#HowIMetYourRacism and the disappointing reality of ignorance

Apparently this passes as OK for primetime TV.  Photo: CBS.

Apparently this passes as OK for primetime TV. Photo: CBS.

What happened, and how I feel about what happened

For those who don’t do entertainment news, or watch TV, here’s the summary.  The sitcom, How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM), starring some of my fave actors (including Neil Patrick Harris and Allyson Hannigan), produced an episode as an “homage” to kung-fu movies.  In “yellowface.” With white actors and kimonos and fans and fu manchus.

When I saw the news on this piece, I felt my stomach drop, because I knew, KNEW, that I was going to be disappointed by ignorant people.  I was not disappointed about being disappointed.

Here are my thoughts on this in a jumble:

  • You know, I DO do race jokes.  I do think that they come up in settings that are not offensive.  Jokes can be insight into cultural truths.  And let’s face it, Asian culture can be so funny.  (See this Asian dad.  My own dad is NOT like this at all, but I still think the caricature is accurate and funny.)
  • Yellowface and kung-fu parody is NOT an homage to Asian culture, and it does not inform any real cultural truths.  It’s not humor to write in bit parts about uninformed stereotypes of black/African-American people (yes, both terms, some prefer one or the other) in blackface, and it’s not humor to be just shy of taping some slanty eyes and using a heavy Asian accent when white actors lampoon Asians.  There is definitely more to be said about the Asian portrayal in media in general, but that’s for a different post.
  • The writers of the show did apologize, and I accept that apology on behalf of myself.  No, it’s not possible to always know what you’re doing will be horribly offensive.  It should not ruin you forever.  (Unless you are the former CEO of Lululemon.  As Colbert puts it, “hirarious.“)
  • The media is equally disappointing with their headlines of “racism claims” (thanks CBS News and Entertainment Weekly), and “people up in arms” (thanks CNN). This backlash is not imagined and it’s not overreaction, but thank you for your amazing journalism that is perpetuating this problem.  I’m sorry you’re not sorry.
  • The most disappointing part is that the episode had to be implicitly approved by MANY MANY people before it got made and aired.  This means large numbers of people were aware that this could possibly be really offensive…and still okayed it.  Neil Patrick Harris had to OK it.  Allyson Hannigan had to OK it.  The writers and producers and all other actors thought it was OK.
  • This is most disappointing because it really highlights the pervasiveness of this sentiment that it’s “just a joke.”  Oh hey, btw, my life and my experience has not all been A+ and piano competitions, and my experiences are not “just” a joke.  OK, maybe it has been a bunch of A+’s and piano competitions.  And that’s funny.  But the joke is definitely so much more complex.

Now here’s something that will certainly get me some shit.  I don’t watch HIMYM.  I was going to start, because I got the DVD set as a gift.  I’ve seen a few episodes, and they were funny.  And you know what, since I didn’t find those episodes particularly offensive, I acknowledge that I too am part of the broken system.

I am not perfect, and I say offensive ignorant things.  Usually, they stay with me for years, and I can’t get over how offensive they are and why they ever left my mouth.  I once tried to join a conversation with a Peruvian girl from my MBA class by talking about these great pupusas I had recently eaten.  Which are Salvadorian.  And she looked at me like I was the dumbest piece of crap ever.  What I meant to say was that the restaurant I went to also had Peruvian dishes.  It was way too late to recover from that, so instead I just shut up and melted into the ground.  I remember the incident every single time that she is tagged in friends’ Facebook posts.

But I learn.  And this takes me to the examples of people who are NOT LEARNING.  As a teacher, this infuriates me.

What “non-other” people said

As you may have seen, the website Public Shaming does a lot to highlight the terrible things that are said on Twitter. I’m a little surprised and disappointed that this topic has not hit their radar.  There are positive tweets, and there are people learning from this.  There is much discussion that wasn’t there before (even as of last night at 7PM).

Why am I sharing these negative tweets and opening myself up to flaming attacks?  Because they hurt me.  Personally.  Because people are not learning, they are just accepting that Santa Claus is white.  (Because he just is.  And because I feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean that things have to change.)

A few ground rules that would really help me out:

  1. Please do not flame or engage with these people on Twitter.  It’s not going to help them learn.  They will learn when they’re ready to learn.
  2. Don’t flame me for being personally hurt.  Engage me in conversation to help me learn.

I don’t understand how I am a racist for not thinking that kimonos and kung fu even start to describe my entire culture.  Or, as I tweeted yesterday, culture-S.  We are not one culture.  We are many cultures.  Also…I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Why yes, I cried at home over how mean CBS was.  Mean mean mean!  I’m going to tell my mommy!  Then kung-fu everyone!

Let me grow some balls now, because balls will make me more relevant.

OK, we’re not the MOST oppressed people.  Hey Asians, let’s go out and pick on those who are more oppressed than us!  (Also, jealous much of our “success?”) UPDATED to add:  He’s a burgeoning “comedian”, according to his Twitter profile.  I hope he doesn’t use these jokes.


Actually this is 100% why I don’t watch Big Bang Theory.  Because it’s not smart, and it doesn’t actually say anything about smart people that pushes the envelope of cultural truth.

Nope, not offended by Kill Bill.  Now THAT was an homage.

Um, YES.  We are ALREADY saying that.  Which didn’t stop me from being shocked when I drove up to the drive-thru window of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Thanksgiving day to see all the girls serving coffee with paper feathers and headbands with the Dunkin Donuts logo.  Oh…my…god…justdriveawaywiththecoffee…

That’s the LAST STRAW.  Now you’re making fun of us because we’re short?!?!

Thanks for listening, and hopefully learning.  You don’t need to tiptoe around me with race jokes.  Race jokes and racist jokes are different. Above all things, know your audience.  (And that is definitely a different post for a different day.)

73 thoughts on “#HowIMetYourRacism and the disappointing reality of ignorance

  1. I am a big Charlies Chan fan. Today the movies are not shown much because the fear is that they would be interpreted as prejudice. The man playing Charlie was not Chinese, in fact not Asian. Yet the children portrayed spoke Chinese to him and on occasion he would say something in Chinese. What he said I do not know.
    Perhaps it was nothing or maybe he learned a phrase in Chinese. All I know is I liked the character and I thought the movies were a good B show. Am I prejudice because of liking the show?

    • In my opinion, the Charlie Chan movies were definitely a product of their time, and in context are probably pretty positive depictions of the Chinese people at that time! I agree that it’s rare to see them on TV these days due to fear. There is such a fine line between respect and disrespect, and I feel like I am trying to find that line every day.

      • Just listening to a clip on youtube now! Truthfully, his accent is kinda spot-on. 🙂 30s and 40s movies are not really my genre (I’m a dork for shoot-em-up sci-fi) so I haven’t watched any, but I’ll check one out. Thanks!

      • Sci-Fi, we have a lot in common, I love Them, It and Forbidden Planet. The amazing thing about Charlie is he is based on an actual detective in Hawaii. This man was truly respected and had a great following. The author of Chan based his stories on him. It is interesting because the it was just before the world war and America and its prejudice kept mixing up Japanese and Chinese to mean anti Asian. Sometimes my country embarrasses me.

  2. How I Met Your Mother is definitely nowhere near being one of my favorite shows. It’s basically what I watch when I’ve streamed everything else decent enough to stream, and I’m kinda desperate cuz it’s either that or doing something productive … and the laziness sometimes wins.

    So yeah, it’s not my fav show by any means. But their slapstick brand of sitcom syndicated comedy is never anything to write home about. Just like this joke of theirs. Yeah it’s racist, and might I add not actually funny? But I’m a big believer in free speech (and artistic expression). The writers of the show thought it’d be funny and they did it. And we all didn’t like it. Some people think it’s racist and they wanna share that, and that’s cool (cuz they’re probably right). You know who really wins in all this? Free speech! Yay internet and social media!

    • Yay free speech! I definitely don’t think they should be outright banned for anything because I’m definitely a big believer in free speech…and the consequences that accompany that! Actually…kinda meta…as I may be experiencing my own version of that now that this has been Freshly Pressed…haha. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • I don’t think any one person can speak for everyone else. In my opinion, racism never crossed my mind when watching the episode. Wana know why? Because, although I’m not Asian, I don’t twist everything to be offensive to someone. I just enjoy it and move on.

  3. I hate the people who trash Filipino for example calling them LBFM or bar girls or whatever. And certain individuals think that this is some form of contest but never minding the fact like when the girl from UCLA made her disparaging remarks. One Asian guy said UCLA = U See a Lot of Asians. Now that is a joke and went to make light of her bigotry by showing how bigotry makes the bigot look and still smile about it.

    • “It’s just a joke” is such a dangerous comment to make – it really signals that you aren’t even making an attempt to empathize or see what your words have wrought…seeing it all over the news today, especially with respect to Richard Sherman (Seahawks corner with a big mouth, more power to him). Also, I just can’t even with that UCLA girl. Haha. Good to that guy for finding humor in UCLA. And Filipinos have it particularly hard, with all sorts of ignorant racial crazy things from all directions (my roots are in the Philippines). Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. In my opinion, American TV shows are used to portrait other nations like idiots and other countries like total waste lands(Take the waiter Samuel in “Mike and molly” for example). It’s fun to have some stereotype jokes, but too much can be annoying.

    I followed all the episodes of HIMYM. To be honest i didn’t feel offended while watching this one. I just find it uncalled for to shooot a scene like this just to drag the show longer… This is another topic.

    I can totally relate to you. I do feel very annoyed by the tweets.

    • Yeah, I think that the issue that this show’s episode raises for me is that the systematic stereotyping is there, and that we don’t notice it until it affects us. I am also guilty (and I don’t watch many sitcoms) and this episode just made me cringe because I knew the reactions that would be coming. Thanks so much for reading and responding!

  5. I’m a little bit surprised by the reaction to HIMYM’s racism. The producers of the show are not the most sensitive people and never were. I stopped watching because I thought it was incredibly sexist. Harris’s character is basically a serial date rapist and it’s never a problem.

    • I definitely found it embarrassing that it took this episode for me to really examine other issues in the whole series that I didn’t pay much attention to. I didn’t want to acknowledge that I’m part of the problem, but of course I am, I’m a product of this society. I can only hope to better myself. Truthfully, I’m generally not a sitcom person anyways, and I’m mostly fond of NPH in Dr. Horrible. Thanks for responding to my post!

      • Just to be clear, I didn’t mean your personal reaction, I meant the general one. I think your post is great! We all have our guilty pleasures, sometimes it’s a TV show. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But there comes the time when we have to be honest to ourselves and say: I loved this, but I can’t take it anymore.

  6. Well said Sheri! Unfortunately, it is far easy to be a “donkey” than to be thoughtful and introspective. I often found that people who “shout” about getting over “it” have not had to suffer from the pangs of inadequacy that stereotypes that can project onto entire groups of people.

    • That is completely the point. “Get over it” doesn’t cure any ills. Whether or not one was personally offended by the slights on the show, examine why they may have caused people to feel slighted and add that to your world-view. I’m on board with Asians that were not offended by the show, but I am NOT on board with Asians who have told other Asians to “get over it”. Get some context. Thanks for adding to the discussion, Shun!

      • Thank you, Sheri, for sharing your thoughts and feelings on this. I have been a fan of HIMYM but did not see this episode. I’m very disappointed to hear that the show included very racist and ignorant “jokes.” And, like you, I’m also extremely disappointed with the response of the media and the numerous ignorant people who wrote really hurtful and demeaning words… Those twitter posts are just down-right mean and nasty. It is esp. sad that this is all coming out the same week we honor and celebrate the progress made in this country by the hard and courageous work of Dr. MLK, Jr. and so many others who fought for equality and justice. What is so sad to me is that these people who are so ignorant experience all of the advantages of white privilege and yet do not acknowledge that white privilege is still in existence today. This kind of “satire” and media/social media response is a deep reminder that Dr. King still has unfinished work to be done, and our country has a long way to go. I’m so sorry that you and so many others have been hurt by this kind of public satire and bigotry. Thank you for being so courageous and speaking your voice. My prayer is that many of us with white privilege will listen.

      • The episode hurt me less personally than the backlash that I knew was coming. I think that having grown up fairly white-identified, white privilege is something that even I was not ready to accept beyond its most basic terms until recently. Thanks for being a part of the discussion and my personal learning!

  7. I think this is a start. People need to hear about the pain they cause directly from the people experiencing it. It doesn’t mean they will open their hearts, but it’s a start. As a Black/African-American person, I’ve always wondered why we don’t do more to help other races when they are being mistreated. Again I think that’s part of the broader conversation we need to have. Thanks for writing this and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  8. I think the problem is that the spotlight always goes to the black community in terms of racial issues, so we’re getting less attention on what is appropriate and what is inappropriate for other races.

    • It isn’t surprising by percentage of population, as awareness probably comes with the numbers of voices who speak out about the issues. As the composition of our melting pot changes, so will the dialog about race appropriateness, until we reach that utopia of perfect empathy of the human race. Haha. 🙂 In less pie-in-the-sky language, I guess we’re all learning as we go, or at least that’s the hope. Thanks for joining in the discussion!

  9. The only way to get people to stop doing things like this is to get pissed off. Nothing changes if you make a polite suggestion. No one would care if the targeted community was like, “Well, I know you’re going to say it was just a joke, but this kind of hurt my feelings.”

    I don’t understand why anyone is surprised that people were offended. Anytime you have to wear makeup to change your skin with the intention of portraying a different race, that’s gonna be offensive.

    • Well, with respect to free speech and consequences, I personally wasn’t ready to get pissed off, because I knew I wouldn’t be prepared for a maelstrom. Also it’s not really my style. But you raise a great point in that Asians tend to embody this “passive” stereotype (those with an Asian mom might say passive aggressive) and my post does not stray from that stereotype. That being said, the “get pissed off” tactic does not always have productive results for other races, as far as history goes. No one wore any makeup on HIMYM (and my sister points out that those are not kimonos, so my statements on mixing cultures is moot for this particular situation) but yeah, I would have thought it would be kind of obvious that people might be offended. I guess it’s all part of the work that still has to be done. Thanks so much for reading and replying!

  10. The first episode of How I Met Your Mother involved Ted trying to get a girl by performing a Native American rain dance.

    I do not expect good things from this show, and I am horrified by the episode you have written about. They’ve only gotten worse, and they knew what they were doing. They just didn’t care enough to stop it.

    • And the fact that I probably would have found that first episode funny before now really REALLY highlights the pervasiveness of uninformed stereotyping in our society. I’m glad I had the opportunity to have my eyes opened. Maybe the writers have as well – I guess that’s all we can hope. Clearly, the people I’ve highlighted on Twitter (and sadly there are so many more) are the ones who need to “get over it” in order for progress to be made. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • I feel like seeing this makes me wonder what else I missed. I’m certainly not re-watching it all just to find out, tho. Liked your last blog post, btw. It’s a lot like being “hipster” about stereotypes.

      • Neil Patrick Harris was the saving grace of the show. Watching him come up with ridiculous ways to pick up women was hilarious. Because here’s this gay guy playing an over the top womanizer, and so well too.
        Thanks for your comment on my last post!

  11. I do not like the series as well. No soap such take a dig at any culture. Jokes should be welcome but apologies should follow. It should mean that jokes will end. Jokes are made on blacks, on fat people, on country men, but we should also take them in good taste.

    • Thanks for your question! I would probably say that outrage is not the word I would use to describe the HIMYM episode, although some of the resulting tweets I do feel outrage towards. Should I feel outrage about the Canadian culture portrayal? I don’t really know, because I’m not a HIMYM regular. If I were to guess, possibly no, because of the whole discussion on culture of power? Maybe in the context of Canadians vs. Americans, if you consider America as a superior power to Canada? But then I would have put more thought into that notion than the original show writers. 🙂 If this is criticism on my unequal attention towards stereotypes and inequalities, then I admit that my attention is definitely more focused on issues that affect me directly and issues that I know enough to speak about.

      Otherwise, this is just to tell me to lighten up…eh?

      • Hey, I liked your article, I just wanted to add some nonsense to the discussion. I don’t watch the show much either, that picture of Ted looks super offensive though.

      • Definitely! I appreciate any and all nonsense, thanks for your addition. 🙂 In fact, I wonder if anyone got that my response to the last tweet was totally non-serious in the post…

    • Thanks so much for reading! It’s a great hook to get people to watch forever. 🙂 I was just watching on and off because the idea of staunchly gay NPH playing a womanizer was kind of hilarious.

  12. I love the fact that you are offended by the “portrayal” of your culture but have no issues with the way they “portray” the Canadian or other cultures. They are not trying to teach people about a culture they are trying to entertain people. If you don’t like the show don’t watch it, but don’t try to make racists out of people who are not.

    • Thanks for your dissenting opinion – I was totally wondering if I was going to get a flood of these, and I really appreciate that you took the time to add your voice to the discussion.

      I’m going to offer a couple points of rebuttal. I did have to re-read my words, but I made a point not to call any person a racist. I think that them’s fighting words, and in my opinion racism implies intent, so I chose to use the word ignorance to mean that it was not intentional. Also, I DO have a problem with the way they “portray” other cultures, and the problem is that I didn’t notice that they might be offensive to others, so I am not immune to ignorance myself. And I DID like the show, so I watched it from time to time.

      (And I can jump into the difference between Canadian portrayals and Asian portrayals in terms of cultural appropriation and a discussion of privilege and historically oppressed classes of people—but I think that is way too deep to dig for a critique on a TV show…because it’s just a TV show.)

      I think the problem lies in the fact that people are trying to brush off offense as if it were not legitimate. It’s legitimate, whether or not people are in agreement.

  13. even if you’re entirely right about everything you’ve said, what then is comedy supposed to be like? the history of comedy is racist and sexist etc. and predicated on our worst not our best behavior. when are they (television) going to stop showing reruns of Eddie Murphy as the Nutty Professor in a fat suit? Why can’t Katy Perry pretend to be a subservient geisha if she can pretend to be a “peacock cock cock”? Should the Sopranos as a vehicle have ever been allowed to depict Italians, not to mention New Jersey residents? Everyone must agree, Tina Fey should never have been allowed to write for saturday night live or 30 Rock thereby destroying comedy far more than Aaron Spelling ever did with Gilligan’s island. She should never have been awarded the mark twain award. It’s all gone to hell because it started there, not to give Christians all the credit. Anyhow, all one can really wonder is, was Jackie Gleason ever truly funny? The three stooges? Really?

  14. I don’t know what has happened to HIMYM. That show used to be funny but the characters have become too cartoonish and unrealistic. The episodes used to have meaning but now they’re just vapid. I used to be a loyal fan but I have completely stopped watching.

  15. Hello,
    Although I don’t watch sitcoms (mostly because I don’t find them very funny), I can see why you would be upset by some of those Twitter posts. This is a diverse country. It’s about time we all learn to respect the cultural backgrounds and beliefs of others.

    Anyways, I like how you handled the topic. And I loved the Kill Bill movies. Awesome action scenes!

  16. hooray, you’ve been freshly pressed!

    for a topic that hits home 😦

    it’s just a downer when one becomes the subject of another’s ignorance. in this day and age, you would expect that people are more tolerant. i must agree with Rev. Emily Heitzman, some of them are those with white privileges. and Oprah once said that Americans have a sense of entitlement. so you get this particular HIMYM episode and many others. honestly, i’m not surprised at all. we knew it so well. and this i know too, those who never knew how is it being brown/yellow/black and earn everything through sweat and blood will always say, “hey, it’s just a joke! get over it!”

    lest i get accused of being one, not that “it” only exist in the states. we’re all guilty at some point/s in our lives. and we should know better than be one because we know how it hurts.

    here’s to hoping for a better world! and in the words of Barney, “wait for it! wait for it!”

    did i say congrats for being freshly pressed? no? congrats for being freshly pressed!

  17. HIMYM used to be one of my favorite shows. The quality has just been declining in recent years. Also recently it seems white people have decided that suddenly it is acceptable to parody other races, and anyone who complains is being “too sensitive.” It’s not MY place to decide what offends someone else. I know engaging people who aren’t ready to learn is unproductive, but it’s so tempting….

    Thank you for writing this. I saw the episode and hated it, and I could not put into words why it was bothering me so much.

    Also, “Let me grow some balls now, because balls will make me more relevant.” That’s one of the most hilarious sentences I have ever read.

  18. Never watched the show, certainly don’t intend to but it amazes me that supposedly intelligent, creative people think this sort of thing is funny or even acceptable today. Lot of stupid going on around here.

  19. Interesting insights Sheri. I thought the episode was just plain stupid. Television is full of these ridiculous stereotypes, crossing the line between race jokes and racism. Another thing that really gets my goose is what is considered “Asian”. I think people in the west use it as an all-encompassing term for people who look a certain way. And that covers a whole bunch of very different cultures! And doesn’t even cover all of Asia. Even the “Asian dad” video… what culture/ nationality is it trying to make a joke about? Ignorance at so many levels.

  20. Yes, I’m late to the party, but with one thought: what passes for entertainment on much of network television really does not deserve much critique or analysis; what does though is the brutality of twitter. The anonymity of social media exposes all that is ugly in mankind with nary a consequence.

    (Like using “nary” in “public” 🙂 )

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