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Monday, January 16, 2006

"Suk Mai Cock Poultry Farm" - Is this funny to you?

Apparently the enormous backlash (read here, also) from Asian Americans in response to Abercrombie & Fitch's awful shirts intended to be marketed towards Asians (for example, one said: "Wong Brothers Laundry Service -- Two Wongs Can Make It White" and included images reminiscent of racist caricatures of Asians from the early 1900s) didn't make the message clear enough.

Spencer Gifts has come out with several images on shirts and hats that are not even within the realm of what Abercrombie did. To quote the online petition against this shocking ridiculousness:
"SUK MAI COCK POULTRY FARM" is an obvious mockery of the Chinese language and sophomoric jab at Asians and their supposed difficulty with English spelling and comprehension. The shirt featuring the likeness of Buddha, which reads "I MAY BE FAT BUT MY COCK IS HUGE," demonstrates blatant disrespect for a religious deity and the religion's followers ... Finally, the shirt that reads "HANG OUT WITH YOUR WANG OUT" features a caricature of a slanted-eyed, buck-toothed Chinese man wearing a queue and rice paddy hat and childishly holding his penis. This image is demeaning and painfully reminiscent of racist images in popular culture in the early 1900s. (more in expanded post)
There are times when being irreverent may be humourous. But there are also lines that cannot be crossed, especially in a country where multiculturalism is everywhere. While I can see how conceivably someone would have considered one of those Abercrombie shirts to be appealing to Asian Americans...kind of...this is an entirely different bag of chips. I cannot think of anyone, except for those who truly find racism funny, who would buy such things. Spencer Gifts is doing a serious disservice to all Asian Americans and by extension minorities in perpetuating the idea that racism is humorous and acceptable.

Please sign the petition. Racism comes in many forms, and whether or not you are part of the group that is being targeted does not preclude you from supporting those wronged and speaking out for what is right.

27 Comments:

At 1:32 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

Yeah Deb!

I really don't understand how these could be released as products. Like you said, the AF shirts were a lot less blatant, not to mention designed by an Asian American (does that make it better or worse?). These are just ridiculous! The pun with "suk mai cock" has a little precursor because I do see people getting a kick out of puns with Asian words that happen to sound like English and Austin Powers meeting two Japanese twins Fuk Yu and Fuk Mi in one of his movies. (Of course, the linguistic differences don't matter, like the fact that 'fuk' to my knowledge is a Korean word and a name like 'fuk yu' can't be Japanese.)

Mocking a religious figure is also a huge violation. To compare these again to the AF shirts, AF used Buddha as a pun for booty, whereas Spencer Gifts is just mocking Buddha as a person. What possesses people to do something like that?? I suppose racism and a complete lack of respect...plus Spencer Gifts in general specializes in selling lewd products, so I guess they thought these shirts went along with that personality...

:(

 
At 1:43 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

A similar thing like this occurs in the Black community (and I'm sure others) where we make jokes about aspects of our own culture but if a non-Black perons did it would cause some drama. It's like me calling my little brother fat (I love you though, David! Go study!) but if someone else did, I'd wanna stomp on their vital organs. To parallel this with Dave Chappelle's race-based humor, if all of those jokes and sketches were done by Ben Stiller or somebody Blacks would be out in arms (or WOULD they? complacency is a terrible though prevalent thing amongst many people). Definitely not cool. I guess this is an example of an outgroup making comments about an in-group that in the former scenario is racist but in the latter is more acceptable.

I'm confused about the difference between a religion and a philosophy. Some people call Buddhism a philosophy and not a religion since one of its beliefs is that people have no soul (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism).

 
At 2:41 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

Actually, Chimaobi, I disagree. I don't think that this is a case where an outgroup member is making comments that would be more acceptable coming from an in-group member. Being designed by an Asian American makes it worse in some ways, because that fact will be used as a defense when it is not. While there is a key difference, as we were discussing in the McDonald's post, between an ingroup member making jokes that are funny because they comment about a truth, and an outgroup member making similar comments (which will never quite be the same simply because he/she is an outgroup member), the Abercrombie shirts were a case where an ingroup member was effectively being racist against his or her own group. In no way is that, I believe, ever acceptable, and it is in fact more grave as it legitimizes the action.

In this case, there isn't even that lame line of defense (marketing to Asians, made by Asian American etc). This is just straight up racism and insensitivity, proud, packaged and sold.

 
At 4:56 PM, Anonymous mike said...

I just wanted to comment on a particular aspect of Susan's response that I found troubling, or perhaps confusing depending upon how it's interpreted. She said,

"Mocking a religious figure is also a huge violation."

Why is this? We mock other religious figures all the time. I walk into Urban Outfitters and I can get a shirt that says "Jesus is my homeboy" to find a somewhat innocuous example. There are numerous websites that denounce Pope Benedict as looking like Emperor Palpatine.

I think these can be funny, and am not terribly offended by them, even though they criticize the religion I am a part of.

What these shirts say and do is ridiculous and horribly wrong. I'm actually pretty shocked that they would say such racist things but also such vulgar things on clothing to be worn in public. I just don't think that religious figures are necessarily out of bounds for mocking.

 
At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to jersey slugger's comment, it is true that one core Buddhist belief is there is no such thing as the "self." (I have noticed that many translators of Buddhist texts prefer to use the word "self" rather than "soul," since the word "soul" is heavily laden with Christian connotations. Similarly, when I recently took a core class about ancient Greek religion with Prof. Gregory Nagy, he expressed some uneasiness about people who carelessly translate the Greek word "psukhe" as "soul," since the connotations of the two words are so different.) The Buddhist belief that there is no self is something very complex and not easy to explain. As far as I understand it, Buddhists do not believe that there is an entity inhabiting your body that exists from one moment to the next. Instead, they believe that what people perceive to be the "self" is merely a sequence of events that happen in rapid succession. Although each of event in this sequence *causes* the event that immediately follows it, it would be false to say that each event is the *same* as the event that follows it. The Buddha and his earliest followers believed in reincarnation, but they did not believe that who "you" are in one life is the *same* entity as who "you" were in "your" previous life; however, they did believe that each of your reincarnations is *caused* by your previous one. This is a very subtle distinction, and it's confusing to people who have not had much exposure to Buddhism, much as subtle Christian concepts like the Trinity and consubstantiation are confusing to people who have not had much exposure to Christianity.

Because Buddhism has no concept of the "self"/"soul," and because it does not revolve around a central deity (some people have even called Buddhism an agnostic religion), some people choose to label it a philosophy rather than a religion. I personally think of Buddhism as a religion because it deals with "the afterlife": i.e., the things that happen to you after you die, such as reincarnation. In any case, I would argue that the religion vs. philosophy question is more than just a semantic question. People tend to show more respect for other people's religions than for other people's philosophies; thus, as soon as some people label Buddhism a mere "philosophy," some people take that as a reason to treat Buddhism and the people who practice it with less respect. That is yet another reason why I prefer for Buddhism to be called a religion, especially since the word "religion" is so vaguely defined, anyway. Besides, the role that Buddhism plays in the lives of Buddhists (especially Buddhists living in Asia) is much more analogous to the role that Christianity plays in the lives of Christians than it is to the role that logical positivism plays in the lives of the philosophers who teach it.

I think that since Buddhism is very much a minority religion in America, and since it is so poorly understood in this country, it is a lot more dangerous to belittle the symbols of the Buddhist religion than it is to belittle the symbols of the Christian religion. Of course, I believe that it is equally wrong to belittle the symbols of *any* faith (although I do have a sense of humor about these things and don't get excessively bent out of shape about such uses of freedom of speech). I'm simply saying that belittling Christian symbols, while not any less wrong than belittling Buddhist symbols, is unlikely to severely warp the average person's understanding of Christianity or to endanger the place of Christians in society, whereas the same cannot be said of T-shirts that mock a religion that is already poorly understood and only practiced by a small minority. The Buddha character has already been highly trivialized and fetishized by American clothing manufacturers who put the image of the Buddha on T-shirts and jewelry. The young people towards whom these clothes and jewelry are marketed usually have little (if any understanding) of what the Buddha stands for; they buy the clothes and jewelry merely because they think the image of the Buddha makes them "exotic" and therefore "cool." This would be like if a non-Jew wore a T-shirt with a big star of David on it just because they thought it looked "exotic." It is unfortunate that Spencer gifts is taking this trivialization of Buddhist symbols one step further, and in such a tasteless way, too.

 
At 8:19 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Understood. I definitely feel that they're racist (and no, everybody, I don't subscribe to the view that one has to be the powerful group to be racist), whether from an outgroup or ingroup person.

Who's that Chimaobi guy? I know ofhim and think he's a really great guy. Usually smiling and laughing until you get him talking about Black people, politics, capitalism, or anything intersecting those topics.

 
At 8:53 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

Haha..
Anyhow, it gets worse...

 
At 12:31 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

(mouth agape)

Oh, capitalism. How I wish thee were a human so that I could gladly murder thou and jofully spend the rest of my days incarcerated knowing that my life's duty hath been fulfilled...

 
At 1:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think it's a little inappropriate to be so violent on Dr. King's birthday. He taught us to forgive and struggle non-violently for the salvation of all of us, and you're talking about murdering. I mean, you can't offer the respect for his sacrifice of one day without advocating against his life's ethos?

 
At 2:22 AM, Anonymous Caitlin said...

This is a really interesting post/ thread. Thanks for starting it, Deb.

I think that this hits on a larger issue/problem: the ability for people to hide behind humor. While I can feel all the folks who've been posting about how shocked that they are that people are wearing this, that little cynical voice sitting on my shoulder reminds me that offensive material is pardoned left and right because "they were just joking" and "don't you have a sense of humor." This sort of shielding power is really difficult to combat. . . I find it really frustrating.

Anyways. . . I know that this has been an implicit part of some of our out-group/in-group discussions (who can make what jokes re: jersey slugger and deb earlier). But, I just thought I'd rehighlight it.

 
At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Elephant said...

Those look like really dumb shirts, and I certianly wouldn't want one. But under Capitalism (i.e. under Freedom) people can buy what someone wants to make. If you don't want such a shirt, of course please don't buy one. I won't either. But if someone does want such a shirt, who are you to stop him from buying it by protesting that the company shouldn't be making them? Isn't that distorting the market, getting in the way of free trade, and in the way of someone's else's de facto right to free expression, only because you might not like the content of their expression? Now, you could make the argument that people wearing what you consider to be "racist" T-shirts encourage racism, discrimination, stereotypes, and other negative values --- but this is a super-dangerous line of thought for obvious reasons. What if a group of people got together and said "Penguin Publishers, we don't like Karl Marx, if you don't stop publishing his works, we won't buy anything else from you." Or replace Karl Marx with Jerry Falwell. While still perhaps legal such protesting takes on a dubious position when its explicit purpose is to impeede speech!

 
At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

To Elephant,

You're argument is quite short-sighted. First, you equate capitalism with freedom. Such an equation is something needs to be supported with argument, not simply a parenthetical.

Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, you hold on the one hand that the company should be able to make such shirts. I agree, they should be able to market such a shirt.

However, on the other hand, you deny the right of people to protest the shirts. That is part of their right, their freedom of speech.

What would be wrong with a group of people getting together and protesting Karl Marx, Jerry Fallwell, or even Jerry Seinfeld? The company can continue to produce the shirts.

You cannot say that people exercising their rights of free speech through protest is a violation of the free market.

You say, "Isn't that distorting the market, getting in the way of free trade, and in the way of someone's else's de facto right to free expression, only because you might not like the content of their expression?" Yes, it is. It's called disagreement. It is essential to free speech.

 
At 6:38 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Just because there are willing buyers and willing sellers in a transaction doesn't mean that we as a community should or do allow all such transactions to proceed unfettered. We prohibit the sale of pornography to minors (a comparably gray area in terms of determining what does and does not count as pornographic, even by the legal standards), even though there is a huge potential market there, because we believe the costs to society of unlimited access to the material outweigh the benefits of free trade, free expression, freedom, or whatever other nice label one might wish to apply. Now I'm not suggesting that we also restrict the sale and/or distribution of blatantly racist materials to minors (although that's kind of an intriguing idea), but it's interesting to consider the parallel: doesn't exposure to blatantly racist material harm youth just as much as exposure to work intended to arouse prurient interest?

Now, you may also be against the restriction of the pornography market. But there are other major instances in which the government has deemed a curtailment of free speech appropriate in the interest of the public as a whole. The FCC is one example. Also, in Virginia v. Black the Supreme Court ruled that states may pass laws criminalizing the act of cross burning with the intent to intimidate (as in, on someone else's property, or in a public place), saying, "The protections the First Amendment affords speech and expressive conduct are not absolute. This Court has long recognized that the government may regulate certain categories of expression consistent with the Constitution." This isn't an instance involving an economic exchange, but you get the point--free speech isn't always a trump card.

 
At 7:25 PM, Blogger Shang said...

The image of the peasant asian man has always been a stereotypical depiction of Asians. For me, it reminds me of anti-Japanese propaganda WWII videos shown as trailers before the main feature at movie lots during that time. While it seems like a caricature now, when placed in context, it is offensive because it is a commercialization of a symbol that has generated violence, hatred, and the dehumanization of another race.

 
At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Caitlin said...

My immediate reaction to Elephant's contribution was very much along the same lines of Katie's. Fancy and convenient rhetoric often present the market as infallible. . . But, as Katie started to point out, just because a market for something can exist doesn't mean that it should. Elephant writes:
"But if someone does want such a shirt, who are you to stop him from buying it by protesting that the company shouldn't be making them? Isn't that distorting the market, getting in the way of free trade, and in the way of someone's else's de facto right to free expression. . ."

Elephant, you're equating the desire for a market to exist with a validation that it should exist and has a right to. . . There are parts of the world where child prostitution is a thriving market. There are willing buyers and "willing" sellers. That makes the market viable. . . but does that mean that its essential to our freedom as people to be able to buy sex from children if we want it? (There are other examples of markets that could exist but that we prohibit in our society: market for buying organs from people, market for assassinations. . .etc.)

Isn't it extremely dangerous to equate preserving the market with perserving freedom itself?

To clarify, this doens't necessarily mean that I think that there should be a government-wide ban on these shirts. . . I just think that the reasoning that we must protect these shirts because getting in the way of the market means freedom will die (dun, dun, dun) is a shoddy one. . .

whoooo and back to studying for tomorrow's final

 
At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There might have been some confusion on how I phrased my opinion, the one addressing “fear” of “creating a new stereotype.” This fear isn’t arising because I’m subconsciously submissive or “feel bad” or “guilty” about going against the norm and protesting in society. That is not the case at all. I have been activist in the past when I’ve felt that certain issues were indeed proponents of racism. Rather, my concern of creating a stereotype on Asians as the “racially-sensitive” group is an important one, and deals with issues of credibility and strength. This is similar to the fable of the little boy who cried wolf repeatedly, and when something serious did occur, he wasn’t taken seriously. Relatively speaking, if Asians lash out at every racially-sensitive or controversial issue out there that isn’t actually a “big deal,” we will lose credibility and strength in the eyes of the public.

Why don’t the majority of non-Asians find this racist? Why is there dissension even within the Asian community?

However, this isn’t an argument to reduce activism if activism truly is warranted. If in the span of the next week, truly racist stuff comes out, by all means, organize seven activist rallies against that: that’s what it’s for. I’m talking about the battles where there is clearly a significant amount of dissension, which might not be the case since I seem to be the only one who holds this opinion. But in matters where there is clearly a lot of dissent, there is probably a reason for this difference in thought. And it’s not always out of “apathy” or “fear.” To say this is to subjugate any reasonable disparity in opinion.

On the note that these shirts are perpetuating stereotypes, there is a reason why these stereotypes exist in the first place: in part because of past history, current history, and the ignorance of the masses, who aren’t as privileged as us, to a culturally and racially diverse community.

I’d like for you to put yourself in the shoes of an ignorant white man. Call him Bob. His only impression of Asian Americans has been the “broken-English,” kung-fu fighting, laundry-shop-owning stereotype, because where he’s from, old war movies are the only exposure he has had in learning about the outside world. Suddenly, he’s walking around his local mall and sees one of these T-shirts. The stereotype is probably perpetuated, although I don’t really understand the significance of this. Now say a community of Asian Americans moves to his city from New York or Boston. Their English is perfectly fine, they might know kung-fu, and aside from their different appearance and names, they act just like Americans. Isn’t this stereotype essentially VOID? He is now in close interaction with Asian Americans who clearly don’t have broken-English or own a laundry service. Ignorance solved.

Now imagine yourselves in the shoes of an informed non-Asian American who lives in Boston, and goes to Harvard. He’s Italian, his name is Joe, and has had close exposure to Asian Americans his entire life. His best friend in High School was Asian and he loves Bruce Lee movies. One day, he’s walking through Cambridgeside and spots one of these shirts. He might chuckle, laugh, or ignore it. But how will this (kung-fu, broken-English, farmer) Asian American stereotype be perpetuated?? Will he suddenly think less of his best friend in high school? Will his image of an Asian American be shaped to a Chinaman with a mustache who makes dumplings and runs a laundry service? I don’t think so. Now say he gets word that Asians are protesting this T-shirt. He might be confused or even annoyed, since racial jokes are everywhere in today’s society – what is the big deal? If I didn’t take it seriously, why should they?

This is the kind of effect I am talking about when I say that our image might become one of the “Asian who takes activism too seriously.” If the informed American public doesn’t take it seriously, why should we? If the T-shirts are not distorting or reshaping their images, why is this shirt such a big concern?

This is my primary argument of why I feel stereotypes like this don’t harm the Asian-American image in society. If ignorance is the problem, then exposure is the cure. But what type of exposure? Will this stereotype of Asian Americans be washed out of Bob’s head if he gets news that Asians across America are protesting these shirts? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think the way Bob’s view of Asians will change is through exposure. Chances are, he won’t ever meet an Asian in his town, but he probably will see more and more Asians in the media and in the news with perfect English and in positions such as mayors, doctors, lawyers, and so on. This is how this stereotype will change. This is how Jewish people, Hispanics, Blacks have been able to shape their image in society to counter stereotypes. They lead by example. This is why we as privileged Asian Americans are in positions of power – we have the opportunity to lead by example and shape what WE WANT to be the Asian American image for future generations.

To close, I agree that there are some cases when racism is simply unacceptable, such as hate-crimes against Asians in school. But in this specific context, I don’t really see the “negative disastrous” affect that this “perpetuation of stereotypes” will have on the greater society. Maybe it’s because I’m missing something, which is why I think this discussion is particularly interesting, important, and necessary.

 
At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition, I wanted to clarify this “fear” of “creating a new stereotype.” This fear isn’t arising because I’m subconsciously submissive or “feel bad” or “guilty” about going against the norm and protesting in society. That is not the case at all. I have been activist in the past when I’ve felt that certain issues were indeed proponents of racism. Rather, my concern of creating a stereotype on Asians as the “racially-sensitive” group is an important one, and deals with issues of credibility and strength. This is similar to the fable of the little boy who cried wolf repeatedly, and when something serious did occur, he wasn’t taken seriously. Relatively speaking, if Asians lash out at every racially-sensitive or controversial issue out there that isn’t actually a “big deal,” we will lose credibility and strength in the eyes of the public.

Why don’t the majority of non-Asians find this racist? Why is there dissension even within the Asian community?

However, this isn’t an argument to reduce activism if activism truly is warranted. If in the span of the next week, truly racist stuff comes out, by all means, organize seven activist rallies against that: that’s what it’s for. I’m talking about the battles where there is clearly a significant amount of dissension, which might not be the case since I seem to be the only one who holds this opinion. But in matters where there is clearly a lot of dissent, there is probably a reason for this difference in thought. And it’s not always out of “apathy” or “fear.” To say this is to subjugate any reasonable disparity in opinion.

On the note that these shirts are perpetuating stereotypes, there is a reason why these stereotypes exist in the first place: in part because of past history, current history, and the ignorance of the masses, who aren’t as privileged as us, to a culturally and racially diverse community.

I’d like for you to put yourself in the shoes of an ignorant white man. Call him Bob. His only impression of Asian Americans has been the “broken-English,” kung-fu fighting, laundry-shop-owning stereotype, because where he’s from, old war movies are the only exposure he has had in learning about the outside world. Suddenly, he’s walking around his local mall and sees one of these T-shirts. The stereotype is probably perpetuated, although I don’t really understand the significance of this. Now say a community of Asian Americans moves to his city from New York or Boston. Their English is perfectly fine, they might know kung-fu, and aside from their different appearance and names, they act just like Americans. Isn’t this stereotype essentially VOID? He is now in close interaction with Asian Americans who clearly don’t have broken-English or own a laundry service. Ignorance solved.

Now imagine yourselves in the shoes of an informed non-Asian American who lives in Boston, and goes to Harvard. He’s Italian, his name is Joe, and has had close exposure to Asian Americans his entire life. His best friend in High School was Asian and he loves Bruce Lee movies. One day, he’s walking through Cambridgeside and spots one of these shirts. He might chuckle, laugh, or ignore it. But how will this (kung-fu, broken-English, farmer) Asian American stereotype be perpetuated?? Will he suddenly think less of his best friend in high school? Will his image of an Asian American be shaped to a Chinaman with a mustache who makes dumplings and runs a laundry service? I don’t think so. Now say he gets word that Asians are protesting this T-shirt. He might be confused or even annoyed, since racial jokes are everywhere in today’s society – what is the big deal? If I didn’t take it seriously, why should they?

This is the kind of effect I am talking about when I say that our image might become one of the “Asian who takes activism too seriously.” If the informed American public doesn’t take it seriously, why should we? If the T-shirts are not distorting or reshaping their images, why is this shirt such a big concern?

This is my primary argument of why I feel stereotypes like this don’t harm the Asian-American image in society. If ignorance is the problem, then exposure is the cure. But what type of exposure? Will this stereotype of Asian Americans be washed out of Bob’s head if he gets news that Asians across America are protesting these shirts? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think the way Bob’s view of Asians will change is through exposure. Chances are, he won’t ever meet an Asian in his town, but he probably will see more and more Asians in the media and in the news with perfect English and in positions such as mayors, doctors, lawyers, and so on. This is how this stereotype will change. This is how Jewish people, Hispanics, Blacks have been able to shape their image in society to counter stereotypes. They lead by example. This is why we as privileged Asian Americans are in positions of power – we have the opportunity to lead by example and shape what WE WANT to be the Asian American image for future generations.

To close, I agree that there are some cases when racism is simply unacceptable, such as hate-crimes against Asians in school. But in this specific context, I don’t really see the “negative disastrous” affect that this “perpetuation of stereotypes” will have on the greater society. Maybe it’s because I’m missing something, which is why I think this discussion is particularly interesting, important, and necessary.

 
At 9:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops...Ive screwed up ALL my postings...many apologies...please ignore the first message, read this one first, and then read the middle one. Mental aerobics yes! my bad...anyways here goes.

I've been reading all the emails that have been sent about the Spencer's Gift shirts, and I'm actually surprised that no one has vocalized a dissenting opinion, that they aren't offended by these shirts, so I guess I'll voice mine and prepare for the onslaught of criticism.

Recently, as in the past couple of years, a lot of racially wired stuff has shown up in the media, be it Abercrombie shirts, articles in Details magazine, Skittles commercials, or the recent Spencer's shirts. I honestly don't find it offensive and don't think it's that big of a deal, and I say this not because I'm "apathetic," because I do think that the distinction between indifference/tolerance and apathy needs to be made. Just because you don't think a commercial or a T-shirt is a "big deal," doesn't make you a bad person or a racist. It could be that after a lot of thought, you just don't find it offensive. You might even find it funny. Or you might be offended. But it's important that the decision is made after thought, and not as an impulse to, "Jumping on the bandwagon of activism."

I don't think it's a big deal because maybe I'm just more tolerant and liberal to today's humor or maybe I find the humor to be innocuous. I know I definitely "lol" when I read the circulating facebook wall message with quotes like, "Learn Chinese in 5 minutes...(You MUST read them out loud): "I thought you were on a diet ........... Wai Yu Mun Ching."

Today especially, there is a fine line between racism and humor. That's why cartoons and jokes are so edgy and controversial, because as a liberal and diverse society, these are social taboos and things that we see everyday that we can relate to. Think The Simpsons and Family Guy. Think Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite or the Token Black Guy in Not Another Teen Movie. Racially charged humor is ubiquitous in today's society, and it doesn't just target Asians. It targets Mexicans, Canadians, Blacks, French, Italians, Indians, Spanish, the list goes on. Off the top of my head, I can probably think of a joke for all of these races. In most cases, the intention of these character portrayals or stereotypes isn't to degrade minorities or to promote racial inequality. It's to poke fun at racial stereotypes and social taboos - humor is one of the best ways people can "connect" with each other and understand edgy issues in a less "hostile" context. This has been the
case for countless satires, parodies, and cartoons.

And yes, intention DOES matter. This is why people who make fun of their own race aren't called racists, unless they really do hate their race and want to compromise their own racial image. This is almost never the case, and as such, their comments are considered harmless.

Intention isn't everything though. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." However, I certainly don't believe that the author of these shirts will go to hell, nor will the people who buy them. Nor do I believe that as a result of these shirts, racial inequality and Asian American image in society will be
compromised - and isn't this why activists riot, why they petition, why they protest for hours in the rain - because they believe somewhere, someone will see these shirts and think, "Oh, Asian Americans can't speak English, they're inferior," or "Asian Americans really do look different from us, let's continue treating them like foreigners." If this was the effect I thought these shirts would have, I would grab my pitchfork and march straight to Spencer's Gifts. But this isn't the case. These shirts are targeting two markets: 1) People who enjoy racial humor (not necessarily bad people), 2) People who enjoy racism (bad people). In the latter case, these people will be racists whether or not these shirts are sold. They won't "suddenly" become racist and treat Asians differently because of these shirts. It's like the whole argument going on with violent video games and violence in schools. Games don't kill people. People kill people. Sorry for that violent analogy.

And maybe the way to achieve this ultimate goal of "equal recognition as Americans in the eyes of American society" can be solved in another way. I think Asian Americans still convey a certain image stereotypically because of their lack of presence in the media - the number one source of information for almost all Americans, whether it's TV, radio, newspaper, or magazines. This is why I think it's so great that Asian Americans are making strides in the entertainment industry: Sandra Oh on TV, Zhang Zi Yi in cinema, Bruce Kanegai on the new season of Survivor, Lucy Liu, the list goes on. And the progress is present in all areas of society, be it Sam Yoon in politics or Yao Ming in sports. Slowly and gradually, Asian Americans are being seen in prominent "normal" positions in American society. This is the "big picture" that I believe will eventually counteract any racial ignorance towards Asians. Of course, this is not to discount activism, which I believe is necessary in cases where racism clearly is present.

The ultimate point I'm trying to make is that activism is a great form of expression, but it comes at a cost, particularly if the activism arises frequently. As activists, we have to choose our battles wisely, or eventually our efforts will go complete 180, and we'll begin creating another stereotype as "the minority who takes everything too seriously." I mean sure, if you find the humor distasteful, then voice it. You're entitled to your opinion. This is America after all. If you find it funny, then buy it, that's your choice. But unless there really is a legitimate reason why the selling of these shirts will compromise Asian Americans as a whole, I think group activism (as a race) is more deleterious than beneficial.

 
At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous's comment that satirical humor about racial issues (e.g., Chris Rock's humor) is sometimes beneficial because it brings "edgy issues" to light. However, I don't see any reason to believe that the intent of the Spencer Gifts t-shirts is to *satirize* racial stereotypes. You'll have to work hard to convince me that there's a level of satire or meta-humor in T-shirts as crude as these, because, honestly, I don't see it. Earlier in this thread, someone alluded to jokes that compare Pope Benedict to Emperor Palpatine. Those jokes, while offensive, at least have the virtue of being based on actual issues (sometimes): many of the people who disseminate jokes about the Pope disagree with the Pope's positions on political issues and mock him in order to make their dissent known. The Spencer Gifts shirts are different. It's not as though they're mocking Asians for the opinions that we hold on various issues. In fact, the people who made the shirts seem to have no understanding of Asian-American issues at all: all they seem to know about Asians is that our languages sound different, the Buddha is sometimes portrayed as fat, and in the past Asians were sometimes depicted as subhuman-looking farmers. That being the case, I don't see how these shirts could possibly be construed as presenting an edifying kind of satire. My point is: although humor sometimes has positive effects by being educational, that is clearly not the case with these shirts.

Not only do I think it implausible to suggest that the shirts have some kind of positive effect, I would argue that they actually have a negative effect on society. It is true that they won't have much of an effect on someone who is already a confirmed non-racist, but I would argue that they have a non-negligible negative effect on children who have not yet encountered racial stereotypes and who have not yet developed opinions on issues of race. Although I agree that exposure to diversity is the *best* cure for racial prejudice, I think that the perpetuation of racial stereotypes will cause this cure to take much longer to take effect. If racists are surrounded by racist paraphernalia that goes unprotested, then they're much less likely to let go of their racist ideas.

Your point about having to be careful not to acquire a reputation as "the race who cries wolf" is an interesting and original one, and I'll have to think more about it before responding.

Finally, I think Mike's retort to Elephant is the most interesting because it shows that protesting these shirts *isn't* inconsistent with supporting capitalism. Protesters who boycott goods and who try to influence others to join them in boycotting goods are working *within* the market, not *outside* the market. I haven't yet heard anybody ask the government to step in from above and ban the sale of these shirts. If Elephant sincerely believes that your money is your vote, then he shouldn't have a problem with organized boycotts.

 
At 1:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point I was making before about humor and the necessity to look at these shirts from the vantage point of one inside the joke envelope did not limit the point of humor to one simply of "social correction" which comes from Henri Bergson's "Essay on Laughter." (i.e. your friend slips on a banana peel and you burst out laughing, thereby socially "correcting" him not to be a klutz in the future), or in the case which you stated where people make fun of Pope Benedict to draw attention to their dissent from his beliefs. For the record, I doubt that this is the main reason people draw this connection. I mean LOOK at Pope Benedict, he really does look like Emperor Palpatine (no offense to any Christians). I remember when he was elected pope and I googled his picture and burst out laughing because of the close resemblance.

Anyways, there are several other reasons or "purposes of humor." To list a couple: As a means to cope with tragedy, as a means to bring social taboos to light. However, going back to my original point of humor as a tool of "social correction," is this not the case in this particular example? Is it not to state that, "Broken-English" is an ineffective way of communication in society and as such, we, society, will laugh at you. I mean, I know many Asians who still have broken English, which is proof that this stereotype isn't necessarily "non-obsolete," and perpetuated for pure racist and malicious reasons. To pull an example from another racial group, there are a lot of jokes about the parsimony in Jewish people. They are constantly trying to bargain for better prices and are very stingy with how they spend their income. This is a constant subject of ridicule in the routine of comedians everywhere. Is this type of humor RACIST and wrong?? Is depicting jewish people with huge noses in caricatures wrong??

And there will be people who argue that there is a difference between the stratification of the Jewish population and the Asian population : Jewish people are much better established and infiltrated into American society than Asian Americans are. I completely disagree with this point. Racism is racism, and exceptions shouldn't be made just because one class is "better off" than another class. So if these T-shirts are racist, aren't the Jewish jokes I mentioned before racist? and subsequently aren't all ethnic jokes racist? how about sexist jokes? Are religious jokes taboo as well? Where do we draw the line of appropriate humor? I bring up this point because I enjoy comedy and I don't want it to someday be limited to a very constricted, narrow melange of politically-correct, all-embracing humor, because that's not what makes me laugh.

 
At 2:23 AM, Anonymous Elephant said...

I would argue that Mike's argument is flawed for the following reason: There are two generally recognized classes of reasons why me might curtail the otherwise sacrosanct right to free speech. The first are those cases where the speech itself could directly cause actual harm: yelling fire in a crowded theatre, or saying that you have a bomb in an airport, for example. The second are those cases in which someone's speech directly silences anothers: you can't drown out a person speaking in public because you don't want others to hear him --- if you don't want to hear him speak, don't listen. (There may be a few other exceptions, such as libel). It is this second class of reason that applies here. You participate in the free market by buying or not buying a product. Not by using external media to coerce a company to not produce a product that you don't want in the first place. If you don't want to buy it, it shouldn't be any of your business if someone else wants to buy it. I'm not arguing that protesting against a company selling a product actually is illegal, but I do believe it is against the spirit of freedom and our laws. There's also an important difference between saying "I don't like this product" (i.e. a review) and a shrill, "if you make this, your a racist, and no one should buy anything you make."

To answer a few other objections quickly:

> Capitalism is about free markets. "Free as in freedom, not as in free beer" as Richard Stallman would say. They're essentially synonyms, and a parenthetical remark is hardly even necessary.

> Of course not all markets ought to exist simply because they can. Child prostitution is perhaps the ultimate straw man argument. Of course I don't support child sex slavery --- it contractdicts what are clearly higher principles. I also don't support companies manufacturing products that are so unsafe that they can seriously harm their users accidently --- another example of a class of quite rare examples where government regulation is necessary in order to restore efficiency and equilibrium to a market.

> The FCC's restrictions on free speech are almost certainly unconstitutional. Restrictions on what minors can read or watch without parental consent is a strange area, but we have often decided as a society that all the freedoms and responsibilites held by adults are not held by minors. An adult may decide to become a prostitute, for example, but we don't allow a child to make that choice. Fair enough. But I find it incredible, even on this forum, that anyone really advocates restrictions on what adults can read and see. It's basically not possible to engage with such an argument, because that kind of freedom of speech is the essence of academic debate.

 
At 4:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I am honestly confused here. On the one hand you say that you're appalled by the idea that "anyone really advocates restrictions on what adults can read and see" because this stifles free discourse. Yet, on the other hand, while you wouldn't go so far as to legally restrict it, you condemn people's exercise of agency and free speech in protesting products they find offensive. Is it that you only condemn such protest when you find it to be "shrill," rather than measured, rational, and even-keeled?

 
At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Elephant said...

Sorry for the confusion! I condemn such protest when it is coercive. One can write a review of "Das Kapital" and say "this is a bad book!" and either proffer arguments or simply state your opinion. However, it is quite a different thing to protest Penguin Publishers printing editions of Marx, gathering groups of people together and saying that you won't buy any book they publish so long as they publish that one. The latter inserts yourself improperly between the consumer and producer, and impedes the ability of the former to purchase products that they want. A poor review, an educational article, or an essay about the history of Asian stereotypes may sway public opinion and reduce the market for a product. But a protest that cows a company into pulling a product, but doesn't otherwise have an effect on the market, is not only unfair to both producer and consumer, but ultimately ineffectual if the desired goal is towards increased public understanding. Does that help to clarify?

 
At 11:19 AM, Anonymous Jannie Tsuei said...

I am very much against book-banning and the hypothetical situation posited here of protesting Penguin Books for printing Marx. Why, then, do I still want to make something of a case for protest? (just to play a little bit of devil's advocate, my friends)

On First-Amendment issues of whether or not this shirt should deserve
to exist and be purchased and worn, I do not believe that the US
government should, a priori, regulate against all "offensive humor."

HOWEVER - the very fact that this is a shirt that could be mass-produced
in the US without someone in the production process saying, "damn, this is offensive," speaks to very gaping holes in the American consciousness.
BECAUSE OF THAT -- because its production is a SIGN of a HUGE problem, and because I don't think that merely having conversations like these are an
effective solution to that problem...

I think the shirts should be protested. I think that companies speak in terms of money and economic power and boycotts, and that mass-produced offensiveness should be addressed, with accompanying NUANCED EXPLANATIONS of why they're offensive, but they should be addressed in the sphere in which they originated.

So, I wish the petition were more educative and less based on emotional/moral outrage. I think Hang Out With Your Wang Out is offensive primarily because of its use of an ANACHRONISTIC image (the Chinaman with queue, a style that became obsolete after the fall of the Ching dynasty in 1911, mind you) that has traditionally, in the US print and film media, been used to elicit hatred/disdain. You can think that racial stereotypes/cartoons based on physical traits (small eyes) or trends in employment (math and science, engineering, medicine, etc) are based to some degree on truth... but the stereotypical image that Hang Out Wiht Your Wang Out uses is no longer truthful.

Finally, I respect the argument that expressing outrage at something which many people find just humorous/comic will undercut the validity of the Asian-American activist movement. I, too, wish the movement, in this instance, chose its words more carefully and didn't conflate the Buddha t-shirt with the other t-shirts. However, I'd like to speculate as to why this shirt got through the production process, and why maybe a comparable shirt:
American Indian chief in headress with tomohawk.
Black person in "native"/"jungle"/"tribal" gear... think Heart of Darkness depictions.

would not have gotten through the production process. I understand that the counterargument for this point is that those shirts should be able to be produced (free speech) but that the PC movement has stifled such free speech... but the very contrast is, I think, good reason for an EDUCATIVE movement.

protest can be paired with education. it isn't always, but it needs to be in order to remain convincing.


-Jannie

 
At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jannie is awesome. However, I actually think shirts with Indian chiefs in headdresses with tomohawks get produced all the time. And are never protested. Moreover, I respectfully disagree with you when you say that people are offended by these shirts (or should be offended by them) because the stereotype of the queue is no longer truthful. Anachronistic images are often good--for example, when they are used to show pride in a people's heritage (e.g., a shirt portraying a Colonial American wearing pilgrim clothes). I think the reason people are offended by the shirts is because the image on them (if the description in the petition is accurate) looks positively subhuman: buck-toothed and "childishly holding his penis." I mean, no one would ever produce a shirt that makes a black man look like an ape or that makes a Jew look like a rodent. So why do people think they can get away with producing a shirt that makes an Asian person look like a mentally damaged animal?

And while religious humor and racial humor are generally two separate categories, I still find the Buddha shirt highly problematic, and I'm not even a Buddhist. Religious prejudice is just as likely as racial prejudice to cause violence in the world. Morevoer, the lines between religion and race/ethnicity are often very lightly drawn: for example, humor about Jews is often an equal mix of religious humor and racial humor, a large number of Buddhists are Asians, and a large number of Muslims are Arabs. Disdaining a religious group can easily carry over into disdaining a racial group when such a large overlap is the case. Would anyone in this day and age make a shirt that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a similar fashion to the way in which the Buddha is being presented on this shirt? No, because there's way too much horrifying prejudice against Muslims in the world already, and (most) people know better than to fuel it. So why make an exception for Buddhists, who are also a minority religion? Is it because Buddhists are not numerous or vocal enough to defend themselves audibly, or because not many hate crimes are being perpetrated against Buddhists as we speak? Do we have to wait until hate crimes start happening before it becomes okay to say "There's a problem with this shirt, and maybe people should start talking about"?

 
At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

To Elephant:

I want to dissect your argument closely. I'm a philosophy concentrator, it's what we do. I think that we'll see how it is wrong.

First you assert, "The second are those cases in which someone's speech directly silences anothers: you can't drown out a person speaking in public because you don't want others to hear him --- if you don't want to hear him speak, don't listen."

I agree, drowning out speech is wrong and would be a legitimate reason for restricting. We cannot let hysteria or anger eliminate reasoned dialogue. However, I do not think that this drowning out is what is taking place here. Voicing an opinion in the form of a written protest is certainly not a drowning out. People are not barricading the way to Spencer gifts, nor are they spray painting those with shirts on. They are not preventing access to these shirts. In fact, a written protest might be seen as the most "reasoned" type of response.

Second, you claim, "You participate in the free market by buying or not buying a product." True, this is the way in which we participate as concsumers. But we are not mere consumers, we are people, with opinions and the ability to put these thoughts to words, actions beyond our wallets. Our access to free speech should not merely be through monetary means. This would imply that, in some way, the rich have more freedom of speech since their wallets are bigger--they can "say" more.

Another point you make is, "If you don't want to buy it, it shouldn't be any of your business if someone else wants to buy it." This is highly contentious. If I think a product is morally wrong, I am perfectly within my rights to voice dissent and dislike of it. I am within my rights to argue that people should not buy it. For instance, in the drug trade, I don't want to buy heroin. But, I think it is infact, my business if someone else wants to buy it. I can object and protest heroin dealers. I realize the example is extreme, but that is the point.

Finally, the strongest point of your argument is "Not by using external media to coerce a company to not produce a product that you don't want in the first place." This is the strongest only because it conflates raising popular opinion against a particular company with coercion. Coercion in this sense is coercion of popular opinion. That is, it is only because of overwhelming disagreement that this coercion would happen. If not enough people feel strongly enough, this attempt to coerce will fall flat.

I agree there is a difference in shrillness, but we cannot regulate speech and behavior only because of tone. To do so would eliminate any appeal to emotion or feelings. Since this was started on MLK day, it seems appropriate to acknowledge that much of his speeches--particularly his "I Have a Dream Speech"--were emotional and appealed to emotion. We cannot have perfectly logical reasoning all the time in the social realm.

Like you, I hold the freedom of speech sacrosanct. I think that this is not one of the cases where it should be regulated, because it is not a drowning out, despite its emotional tone. It is instead a voice of disapproval and disagreement. This is precisely the type of speech that needs to be protected in the first place.

 
At 6:51 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Note: I don't adhere to non-violence. It would be great if the world's ills could be solved non-violently but, as even King showed by being assaulted on numerous occassions while being non-violent, that's what people respond to. I could yell "leave Iraq!" for twenty years in front of the White house but no one would listen. If I killed someone and yelled it then people would take notice.

 

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