Ke Huy Quan, Ethnic Stereotypes, and Bagpipes
I’m great at the Asian accent as minstrelry. When I do it for my white friends even today, it never fails to bring a laugh. Assimilation was the goal, and even though I could never hide my physical difference, I could at least laugh along with their enthusiastic recognition of my perpetual alienness. I think I wouldn’t be a writer at all if I hadn’t dedicated all of my energy into being very good at English, my second language. If I couldn’t pass the sight test, perhaps I could pass the reading one. Humor branded me as not one of those “sensitive” Asians, as a guy who wouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable about asking where I was really from, and where I’m really from is Golden, Colorado.
This was a thought-provoking read by Walter Chaw about an uncomfortable topic. As the years have gone by, I’ve (slowly, to my great chagrin) come to realize more and more how ethnic stereotypes in popular media can be so damaging to the targets of such “humor”. One aspect of this which hits close to home is my own memory of cringeworthy experiences as a Scottish/Irish-American who once performed Celtic folk music professionally across the United States.
No, of course I’m not in any way comparing my experiences directly with those who are Asian-American. Being white-presenting in America, you get to choose when and how you are the butt of ethnic jokes. Others aren’t so lucky, to put it mildly. But it was certainly illuminating to see how stereotyping can feel “othering” and disrespectful, or simply how people’s ignorance—while perhaps understandable—nevertheless was frustrating. Just a few examples:
- Pronnouncing “Celtic” as “Sell-tic” (the C is a hard K sound as it comes from the Greek word Keltoi), “Slain-tay” instead of “Slon-cha” for Sláinte, “Edin-berg” instead of “Edin-ber-re” for Edinburgh, and vast litany of other faux pas…
- Seeing people very poorly dance “an Irish jig” as they’re walking down the street and notice our performance…
- Calling our music “Riverdance music” 😡
- Throughout my teenage years I was regularly misgendered as a girl because I wore my hair long and wore a kilt—which is NOT a skirt!
Not to mention all of the kitsch and cultural artifacts we had to contend with…what I might call the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” set of stereotypes. Dancing red-headed leprechauns with pots of gold at the end of the rainbow and all that. Or worse, drunken Irishmen punching each other out at the pub. Grizzled old Scotsmen with impenetrable accents roaming the moors. Bagpipe jokes…So. Many. Bagpipe jokes.
Sure, it’s not all terrible, and sometimes genuinely amusing—but as is often the case with these sorts of things, the jokes are funnier when they’re offered from people already immersed in the culture. A legitimate Scottish pipes player can make a joke about bagpipes. Some bozo American who thinks “Braveheart” is an accurate historical depiction of Scottish history? Fuck no.
Which is why I try to be careful what I say or do when I’m around other cultures—especially ones I have little familiarity with. Rather than throw out a phrase I heard once or do some idiotic dance move or mention something truly dumb…along the lines of “hey, you look Asian, so you must be great at kung fu!” …I’ll shut the fuck up. 😅 (More people should try this!) There’s a fine line between stereotyping (even when well-meaning) and outright #bigotry.
All that to say…it’s really wonderful to see far better representation in popular Western media of many different ethnicities and demographics. We still have a long way to go, but it is getting better. Personally, every time I see someone obviously Irish or Scottish in a modern movie where they’re not defined by their accent or fairies or getting drunk or “the troubles” or sheep on the moor or funny sounds coming out of bagipes, etc., etc.—well that’s certainly cause for celebration.