Anti-Asian Racism: Toby Keith and Mocking Asians

According to news reports at a Nobel Peace Prize party in Oslo, the United States country singer Toby Keith used the standard physical gesture of eye stretching to mock Asians (“yellow”) during an impromptu singing performance. Numerous Asian American groups have condemned the brief performance. The Asian American Justice Center made this comment:

Toby Keith embarrassed himself and his country, denigrated the Nobel Peace Prize and offended Asians and Asian Americans by using a crude, racist hand gesture.

The Media Action Network for Asians made this comment:

By doing this, he is telling Asian fans, ‘You don’t matter, you’re not on my radar.’

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the country’s oldest continuing Asian American civil rights group also issued a statement condemning the old racist gesture:

His behavior has drawn criticism from the Asian American community, yet Mr. Keith still has not acknowledged the offensive nature of his gesture nor issued an apology. As the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizens League joins other organizations in condemning Mr. Keith’s actions, and demands that he acknowledge and apologize for his racist behavior.

When he pulled back his eyes to symbolize “yellow,” Mr. Keith reduced Asians to a demeaning caricature that has long been used to alienate an entire race. Though the gesture lasted no more than a second, it evoked powerful and painful emotions in the Asian American community, a reminder of schoolyard taunts and childhood bullying. It was an immature and insensitive action that only served to humiliate Asian Americans through racial mockery.

Mr. Keith’s silence following the Asian American community’s response to this incident suggests that he does not take our community’s concerns seriously. By not issuing an apology even one week after the event, Mr. Keith has clearly chosen to compound his indifference towards the Asian Americancommunity. This type of attitude underlies a pervasive stereotype of Asian Americans, where physical differences imply a foreignness that hinders an acceptance of being considered as true “Americans.”

Keith has not yet apologized. Oddly enough some in his group made this comment:

“No one at the concert thought Toby was out of line,” his camp said. “Everyone was impressed with his rapping skills and that’s it . . . all of the artists liked each other, hung out, and it was a very friendly, genuine, and supportive atmosphere.”

I guess they do not think Asian folks watch rapping or country music? Or that some other folks might take offense at such racist stereotyping seriously too? At a minimum, we do not teach Stereotyping 101 (or even Human Manners 101?) and thus what racial framing is learned as children lasts a lifetime. Friendly racism?

Numerous social science studies have lately shown how widespread the facial mocking and language mocking and other stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans are these days. Not to mention the racial discrimination that often flows out of such mocking framing. Such anti-Asian stereotyping/mocking has been part of the white racial framing of Asians since at least the 19th century, as the late Ronald Takaki, among others, has often shown.