Sunday night, I turned on the Golden Globe Awards for one reason—to watch John Legend accept an award. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have, well, a bit of a crush on Mr. Legend. He’s talented, brave, philanthropic, political, a Penn graduate, and, ummm, very easy on the eyes. No apologies. I thoroughly enjoyed Legend winning an award for his work with rapper Common on the song Glory, which appeared in the profound, timely, and important film Selma.
I also enjoyed one of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s jokes. The duo hailed the accomplishments of Amal Alamuddin, who happens to be married to George Clooney. They noted all of her achievements and that, ironically, it was her husband who was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. For some time, I have enjoyed the poignant Feminist comedy of these two women as I think it is important to point out gender inequities and even the fact that Amal may be the real ‘catch’ in the relationship. The joke was lighthearted, meaningful, and had a nice kick at the end.
Unfortunately, Fey and Poehler led and participated in an offensive attack on Asians during their routine that left me embarrassed and ashamed. Over the years, I have noticed that these two White women are very outspoken when issues pertain to women but that they are often quiet when the subject is race.
In this case, they didn’t remain quiet. They—along with comedian Margaret Cho—mocked North Korea, and then Koreans in general, and then participated in perpetuating quite a few Asian stereotypes. Oh, and by the way, just because someone Asian participates doesn’t make it okay; context matters. Every so often, I have watched Fey and Poehler wander into race-based comedy and it’s always awkward. Very awkward.
I should note that I don’t agree with North Korea’s actions around the film The Interview. I don’t believe in censorship and don’t condone the North Korean leader’s threats. I think freedom of speech is vital to our country and to humanity’s growth. However, mocking other cultures and putting stereotypes on display is not funny, and, in fact, it’s hateful and harmful. One joke about North Korea’s policies might have been fine—a joke about the country’s leader and his censorship or overreaction, perhaps.
However, as the night progressed, I realized that the “North” on Korea was dropped, that the character portrayed by Cho was not the North Korean leader but a caricature of what we believe North Koreans act like and look like. I also realized that the caricature became a pure mockery of Asians by the end of the show—in terms of movement and accent. It wasn’t funny and I didn’t laugh.
Fey and Poehler’s participation in the mockery of Asians made me think about the way so many of us stand up for ourselves—in their case White women—but don’t stand up for others. Most of us do this regardless of our racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender, or sexuality. How often do we call for respect for ourselves and our needs yet laugh at others’ pleas for respect and equality? Just as I care about equal rights and the dignity of women, I also care about the equal rights and dignity of my Asian brothers and sisters. I realize that neither the actions of the government of a nation nor its leader represent the people as a whole. I don’t want to see Asians mocked.
What’s interesting is that very few people laughed; the Asian mockery made people visibly uncomfortable, yet the ‘jokes’ continued. It reminded me of the Oscars, when Seth MacFarlane hosted and talked graphically and sexually about women throughout the show. Women were outraged and called for Fey and Poehler to host the event instead. Where is White women’s outrage when something similar is happening to others?
For an answer as to why we should all be outraged when others are mocked or denied their human dignity, look to the words of rapper/actor Common, who so beautifully summarized our interconnectedness in his Golden Globe acceptance speech. He said:
“The first day I stepped on the set of ‘Selma’ I began to feel like this was bigger than a movie. As I got to know the people of the Civil Rights Movement, I realized I am the hopeful Black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring White supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed Black kid who maybe needed a hand, but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers murdered in the line of duty. ‘Selma’ has awakened my humanity.”
Until we, like Common, realize that our destiny is linked to each other and awaken our own humanity, we’ll never achieve equality, exemplify dignity, and secure happiness in our lives.
Dr. Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and also directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.