My people, the whites, have embarrassed themselves again, this time with a Ching-Chow Chinaman episode of How I Met Your Mother Monday night that the show’s creators bizarrely didn’t think would come across as racist.
The HIMYM staff, evidently comprised of oblivious white nerds, wrote the episode, titled “Slapsgiving 3,” as an “homage to Kung Fu movies,” they said. The white cast of the show was outfitted in stereotypical Asian attire, complete with buns held in place by chopsticks for the ladies and a Fu Manchu mustache for Josh Radnor, who plays Ted.
Here’s a description of the episode by Complexwriter Tara Aquino:
“[Slapsgiving 3” is] about Jason Segel’s character Marshall learning the art of slapping from ‘wise masters,’ a.k.a. Colbie Smulders, Josh Radnor, and Alyson Hannigan in yellowface. The trio dressed in kimonos and talked some shit about ‘much gold’ while random actual Asians sat in the background, by and large silent. How the hell did no one think this wasn’t OK to air?…Sure, it’s just a joke and I’m overreacting. But it’s difficult not to when you’ve lived a life shadowed by this stereotype.”
HIMYM airs on CBS, incidentally, the network that also produces 2 Broke Girls, which has come under fire for its stereotypical depiction of Asians in the character of the girls’ boss, Han Lee. In a story for the Guardian, Priya Elan wrote, “Short, asexual and work-obsessed, Lee is ridiculed for his broken English and failing to ‘get’ US culture. In one episode Dennings’ character says, after a run-in with Lee: ‘You can’t tell an Asian he made a mistake. He’ll go in back and throw himself on a sword.’”
As you might expect, viewers immediately took to Twitter to express their outrage about the episode. Via the newly minted Twiter handle #HowIMetYourRacism, viewers tweeted, “My race is not a costume,” “I seriously don’t understand how HIMYM and @CBS think racism is ‘clever’ and ‘funny'” and “#HIMYM has been racist, sexist and transphobic for years. Are we surprised they did yellowface?”
Writing about the controversy for Racefiles.com, Soya Jung said, “The underrepresentation of Asian Americans in film and television is bad enough without white performers exploiting warped, racist ideas about Asian cultures. The show’s creators apologized, but it doesn’t erase the cumulative damage of historic anti-Asian racism.”
Co-creator Carter Bays responded to the criticism by tweeting a seemingly heartfelt apology, which said in part: “I want to say a few words about #HowIMetYourRacism…we set out to make a silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we’ve always loved. But along the way we offended people. We’re deeply sorry, and we’re grateful to everyone who spoke up to make us aware of it.”
Naturally, a Twitter backlash rose to meet the backlash, with some accusing #HowIMetYourRacism posters as being overly sensitive (and one, strangely, wishing Lou Gehrig’s disease on all of them):
“Really folks? Stop being so hypersensitive. It was to spoof Kung Fu movies. I can’t stand this politically correct B.S.”
“I”m going to defend this thing I have no stake in because I think you people are overreacting like you always do.”
“Carter should not have apologized. Heart was in the right place but bowing to lunatics sets a bad precedent.”
In response, a man tweeted, “So now we Asians have to adhere to Americans’ understanding of what is racism and what is not? Cool!”
It’s sad and embarrassing that some of us non-Asians need to be told this, but I’ll say it anyway: You don’t get to decide what is an acceptable depiction of their culture. They do. And just because you think Asians are cool doesn’t make it OK to trot out stereotypes evocative of painful past decades of overt racism.
Here is one example of what was once considered OK, from the lede in the 1926 article in the New York Sun “Ellis Island Is Transformed: Has Kindergarten Nursery, Cleaner Quarters and Entertainment for Immigrants”:
“Little Ching-Chow Chinaman sits next to Olga from Russia, his black sloe eyes contemplating gravely the big, bright tinseled Christmas tree that still is standing. He is wondering what it’s all about. He would like to ask Olga, whose pink cheeks and blue blouse and high boots have attracted him greatly. But a Chinese question and a Russian answer don’t carry you very far in the getting acquainted process, so he smiles instead.”
Sure, 1926 was obviously a long time ago, but the controversy over the Brooklyn, N.Y., bar that made invites for an “Oriental party,” that promised “coolie couture” “open sesame noodles” and “ancient Chinese secrets” was in November, in case you missed it. That incident was also noteworthy because the bar owner didn’t seem to think the flyer was racist and his subsequent apology was fairly limp and half-assed.
Aquino explains the problem with the show in the conclusion of her article: “Just because it’s a joke on TV doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hold real power and influence. The dismal portrayals of Asian people and cultures we do get, and lack of Asian representation on screen, directly influences how audiences view Asians, what they expect from them, and how they treat them. A person’s ethnicity doesn’t have to define who he or she is. Let’s quit being lazy with this casual racism and get a little smarter.”
Angry Asian Man‘s blog was more weary than angry commenting on Bay’s apology:
“I appreciate apologies that acknowledge wrongdoing and avoid placing blame on the offended. People make mistakes. But this apology sounds a lot like the really really nice guy who hates it when people are mad at him. We get it, you feel terrible that we were offended. You feel terrible that you messed up. So how about actually addressing what you did to mess up? Aw, hell. I’m nitpicking at lackluster apologies.
Really, you just wish they’d had the sense to avoid this bullshit altogether. Obviously, as usual, that was asking too much. Now we all have that image of fu manchu’d Ted Moseby seared into our souls.”
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.