by Special Correspondent Thea Lim
A little over half a year ago, I wrote a fawning article about Russell Peters, trying to justify why I love him in spite of the fact that he could easily be criticised for making racist comedy.
I said that I loved Peters because his comedy is (unintentionally?) subversive: it highlights the relationships communities of colour have with each other instead of speaking to, or centering the experiences of white folks. And many commenters on my original piece pointed out, Peters often talks about his sibling communities of colour with fondness rather than ridicule. But then the other night I sat down and watched Red, White and Brown, Peters’ 2008 DVD.
Russell, you cut me deep.
So what’s wrong with Red, White and Brown? Last year Latoya posted an excerpt from a Kate Rigg interview, where Rigg explained very eloquently what makes racist comedy racist:
I’m offended when I see comics get onstage going “…and then I went to the Laundromat. Ching-chong, ching-chong, ching-chong!” Then I’m fucking offended. When someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke – the joke is the Asian people. The joke is [racist-comic voice] the funny way they talkie-talkie! “They don’t use proper diction! Only verb and noun! Verb and noun!” I just heard a comic that I respect doing that fucking joke the other night. An Asian comic. And I was like, “Dude! Write a punch line or you’re just being racist!”
Peters’ seems to have lost his punchline. There’s lots of different things you could criticise in Red, White and Brown. Peters throws in some shallow Michael Moore style criticism of the war in Iraq that still manages to be Arab/Islamophobic. Sepia Mutiny has an interesting analysis of Peters’ jabs at deaf people. Red, White and Brown gave me a lot to think about, and I’d like to address Peters’ “hatred” for deaf people and his comments about Indian authenticity in a later post. But right now I’m gonna focus on that stupid “Chinky” accent.
Peters opens Red, White and Brown with five minutes of his Chinese accent. And hey, I guess people love his Chinese accent. But where it once highlighted a very funny bit about the way Indian and Chinese people do business together, it’s now become the joke. When the only thing Peters is doing is talking Chinky, it’s not a joke anymore.
He starts by pointing to random Chinese-looking people in his audience, and talking in his Chinese voice. But chances are at least one (if not all) of the Chinese people in the front five rows of his New York audience are Chinese Americans. As in, they don’t talk like that. They’re Americans, you jerk.
But you know what? There is a Chinese American accent. Just like there is an African American accent. There’s a WASP accent: I think Dave Chappelle is famous for having perfected it. So why can’t Peters learn the Chinese American accent, and then do that? That would be bringing it back to the arena that Peters once did so well – giving us something in mainstream comedy that we can relate to.