A white passing Asian’s insight into the majority’s fascination with politically incorrect jokes.
By Anna-Mei Szetu
On the playground short seven-year-old fingers sat at the corners of eyes and jerked upward, pulling at their eyelids. ‘My mum’s Chinese!’ primary school children would exclaim before all pulling their fingers down.
‘My dad’s Japanese! Look what happened to me!’ Everybody would burst into laughter as they pulled the edge of one eye up and the other down.
My primary school often felt segregated. It preached multiculturalism and specialised in teaching English as a second language, but despite the rainbow of ethnicities it had to offer, all of the people fluent in English had a separate class. They were all white, besides me. With olive skin and almond eyes, I looked admittedly out of place and some may have even called me exotic, but the overall consensus said that I must have been white. There was something inherently funny to a group of children about having small Asian eyes and at the time, I desperately made sure my eyes were as wide as possible at all times to be sure that my face was not worthy of a chuckle.
Somewhere between six and sixteen my features stretched vertically and the face I saw in the mirror contorted to be intrinsically caucasian. In recent years I’ve been acutely aware of my Eurocentric appearances; my large eyes and pronounced nose have allowed me to pass as white for most of my teenage life. My ethnicity has turned into something of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. It’s not a secret, nor is it necessarily common knowledge, unless you’re able to decipher the origins of my rare two-character surname or just click a few buttons on my facebook profile to find a photograph of my father.
A childhood friend, a white passing half Malaysian boy like myself, shared with me a story; he was on the train with an Asian friend when he found his friend berated with racial slurs while he was untouched. It’s the sort of experience which I believe most white passing Asians share- we see racism, but it isn’t used to attack us.
Despite that, it feels like an attack on us. Racial slurs are still slurs against us because appearance has never changed our race. Every day I hear people make fun of my culture and have to internalise stereotypes people have about me when they discover my ethnicity. I’m told that I just can’t be offended by jokes about Chinese or Malaysian culture because I’m ‘basically a white person’.
My experience being racially misidentified has taught me a lot of things. It’s shielded me from racism, for the most part, but at the same time has exposed me to a side of my society that a lot of people of colour aren't. Dismissive jokes about Asians bombard me daily.
“Asian invasion!” laughed a school mate of mine as a group of university students from China passed us. Most of the people around him snickered until my friend’s cough cut through the noise. Her eyes darted between the jokester and me. I could hear the cogs turning in his skull when he deciphered the origin of my name; Mei- so typically Chinese.
My ambiguous ethnicity has allowed people to joke comfortably about race in my presence. I see the side of white people that chooses to make light of people for their culture and ethnicity when nobody of colour is watching. That incident was not even the first time that week.
Two days earlier, palms pressed together in front of his chest, smile wide across his face so his large Caucasian eyes were as small as they would ever be, a white boy bowed. “Hello Mr Calculator!” he exclaimed in his best Chinese accent, toward my Korean-Australian friend, back, just out of his earshot.
For a moment, I wondered if he knew that I was half Asian, but by the grin on his face and the way he looked at me- like I should laugh along- I knew that he was oblivious. However, his gesture cut deeper than flesh and went beyond appearances. It pierced my pride and reduced me, my family and friends of Asian heritage to stereotypes. We were all, once again, just the punchline to a white boy’s joke.
White passing comes with volumes of privilege, none of which is lost on me. I am not affected by the socially ingrained prejudices and stereotypes that those with more Asian appearances are. My father has always told me that I get to see people differently to how he does. People may not be racist to the face of a person of colour, but that often doesn’t stop them from making politically incorrect jokes when there are no minorities to call them out. While my father rarely hears the stereotypes, I hear them every day. I hear people talking about my city ‘turning into China’ with all of ‘those god-d*mned Asians running around’ and jokingly warning their friends not to leave their dogs tied to street signs in Chinatown.
I can't speak for those who make racist jokes, but from what I gather they struggle with the idea of compromising their humor for the sake of political correctness. I understand that it can be challenging to feel like your words are under a microscope and having to watch everything that you say. Compare it to spitting in public, or not covering your mouth when you cough; it's just rude, and it makes people uncomfortable. It shouldn't be something that society is comfortable with.
When people are validated with laughter for making politically incorrect jokes about race, culture or nationality, the notion that people of colour are inferior and worth mocking is perpetuated and continued. It may seem like a harmless joke, there might not be anybody present to be offended and it may not be said with malicious intent, but that doesn’t change the outcome.
If you make a joke about race, you reduce every member of that race, present or otherwise, to a stereotype and remind anybody who hears your joke that people of colour are different.
We are once again the ‘them’ of western societies’ ‘them-and-us’ narrative.
We are other; other than normal and other than human.