Why a "Little Bit of Racism" Isn't Something to Sing About

Guest Post by Jeff Yang

Hey, folks! I'm on vacation, taking a much-needed blog break. Some batteries need recharging. But don't worry -- I've enlisted the generous help of some great guest bloggers to keep things fresh around here while I'm gone. Here's Jeff Yang on his least favorite part of the musical Avenue Q.

You know the puppet-powered alt-musical Avenue Q? Well, I loved watching it. I thought it was smart and wickedly hilarious, a work of passing satirical brilliance, I'm glad it's still playing Broadway, and I'm weirdly happy to see a small play featuring foulmouthed muppets subversively ensconced in big-budget-extravaganza-laden Las Vegas.

But if there's one thing I really regret about its popularity, it's that it accidentally created the ultimate weapon of mass distraction for those seeking to dismissively minimize acts of racial insensitivity: A handy theme song. If you know the words, feel free to sing along:

Everyone's a little bit racist
Doesn't mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.

Sure, the song's funny. But it's gotten so that every time anyone drops a vintage slur, slings a douchey accent or trots out an overripe stereotype, a legion of apologists will rise up in chorus, quoting from Avenue Q: Everyone's a little bit racist, sometimes. Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes. Lighten up. Take a joke. Let it go. Give it a pass.

Now, I personally think that the best way to respond to acts of disrespect or ignorance is open, honest dialogue -- not nuclear overreaction. The vast majority of people who say hurtful things aren't aware of why their words are harmful, and slamming them as "racist" tends to raise hackles, not consciousness. But neither should we allow such things to slide without comment -- because doing so just normalizes racial mockery and abuse, to the point where horrendous gaffes like KTVU's airing of a litany of fake Asian names in a report on the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco become commonplace. After all, everyone's a little bit racist.

I had a conversation recently with John Curtas, one of Las Vegas's best known restaurant critics, about an incident he was involved in that's a cardinal example of why public admonishment isn't always the best way to respond to a questionable situation.

On his Twitter feed, he's been regularly commenting on the ongoing tribulations of Paula Deen, whose blithely retrograde and bluntly offensive statements about African Americans have turned her television chef career into a smoking crater -- lampooning her racial insensitivity with tweets like "She thinks colored people are swell."

Which, in turn, prompted a Japanese American organization called the Manzanar Committee to respond to him by turning the tables. You see, almost a year ago, Curtas had tweeted a throwaway joke about Japanese yodeler Takeo Ischi -- calling a YouTube video he'd uploaded "The best Jap-German collaboration since 1941."

Now, the statement was meant to be provocative -- "I think of myself as a humorist," Curtas explains, "even if I fail more at it than I succeed" -- and given the World War II Axis powers reference, it could've been offensive to a wide range of people, including war veterans and Jewish Americans.

But Manzanar Committee's particular concern was the use of the abbreviation "Jap." They fired back at him with the following tweet -- "You shouldn't be critical after tweeting the racial slur ‘Jap' awhile back" -- essentially placing Curtas in the same category as Deen.

Curtas was floored. "I told them that I was only using ‘Jap' as an abbreviation -- it wasn't intended to be a racial slur," he says. "On Twitter you have 140 characters. You conserve space. What I did was cut down eight letters to three. It does not have the same force as the N-word -- not even close."

He proceeded to respond in a way that, by his own admission, was way over the top. "I called them hypersensitive, PC totalitarians, I used some pretty strong terms -- including some I shouldn't have," he says. "The term ‘language nazi' was not a good idea. As my girlfriend would say, ‘That's when you went off the rails.' But it was in the heat of the moment. I'm hardly a racist. I will admit to using racially charged terms in the pursuit of humor on occasion, but I've never, ever used any racial slur as an epithet aimed at a person."

Curtas noted that he hadn't even realized that "Jap," with or without a period, was no longer an acceptable abbreviation: "When did that change? I admit that my father, who was a World War II vet, used the term in a very different way, but you used to see the three-letter abbreviation used all the time -- how did it suddenly become defined as a racial slur?"

Gil Asakawa, who writes the blog Nikkei View, notes that while "Jap" is the most obvious shortening of "Japanese" or "Japan," its history of usage makes those who've been exposed to the term in its ugliest context very uncomfortable. As a result, most cultural and journalistic institutions have shifted to using the abbreviation "Jpn" instead. "Yes, use of the term was once common, but the time for that has passed, and we need to be a little more cognizant," says Asakawa. "CNN made the conscious decision to change its abbreviation to JPN during the 2004 Olympics -- and that's a good lead to follow."

Curtas says he meant no harm, and he assumed that any readers of his Twitter feed would give him the benefit of that doubt. But he also didn't think of what reading those three little letters means to a community that had the term thrown at their backs, as they were rounded up and imprisoned behind barbed wire.

He says he wasn't aware that the Manzanar Committee is a group whose entire existence is focused on preserving the memory of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans -- Manzanar being the first of the ten internment camps that were built during World War II to imprison Japanese Americans without trial or cause.

And he certainly didn't consider the way that the term has continued to be used over the years, as a marker of hate and contempt not just for Japanese Americans, but for any Asian-looking individual (along with "chink," "gook," "nip" and even more wide-spraying epithets).

In Curtas's mind, his use of the term "Jap" was at worst something to be laughed off as an act of Paisleyesque accidental racism. Everyone's a little bit racist, sometimes. Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes. Lighten up. Take a joke. Let it go. Give it a pass.

But in the eyes of the Manzanar Committee, the term is a symbol of present-day bigotry and an echo of historical trauma that demanded immediate retribution.

"There was an opportunity for an educational moment here, rather than putting Curtas on the defensive," notes Asakawa. "Asking him to apologize probably wasn't as important as telling him why the term is hurtful. But let's be honest: Every time I see the term, I get a pit in my stomach. That impact has to count for something.

And now, many people have concluded -- mistakenly, he asserts -- that Curtas is an anti-Asian bigot. "People are posting things on my feed like ‘You're a racist f*** who needs to choke on his food," he says.

It seems to me that the lesson here is simple. Don't diminish the response of others to what you say or do; none of us have the right to decide how people are "allowed" to react to us, or arbitrate whether they can rightly be offended. Listening and learning breeds goodwill, while preemptive dismissal -- inevitably leads to escalation.

"I'm going to need to be more sensitive in the future -- I truly didn't know that the abbreviation would offend anybody," says Curtas. "It was wrong of me to escalate things immediately. Manzanar Committee was being very fair about things, and I came out rude and swinging. And unfortunately, Twitter by its very nature doesn't really lend itself to reasoned thinking. It's little blasts of 140 characters, people shooting verbal machine guns at each other. And you sometimes pull the trigger first and look at the target after."

But as many an individual has learned -- like Paula Deen, for example -- the little blasts of the Internet have ways of ricocheting around forever. And the end result can be damage to career and reputation that not even singing puppets can erase.

Jeff Yang is writes the column "Tao Jones" for the Wall Street Journal and is the editor-in-chief of SIUniverse Media, creators of the graphic novel anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered. Follow him on Twitter at @originalspin.

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