Andrea K.J. scanned in some pages from Amy Sedaris’s book of entertaining and general lifestyle tips, I Like You, that contain racial caricatures:
Here’s a video in which Sedaris refers to Asians as “Ching-Chongs”:
And Racelicious has a post about this autograph Sedaris gave:
When Rosie O’Donnell used the phrase “ching chong,” there was a public outcry, as there was when various Olympic teams (and later Miley Cyrus) were caught on camera pulling their eyes back to make them look like stereotypically slanted “Asian” eyes. If most people put out a book that had the images in it that Sedaris’s book has, people would immediately see them as racist.
And yet Sedaris is a beloved figure among the hipster community. I have a copy of her book, a birthday present from a friend (which led to an awkward situation in which a friend opened it and began reading a random passage aloud to his culturally conservative mom, and the passage turned out to be about keeping your vagina clean). So why does Sedaris get a pass by so many people?
A poster over at Gawker argues,
…does anyone honestly believe Sedaris called people “Ching Chong” (twice) because she hates or stereotypes Asian people? It’s as clearly comedic — in intent at least — as the New Yorker’s Obama cover, or Sarah Silverman “Chink” joke on Conan O’Brien’s Late Night (on trying to avoid jury duty: “My friend is like, why don’t you write something inappropriate on the form, like ‘I hate chinks.’ “) The worst that can honestly be said is that it’s in bad taste, and what the hell is left of Amy Sedaris’ comedy if you take away her well-deployed bad taste?
This gets at an interesting issue surrounding humor, particularly racial humor: who can claim the right to appropriate racist humor and use it in an ironic way? Sedaris’s status as a hipster darling surely buys her more “irony credit,” as Ryan at Gawker says, than most people would get. She gets to use racist images/language and, because of her quirky persona, instead of being outraged, most people laugh.
But at some level, what is the difference between someone using racial humor in a straightforward way to presumably entertain their audience and people like Sedaris using racial humor in an ironic way to entertain their audience? She is, after all, using this type of humor to add to her kooky, “I say things in bad taste! I’m crazy!” schtick, upon which her career is built. But her chosen career is to say things that are transgressive and potentially offensive. But on the other hand, what’s so transgressive about making (ironic) racist jokes? Is it problematic for a comedian to use offensive stereotypes of groups they themselves aren’t part of as a casual, on-going part of their public persona, in which case they aren’t so much commenting on the stereotypes as using them to make money? If you’re an Asian person (or anyone else, for that matter) who sees buck-toothed caricatures of Asians used on a regular basis, do you really give a crap that some of the people using them are doing so in an apparently ironic way?
It makes my brain hurt thinking through all the convolutions! Your thoughts? Other examples?
Also check out Jay Smooth’s discussion of hipster racial humor here.