didn’t see them, but ensuring equal racist coverage of all groups was not my aim.) These costumes are meant to be fun, he said.

When addressing the “Kung Fool” costume, Spencer Gifts spokesperson Michael Champion was quoted as saying, "Humor is in the eye of the beholder.” It is not uncommon for retailers to find humor in racism. A few years ago, Urban Outfitters sold a “Chinaman” costume, complete with slant-eyed mask. Last year, Chiasso marketed a “Mandarin Juicer” that featured a figurine wearing a rice paddy hat. And just six months ago, clothier Abercrombie & Fitch promoted an entire line of tee-shirts with racist caricatures and slogans. The shirts bore slogans such as “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs can make it White,” “Pizza Dojo -- You love long time -- Eat in or wok out,” “Buddha Bash: Get your Buddha on the floor,” and featured slant-eyed, bucktoothed rickshaw drivers, laundry workers and other stereotypical depictions. A&F spokesperson Hampton Carney was quoted as saying, “We thought they were cheeky, irreverent and funny and everyone would love them.” But when humor is dependent upon demeaning an entire group of people, it ceases to be fun.

Racism is never fun.

Or, more accurately, it has never been fun for me. I have been subjected to acts of racism, discrimination and prejudice, both large and small, throughout my life. This is the majority experience of people of color. Although I haven’t had the catchy alliterative phrase “Ching chong Chinaman” directed at me in years, I am still occasionally subjected to the odd spectacle of an adult stranger pulling up the corners of his eyes to mock me, or yelling nonsense syllables in an attempt to imitate the Chinese language.

That such incidents occur today is a testament to the pervasiveness of racist thought and imagery, and their acceptance, in our society. Political cartoons and illustrations of a hundred years ago depicting Chinese and other Asians show a marked similarity to the “Kung Fool” and Abercrombie & Fitch caricatures. Such caricatures resurface in other media as well. In 1997, amidst reports that the Democratic National Committee improperly accepted contributions from Chinese donors, the National Review cover featured an illustration of then-President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Al Gore, wearing an odd mishmash of attire--a coolie hat, a Chinese soldier’s uniform and monk’s robes--their features distorted by the addition of slanted eyes and buckteeth. From my experience, these subhuman images are not too far from the public mind.

Last year, I attended a Halloween party where one of the other attendees dressed in yellowface. Her costume consisted of silky pajamas, with chopsticks in her hair and exaggerated facial makeup.

I had a difficult time articulating why I felt disturbed by her get-up. But in large part, I think what bothered me is that there are so few portrayals of people of Asian descent in the popular culture, and so many of them rely on stereotypes. We are a race that can be portrayed as a caricature and turned into a Halloween costume. We are the unknown people. We are the mystical, the foreign and the exotic.

Perhaps the most troubling insinuation behind these images is that a person of Asian ancestry will always be an unassimilable foreigner. We can never achieve the status of becoming true Americans. Our ability to speak English, to contribute to American society, to be loyal to the United States--these are all questioned. Just as they were in 1854.

In many cases, such portrayals belie our very humanity. Often the first or second question I am asked when meeting a stranger is “What are you?” The way that question is phrased is in itself deeply disturbing. I am not a “what”; I am not an inanimate object. I cannot imagine asking a White person that question and having it have any meaning for them. They have their personhood; they have the assumption I have none.

The power of the majority is such that they can remind me of how little power I have and how little regard or respect they have for my dignity as a human being. The Wal-Mart manager was incapable of comprehending the racism expressed in the costume. He did not take my complaint seriously, and Wal-Mart has not responded to my correspondence or telephone call.** I can't imagine speaking to the woman in yellowface and having her gain any sort of understanding about my experience. They have always been in a position of power and privilege, but a function of that privilege is the need to remind other groups of their lesser status. Such is the nature of their group’s power.

Perhaps part of the inability to acknowledge racism is the inherent difficulty in accepting its driving motivation. Superiority of one group is often dependent on creating an inferior group; racism serves to fill a need for those who are incapable of proving worth on their merit. In addition, it serves to maintain advantages for Whites at the cost of other groups. If we expose racism, we simultaneously expose that the superiority of one group does not exist and the status quo would crumble. Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of America does not desire a meritocracy. It seeks to maintain a long-established tradition of promoting some groups at the expense of others.

The inability to acknowledge and recognize racism also reflects its deeply ingrained, pervasive nature. Racist characterizations and slurs aimed at Asian Americans do not seem to have the same kind of emotional charge to White Americans that other terms do. We Americans so often learn our racial lessons by rote, and not by an extension of empathy. We learn that the N-word or dressing in blackface is wrong, but we seem incapable of grasping the basic principle: degrading and dehumanizing others is unacceptable. Sports teams still bear images and names that offend Native peoples; senators use racial and ethnic slurs and such usage passes with scarcely a ripple; racist stereotypes are played for laughs on television and in movies. And racism is for sale in our marketplace.

The character on the “Kung Fool” costume appears to be a poorly copied attempt at [bian3]. My Chinese dictionary lists one of the meanings as “to degrade.” Disguise, Inc., the maker of the “Kung Fool” costume, stated that the character was “loser.”

It is not just Asian Americans who have been harmed by these racist portrayals. We all lose when we deny the dignity and humanity of any group of people. Racism is degrading to and diminishes us all.

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