How do you feel about an MSNBC reporter calling Spike Lee ‘uppity’?

Clint and Spike are having a spat. (from Gawker.com)

File this under “you’re too sensitive” if you want, but I think people of color notice these types of media mistakes because they reflect, deep-down, America’s lack of evolution on the diversity front.

From Gawker a few days ago: an MSNBC reporter described Spike Lee as “uppity” because of his back-and-forth spat with Clint Eastwood over the lack of African American soldiers represented on his two films about the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.” When Lee’s criticism, which he made when he was at the Cannes Film Festival in May, was published, Eastwood responded that Lee should “shut his face.”

I linked to the Gawker story in my Facebook page, and this morning I got an IM from a friend in New York, Peter V, who said he didn’t get what the fuss was about. “Forgive my ignorance – but is ‘uppity’ a racial slur? I missed that one,” he said.

I thought about it, because I had immediately linked to the Gawker piece, but upon reflection, he was right “uppity” in itself is not an offensive word. It’s the historical context that I was responding to.

“In itself, no,” I replied. “But someone in the national media should know the loaded nature of using the word when referring to a black man…. She may not have meant anything by it, but shame on her. It has hundreds of years of hate and hangings behind it…”

As I explained in a follow-up email, the parallel, for me, is that I grew up hearing the phrase “sneaky Japs” — all my life, from other kids in school, on the playground, at work (back in the day, when workplaces were less enlightened) and elsewhere, from all ages.

So if a national TV reporter were to make a comment about a prominent Japanese American — for instance, Sen. Dabniel Inouye from Hawai’i, a Medal of Honor winner and one of the highest-ranking Dems in Congress — and said something like, “Sen. Inouye was sneaky the way he introduced his defense bill amendment…”

I’d get a huge knot in my stomach and my face would flush and my first reaction would be to start an email campaign against the network.

I probably would give the reporter the benefit of the doubt and realize she’s not racist, just ignorant and insensitive to the power of built-up context. But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that what she said sliced through me like a knife.

I also can relate to Lee’s gripe about the lack of African Americans in Eastwood’s movies. We constantly notice the lack of Asian faces in mass media, and it was especially noticeable when Michael Bay’s blockbuster film “Pearl Harbor” was released back in 2001.

I griped back then that it was weird to have a movie take place in Honolulu in 1940 and yet have nary an Asian face on the set. There were a couple in one beach bar scene (exotic, hot Asian babes, of course) and one apparent Japanese American doctor (played by a Chinese American actor) during the hospital bombing scene, with a very short bit of dialogue. The rest of the Asian faces were the Japanese military, or the ominous spy. At least the movie included Cuba Gooding, Jr. subplot about African Americans earning their place in the U.S. military.

Asian Americans often hear, when we complain about radio shock jocks, or Rosie O’Donnell, or even Shaquille O’Neal making “ching chong” jokes, that we should calm down, lighten up and get a sense of humor. It’s hard to explain to people not only why those kinds of comments aren’t funny, but why we as a community can’t take it anymore.

There are too many years of built-up resentment that are packed into even some seemingly innocuous words. (Thanks btw to Allegra Mira for sending me the link to Gawker about MSNBC, and to Eric Sung for the link to HuffPost about the Spike vs. Clint exchange.)

What’s your reaction to both the back-and-forth between filmmakers, and the MSNBC reporter’s use of the word “uppity”?

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4 Responses to How do you feel about an MSNBC reporter calling Spike Lee ‘uppity’?

  1. I found Lee’s complaints, which, I think, were confined to one movie — that there were black soldiers at Iwo Jima and they weren’t seen in Flags of Our Fathers – out of place. Eastwood’s explanation that he didn’t include black soldiers because none actually raised the flag made sense to me, and I have no reason to believe, at least from his films, that Eastwood is a racist. Had I been him (and, full disclosure, I’m a white male), I probably would have said something close to what Eastwood uttered.

    Reporters, I suppose, should never use any word that might offend anyone at any time, but that’s not likely. I don’t think Sen. Inouye is a particularly good example, but not being able to describe a Japanese-American congressman as “sneaky” is, at least to me, going too far – why is it OK to imply that about the Bush administration but not a prominent Japanese-American? I think this leads to provocateurs like Michelle Malkin and a world where perceived slights like the Rachel Ray scarf incident detract from the actual problems you describe.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Great points, Leland, and yeah, Inouye is not a good example.

    Of course I’d be fine with someone calling the Bush administration “sneaky,” but that’s my point — that given historical context, certain words have a lot more power than they normally would.

    So if I ever heard ANY Asian being described as “sneaky,” I’d get that tight feeling in my stomach.

    As for Spike Lee’s comment, I gotta agree with Spike. If there were African Americans serving, it would have taken no effort on Eastwood’s part to have African American cast members. Gone are the days when you can paint a white dude as a native American or Hispanic; movies today go to great lengths to be historically accurate. That’s why the lack of Asian faces in “Pearl Harbor” — even just as extras in the background — was mystifying.

    I mean, how hard could it have been to throw some APA actors or just people meandering by the set, into the scene?

    Thanks for fostering dialogue!

  3. We can agree to disagree about Lee’s comments. I guess it wouldn’t be hard to include APA actors or people meandering by the set. But that sounds more to me like tokenism than inclusion.

  4. Conrad Ohashi says:

    Stumbled upon your post. You should file this under “you’re too sensitive” too.

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