Chinese Food and the Red Guard: When Does Insensitivity Cross the Line into Racism?

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Is a video about Chinese food, complete with gong sounds and a dancing panda racist? Or just tacky? If a popular Christian minister posts a propaganda picture of a Red Guard soldier, comparing the image to the zeal of his employees for their work, is that racist? Or just tone-deaf to massacre of 30 million people during the Cultural Revolution?

Those are the questions which have been dominating my Facebook feed over the past week, with Asian Americans passionately weighing in, and it brings up the question of what constitutes racism, especially in this age of online communication, which is both casual and calculated to promote page views.

Let’s start by looking at the YouTube video “Chinese Food”, a saccharine pop tune filled with stereotypical Asian imagery, all haphazardly mashed together to the vocals of 12-year old Alison Gold.

Image Credit: patomuzic, YouTube

On 8Asians, Joz Wang wrote about her disgust with this video:

”I can honestly say I watched and listened from beginning to end and I don’t know what I find most atrocious: the Japanese geisha girl outfits, the reference to “Oriental Avenue,” the subtitles inexplicably in every language, the creepy looking rapping panda, or simply the horror of what passes as “singing on YouTube” these days.”

On the KCET website, food writer Clarissa Wei is disgusted by the videos thoughtless mashup of stereotypes:

”What bothers me is not that it's a video on Chinese food, but that it was done with absolutely no consideration for the culture its discusses. What bothers me is that the producers are making money and capitalizing off of an inaccurate and haphazardly produced piece that jokes about my -- and many others'! -- heritage. (In contrast,here's a video on Chinese food, by the Fung Brothers that isn't racist.)”

Image Credit: patomuzic, YouTube

The guy in the panda suit is the song’s producer, Patrice Wilson -- the same guy behind another tween YouTube sensation, Rebecca Black, whose song "Friday" was hailed as the "worst song ever" when it came out a few years ago.

And it’s not just Asian American bloggers who are jumping on it. TIME calls it "The Worst Song of the Year", and Wired says "'Chinese Food' Is the New 'Friday'. Except Racist".

The other big controversy involving racial slurs against Asians involves Purpose Driven Life author and Saddleback Community Church Pastor Rick Warren. Three weeks ago, Warren posted a propaganda picture of a Red Guard soldier on his Facebook page. Ironicallly, Saddleback just opened a branch in Hong Kong earlier this month. Kathy Khang, who is a multi-ethnic college minister, was one of the leaders in calling attention to Warren’s Red Guard comments. Khang has been blogging about her concerns over the Red Guard imagery, as well as more general slurs against Asians among Evangelical churches, at More Than Serving Tea, and the movement has picked up steam, with a petition signed by hundreds of Asian American Christian leaders and coverage by the Orange County Register, NPR, and many religious publications.

And these are just the most publicized cases of casual racism against Asians. Earlier this fall, Seth MacFarlane’s new sitcom Dads drew criticism for its crass humor involving Asian stereotypes (math books, small penises, anime characters). and just this week, the tech world had its own share of racial slurs, such as SiriusXM personality Mike Babchik making a video at New York Comic Con harassing an Asian woman dressed in a steampunk geisha costume. When the woman pushed back, Babchik moved on to sexual comments. A few months ago, the video for the Day Above Ground song “Asian Girlz”, featuring an hyper-sexualized tattooed Vietnamese American model made headlines and caused the House of Blues to cancel a show.

Even though I’m a writer who follows race and gender, particularly affecting Asian women, I can’t keep up with all these instances, much less have the stomach to comment on all of them. And it makes me wonder: when is casual racism just offensive and when it is worth rallying against? Does the blogging and hang-wringing just give more publicity and money-making clicks to people who make videos such as “Asian Girlz” and “Chinese Food”? In the week since "Chinese Food" was uploaded to YouTube, it's received nearly 10 MILLION page views.

But Some influential Asian American commenters, such as the Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal and Randall at AsAm News don’t think the Chinese Food song is racist, even though the word "vomit" was used in both reviews. From AsAm News:

”Comparing Chinese Food to Asian Girlz is a huge stretch. Asian Girlz showed an Asian women in a bird cage being oogled over by a group of mostly white men. It was demeaning, sexist, racist and truly horrible.”

Not surprisingly, Patrice Wilson himself doesn’t think "Chinese Food" is racist. He told ABC’s Nightline:

“I just really love Chinese food and that is why I wrote a song about it. People are entitled to their opinion.”

One common suggestion for determining whether a remark is offensive is to imagine the group in that statement replaced with another demographic, perhaps one that you identify with. Taiwan-based Next Media Animation has created a parody of “Chinese Food” called “I Love American Food”.

Does watching the American food video make you see the "Chinese Food" song in a different light? Are casual slurs just rude or are they as damaging as other forms of racism? Let's talk about it in the comments.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.


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