The Banality of Televised Anti-Chinese Racism

Recent incidents on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and on Holland's Got Talent reveal the persistence of casual bigotry—intended or not—toward China and Chinese people.
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A man holding up a sign during an anti-Jimmy Kimmel protest in downtown Washington, D.C. on November 9. (Matt Schiavenza)

Last week's episode of Holland's Got Talent featured a 30-year-old Chinese-born contestant named Xiao Wang, a PhD candidate who moonlights as an opera singer. Xiao was on hand to sing "La donna e mobile," an aria from Verdi's Rigoletto, and performed beautifully.

However, one of the talent judges on the show, a Dutch singer named Cornelis Willem Heuckeroth, used the segment as an opportunity to mock Xiao's Chinese-ness.

Here were a few of Heuckeroth's comments:

"Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?"

"This is the best Chinese I've had in weeks, and it's not takeaway!"

"He looks like a waiter from a Chinese restaurant."

"This is the best Chinese person I've ever seen, and he's not even a delivery boy."

Hueckeroth, who for some reason goes by the name "Gordon," also called Xiao's performance a "surplise."

The other two panelists on the show both looked embarrassed by Gordon's remarks; one, an American named Dan Karaty, even told him that he's "really not supposed to say things like that."

***

The incident came after a controversy last month from Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the ABC late-night show, in which Kimmel convened a panel of children for a mock discussion of current events. At one point, Kimmel asked the kids what the U.S. should do about its debt to China.

"Kill everyone in China," said a 6-year-old boy, to which Kimmel replied: "OK, that's an interesting idea."  

The segment triggered an immediate reaction: Chinese and Chinese-American groups picketed outside ABC studios and even petitioned the White House; subsequently, while both Kimmel and the network have apologized, the anger has not yet entirely subsided.

In fact, the reaction to the Kimmel gaffe has been so strong that it has even triggered a counter-reaction from those who believe that the Chinese groups overreacted. Anthony Tao, a Chinese-American writer and principal author of Beijing Cream, an excellent blog, wrote:

A serious question, fellow Chinese community members: what kind of joke—something actually funny—with the word “China” or “Chinese” in it would you consider acceptable? Where’s the line that, if not crossed, won’t make you go signing an online petition as if anyone** thinks killing all Chinese people is actually a good idea?

I understand Anthony's logic, but disagree with his point here; obviously, even the most paranoid, jingoistic Chinese person knows that the United States harbors very few people (much less children!) who hold mass-murdering fantasies about China. I'd guess that just about everyone in China realizes that the humor (or attempted humor) of the segment was just how outrageous the boy's comment was, as well as Kimmel's deadpan reaction.

But the reality is—and the incident on Dutch TV confirms this—that offensive references to Chinese people remain common in popular culture. A doctoral student who sings opera on the side is casually mocked for his racial similarity to Chinese immigrants who work in restaurants. A boy calling on everyone in a country to be killed is just an innocent, amusing comment from a little rugrat. And it isn't just China, either: In September, a CNBC host in employed a mocking Indian accent to discuss the value of the rupee, India's currency. So it goes.

In March, my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an op-ed in The New York Times discussing an incident in which the African-American actor Forest Whitaker was stopped and frisked in a Manhattan deli by the owner, who didn't recognize him and suspected him of shoplifting. Once the owner recognized Whitaker, he was mortified—because he didn't consider himself a racist. Wrote Ta-Nehisi:

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.

That applies in the case of anti-Chinese racism, too: It isn't just that the Dutch TV personality is a jerk (though, frankly, he seems to be), or that Jimmy Kimmel and his producers are particularly insensitive (they might be, though having watched the show I doubt it). It's that we still live in a society where these sentiments still arise, and that these "slip-ups" occur with numbing regularity.  

These events have real consequences, too, in how Chinese people see the United States. Consider this poll conducted by the Chinese news broadcaster Phoenix TV about the Kimmel incident, which was helpfully translated by ChinaSmack. When asked whether they believed they believed "the 'kill everyone in China' remark said by the 6-year-old child on the television program was by chance," a large majority (62 percent) said that "this is the negative consequences borne by the long-term dissemination of the notion of a Chinese threat/menace on public platforms at all levels of American society."

Elsewhere in the poll, nearly a third of respondents believed that "America's media and education are currently slipping toward extreme anti-China sentiments." 83 percent of the respondents believed that the American media owed China and Chinese people an apology; hence, it isn't particularly surprising that ABC and Kimmel went ahead and did so.

Kimmel's termination—or Heuckeworth's—won't ensure that anti-Chinese racism will go away. But the point in calling for them isn't to provide a proportional solution to a discrete problem. It's to raise awareness that this issue—both in the U.S. and around the world—is worse than most people realize. 

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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