Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ask A Korean! News: Pandas in Super Bowl Ad? Sound the Racism Alert!

Apparently after the Super Bowl, some people are up in arms about one particular commercial:

Here is the Korean's reaction to those people: Get the fuck over yourselves.

Making a fuss over this ad takes the focus away from the real issue of the ad: It sucks. It's dumb. It shows not a shred of originality that people have come to expect from a Super Bowl ad. Talking about the ad gives it a longer life than the 30 seconds it deserves.

Pandas are from China. There is no dispute about this. So why is it so weird to have Panda speaking Chinese accent? And if a cartoon Panda speaks in Chinese accent, why must we demand it to speak in grammatically correct, complete sentences? No one whines when a leprechaun sings the grammatically incorrect sentence of "Catch me Lucky Charms, they're magically delicious!" in a decidedly un-masculine high pitch Irish accent. (The Korean has no way of truly knowing how good that Irish accent is, but he suspects that it is not much better than the pandas's Chinese accent.)

In fact, this little episode reveals more about Asian Americans themselves than the supposed racism in America. The Korean cannot help but notice that this type of episode tends to happen whenever there is a cartoon description of Asians on television or print media. (e.g. the Pat Oliphant cartoon incident a few years back.) The complaint is always the same too: the image invokes racially stereotypical caricatures. "How dare you depict my people with small eyes and yellow skins," they would say indignantly, "when I myself as well as many other Asians I know don't look anything like that caricature?"

News flash: No one looks like a caricature! How are cartoonists supposed to depict Asians when they need to depict Asians? Asians, as a race, have a distinctive look. We generally have yellow skin, small eyes, and small nose. We are on average shorter. Of course individually Asians all look different, and the Korean pointed it out repeatedly. But cartoonists are not portrait artists -- they are SUPPOSED to pick defining physical characteristics of a person to draw a representation of that person.

If Asians as a race share certain defining physical characteristics, how can a cartoonist NOT use such characteristics to depict Asians? George W. Bush cannot complain that cartonnists repeatedly make his ears appear big and jutted forward. The president's ears are a little large, and the cartoonists exaggerate that feature to make the pictoral representation recognizable. But just because a cartoonist depicts and exaggerates a physical feature that is common to a race, he instantly becomes a racist?

The fact that some Asian Americans get worked up over such portrayals of themselves means a very significant thing for Asian Americans: some Asian Americans DON'T LIKE THEIR OWN LOOKS. Why are they outraged at small-eyed cartoon characters when they themselves have small eyes? Why are they outraged at accented cartoon characters when many Asian Americans (especially their first-generation immigrant parents) speak with an accent?

The answer should be simple: they don't want to be seen as having small eyes and Asian accents. They are embarrassed of their own Asian characteristics, so they are outraged when someone points them out. It's the same affliction that drives Asian Americans into invisibility. They would rather blend in; they would rather be white, or black. Anything but Asian. They would rather not be different.

But not this Asian. The Korean, for one, is proud of his yellow skin, proud of his small, squinty eyes, and proud of his parents' accented, broken English that they built up from no English skill. Asian American live in a country in which the color of your skin matters the least in your success; a country where accented English speakers like Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwartznegger have achieved dazzling success. Difference is nothing to be embarrassed about -- not in America.

So Asians, please just leave the stupid panda alone. There are plenty of issues that deserve your outrage other than a failed commercial.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Agreed. Sometimes it is our own sensitivity to these perceived "injustices" that trap us all.

  2. I just read your profile, and it says that you went to college in the sf bay area. So it occurs to me that theres a chance you may be reading this post, while sporting a crimson red sweatshirt. If so...I forgive you. Go Bears.

  3. BLASPHEMY. The Korean bleeds Blue and Gold.

  4. Good man! I pledge my undying allegiance to this blog.

  5. I respect your work, but I gotta fervently disagree with you here.

    The ad's usage of fake "Asian" accents and the subsequent outrage had nothing to do with pandas or shame of the accents of first gen immigrants. The problem is the reinforcing of the "other-ness" of Asians. It's dehumanizes Asians and makes it easier to treat them poorly because if they're not the same as you and I, then it's okay.

    The language aspect of this is crucial because it emphasizes this otherness. Think about how African Americans have been marginalized in American culture. They're expected to speak "in a black manner" which is considered by mainstream society to be unarticulate and evident of poor education

    They used to get portrayed in black-face, with creepy oversized lips and bugged-out eyes. Would people be outraged if they saw an ad depicting that kind of Sambo-like caricature? Hell yes they would, and rightfully so.

    The same here. It has nothing to do with a lack of pride in one's parent's language or genetic heritage. It has everything to do with being treated as humans, and not stereotypes.

    To dismiss the issue by saying, "There are plenty of other issues more worthy of your attention" is a copout, and I'm calling you on it, because you can say that about damn near anything. If you see something wrong, you don't say, "Yeah, but there are worse things out there." You say, "That's not cool. Knock it off."

  6. I completely agree with curbludgeon, especially when one takes into mind the all-too-common idea that Asians somehow can never assimilate completely into American society -- this is what sets apart racism against Asians from against blacks and Latinos. Emphasizing our 'other-ness' is ultimately harmful, regardless of how you or I feel about it.

  7. I'd like to amend my comment by saying that a passive response (or none at all for that matter) is what allows racism against Asians to continue in almost covert ways. You mention the successes of Schwarzenegger and Kissinger, but despite their foreign origins, they are still white men. Studies consistently show that Asians are limited by a glass ceiling, needing far more education than their white counterparts to compete for the same positions, even then only to receive lower pay. To me, this is worse than being called a chink. At least you can call someone out on that.

    People probably did overreact to that ad; I'm in agreement with you on that. I, for one, don't care about it. And I'm sure there are many people out there who fit the bill of being ashamed of their differences.

    At the same time, it's just as fair for those people to voice their opinion as it was for those ad execs to air that moronic commercial.

  8. "They used to get portrayed in black-face, with creepy oversized lips and bugged-out eyes. Would people be outraged if they saw an ad depicting that kind of Sambo-like caricature? Hell yes they would, and rightfully so."

    You're absolutely right, a sambo-like caricature would be highly offensive. Something so explicitly derogatory and inherently racist should be met with criticism. But does this commercial qualify? The theatrical portrayal of black people using the black faced clowns in minstrelsy fashion, where theater actors colored their faces black, highlighted such "black" features such as big lips, and bugged out eyes, as you say, and proceeded to act like baffoons and portray black people as lazy...that is of course obviously offensive. But the use of Pandas, which as the Korean previously mentioned, that are indigenous to China, is not the same. If you saw a cartoon depiction of a kangaroo speaking with an Australian accent or a lion with an African accent, I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone shouting..."racism!"

    When you say they reinforce the "otherness", that in and of itself, I have no problem with. It is when we as the viewers place a value on those characteristics, that makes it wrong. FACT: Slanted eyes are a common characteristic of Asian people.

    Showing a character with slanted eyes to convey that character's ethnicity as Asian, is hardly inappropriate, and in fact only logical. It becomes a problem when that character, obviously intended to be identified as Asian, is portrayed as one who does, acts, and or behaves in negative ways. When we become offended simply hearing Asian accents, or seeing slanted eyes, it is the viewer finding the mere use of those characteristics offensive, that is placing a negative value on them. We are saying, slanted eyes are ugly, or derogatory. Chinese accents are derogatory. In effect we are saying, "You're using slanted eyes to convey that character is Asian. Slanted eyes are ugly. Therefore using images of this characteristic is offensive." Does that mean you look at those of us with slanted eyes, or those of us who speak with accents as inferior or in some way disgusting? Are these qualities, that many of us may possess negative ones?

    For someone to show clearly derogatory images, associating those images with a particular ethnicity, and dehumanizing the race is clearly wrong, and the intentions and actions of those who do so is a problem that should, no, must be addressed. In these instances we as viewers do have a responsibility to be proactive, and speak out. However, if inherent characteristics of a specific ethnicity, is merely shown in a commercial, is that wrong? Where in this commercial are they portraying Asian people, or specifically Chinese people in any negative way? The panda? The accent? It is the fact that we are offended by it that is worse. We make are the ones placing the negative value on those characteristics, just by taking offense to them.

    Have we become so overwhelmed with the need to find, and criticize any instance of perceived racism that we fail to realize that hyper-sensitivity can do more to hurt, than help the cause? Being overly sensitive can serve to hurt the credibility of the voices that speak out against real injustices. It serves to damage the credibility of those arguing against real issues. The more we are viewed as too sensitive or as nitpicking, the more damaging it can be to those instances where there is a real need and problem to be addressed.

    Again, I fully agree that issues of racism, separatism, and the perpetuation of negative images and stereotypes should never be ignored. Silence is akin to acceptance. I also understand that even nominally offensive things should not be tolerated as once we decide to do that, we enter a slippery slope. How much more will we tolerate or allow to become acceptable? Today a commercial, tomorrow a lynching? I am in no way saying, "oh that was kind of racist, but no biggie", I agree that would be dangerous. What I am saying is that we should really ask ourselves if this is something that deserves our attention before we are so quick to speak out "Racist!" For what? Merely displaying a Panda speaking with a Chinese accent? It's important to be mindful of what should warrant our attention and focus. Showing obvious Asian characteristics is not racist. We do it all the time when we're in public without our hockey masks on. It is when we ourselves take offense when people show them, that tells the world slanted eyes are bad, Chinese accents are bad,( or in this case Pandas are bad? I don't know). Like I said earlier, sometimes it is our own sensitivity to perceived injustices that continues to trap us all.

  9. Curbludgeon, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali: It's not a cop-out if you can back it up.

    The Korean hears your arguments. The "otherness" argument is important in Asian American lives, and in a way it's the other side of the coin of Asian American self-hate. We all want to be treated as Americans and not be assumed that we don't speak English. But push that idea too far, and it seems like we want to blend in so much that we ask people not to point out our distinctive characteristics, as if we are ashamed of them. (This is hardly an issue for Asian Americans alone -- this debate is still going on in the black community as well.)

    Ultimately, the Korean thinks that it is a matter of degrees. Everything is about the context. The Korean would have been really offended, for example, if the ad featured actors and not cartoon characters. Or if the cartoon characters showed pygmy-like people with buckteeth. But that's not the case; they are just pandas. And pandas are from China.

    Complicating this issue is the relationship between Asians and Asian Americans. The problem is: how much can Asian Americans be legitimately offended by depictions of Asians in Asia? And this is a necessary bridge for your argument. That is: panda => Asians in Asia => Asians in America. Therefore: panda described as "other" => Asian Americans described as "other". The Korean thinks that connection is a little too tenuous.

  10. My biggest problem with it was not that the panda had Chinese accents, but that the female panda was a screeching Chinese shrew, and the male panda was henpecked (which I supposed is generalizable to all races, but seems to show up primarily in Asian and Black caricatures), and that the panda (was this one the panda or the guru...) that solved their problems had no accent. Same with the guru - Indian, but no accent. It was pretty gut reaction that, while it might have been funny on Youtube or late at night on some cable channel, it didn't belong in the Super Bowl.

  11. I think it's simplistic to argue that all Asians offended by this commercial loathe their own images.

    When it's Potluck Culture Night at the local community center, everyone celebrates "otherness." Asian-Americans know when "otherness" is being appreciated. Does this Panda commercial embrace and celebrate otherness in the same way? That's questionable at best.

    It's not clear how long The Korean has lived in this country. But if he came here when he was 16, I would argue that he came to this country with a strong sense of identity. A lot of Korean-Americans who were born here (I'm a 60s kid) went through a very different kind of identity formation. Race relations in America in the 60s and 70s is something that the Korean will never understand--your white "friends" calling you chink to your face; (there were no other Asians to befriend in the neighborhood) the black kids picking fights with you because you're a chink; your mother (who has a Master's degree) being verbally abused every day at her workplace for being Asian; your good friend's father gunned down in his store to the words, "die mother fuckin' chink." Panda commercials in my world are nothing. If anything, I am so happy to see these cute Pandas with their broken accents instead of dead bodies and heartbroken friends. In other words, my reality of race relations was so bad that Panda commercials are a vast improvement (hard as it is to believe.)

    The Asian-Americans who came of age in the early 90s and onwards have a greater sense of entitlement. They have achieved, and they have done it in numbers with a huge group of other Asian friends who all got their back. Panda commercials to them may (or may not) be a real source of irritation. 1.5 generation people like The Korean probably went through so much hardship (or at least his parents did) that Panda commercials are nothing that can't be overcome. The point is everyone has been through a different kind of reality when it comes to race and identity. To lump all Asian-Americans together into one group is a fatal logical flaw in the argument.

    In the meantime, we should all do our part to celebrate "otherness" when we can.

  12. Ouch. That comment did hit the spot. The Korean has to admit that the argument in the post is predicated on the idea that Asian Americans will not have to deal with the level of racism they dealt with during the 1960s~70s. If watching such a commercial brings flashbacks of the bad old days, it is more understandable to be outraged by it.

    So the Korean will make that concession and cease to lump all Asian Americans together, as J suggested. But limited to Asian Americans who came of age during the 1990s, as J mentioned, the point of the post still stands. (And there is no shortage of young Asian Americans who were outraged by the commercial.)

  13. "Like I said earlier, sometimes it is our own sensitivity to perceived injustices that continues to trap us all."

    And sometimes it's just apologia for racism.

    I have a question for you, Peter: why do you think a (stereotypical) Chinese accent is some inherent characteristic of Asian people?


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