Real Talk: Jokes About Asian Children Are Not Funny. Period.

Doane Clehane and her beautiful daughter

Everyone knows that Asian kids are good in math, play the piano, and love martial arts. Right? People have been telling me that ever since my husband and I adopted our daughter from China 10 years ago. But don't take my word for it; just ask Chris Rock, who thought it was a good idea to use Asian children as props for a racist joke about China and Chinese sweatshops at this year's Oscars.


On a night where the subject of diversity -- specifically about the lack of respect and actual opportunities for African-Americans in Hollywood -- took up all the oxygen in the room, Rock decided it would be funny to play on Asian stereotypes for a cheap laugh.

When the comedian introduced the "dedicated, accurate, and hardworking" accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers as "Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz," three thoroughly confused-looking Asian children in tuxedos walked onto the stage.

And in case that wasn't insulting enough, Rock added, "If anybody is upset about this joke, just tweet about it on your phone which was also made by these kids."

So, in addition to all Asians being math nerds, they are also child laborers working in factories so all these rich white people can have the newest iPhone.


My first thought was, what parents in their right mind would knowingly allow their children to be a living punchline? Well, it turns out they didn’t -- until it was too late. After the show, Laura Kung, mother of 8-year-old Estie Kung -- who was part of the skit -- told reporters she assumed "there was a bigger picture ... given all the emphasis placed on diversity" when her daughter was chosen to appear at the ceremony. It was only after the contract had been signed and the children were in rehearsal before the show that Kung learned the truth.

More from The Stir: New Civil Rights–Era American Girl Doll Still Leaves a Huge Hole in the Story of Black Girls in America

The whole thing reminded me of a Modern Family episode where stage daddy Cameron is thrilled when Lily lands a spot in a commercial, only to discover at the taping that his adopted Chinese daughter was picked so she could be part of an offensive Godzilla spoof with white actors doing bad Japanese voice-overs.

"You're only interested in seeing these children as interchangeable stereotypes, not human beings," Cameron tells the director as he picks up another Asian baby he mistakes as his own. The implicit joke is that all Asian babies look alike -- even to their parents.

Just imagine if Rock's joke had been done using Jewish children, or if the Modern Family episode involved black babies.

That would never, ever happen.

And why not?

Because somehow it's still acceptable to subject Asians to racism and offensive caricatures disguised as "entertainment." Maybe it's because as an ethnic group, Asians have been largely silent when faced with prejudice and maybe it's because the offending comments are often deemed by the offenders as largely innocuous -- even complimentary.

I know this because it has happened to me and to my daughter over the years. The first incident occurred when she was about 2. A stranger approached me in the supermarket and asked, "Does she just eat Chinese food? She must eat a lot of rice. What do you cook for her?" -- like she was some sort of exotic animal.

Then, when she was in the third grade, there was a boy who would pull his eyelids back and ask her how she could see through "her slits." His mother told me he was "just kidding."

Last year, when I worried she wasn't grasping the ridiculously convoluted way long division is taught in elementary school these days, a well-meaning friend consoled me by saying, "What are you worried about? She's Chinese!"

Maybe, just maybe, we've reached the tipping point.

More from The Stir: A Book Like 'Bad Hair Doesn't Exist!' Would've Made Growing Up a Heck of a Lot Easier for Me

In 2012, when an ESPN anchor used the phrase "chink in the armor" in a headline referring to Chinese-American Jeremy Lin, the rising star -- who was playing for the New York Knicks at the time -- downplayed the controversy.

But not this time. After the Oscars, Lin took to Twitter asking, "When is this going to change?" adding he was "tired of it being 'cool' and 'ok' to bash Asians." A whole host of other Asian celebrities also spoke out against Rock’s tasteless joke.

Will more Asian-Americans, who have been branded quiet and unassuming by a wide swath of people too lazy to look beyond the stereotype, speak out against the racism that has relegated them to the sidelines in the culture wars in this country? And will their collective voice help children like my daughter?

I hope the outrage over Rock's comment is a sign that our national conversation about race may finally be moving beyond issues that are just black and white, and Asians gain their rightful place in the great minority movement of 2016. My daughter needs to know that racism against Asians -- in any form -- isn't okay. And she needs to hear that from someone besides her parents.

And for goodness' sake, the next time an adult wants to put his or her own ignorance on display, just leave innocent kids out of it.



Diane ClehaneDiane Clehane is a New York Times best-selling author and award-winning journalist who has written about celebrities, popular culture, and parenthood for Vanity Fair, Forbes, and People and many other national publications. She writes the popular "Lunch" column for She is at work on her first novel.

Image via Diane Clehane

Read More >