Racism abounds following Rosie

by guest contributor Jenn Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

When I first saw the video of Rosie O’Donnell unleashing a long string of guttural “chings” and “chongs” on The View last week, I was upset and offended, but thought it was another in a long line of racial celebrity gaffes that would no doubt engender some outrage and inevitable apology. The pedestrian racism of using “ching” and “chong” to symbolize Chinese language and culture was so utterly obvious to me that I dismissed any need to respond with outrage. The public outcry would be immediate and swift, I was sure. The apology would, no doubt, strike the chords we are so familiar with and I projected that by today, the whole shitstorm would’ve died.

Boy, was I naive. And, boy, was I wrong.

This story really started hitting home not with Rosie’s “ching-chong”-ery, but by the response. On the Internet, readers started rushing to Rosie’s defense. Hundreds of readers around the blogosphere weighed in, incapable of or unwilling to equate Rosie’s joke with racism.

Comments on the story have taken several classic, yet undeniably ignorant, turns.

1. Rosie Didn’t Mean To Be Racist.

There are those who take pains to explain Rosie’s joke to the Asian American community, refuting racism with arguments of intent. One reader at Gawker wrote:

Rosie wasn’t necessarily mocking the Chinese. It is all about intent. The friggin point wasn’t “Chinese people sound funny” it was “they’re talking about the View in China, this is what I imagine it sounds like.” Get a grip, people.

This is Rosie O’Donnell’s own stance. On her blog, Rosie repeats (ad nauseum) that her intent was not to offend, but to mock Danny DeVito being drunk as news elsewhere in the world. She writes in resonse to one reader,

it was not my intent to mock
just to say how odd it is
that danny drunk
was news all over the world
even in china

it was not meant to mock

These types of responses emphasize the majority-centric view that most people have towards racism. When intent reigns supreme, then the problem with racism is not about the victim of the racist action, but the perpetrator and their intent. This outlook on racism only benefits the oppressor, who no longer has to consider the victims of his oppression. Not surprisingly, it is the same people who belong to the majority who perpetuate this self-interested treatment of racism.

Was it Rosie’s intention to mock the ridiculousness of Chinese newscasters getting all a-twitter about Danny DeVito on The View? Possibly, but what Rosie actually made a joke about was how Chinese language sounds to English audiences. And, as a Chinese American, Rosie’s use of “ching-chong”-ery to refer to my language and heritage struck home; why should my resulting racial pain play second fiddle to Rosie’s intent? This is just another form of blaming the victim.

2. If It Were (X), They Wouldn’t Be Mad…

Many of the Rosie defenders argue the hypothetical that if Rosie O’Donnell had cited German or French or Italian newscasters, no one would argue that it was racism. A reader at Defamer asked,

If she’d imitated the Italian language, would anyone have cared?

Another reader at the Gothamist wrote:

if rosie had done it using a “zany” french or british accent, no one would have cried racism. why is it only racist if you imitate a chinese person, yet not someone from, say, germany?

i honestly have been wondering this for years. can someone please enlighten me?

These statements are often delivered in the form of a complaint; they argue that White people are at a disadvantage because they cannot claim racism when their ethnicity is mocked.

The problem with this argument is that neither French, nor British, nor German people are considered non-White minorities in America. Racism does not occur in a bubble, but exists as an ongoing history of racism in America. When Michael Richards made his “fork up the ass” joke at the Laugh Factory, the racism was not that Richards actually wanted to find a Black person and stick a fork up his ass, but because this paralleled a racist American history that included numerous instances of popularized lynchings. The fork metaphor (i.e., equating a Black person with a food item) futher referenced the characterization of lynchings as Bar-B-Q’s.

Similarly, Rosie O’Donnell’s use of “ching-chong”-ery occurred amidst a history of oppression against Asian Americans and Chinese Americans in this country, which had already included use of “ching chong” as a form of degrading and dehumanizing Chinese people. Had Rosie targeted countries of predominantly White people, there probably would not have been a backlash involving racism.

But Rosie chose to demean Chinese people. We, and other members of the Asian American community, have long been targets of discrimination based on race that include mistreatment and xenophobia towards Asian culture and heritage. Therefore, the use of the hypothetical is misleading, and once again, its use changes the subject from racism against Chinese people to perceived mistreatment of Whites.

3. “Ching Chong” is a Bad Accent of an Otherwise Accurate Representation of Chinese

On one forum (and in this blog), the issue arose as to whether “ching” and “chong” actually exist in any dialect of Chinese. Over at the Gothamist, a reader wrote,

But to most people, that is exactly what they make of the Chinese language when they hear it. She just thought out loud.

At TV Squad, another reader wrote:

But, here’s the deal, [Rosie] doesn’t speak Chinese – she made a phonic representation as to how she hears the language. We as human animals do this. We mimic the sounds we hear every day. I’m sure if she wanted to take the time to learn the language she could harness those sounds she made and attach them to actual Chinese words

On her blog, Rosie continues to refer to her joke as a bad “accent”. Again, her joke would only be based upon poor accent imitation if she were speaking true Chinese, albeit badly.

Chinese is a tonal as well as phonetic language. In all dialects (including Mandarin, the dialect I speak), words consist of both a phonetic component and a tonal component. Each phonetic sound may be pronounced with four or five different tones, each of which is associated with multiple words (based on context). Moreover, most meanings in Chinese are derived from two or more words — “ching” alone is meaningless without other words surrounding it. For example, depending on how I inflected “ching”, I could be saying “please” or, in association with another sound, I could be saying, “stringed instrument”.

Chinese is an extremely complicated language, and one that isn’t structured at all like the Germanic languages (including English). Therefore, though “ching” and “chong” are phonetic sounds that might be made when speaking Chinese, they are not actual Chinese words because the tonal components are missing. Therefore, any reference to “ching” and “chong” as accurate but poorly executed Chinese is misleading.

4. “Ching Chong” Is Funny

Many readers are defending Rosie simply because they think mocking Chinese (and other non-English languages) is hilarious. One reader at TMZ wrote:

Actually, Rosie’s comment was pretty funny. I’ll be if the headlines were printed in somewhere in Africa they would phonetically say:

Abulla booga moogie wa-linga Danny DeVito!

I really don’t think I need to respond to why this type of comment is ignorant.

5. “Get Over It”

Many comments that I’ve read have cited racial minorities as hyper-sensitive. According to them, we are too quick to cry racism, and unwilling to “forgive” the racists when they try to apologize. At TMZ, one reader wrote:

im so sick and tired of everyone being offended. I remember a day when nobody gave a damn. Now you cant sneeze without someone claiming they are offended. Get over it already! call me a craker… i dont care. call me a honkey i dont care.

Another wrote:

F*** ‘em if they can’t take a joke. Jeez. All this racial bullsh*t. Nobody really, truly, gives a sh*t.

Again, this is self-interest of the majority/oppressor talking. For those who experience White privilege, it is hard to grasp what racial pain can mean — they feel it is similar to being called names in a schoolyard, and should be easy to shrug off.

Furthermore, White Privilege in America has come to include being racist against others without being challenged. It’s upsetting to watch those who have White Privilege try to defend their “right” to be racist towards another person. While freedom of speech is grand, it’s hard to imagine why Whites feel justified in being so quick to demand that they be allowed to oppress other minority groups. The question must be asked: why do you feel like you need to be racist?

6. Now’s My Chance To Hate on Asians, Too…

By far, the most disturbing responses that I’ve seen have been the repeated interjections by racists, who now feel a free pass to perpetuate all sorts of harmful and hateful Asian stereotypes, now that the floodgates have been opened by Rosie and her “ching-chong”-ery. Over at Gawker, the first article to post about the Rosie O’Donnell “ching-chong” scandal used the stereotypical r/l mockery of Asian accents in their headline; it included the phrase “I No Solly”. It was also the editors of Gawker who added the gong sound in the YouTube clip circulating the blogsphere — the same gong sound that prominent Asian American activists are misattributing to The View producers.

Meanwhile, at Defamer, a reference is made to dragon-embroidered silk knots. The Gothamist’s headline includes the phrase “Ni Hao Ma” — a phrase again usually used by non-Chinese speakers without tonal inflection and intended to mimic the Mandarin phrase “How are you?”, but frequently, it is used much in the same way as “ching chong”.

The comments are much worse. At TMZ, one reader wrote:

that is some funny stuff from rosie-

i love how people go insane if there is anything “upsettting” written or said about asians.

the fact of the matter is that they are pushy and expect everything and everyone to wipe their asses for them.

get over it!!!

It’s as if people were just sitting on a bunch of anti-Asian jokes, and now that they thinnk they can ride the coattails of Rosie’s racism, they’re having a private competition to see who can make the most hateful anti-Asian joke of the lot.

It is these forms of reactions that illustrate exactly how deep a problem racism is in this country. It only takes a small joke to unleash a flurry of hateful racist tirades and caricatures, all intended to demean and belittle racial minorities — these comments came from the same racism that denies minorities proper representation in Hollywood, prevents us from ascending the ranks in employment, and fuels hate crime violence.

To me, the racism in Rosie’s original “ching chong” joke was not in the fact that it is a schoolyard taunt (although it is), but because the use of “ching chong” to characterize Chinese is akin to dehumanizing the Chinese culture. A complex language is redefined as a series of animalistic grunts — it is xenophobic and hateful because it suggests that non-English languages and cultures are simple, barbaric, and uncivilized.

The “ching chong” joke dates back over a century to mockery of so-called pidgin English. One ragtime song illustrates the popular use of the phrase “ching chong” as a slur and dehumanization of Asian men:

“Ching, Chong, Oh Mister Ching Chong,
You are the king of Chinatown.
Ching Chong, I love your sing-song,
When you have turned the lights all down;
Ching Chong, just let me swing long,
Through the realms of Drowsy Land;
Dreaming while stars are beaming,
Oh Mister Ching Chong, sing-song man.”

When you’re in Frisco Town don’t fail to drop around
And see this Ching Chong man.
Wonderful things you’ll learn down where the torches burn,
He’ll show you all he can.
Then when the time is ripe he’ll fill your little pipe
And then a light he’ll bring.
Gently you’ll float away far out on Slumber Bay,
And softly you will sing:

“Ching Chong, Oh Mister Ching Chong,
You are the king of Chinatown.
Ching Chong, I love your sing-song,
When you have turned the lights all down;
Ching Chong, just let me swing long,
Through the realms of Drowsy Land;
Dreaming while stars are beaming,
Oh Mister Ching Chong, sing-song man.”

To me, the racism is obvious. The need for an apology is also obvious — not to sweep this incident under the rug, but so that Rosie can acknowledge her racial affront towards the Asian American community.

But, Rosie’s racism is conveniently over-shadowed by the racist treatment of this story in the news media. The story is either being ignored by major news outlets, or adopts its own air of mockery towards Asian American culture.

Surprisingly, the one response that seems to get it pretty close to right is Michelle Malkin’s “Vent” video. You’d almost think that Michelle Malkin actually has racial solidarity with Asian Americans!