Re-appropriate racist language/imagery/stereotypes.
This one can be tricky, and sometimes it can lead you down a bad path of self-lampooning and even self-loathing, and some people believe you shouldn’t fuck with racist language and that it’s best to just not use it, but DA-YAM is it satisfying to tell someone that my mother’s maiden name is Ching Chong Chang and watch that person’s face screw up in total confusion. When I took improv comedy classes at the UCB Theatre in New York, I once did a job-interview scene with a dude who addressed me as “Mrs. Chang,” and the whole class laughed immediately, which made me uncomfortable because the Chinese last name was the entire joke, which basically meant that having a Chinese last name is funny, which basically meant that my last name is funny, and I, for one, certainly don’t bust out laughing every time I remember what my last name is. But I went with it. I replied that my hobbies were eating rice, catching flies with my chopstick, dressing like a geisha, being inscrutable, and practicing kung fu. That got an even bigger laugh, and I felt good, because I no longer felt like I was the butt of a racist joke; instead it felt like the whole class was laughing at racism and racist humor.
Pre-empt racist comments.
Again, sometimes this backfires, but when it works, it works. Once, some dude told me that the birthmark on my back looked like “Asia,” which was ridiculous, so I started to tell people that I had named my birthmark “Asia” because I wanted to preemptively self-Orientalize before anyone else could do it to me. That particular joke usually prompted an uncomfortable silence coupled with a WTF does that mean look, which was fine with me, because at least it established a tone of Yeah, racist jokes are uncomfortable for everyone, so don’t do it, OK?
Sometimes, when I see an Asian person on TV, I will tell my friends, “Oh yeah, that’s my uncle,” or when we go into a Chinese restaurant, I will say, “By the way, that waitress is my mom.” It’s a silly joke, and it’s not even that funny, but it feels satisfying to make, because you’re basically saying, YO, DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT MAKING A “YOU ALL LOOK ALIKE” JOKE ’CAUSE I ALREADY HEARD IT ONE MILLION TIMES, SO SHUT YER MOUTH. For all the times that someone has asked me if I’m related to Jackie Chan, or if I know kung fu, or if Chinese people eat cats and dogs, or whatever the stereotype du jour happens to be, and made me feel powerless, I loved being able to say: HEY, MY DAD IS JACKIE CHAN, I HAVE A BLACKBELT IN MARTIAL ARTS, I JUST ATE FIVE CATS BECAUSE I’M CHINESE, AND I CAN’T OPEN MY EYES SO THAT’S WHY I BUMPED INTO YOU. WHAT ELSE HAVE YOU GOT?
Now, you have to be careful with this one, because the point of pre-empting racist comments is to show how inappropriate and uncreative they are, NOT to give racists an opportunity to enjoy “The Self-Loathing Internalized Racism Comedy Hour,” if you know what I mean.
Exaggerate racism to expose just how ridiculous and absurd and abominable it really is.
I once had a friend tell me that his father told him that Asian women had sideways vaginas. He knew, of course, that it wasn’t true, but he thought it was a pretty funny joke, and it made me feel humorless because I didn’t think it was funny at all; in fact, it was the kind of thing that made me feel sad and sort of violated, so I wrote a poem about having a sideways vagina:*
YOU GO AWAY FOR A MONTH AND COME BACK A GADABOUT
me I stay a cynic
later becoming a stoic
later my friends point out I’m neither
you’re a zen Buddhist, they say
and your skin has the texture of rice
my name is the sound of three pots clanging
against a tin garbage can
my family is related to lao tze
and my mother taught me filial piety
my vagina grows sideways
when a man wants to fuck
he gets at a right angle
a yi ayi a ya a ya a yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
and it’s over.
It’s a really fun poem to read aloud at a public reading. Usually no one laughs at the part where I list all of the ludicrous stereotypes I have had the misfortune of encountering in my fairly privileged and sheltered life, but I always feel relieved when I get to the end and everyone laughs and (hopefully) realizes that it can be funny to lampoon racism.
Also, I don’t know why I’m wasting time with my amateur efforts at satirizing racism when I could be showing you this clip of Margaret Cho KILLING IT here:
And when all else fails, it’s all right to cry.
Or scream, or write an angry rant in your journal, or throw your shoes at the door, or punch your bed, or whatever it is that you need to do to let it out. It felt really good to laugh at the racist drunk girl at the Melt-Banana concert with my boyfriend, but that feeling was cut short when she grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Are you calling me a fucking racist?” and then turned to her equally drunk friend and said, “This bitch just tried to call me a fucking racist.”
My boyfriend tried to defuse the situation by explaining to these girls why what the first girl had said to me was indeed racist—but that only made things worse. The girl’s friend tried to throw her drink in my face, and the original girl kept jostling me and punching me in the shoulder during the concert, shouting, “You’re the fucking racist. You’re the fucking racist. Don’t you ever call me that again,” even though I hadn’t called her that, even though she was that, and even though I wished I had been brave enough to tell her so.
I ended up fleeing the show and crying in a bathroom stall. That night I lay in bed with my boyfriend, still crying, still shaking. He cried too.
“I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry it’s ever happened to you. I’m sorry it might happen to you again. I’m sorry I can’t protect you from it.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “It’s OK and it’s not OK.”
That night, I went to bed feeling like I was born sad.
The next morning, I woke up feeling much better. I went to brunch with my friends and told them, “You will not believe what happened to me yesterday. This drunk girl wandered into the Melt-Banana show and thought I was with the band because I’m Asian. And then she told me I was racist. It was not a fun night.”
One of my friends joked, “You should have said, ‘Konichiwa.’”
Another one said, “Or, like, ‘Namaste,’ just to confuse her.”
It felt good to be with friends who had my back. It felt good to be in a safe environment, one where I felt comfortable enough to laugh. It felt good to exist without fear, even though I knew there would be another time when I wouldn’t be able to laugh it off. But it felt good, that morning, to have some fucking fun. ♦
* This poem has been edited every so slightly.