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.

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13 Responses to Racism in humor: It’s no longer cool to tell an “Oriental” joke

  1. enfu says:

    Nice article.
    I need to add though that if American GIs did really use this test of ‘Lollapalooza’ then many Japanese nationals will have passed.
    It is common knowledge of the R and L mixup, what isn’t common knowledge, even for Japanese Americans, is HOW if it is the R OR L they mix up.
    Let me be clear in which it is. Japanese have a hard time with ‘R’. Not ‘L’.
    Lollapaloozawould simply be read as :
    They would have passed this test like a Native English speaker.
    Better words to test Japanese for native fluency are words that use both R and L, not just L.
    Mr. Lee,
    are the best examples I’d use.

    I think the main reason for the confusion stems from the romaji uses the letter r. So when the Japanese use the Rs for the written form of the hiraganas らりるれろ but they actually pronounced like LaLiLuLeLo its confusing non Japanese speakers as to what they can or cannot pronounce. People probably think ‘can they not read their own writing correctly?’

    A great example of this is Ramen. The Japanese would pronounce this Lamen because thats how they say it. So when you see Japanese foods that start with R people automatically assume they can pronounce the Rs and not Ls.

    I’ve had to correct more than one Nikkei about this very issue. Common mistake.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Very important point — and one I should have realized when I heard the joke. know that it’s the “L”s that are difficult for Japanese. “Ramen” is a perfect example of this (I can hear my mom’s voice saying it). Thanks!

  3. enfu says:

    The “R”s are difficult for Japanese.
    The “L”s are not difficult.

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Sorry, that’s what I meant!

  5. Wanda Day says:

    I had so much trouble growing up trying to figure out whether my mother was saying an “L” and “R” and I ended up having a speech therapist in grade school. I had trouble with other Japanese too. What was real interesting was the differences in accents. My mother was taught English by a teacher with a British accent. My mother’s friends were taught by Americans from the Eastern US and the South. There was a variety of accents upon accents (like from what region they came from in Japan). I found I was the one that seems to have mixed up the “L”s and “R”s in my hearing. The only way I could really tell was to watch how they held their mouth while making the “L” or “R” sound and there was a subtle but distinct difference (and luckily it is not rude to look at another person’s mouth as they speak). I finally got ONE sound right according to my mom. I can finally hear the difference now. Why was it so important in my life? My last name was started with an “L” and one of my sister’s first name started with an “L”. Even funnier was my mother’s take on the word “Lollapalooza”. She believed that the double ‘L’ should be pronounced as a “Y” sound!

  6. Caroline says:

    I enjoyed reading your article – I’ll pass it along to some other friends.

  7. Hirofumi says:

    Hello Gil,

    I found that joke funny but I am studying English jokes. My English is poorer than most but my friend introduced me to your blog. He is Stephen Hunter. I don’t know you know him or not.

    I will bookmark this. Your blog is easier to practice my English reading. Sorry my page is Japanese. I am trying to make my English one.

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Hirofumi,

    Thank you for writing a comment. It’s interesting how Japanese in Japan view the things that offend Japanese Americans. For instance, a few years ago I wrote about the use of the word “Jap” which Japanese Americans find very offensive, and I had a Japanese person (living in Australia) criticize me for being too sensitive, and he said that’s a very common abbreviation in Japan. So thing change depending on your perspective….

  9. Hirofumi says:

    Thank you Gil for knowing me by your reply. I just wanted to say that in Japan most people wont think bad about the word Jap, but the Yakuza hate that word. Very dangerous to say now because who is listening we don’t know.

  10. Jan says:

    Very interesting article. This reminded me of my visit to Japan many years ago when I met a male cousin for the first time. We chatted about the English language. I asked him to say the word “light”, he pronounced it as “right”. I then asked him to say the word “rice”, he pronounced it as “lice”. He said his teacher taught him the pronounciations. This made me realize that he could pronounce “light” and “rice” correctly if coached.

  11. Tracy says:

    I think a white comedian should be able to tell some of these jokes if it’s from his personal observation/experience.

    A white person telling a chinese joke should be no different from an Indian person (Russell Peters) telling a chinese joke and he’d made millions on that fake accent!

  12. Remy says:

    Gil, first of all, let me say that I appreciated your presentation at Word Camp today. I am an aspiring journalist and appreciated your insight. As a Filipino-American, it was encouraging to see Asian men like you & Ben be such charismatic presenters. Many thanks!

    It’s always so awkward when an acquaintance uses “Oriental” incorrectly. I remember one particular woman telling me that I was “FLAT
    OUT WRONG” after I tried to explain the appropriate Asian/Oriental usage. I was stunned!

    I’m a gay man AND Asian so you can just imagine the challenges of dealing with both racism and homophobia. Gay jokes, racial jokes, they can be really offensive! Still, I think that few people have cruel intentions when they repeat them. I think that you’re right when you say that people repeat these jokes just because they don’t know any better. However, I do think that there is humor in spotlighting idiosyncrasies that each race inevitably displays (for Filipinos, it’s the V’s, P’s, & F’s). But, like you, I’m torn when it comes to the distinction between what is funny and what is disrespectful. After all, I joke with fake British accents and country-western twang. Does that offend white people?

  13. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Remy, thanks for the kind words about my WordCamp presentation. I wish we could have met in person afterwards, but I was outside the auditorium for only a few minutes before I had ti split.

    Obviously from my blog, people can tell my Asian-ness is very important to me. I can only imagine being both gay and Asian. We have some friends who are gay Asian Americans, but that’s definitely a minority within a minority!

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