Like many, I was surprised by the strong worldwide reactions to an October segment of the “Jimmy Kimmel Kid’s Table” show in which a young guest said we should “kill everyone in China” as a way to settle our national debt with China. Not because the program aired without anyone raising the red flag in the media giant ABC’s production chain. We’ve seen that happen before. Nor that people are offended by the comment. What really struck me was so many people and organizations took actions this time and got involved in highly organized, large-scale protests calling for apologies and even firing of show host Jimmy Kimmel and its producer. The petition on the White House Web site has gathered the needed 100,000 signatures for an official response from President Obama. Jimmy Kimmel probably has never imagined such overnight international fame, or notoriety.
In this super-connected digital world, incidents like this can spread like wild fire and generate enormous responses in no time. When a comment demeans an ethnicity, you are likely to face outrage from not just the domestic community but also the international community.
Beyond the digital connections, the United States and China as the world’s two leading economies are joined at the hip economically, as evidenced in the amount of debt we owe China. For ABC, that joke is no laughing matter when your parent company Disney is trying to build the world’s largest theme park in China while the foreign minister of China is calling for a formal apology from you!
How a late-night joke became an international geopolitical lightening rod is truly astounding, reflecting our changing community and the changing world we live in.
Having been involved with pan Asian organizations like OCA for over a decade, I am used to seeing statements issued by civil rights organizations denouncing offensive actions or remarks and calling for apologies, boycotts or other appropriate actions. But until now, such rhetoric and actions were mostly limited to advocacy groups or watch dogs run by native-born, English-speaking Asian American leaders. This time, however, many grassroots organizations across the country, including some immigrant-led groups, got involved. It’s a sign of our community’s growing maturity that many community groups in the National Capital region, while still largely interested in cultural, social, educational, or professional and business activities, are increasingly flexing their political muscles at local, national and even international levels.
Activists protest outside of ABC’s studios in Manhattan following an offensive segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Photo: Doug Meszler / Splash News
Crises unite communities. In that sense, the Jimmy Kimmel incident provided a great cause for unity, much like the Vincent Chin tragedy over three decades ago. In 1982, a hundred years after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a young Chinese American engineer from Detroit, Vincent Chin, was murdered by two white autoworkers who blamed their job loss on Japanese competition and yelled racial slurs in the deadly beating that killed Vincent a week before his wedding. That tragedy and the subsequent injustice in the sentencing of his killers shocked and united Asian Americans across a wide spectrum of ethnicities, becoming a watershed moment for the Chinese and Asian American communities, which, before that moment, had no real Asian American identity or visible political muscle of its own.
Some people believe we don’t need to make a big deal out of a kid’s joke in a comedy show. But if this joke was about other ethnic or racial groups, you bet ABC would have taken much more proactive steps to correct it, or most likely this would not have happened in the first place.
If our community is truly strategic, we need to set our sight beyond winning the high-profile battles like this. While it’s encouraging to see our community stand up to demand respect over a distasteful joke, what should get us more fired up is the systemic discrimination we continue to face at workplaces or other places, in what is supposed to be the most inclusive and tolerant country in the world. In an integrated society, there are ample opportunities to exercise discrimination without having to put on white hoods or using racially-charged remarks. While it is easy to denounce blatantly offensive rhetoric or actions, it is much harder to detect or respond effectively to the hidden yet very real racism or other forms of injustice at play in our everyday life. It takes courage, tactics, and skills. We are growing and I am hopeful.