I grew up in Minneapolis, and I lived there for most of my life. It’s a pretty hip, liberal town as far as the Midwest goes, but like most everywhere else in the Midwest it’s not that multicultural. Things were cool when I was hanging out with my friends or moving in certain social circles, but more than once people on the street thought it was okay to make “ching chong” comments at me for no reason at all. Sometimes it was white folks, sometimes it was black folks, but the message was always clear: The color of your hair and the shape of your eyes make you an alien here. You don’t belong.
When Rosie O’Donnell made ching chong noises on The View last week, she was probably not trying to send the same hateful message, but it was some pretty offensive shit nonetheless. If anything, what surprised me wasn’t her willingness to make those noises as much as her willingness to do so in a lame little joke that really didn’t deal in any way with race or racism. For O’Donnell, ching chong noises are just another part of comedy, like, say, painting your face black with a burnt cork. Who could object? If you’re a comedian, and your job is to comment on culture, it would help if you knew something about it.
I’m not somebody who thinks you can’t make jokes about race, or that white people can’t make jokes about race, or even that white people can’t ever say “chink” or “nigger” or make ching chong noises. Context is everything. For example, I think Sarah Silverman is phenomenally funny, and that a lot of my fellow Asian-Americans treated her unfairly over her “I love chinks” joke a few years back. I always thought it was fairly obvious that Silverman was making a joke about racism itself, and not a joke at Asians’ expense.
On the other end of the spectrum is a comment left on that O’Donnell Youtube page, which isn’t quite as socially incisive, but has, hm, other qualities to recommend it:
if rosie wants to learn real chinese she needs to use the Rosetta Stone’s Pots & Pans edition, and tossed them about the kitchen floor… ching chong kling klang ting tang woo woo wu
So this joke is ten times worse than what O’Donnell said—but it has the benefit of simply embracing its own racist-ness. Unlike O’Donnell, who stumbled into offensiveness, this comment dives into it with a certain glee. And, the joke’s actually funny, which should count for something, right?
So, my own, not heavily examined, possibly contradictory feelings on race in comedy go something like this: Non-racist jokes about racism are good if they’re funny. Racist jokes are good (in small doses) if they’re funny. Unfunny jokes are not good, and certainly shouldn’t be racist. And if you’re as witless as Rosie O’Donnell, you’re not qualified to use ching chong noises on The View or anywhere else.
“Rosetta Stone’s Pots & Pans edition”—C’mon, admit it. That’s pretty good.