Culture

About Chris Rock’s Asian Kid Oscar Joke: The Children, And Their Parents, Were As Surprised As You Were

CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

At the Academy Awards on Sunday night, host Chris Rock introduced the “dedicated, accurate, and hard-working” accountants responsible for tallying the Oscar votes. Their names? “Ming Zhu, Bao Ling, and David Moskowitz.” Three Asian children, dressed in tuxedos, dutifully walked onto the stage.

As if anticipating the outrage his bit would spark, Rock went on, “If anybody is upset about this joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids.”

Get it? Asian and Jewish people are great at math! And all Asian kids are child laborers losing their fingers to Foxconn factories so all the rich, white people at the Oscars can have iPhones!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the children involved in the bit had no idea they were going to be the target of a racist joke until it was, really, too late to back out. A Public Radio International reporter interviewed 8-year-old Estie Kung, already a television star in the making for her winning turns on Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown, and her mother, Laura Kung, about their Oscar experience. Laura explained that she and her daughter “were only told about the joke’s premise at the audition.” From PRI:

[Laura] says they were told that when Rock first hosted the Oscars in 2005, he’d introduced “the accountants” in a similar fashion before bringing out two 8-foot-tall African American men. This time around, he wanted to do a reprise of the joke using three Asian American children.

“I did wonder, ‘Why all Asians?'” says Laura Kung. “But I assumed there was a bigger picture, a more complex joke given all the emphasis placed on diversity at the Oscars this year.”

Laura said that her daughter has been going to auditions for three years, and that, at each one, “I always try to determine the production’s motivation in seeing Asian talent. Often, they are looking at all kids and her race is irrelevant. Other times, I do feel like they need to have a whole ‘rainbow’ of talent, which is fine, but feels more contrived. Estie’s been cast with a mixture of Asian and white parents, and it’s really an interesting part of the process.”

Estie and her parents didn’t hear the joke in full until rehearsals. They talked it through as a family and, especially considering the fact that Estie’s tux was already fitted and her anticipation for the night running high, decided to go through with the show. Estie’s parents hoped that, even though the joke was insensitive, it might spark an important conversation about why it would be included in the telecast at all. After the 30-second bit was complete, Estie’s sister was so rattled by what she’d watched Estie go through “that she was shaking.”

That Rock would made this kind of racially insensitive joke at this year's ceremony is particularly outrageous; after all, this year's acting nominees included zero actors of color and, as the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag trended on, and then, transcended Twitter, it became clear that Hollywood's resistance to diversity would be the theme of the show. Beneath every victory, teeming under the carefully-groomed surface of every star, the tension about inclusion and the need for change would percolate all evening. As it should.

But Rock's interpretation of Hollywood's inclusion problem turned out to be an exclusive one: His narrative, both in his monologue and in his bits throughout the night, included black talent at the exclusion of all other people of color.


So it bears repeating: While the stats for black actors at the Oscars are appalling, the numbers for Asian -- and Latino -- actors are even worse. The Los Angeles Times reported last month, “No Asian actress has won an Oscar in 58 years, and it’s been 54 years since a Latina took home an Academy Award."

USC Annenberg just released its annual comprehensive report on diversity in entertainment. This year's study, which essentially duplicated the previous year's results, found that at least half "of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen." Twenty-two percent of stories featured no black characters. Only 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters were Asian, compared to the 12.2 percent that were black and 71.7 percent that were white.