Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Racism in humor: It’s no longer cool to tell an “Oriental” joke
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Racism in humor: It’s no longer cool to tell an “Oriental” joke

I grew up in an era before political correctness, when racial jokes were a staple of standup comedy. I’m talking jokes by white comics about minorities. It took until the ’70s when black comics like Richard Pryor started turning racial humor on its head, making fun of white people as well as blacks.

These days, there are Asian American standups who tell some hilarious jokes about AAPIs, and our sometimes peculiar cultural values and traditions.

But it’s been a long time since I heard a joke about Asians told by a white person.

So imagine my bemusement when a co-worker whom I’m friendly with (as opposed to a friend with whom I might socialize), came up to me in the office kitchen today.

“I’m sure you heard this, but I’m going to tell it anyway,” he said excitedly, chuckling to himself.

“So this Oriental man goes to the doctor (first wince) to have his eyes looked at (second wince, since I just heard about Miley Cyrus’ ‘chinky-eyed’ photo). The doctor looks at him and says, ‘I have some bad news… you have a cataract.’ ‘I don’t have a cataract,’ the man replies. ‘I have a rincon continentaru.'”


Big wince. And, a laugh. Or two.

This co-worker is a good guy, and we’ve had several thoughtful conversations about race and racial attitudes. He’s a baby boomer, very close to my age, and I would describe him as being pretty progressive and open-minded. But he grew up in that earlier, pre-PC era of comedy, and he remembered this joke from the old “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” TV show, and says he has told it many times in the years since.

It’s a good joke… from back in the day. I’m not sure you could tell it today any more than you could tell jokes about African Americans and watermelon (unless you’re Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock) , or sing the Frito Bandito TV commercial song out loud.

I could imagine an Asian American comic telling it, but even then, my co-worker’s version has a couple of problems.

First, “Oriental” is for rugs, “Asian” is for people. So it’s an Asian man. Second, this mangling of “R”s and “L”s is a Japanese language issue, not other Asians. That’s why American GIs used the word “Lollapalooza” to test the pronunciation of soldiers to make sure they were Japanese American, not Japanese. (Is this an apocryphal anecdote? I’ve grown up believing it… it must have been in a John Wayne movie or something.)

So, maybe this joke only makes sense for a Japanese American comedian to tell. I don’t know.

The point is that comedy, like language and everything else in society, has evolved since the 1960s and even the ’70s. Some things that were acceptable as funny then just won’t fly today.

I told my co-worker when he apologized that there was no apology needed. He’s sensitive to racial issues, and although he didn’t have a clue that this joke might be offensive in any way, he’s very open to having me explain my position. He said he’d have to rethink a lot of jokes he’s cherished since his childhood, because in retrospect, so many of them derive their humor from racial stereotypes.

I told him don’t sweat it. I know he’ll think before telling these types of jokes again. And I added that my dad, who passed away 15 years ago, probably would have loved that joke. In fact, I think he used to tell it. In mixed company.

Then again, that’s the changing of the guard for you…. My dad was from that earlier era too.