The Problem With Racial Humor and Representation

When it comes to the portrayal of Asian-Americans in the media, visibility is not always positive or enriching to our community. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: I, being a male of Asian descent, am tired of being portrayed as the forever social outsider who will never be part of the crowd. Society tells me that what I lack in testosterone, I supposedly make up in intelligence. Or something.


While TV shows and movies can educate an audience by depicting issues that only racial minorities face, we all know that the media likes to use stereotypes as a cheap way to facilitate storytelling and provoke humor.  A recent example of this is the popular CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls, which features such heavy stereotyping of its three racial minority supporting characters that it inspired massive public outrage last year from various media outlets and bloggers.

The backlash reached its peak when, at a press conference with the show makers, producer Michael Patrick King deflected the criticisms by saying that it is acceptable for his show to poke fun at all minorities because he himself is gay. Calls for changes were ignored, and the show went on to receive three Emmy nominations and even win a People’s Choice Award for “Favorite New TV Comedy.”

Am I missing something here?

But just because I think 2 Broke Girls is painfully unfunny doesn’t mean I’m some overly sensitive person who’s completely devoid of a sense of humor.  Of course I enjoy the occasional ethnic joke—when it’s well-executed. In my experience, minority stand-up comedians do this exceptionally well.  My main problem with 2 Broke Girls—and most things that come out of Hollywood—is that rather than using racial humor as a tool against prejudice by ridiculing the depicted stereotypes, the jokes often end up becoming just another way to belittle and demean marginalized minority groups.

The Hollywood trope of ignoring the impact and consequences of stereotyping racial minorities is obviously not unique to 2 Broke Girls; ratings and advertising spots remain the bottom line for the profit-driven entertainment industry.  As long as producers and screenwriters are rewarded with record ratings, accolades, and more work—why should they care about fair and equal representation? Why should they care that stereotyped characterizations get absorbed into a collective public consciousness that perpetuates inaccurate perceptions about minority groups?

Because stereotypes are nonsense. Because a person is never the sum of their physical features. Because when you reduce someone to a stereotype, you stop seeing them as a human being.

And I suppose we shouldn’t place the blame entirely on the media. I mean, at what point do we hold the mirror up to our own behavior? Society has thrust its constructed expectations onto us without asking for our permission, so why shouldn’t we get to do the same to others?

This is where we come in. We know that there are a number of dedicated blogs and individuals devoted to AAPI issues out there, but we also recognize that there is still this dearth of critical attention being paid to the portrayal of our issues in the media. For every Phil Yu and Juliet Shen out there, there exists a bewildering number of mind-numbing Twitter trolls, primed for virulent ignorance.

Moreover, we are doing our part in creating a positive space that encourages constructive building within ourselves, so that we may add our voices to the conversation on how to make things better, on how to transform our minority identities beyond the stereotypical caricatures ascribed to us by the media and our peers.

Truth is, you can never know someone just by looking at them—no matter how hard you stare.


Lee Yang

Co-Editor in Chief
Kollaboration Blog


(Photo credit: CBS)

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