Thought Piece: Miley Cyrus and Asian Face

I have not weighed in on the Miley Cyrus Asian Face issue, in which she and another friend appeared making slant eyes flanking an Asian friend,  because the number of celebrities getting sympathy, or worse, praise, for their offensive comments and or depictions of people of color of late seems to be extraordinarily high. I also honestly believed Cyrus would apologize for “not thinking,” explain she and her friends were drunk (which is no excuse), say she’d apologized to their Asian American colleague and be done with it. It wouldn’t excuse the kind of thinking that led her and her other friend to make “slant eyes” mind you but it would have at least acknowledged to her fans that she was being a bigot, that the controversy might have raised her awareness about “unintentional racism” (offensive behavior based on the demeaning of non-white racial groups, without the person meaning to or intentionally wanting to cause harm to the person being demeaned; in other words its still racism, even when you “didn’t mean it.”), and that somewhere in that untouchable haze many celebrities live in, she had a brief shining moment of teachability.  That didn’t happen.


I don’t know if the whole “post-racial” myth has invited people to come out into the public sphere with their offensive behavior and/or ignorance or if it is just the level at which people don’t seem to care anymore that makes it easier.

Rosie O’Donnell refers to Asian accents and languages as “Ching Chong”

people say she is being attacked out of homophobia. (And I don’t doubt there were homophobics having a field day with her racist comment; that does not make it any less racist.)  That Real Housewife in Orange County calls the Asian man she is talking to on the phone a “Ching Chong China Man” on her reality show and gets sympathy cards while indignantly proclaiming she is “not a racist.”  (Is that like Richard Nixon not being a crook?) Then there is Twilight star Jackson Rathbone, whose playing an Asian cartoon character named Avatar in an upcoming M. Night Shyamalan movie who says he’ll “just have to get a tan” and hope the audience goes along with him. And while looking for the Real Housewives clip, I discovered there is a whole series called “Ching Chong China Man” and derivites called “Ching Chong [fill in the action here]” by British kids on youtube! Including this one, for those of you still thinking Miley Cyrus was just having a goof:

At least Love Guru and Balls of Thunder flopped. (And this is just Asian face; if I got started on all the Latin@ and black face incidents of late, it would take me a day just to cover Jack Black’s career and another to talk about the Oscars – no wonder it took them so long to get rid of the D.W. Griffith awards.)

But I digress. I didn’t mention Cyrus’ behavior because I knew a tirade like that one was just itching to come out.  Unfortunately, I had to draw attention to this quote from a comment maker in a very long thread about Miley Cyrus’ recent comments about the incident, in which she claims that people are “seeing things,” that “everyone was making funny faces,” (cause Asian faces are funny you know), and that she is the new “it girl” for being picked on by the media. If you look at the picture closely, you can see that while Cyrus and her friend are making “slant eyes” out of the eyeline of their Asian friend, people behind them are doing the rabbit ears behind another friend who cannot see them, making it clear that there is a connection between the ethnicity of the person she is sitting beside and her “funny face.” The comment maker comes to Cyrus’ defense with this one:

It’s only racist if you choose to see it that way.

-Right (this is the comment makers screen name)

This is my favorite thing about our new society here in the U.S. When the Bush administration took office, three things happened to help make it possible for young people to make comments like these:

  1. intersectional analysis and the programs that teach it got labeled leftist dogma that should be destroyed
  2. “frat boy” like behavior in general, but especially in response to criticism, became the norm (remember Voldemort, aka Cheney, and his middle finger? how ’bout the multiple Bush interviews with him snickering)
  3. hate crimes rose while the number of successful prosecution and awareness campaigns around them fell

So while the comment from Mr./Mr.s “Right” on the E network chat forum isn’t new, the acceptance for such comments in the public sphere certainly is.

Worse, the number of young people who have spent their whole lives or all of their middle and high school, or even undergrad years, growing up in this environment have internalized the messages that civil rights are special rights, feminism is dead, and bigotry is really just irony accept for the oversensitive pc police. Miley Cyrus makes “slant eyes” with another friend, b/c in her possible drunken state she spies an Asian American friend and thinks “what a funny face.” She says “everyone was making a funny face” (accept of course the Asian kid they are “inadvertently” mocking) and calls it childish humor unrelated to racism. Miley’s fans say people of color are too sensitive and “she’s just a kid.” And young people and their parents continue to buy her products and watch her tv show while claiming anyone who thinks she should at least apologize is an “angry” and “oversensitive” pain. It’s Disney afterall, they’ve never done anything racist . . .

You’re right, that was me overreacting b/c it could have been Looney Tunes 1940s cartoons like this:

See this is the other problem with racism today in N. America. If you cannot convince someone that their claim of racism is “over sensitive” then you can just trot out something more racist as one comment maker did in the Cyrus thread by claiming:

“Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, look at these” that is so much worse than Miley’s pic. Can we talk real racism?!?

– Alice

As if racist act can only exist in the singular. Two things cannot be racist at the same time. Minor racism can be trumpted by major racism, as if minor and major have relevance for how we live our lives. Put another way, all of the types of racism outlined in this post: “slant eyes,” comments about Asian languages and Asian American accents, and songs about them being dirty, all depend on the idea of difference in which Asian is abnormal and lesser. All of these stereotypes have been used in the past to justify internment, exclusion, indenture, and trafficking, as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Though they appear less prevalent today, I would argue that they are simply less talked about since everything accept for the 1940s cartoon and the song above have all been done in the last 3 years.

Take this magazine cover I critiqued last year:

rollingstone(Rolling Stone)

This cover received far less outrage because it actually contained satire; McCain’s time as a POW is being compared to his presidential campaign in order to highlight certain instabilities that some claim were related as well as to explain his aggressive stance toward his opponents. At the same time, the cover trades on the stereotypical image of Vietnamese people in the U.S. and uses those stereotypes to render white people (And one black man b/c he was running) into twisted psuedo-Asian caricatures with “slant eyes,” wide grins, and big upper teeth. Not much different than that 1940s cartoon is it?

We live in a country where there is a black president for the first time. Where young people’s political involvement is at an all time high. And where Asian Americans were among those instrumental in the election of Barrack Obama despite only receiving one major cabinet seat in thanks. Yet somehow the culturally conservative rhetoric of race and gender continue to derail us. As I look at these chat rooms (part of a project for a class on media for the fall), I wonder about what the ultimate impact of a Bush-Cheney administration followed by a Black President will mean for how young people process race and racism. I worry that the hipster version of elitism, racism, classism, and regionalism combined with the legacy of “civil rights are really unfair special rights” from the conservatives will make it that much harder to find common ground and respect for one another in the future.

There was a time when people seethed at you in a classroom readily admitting that things were unequal in their favor b/c they believed it was the right order of things; now they roll their eyes and twitter how ridiculous their pc professor is to 1/2 a million myspace friends while checking images of their cohort in black face on the beach being “ironic.” If they get caught, they simply say “I was just joking, geez” and then trot out their “black” friend to prove it.  Just 3 years ago, a graduate student told me on the first day of class that she did not feel I had the right to assign her work, on the second day that she did not feel I had the intelligence to put a syllabus together and determine what represented material in the field (in which I was the only PhD in, at pov u, and a subject for which I had been examined in for my qualifiers, and published on 5 times in top peer reviewed journals prior to teaching the course), and then on the third session informed me that she felt I had “an agenda” in the course beyond teaching the material. She ultimately dropped the course because I refused to engage her, agreeing with her that she had a right to choose what she did and did not read and to attend or not attend class sessions, and also letting her know that she was equally right that others might teach the course differently b/c we were all different and not everyone she took the course from was likely to have this particular topic as one of their areas of specialty – tho, obviously, I doubt any of them would have done a syllabus devoid of contemporary women and women of color. Two days afterward, she brought her partner’s bi-racial black son to the department and paraded him through the hallway, making sure to stop just outside of my office and engage him loudly in a conversation about the AF-AM poster on the bulletin board next to my door that she had put there the day before. She neglected to mention how she and her partner picked over the black community as ignorant, backward, imminently more misogynist and homophobic than any other group on the planet, in front of said son b/c in her world, his blackness negated her unwillingness to see me as an intelligent and successful intellectual and her unwillingness to see my/his race as equal to her own. A year later she would ask me to team teach with her b/c “she needed a black person” – her exact words. When I said no, she pulled this same parading technique outside my office with a black graduate student who had said yes b/c afterall, there is nothing racist about thinking black people are interchangeable, that a black MA student in her first year has the same skill set as a black PhD with tenure, or that really all you need any black intellectual for is to “show up and be black” not to actually think, teach, or have any relevant training in the subject.)

Ultimately, it feels as though the burden of bigotry has shifted back on to our backs. And yeah, somebody may have actually built his home here across my broken one.

The job of the marginalized has once again become to silently acquiesce to negative stereotypes in the media and in interpersonal relationships; to laugh and shrug off bigotry as somehow less important to confront than poverty or war (which was another comment makers point) as if these things are not interrelated or equally destructive to all of our lives. And as if we are not confronting all of these things as our health and sanity deteriorate.

Even in progressive circles, to name the thing they have dared us not to name, will only result in being banned from the group: “don’tinvite him, he’s always so serious” or “I was hoping we would have fun tonight; you know how she is . . .” Or they will shift one oppression out for one that marginalizes them in the ultimate game of oppression olympics: “Yes, I see how you might feel that was insulting but you know I think your point ignores [fill in oppression of speaker] that the rest of us were talking about.” So that no matter what company you keep, left or right, urban or rural, straight or gay, “progressive” or conservative, etc. there is only one rule:

be quiet.

Be quiet.


Because it is better to silently watch while your friends, colleagues, the media, some random stranger on the street, mocks how you look, speak . . . think . . . live . . .  than to make that person uncomfortable with the truth.

This is why I don’t doubt Miley Cyrus’ Asian American friend will come out in support of her when it gets just a little bit hotter in that racist kitchen she’s in. And then all those chatters will point and say, “See even the Asian kid thinks you all need to shut up.”



15 thoughts on “Thought Piece: Miley Cyrus and Asian Face

  1. Pingback: Pages tagged "asian"

    • ranting is not for academe, didn’t anybody tell you?

      Honestly, I have a couple of pop culture posts on the back burner for an upcoming conference/possible pub or two. we’ll see . . .

  2. Me and my friend were arguing about an issue similar to this! Now I know that I was right. lol! Thanks for the information you post.

  3. I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

  4. I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

  5. Yo, I am writing a report for school, is it ok if I write a few quotes from your site, as long as I give proper credit?

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