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.
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.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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