Watters’ White Man World of Asian America
Watters, a personality in political humor, recently took a stroll through Chinatown to target (and insult) Asian Americans with political discussions.
By Terry Nguyen, University of Southern California
Proclaimed political humorist Jesse Watters walked into New York’s Chinatown earlier this week with satirical jokes up his sleeve, but ended up regurgitating ignorant racial statements on camera.
His man-on-the-street interviews with different Chinatown residents and passersby aired last Monday on “The O’Reilly Factor” of Fox News and immediately faced backlash from Asian American activist groups.
The video has over 10,000 dislikes on Facebook, but before it harbored national media attention, many were quick to dismiss it as “gentle fun”—in the words of Bill O’Reilly himself. “How is this segment racist,” a Youtube comment asks, “if Watters is simply asking a race of people their opinion on American politics?” Claims of “overly sensitive liberalism” and justifications of Watters’ “satirical comedy” were among those who defended the segment.
Because American society has yet to come to a consensus on how far is too far when it comes to “mocking” racial stereotypes, Watters’ actions remain in question. Were his actions purely racist or was “overly sensitive liberalism” and political correctness driving the outrage of the Asian American response?
It wasn’t racist—it was satire!
Watters’ defenders emphatically justified the segment as satirical comedy, comparing it to “The Daily Show” that featured Trump supporters being interviewed by Jordan Klepper. A few key things differed between the segments, however, including each show’s take on “satire.”
The definition of satire, from the Oxford Dictionary, states that it is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity, particularly in the context of contemporary politics.
Watters’ segment focuses on a specific race of people and actively demeans them in the name of satire, in comparison to Klepper’s interview with Trump supporters (who all coincidentally happen to be white) where he lets the supporters’ own words speak for themselves.
Watters mostly approached elders and individuals who were not proficient in English to even understand the questions he raised, and even worse, he belittled their silence. Satire comes in a variety of contexts, but when Watters mocks an elderly Chinese lady for giving no response because of her lack of English skills, the topic is no longer humorous. It becomes offensive, especially to those who understand the struggle of learning English as a second language.
In this case, racism and satire are not mutually exclusive.
Watters’ segment reaffirms the racial stereotypes that Asian Americans have worked so hard to overcome. Racism is not purely hate-driven, as claimed by another Youtube comment. Racism comes in invisible forms of prejudice and subconscious stereotypes that permeate society. Watters’ Chinatown segment perpetuates the notion that Asians are outsiders to American culture, living in Asian-populated cities and lacking political interest, education and opinion.
His mocking statements of “Do you know karate?” or “Do I bow when I speak to you?” belittle Chinese and Asian cultures into false generalizations that undermine the rich diversity, accomplishments and unique nature of the people.
Of course, for a white man like Watters, it was “all in good fun,” with no purposeful racist intent of misrepresenting 17 million Asian Americans through a cable “news” channel in his satirical segment.
It’s not racist—you’re all just overly sensitive liberals!
The argument about sensitive, politically correct liberals is that all too often, they get offended too easily. Sensitivity and political correctness are subjective, but when an overwhelming majority of viewers (both conservatives and liberals) agree that they viewed Watters’ segment as racist, majority opinion—not liberal sensitivity—suggests that it is racist.
Liberalism is used as an insult to criticize radical “socialist” ideas, but the tenets of political liberalism focus on ideas of liberty and social equality. Socialism is an economic theory, while liberalism takes root in social issues.
The racism behind Watters’ statements can only be accurately judged in an Asian American’s shoes. The majority of online comments praising Watters’ “humor” have never identified intersectional racism as an Asian American. They will never have to translate for an immigrant parent in line at the grocery store, be praised for their perfect English or shake their head when asked if math is their favorite subject.
Racial stereotypes are present almost everywhere in American culture, but Asian Americans are working to abolish preconceived notions about their race that reflects a false illusion of who they are. These inaccurate perceptions overshadow problems in the Asian American community that are not addressed, such as poverty rates and rising immigration numbers.
When a video like Watters’ paints Asians in a laughable light, it allows the rest of America to forget the real issues facing Asian Americans and instead become entertained by a “model minority” who needs more comedic attention to lighten up their lives.
It isn’t racist—it’s a funny stereotype!
It’s just like how white Americans are called fat and pigs, but no one ever calls them out for it!
The difference between Asian and white American stereotypes is that these generalizations have been created and impressed on Asian Americans by whites upon their arrival in the country. White American stereotypes, however, are easily proven wrong because of widespread white culture and representation throughout America.
Asians have been blatantly discriminated (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment camps) and disrespected for their appearance, language and cultural traditions. The fact that Watters misrepresented his stereotypes is not only embarrassing on his behalf, but offensive. It reveals a lack of cultural interest from a white perspective, as Watters casually tours Chinatown making ridiculously stereotyped statements that generalized a race.
Watters’ reference to karate, a Japanese sport, to Chinese people is similar to asking a native German if they liked French baguettes. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese—these are only a handful of the many grouped together in one large Asian category.
Watters’ failure to differentiate between distinct Asian races serves as a reminder to Asian Americans of their cultural unimportance to most of the American public. It is a reminder that they are often viewed subconsciously as an inferior culture that has yet to fully integrate into society.
To this day, harmful stereotypes negatively affect the Asian American community, from their model minority status to the “bamboo ceiling,” which discredits Asians from executive positions due to a lack of leadership and communication.
Stereotypes overshadow the struggles of marginalized Asian American communities that face social and economic issues. It ignores the poorer, more marginalized districts that fail to have “the Asian Advantage” in education and monetary success.
But alas, in Watters’ White Man’s World, Asian Americans can do little but publish a critical statement, while Fox News casually brushes the controversy aside. In his world, all Watters has to offer is a shameless half-apology on Twitter for his political humor. His sense of privilege never had to be earned, respect never had to be demanded—it all came too easy, just like how it was too easy to mock a minority group and lose their conservative vote.