Media Stereotypes & Code Words

Let's call media to task for promoting stereotypes

Honolulu Advertiser, February 23, 1997
By Tom Brislin
Department of Journalism
University of Hawaii

The ABC sitcom "Family Matters," about an African-American family and friends, made the decision a few seasons ago to venture into fantasy. On a recent Friday night airing, it made an unfortunate venture into stereotypes and racism.

It seems the nerdish lead character, Steve Erkel, can occasionally turn himself through a secret process into a host of more suave and sophisticated personalities. In this episode, however, he switched race rather than type and turned himself and two of his playground charges into a trio of trite kung fu fighters.

A gang of bullies, you see, was giving him a daily beating at the playground he supervised. The young Erkel professed nonviolence, so needing a more brutal persona, changed to Chinese.

Into the transmogrification machine (which looks suspiciously like a porta-san with dials and flashing lights) go Erkel and two hip-talking playground kids. Out come your standard-issue stereotypes. Chawan haircuts. Venetian-blind eyes with no-fold lids.

And dialogue that mixes "r's and l's" in words along with high-pitch pseudo martial arts gibberish. All three were named "Bluce Ree." (One surmises that since "they" all look alike, the characters might as well sound alike and be named alike as well.)

Oh, sure, it's played for laughs. Maybe we should just lighten up. But imagine for a moment a trio of Asian-American actors coming out of the sitcom's magic machine in shoe-black makeup, afro wigs, exaggerated wide eyes and thick lips, and drawling out "shuck and jive" dialogue -- just "played for laughs."

Anybody find that funny?

In fact, the cries of racism for such an abhorrent "blackface" performance would make a major news story, as it did when Ted Danson tried it a few years ago, "just for laughs" in a celebrity roast of Whoopi Goldberg. Shouldn't a stereotypical "yellowface" characterization bring on the same outrage?

When Sen. Alfonse D'Amato did a demeaning "ahh-soo" impersonation of Judge Lance Ito, he was rightfully scorned.

Emil Guillermo wrote on these pages about a more realistic profile of Asian-Americans vs. the pervasive "model minority" portrayal. The overachiever image can be added to the stockpile of stereotypes, along with ABC's "kung fu manchus," to the latest pejorative in politics: the "Asian-American businessman."

This phrase has become a code word for sneaky, underhanded-under-the-table, behind closed doors, inscrutable, double-dealing businessman. Brushing aside the irony that these could describe many contemporary American business practices, much of media imagery, unintentional or not, seems designed to cast Asian-Americans as essentially outsiders in their own country: still foreign, and potentially dangerous, after all these years.

Forget that patronage is the fish and poi of politics. When Nora Lum went looking to increase the number of Asian-Americans in government service, the alarm bells went off. You mean working on the *inside* of government?

A recent story on how Wellesley College, alma mater of new Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Miss Manners, has produced such powerful women in the 20th century, contained this unusual paragraph about its alumnae:

"Madame Chiang Kai Sheck went to Wellesley years ago and apparently spread the word back home. One quarter of the 2,300 students are Asian."

Count up the stereotypes in that one short paragraph: Model minority; Asians are all the same -- Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc., all come from Mme. Chiang's "home"; Asians are the "multiplying minority" -- let one in and thousands follow; and, of course, these 575 students are essentially different from the rest of the student body. They are *foreign*, just like Mme. Chiang, to the Wellesley mainstream, whether they are from California, Hawaii, or Taipei.

Another recent story -- about the champion judo kid's parents suing the American Judo Association over objections to bowing before matches -- found it necessary to point out the mother's immigrant status. Her *American* clock started ticking just two and a half years ago. What sort of prejudice are we supposed to read into the code word "immigrant"? Was the story trying to whisper and wink: *foreign...outsider*?

Such code words can be found in the coverage of all minority groups, of course. Stories about the overturned Brinks truck pointed out its shower of cash landed on an "inner city" neighborhood, a code expression for non-white and poor. While it might make easy journalistic shorthand, we do have to ask: If this cash landed in a well-heeled suburb, would the residents have quietly gathered it up and neatly stacked it on the edges of their well-manicured lawns for Mr. Brinks to collect it? Let's not imply that scrabblers exist only in the "inner city."

As a rival to pejorative code words is plain old tastelessness, such as the ad than ran with a banner "Open Martin Luther King Day" over the image of a man sighting down a shogun. The fact that this horrendous message passed through layers of oversight and without any post-publication apology or comment is tribute only to how deeply masked our insensitivities can be.

While informing and entertaining, media are powerfully transmitting social values. Sometimes because of space or time limitations, sometimes out of ingrained insensitivity, they trade the completeness and context that give meaning for the shorthand code words and images that perpetuate stereotypes.

Media stereotypes perpetuate real-world discrimination, harassment and, all too often, violence against groups and gender portrayed as outsiders. And the sad fact is there are many whose image of a righteous America dwells on keeping *outsiders* outside.

But the media are also us. Audience and feedback are integral parts of the mass communication process. When we see and read images that demean and denigrate, it's not only our right, it's our obligation, to object. Not lightly, but loudly.

Tom Brislin is a professor of Journalism at the University of Hawaii and a contributor to the book, "Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media."