First, an admission: I didn’t watch the Oscars last night—or, as host Chris Rock referred to them, “the White People’s Choice Awards.” I was tuned in to a livestream of #JusticeForFlint instead, the protest benefit concert organized by black filmmakers Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station and Creed).
DuVernay and Coogler conceived the fundraiser as a way to both call out the Oscar’s appalling diversity problem, while also bringing attention to a pressing American tragedy directly related to the absence of people of color in positions of influence in our society. It worked: They raised nearly $150,000 from over 3,600 donors (and they’re still accepting donations here).
But there was no ignoring the spectacle occurring at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood—even DuVernay peppered her Twitter feed with occasional references to That Other Event. And while I had decided to refrain from watching, the prospect of Rock bringing the pain to a theater full of Hollywood’s most cream-colored crème de la crème was awfully tempting. And so, I cheated: I kept a tab open during his monologue and monitored the reactions of my friends to his blistering assault on the Academy Awards’ embarrassing whiteness. As it culminated with an appearance by a still Clueless Stacey Dash I, too, snorted out loud at model Chrissy Teigen’s outstanding “dashface” reaction to the cameo of a still Clueless Stacey Dash’s appearance.
But my amusement was shortlived. You see, during the tedious but obligatory live promo segment for the accounting firm of PriceWaterhouseCooper—the company that tallies the votes from the Academy’s 94% white membership in order to determine which of the white nominees will win awards—Rock and his writers apparently decided to juice things up a bit. Introducing the firm’s “most dedicated, accurate and hard working representatives “Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz” Rock welcomed to the stage three Asian American kids who were clearly dazzled by the glare of the spotlights and attention. The room offered up polite, uncertain applause, to which Rock, clearly expecting this discomfort, delivered the kicker: “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just Tweet about it on your phone—that was also made by these kids.”
For those keeping track at home, that’s an Asian Model Minority stereotype joke wrapped around a gag with a whiff of anti-Semitism (Asians, the new Jews, amirite?) followed by a joke about Asian sweatshops and child labor.
The whooshing sound Rock may have heard as his child actors exited the stage was the collective noise of gut-punched Asian American viewers simultaneously releasing their breath. This momentary paused was followed very quickly by an outcry on social media.
It was an unfortunate, embarrassing, and frankly ugly moment—given that the three cute Asian American kids seemed—like Stacey Dash—entirely unaware that they were being made the butt of the joke. This after, as The LA Times’s black Twitter correspondent Dex Thomas noted, the 2016 Oscars had featured more Minions than Asians onstage. (Minions would feature later in another joke orchestrated by Sacha Baron Cohen—dressed as his hiphop caricature Ali G—riffing on an “overlooked” group of “yellow people with tiny dongs.”)
Besides the cringe-worthy humor, these missteps risked derailing a real and critical conversation about representation and diversity by unleashing a tidal wave of Asian Twitter frustration. The frustration was perhaps understandable, since Asian Americans are so far off the Oscar radar that the only presenters the Academy could hastily pull together to represent our community—Dev Patel, Lee Byung-Hun and Priyanka Chopra—were all foreign nationals who’ve never actually been nominated for an Oscar. But more importantly it threatened to direct attention away from the movie industry’s horrific record on diversity and toward a soul-crushing, divide-and-conquer discussion of black versus Asian relations.
The gag was disappointing, distracting and ultimately, a waste of time, especially since, as Kat Dennings pointed out (Kat Dennings! Star of the sitcom featuring the grossest Asian stereotype in present-day pop culture!) that the Academy had cut short the acceptance speech of the only Asian nominee and winner, Pakistani documentarian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, while she was urging the world to pay more attention to the global human rights crime of “honor killings.”
Which leaves us with the one silver lining for Asian Americans from last night’s Oscar telecast: The imminent immortalization of hapa Thai American Chrissy Teigen’s expression in the next Unicode emoji release. Dashface all around!