Punching Sideways: the last laugh on racial stereotypes

It's common for people from culturally diverse backgrounds to reclaim racial stereotypes for laughs. But interpretations of this humour can vary quite a bit, writes Sonia Nair

Illustration: Beth Wilkinson

At some point or another, we’ve all openly laughed at, or unconsciously accepted, the sentiments that underpin common cultural stereotypes: Asians are good at maths but bad at driving; Jewish people are frugal; Indians are destined to work as taxi drivers, IT geeks or 7-Eleven attendants.

But stereotypes matter. In the 2011 study Media Representations & Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys, negative portrayals of the ‘idle black male on the street corner’ were linked to lower life expectations among black men and a persistent antagonism among audiences towards black men.

Positive stereotypes can be harmful, too. A 2012 study by Duke University psychologist Aaron Kay showed that positive stereotypes – that black people are better than white people at sport, for example – make people more likely to believe that differences between racial groups are genetic; a slippery slope on the continuum of biological determinism.

So, what happens when the ones perpetuating and even embracing these stereotypes are those who have suffered from the effects of racial stereotyping themselves?

In comedy circles, there’s a concept known as ‘punching up’, which refers to the idea that it’s better to poke fun at people who sit further up the ladder of societal privilege (and the invisible structures that uphold their dominance) than to poke fun at those who sit lower. Comedians who subscribe to this idea basically believe that it’s okay when black people make fun of white people, LGBTI people make fun of straight people, and disabled people make fun of able-bodied people, but not the reverse.

‘Punching up’ is a comedy term, but the principle can be applied more broadly. When culturally diverse people make fun of someone belonging to the same racial group, they are effectively ‘punching sideways’, and it's not quite so straightforward.

I can’t help but feel a twinge of annoyance whenever I see the delivery bikes parked outside the fashionable eatery Misschu, emblazoned with the tagline ‘you ling, we bling’.

I can’t help but feel a twinge of annoyance whenever I see the delivery bikes parked outside the fashionable eatery Misschu, emblazoned with the tagline ‘you ling, we bling’. This gimmick – which plays on the way Asian people speak English according to an infantilising stereotype – permeates every aspect of the restaurant’s branding, from the ‘Me Hungry’ menu item on the website to the messages customers receive when Misschu can’t deliver to their area: ‘We no deliver where you live’.

A quick Google search reveals that other people from diverse cultural backgrounds hold the same views on Misschu, from a blogger who debunked the ‘racist caricature language’ to more colourful imputations from a Yelp reviewer that the restaurant proprietor is a ‘racist jerk’.

But what does it mean that the owner of Misschu is Nahji Chu, a Vietnamese-Laotian refugee, and that this branding strategy drives a profitable eatery visited mostly by white hipsters?

The matter is addressed in a brief passage on the Misschu website: ‘Like many people who understand and respect the role of humour in society, Misschu has decided to use the awful slurs she grew up with, and still feels lie just beneath the surface of many interactions with White Australia, and turn it into comedic commentary.’

‘We kindly request that you see this use of language by the Misschu brand as a humorous toying with, and not handing over of power to, those who wish to mock Asian accents.’

Couched in such terms, Misschu’s slogan becomes a way of reclaiming the racist attitudes that blighted Nahji’s childhood. And it’s a delicious double ‘fuck you’ if the people fuelling the rise of her food empire, hold those same racist views too.

The same can’t be said if the restaurant was owned by a non-Asian person. There is something indescribably icky about exploiting stereotypes that reinforce discrimination another race group might receive, without the shared experience of having faced the very same prejudice themselves.

Growing up in the predominantly white Sunshine Coast, writer Benjamin Law felt embarrassed by his mother. But two years ago he published a self-proclaimed ‘silly $15 toilet read’, Shit Asian Mothers Say, with his sister Michelle to celebrate their mother’s many weird and wonderful sayings.

As with Misschu, the book was not without its detractors. Some people claimed the book re-enforced negative stereotypes about Asians and didn’t portray an ‘authentic’ Asian experience. But Michelle says trying to highlight a genuine way to be Asian is in itself problematic:

‘We’re poking fun at Asian stereotypes in a very tongue-in-cheek, but, importantly, very self-aware way,’ she says. ‘There are elements of truth to stereotypes and there’s humour in recognising that, but stereotypes become dangerous when you assume they are representative rather than two-dimensional renderings of entire groups of people.’

It was also important to the Laws that the book came from a place of love and shared experiences, Michelle says. ‘The book is intended to be a big in-joke with our Asian brothers and sisters to have a laugh over. What it essentially says is, “We get what it’s like to have an Asian Mum. We know this book is silly. And we know that you’re smart enough to get that it’s silly”.’

There are elements of truth to stereotypes and there’s humour in recognising that, but stereotypes become dangerous when you assume they are representative’

People who make fun of minorities’ manner of speaking or the dynamics in immigrant families will invariably chance upon the delivery bikes of Misschu and the pages of Shit Asian Mothers Say and misconstrue them.

This inability to control the narrative surrounding stereotypes was highlighted in a recent conversation on RN about ‘ethnic humour’. Broadcaster Patricia Karvelas was talking to Mary Coustas, the actress behind Effie, a second-generation Australian-Greek character from the 90s sitcom Acropolis Now. Karvelas remarked that while she loved the comedic character, she was often personally conflated with Effie at the height of the show’s popularity, being an Australian-Greek girl herself.

‘Effie wasn’t to blame, but people then thought it was OK to make comments like “you’re a wog”, which some of us felt uncomfortable with,’ Karvelas says.

Coustas remarked that she’d hoped Effie would kick-start a new wave of Greek representation in the cultural sphere, exposing people to more than one way of being a Greek person. It’s been more than 20 years and not much has changed.

In a society where white experience is still considered the norm, some of the only representations we see of people of colour are the stereotypes. It’s difficult to know if it’s better to reclaim or refrain from these misconceptions. But if society continues to peddle these tired sentiments, can you really blame ethnic minorities for trying to regain some sort of agency and wanting a piece of that pie?

Portrait of Sonia Nair

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