“Sum Ting Wong” is very wrong

15 Jul

Maybe you’ve already seen this update on the Asiana 214 crash at San Francisco International Airport: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqjlhtKIToo&feature=player_embedded.

I find this story incredibly disheartening, as do, apparently, the friends and colleagues who have sent it to me with little to no text  in their e-mails other than the link. So what exactly is bothering me?

That in the middle of a tragedy like this, a twelve-year-old US boy, sees an opportunity to make fun of Asian people. I say Asian, because the butt of his humor is Chinese names, although the pilots of this flight are Korean (which I doubt mattered much in this boy’s analysis of the situation and his chance to yuk it up). Without knowing the race or ethnicity of the boy in question (who could, for all we know, be Asian-American), the joke is about those Asians, the ones who speak in that ridiculous “ching chong”, not the assimilated hyphenated Asians with proper Christian names. (The “ching chong” pejorative was revived and made viral by former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace in her “Asians in the Library” rant, which is now notably, unavailable online.) Where to start with this child, if he were a student of mine? I’d begin with respect for those who are dead, injured, traumatized and/or grieving the death of a friend or loved one. And then I’d talk to him about what’s racist about his joke, why that racism isn’t “just a joke” and what choices good people have when they do racist things. Because that’s one of the epidemic problems of our time: people giving themselves license to do racist, sexist, classist and homophobic things because they’re good people, after all. (For a refresher on how to tell someone they just said something racist, see Jay Smooth’s video that I’ve mentioned before: http://www.illdoctrine.com/2008/07/how_to_tell_people_they_sound.html.)

That a group of adults fell for this sophomoric joke. I’m sitting here wondering how they could possibly have missed it. Sum Ting Wong? Wi Tu Lo? Ho Lee Fuk? Bang Ding Ow? Hello, KTVU? I find myself falling back on my standby strategy when I’m at a loss, and need some help getting beyond my initial gut response, which is to ask myself: what are at least three explanations for how this got on air?

  1. Reporting, which is increasingly crowd-sourced these days, is happening at a fast and furious pace. No time for fact-checking. (Insert joke here about the fact that KTVU is a FOX affiliate.)
  2.  There was independent confirmation that these were, in fact, the names of the Asiana crew.
  3. The KTVU staff is very visual, not auditory and simply didn’t hear the bad joke… even when anchor Tori Campbell read the names aloud on air.
  4. Campbell and her staff were so focused on the trees (spelling and capitalization of names) that they completely missed the forest (the pronunciation). This hyper-focus may have been due to the urgency of the story, general nearsightedness, the non-Western names that stories from Asia typically involve.
  5. The staff read the names and just figured they were right. Not that they got the joke–I have to believe that would have triggered their due diligence. Rather, that they didn’t bother to think about the names at all because, like so many Asian names, they were just gobbledygook.
  6. The staff was afraid to question the names, for fear of looking silly, ignorant… or even racist.

I’m sure we could come up with more, but let’s stop here for a moment. (And FYI: an NTSB intern did, in fact, verify the fake pilot names: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-ntsb-intern-asiana-20130715,0,7836770.story.) When I step back and consider just these possibilities, I see some themes: good (enough) intentions, lack of malice and concerted blindness. It seems quite likely to me that the professionals at KTVU didn’t see the joke before they became part of it. But that’s not to say they’re not responsible in part for what happened.

Whether out of embarrassment, alienation, disinterest or xenophobia, the folks at KTVU didn’t pay attention to the names. They didn’t really see them or hear them because they were too different, too insignificant or too “ching chong.” Whatever the particular reason, which I do think each person who handled this story should consider for themselves, I have to wonder: if they don’t see the names, do they see the people attached to them?

** Thanks to my friends and colleagues NS and JL for the link.

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