Miliann Kang: Sorry, but Oscars apology doesn’t cut it

  • FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016 file photo, host Chris Rock, right, gestures to three unidentified children portraying auditors in a skit at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Rock's skit ignited an outcry from Asian-Americans and others angered by its stereotyping and, more broadly, frustrated by how non-black minorities are portrayed - or ignored - by Hollywood, especially movie studios. The response also has illuminated the gap between African-Americans, who have made on-screen gains, and the lagging progress by other minorities including Asian-American, Latinos and Native Americans. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File) Chris Pizzello—

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    Chris Rock attends the Broadway opening night party of "Neal Brennan 3 MICS" at The Lynn Redgrave Theater on Thursday, March 3, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP) Andy Kropa—

Published: 3/22/2016 12:17:16 AM

I wish the Academy would give a real apology for the racist jokes about Asians at the Oscars, and that Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen would too.

When is an apology a non-apology? Why do some apologies make things worse?

The other day, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered a pseudo-apology for offensive jokes about Asians and Asian-Americans at the Oscars a few weeks ago.

But headlines reported “Academy Chief’s Apology for Jokes at Oscars Riles Some Members” and “After Failed Apology, Academy Agrees To Meet With Members On Treatment Of Asians During Oscars.”

A few days earlier, 25 Academy members of Asian descent, including director Ang Lee and actors George Takei and Sandra Oh, issued an open letter to the Academy criticizing the “tone-deaf approach to its portrayal of Asians.”

Rather than apologizing directly for what was said or done, the Academy’s chief executive, Dawn Hudson, seemed to say that she feels bad that the Asian members feel offended and hurt. “It pains us that any aspect of the show was considered offensive and I apologize for any hurt the skits caused.”

Yes, Asians feel hurt, but the bigger issue is that the skits were racist, and meanly racist toward kids, and that is what needs to be acknowledged and apologized for.

And what would make it hurt less is not for someone to say, “I’m sorry you feel hurt,” but to say, “I’m sorry I made racist jokes about you,” (Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen) and “I’m sorry we let this happen” (the Academy).

In his book, “On Apology,” Aaron Lazare, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes a Blondie cartoon strip in which Mr. Dithers yells at Dagwood, then goes back and “apologizes” by saying, “I’m sorry you’re a dimwitted noodle brain.” Lazarre tells us why these apologies don’t work, “Instead of apologizing for what he did, Mr. Dithers expresses compassion for Dagwood’s condition (being a dim-witted noodle brain).”

In our family, we have named these kinds of apologies “Mr. Dithers apologies.” And the Academy gave one. Expressing compassion is usually a good thing, but when it substitutes for a recognition of wrong doing, it comes across as patronizing, which is exactly what Takei called it.

Asian-American bloggers and organizations, Twitter, basketball player Jeremy Lin and “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu have already commented in-depth about the racist jokes toward Asian-Americans at the Oscars. Rather than reiterating their well-argued critiques, I offer a more a simple appeal, as an Asian-American mother, for a straightforward and heartfelt “I’m sorry.”

I’m also not downplaying the hurt – it hurt to watch this and it hurts to not get a real apology. Yet it also seems somewhat trivial. There are millions of children around the world who are enduring much greater suffering than being made fun of at the Oscars. But this is precisely what makes it so difficult to be the “model minority,” we can’t protest without sounding like whiners.

And yet, I think it is worth calling out racist jokes, especially towards children. I grew up with these same stereotypes and want my child, and all children, not to have to endure them. Rather than hurtful images, I want new images that are about them, but then go beyond them, in that magical way that the best parts in the best movies uniquely transport us.

I’m encouraged that Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and other Academy members are making concrete efforts such as changing voting processes and appointing new governors.

These are important steps for increasing diversity in Hollywood, but in the meantime, a heartfelt apology would also mean a lot.

In their open letter, the Asian-descent members of the Academy said, “We’d like to know how such tasteless and offensive skits could have happened and what process you have in place to preclude such unconscious or outright bias and racism toward any group in future Oscars telecasts.”

In plain language, they are asking: Can you say I’m sorry, and show us you mean it, by ensuring that it doesn’t happen again?

I never thought I’d defer to Justin Bieber, but his hit song is in the air, asking repeatedly, “Is it too late now to say sorry?” Not if you say it right.

Miliann Kang is associate professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work.”  

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