Is it always racist when comedians copy “ethnic” accents?

by guest contributor Philip Arthur Moore, originally published at TheThink

While getting my noodle pie fix last week, I came across a video of a young (24) Latina woman named Anjelah Johnson. Anjelah’s comedy routine, which features a reenactment of her experiences at a Vietnamese nail salon, has been causing some waves on the internet lately. Terry Ng and his commenters over at Kineda approved of the bit, saying that Johnson’s “rendition of ‘Mai Ling’ doing her nails is perfect.” Angry Asian Man wrote that he’s not sure what to make of the video. Some people have been telling him “I’m Vietnamese and I think this is dead-on hilarious!”, while others have been saying “I’m Vietnamese and I think this is so racist!” I have also received mixed reactions about the video from my friends who grew up in Vietnamese households.

Whereas some comedic acts seem outright offensive and racist (word to Pablo Francisco), Anjelah Johnson’s routine is hard to label as such. When there are so many voices on one side saying that her act was a perfect reenactment of the Vietnamese nail salon experience, it’s hard to figure out what to make of the other side saying that her routine is typical and racist. Angry Asian Man concluded his thoughts on Johnson with the following:

Personally, I give her props for doing her homework, but I’m never really [sic] fan of non-Asians doing stupid Asian accents in their acts, no matter how “dead-on” they think they may or may not be. And come on, the nail salon thing has been done to death.

Though his “done to death” argument is a bit of a cop out (comedians, even the good ones, have been recycling material since day one), I kind of agree with Phil Yu that the stupid Asian accents aren’t the route to go. Although, to be completely frank, I don’t see how an Asian comedian doing an “Asian” accent is any less harmful to the perpetuation of stereotypes than a non-Asian person doing an “Asian” accent. In fact, it might even be worse (the word “enabler” comes to mind).

Anjelah Johnson is a woman, who is Latina, and who happens to have gotten a ton of recognition online for doing a “Vietnamese” accent (the incomprehensible words at the end, by the way, are not at all Vietnamese). She poses a bit of a conundrum: is it okay for a young woman of color (who, according to Kineda, was “born and raised in San Jose, CA (the pho and nail salon capital of the world)”) to do such an act? Hypothetically speaking, if half of her Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American audience think the act is brilliant, and half think it’s garbage, then is it okay for her to do the act? How many people would it take to say it’s racist to make it racist?

My personal feelings about Anjelah’s act are the following: (1) for starters, her routine wasn’t that hilarious. It was almost funny, but it wasn’t on any kind Comedy Hall of Fame tip. (2) Secondly, she actually did do her homework. Take that for what it’s worth. (3) Finally, I don’t know that I’m going to call this girl a racist. Doing that might be a little bit over the top if you actually watch the video and listen to her. It doesn’t sound mean spirited to me, and I’m generally pretty sensitive when it comes to this kind of comedy. With that said, maybe she should think about retiring the nail salon act and picking up another routine that doesn’t involve an “Asian” accent.

PS: Here’s another video from her. It looks like she’s big on the race humor.

[If you’re reading this in a Feedblitz email or RSS reader and can’t view the video, please click on the post title.]

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