Defining line between inappropriate stereotypes and poking fun

The conversation of the impropriety of racism and stereotypes rises after backlash against a new show that highlights Asian stereotypes

Hearty laughter has been erupting in family homes with the release of the new comedy show “Fresh Off the Boat,” but hot steam has also been blasting out of people’s ears as some infuriated viewers, primarily whites and non-Asians, have tweeted and posted about the so-called “racist” and “offensive” show, admonishing its “insensitivity” towards Asian culture and extreme use of stereotypes.

“Fresh Off the Boat” is about a Taiwanese immigrant family that moves from Washington D.C. to Orlando, Fla. in the 1990s. Inspired by author Eddie Huang’s book Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, the series embraces many stereotypes for the laughs, such as a mother with a strong Asian accent, an academics-centered Asian family, allegedly “stinky” Chinese food and oh-so-glorious white people food (a.k.a. Lunchables!).

In response to the oncoming fire of criticism, Huang did an interview with TIME magazine in which he spoke about his belief that what a person considers “offensive” cannot be determined by another person since definition of “offensive” differs from person to person. A Chinese immigrant himself, Huang does not find the show insulting at all but rather entertaining and relatable.

“It’s really weird when a dominant culture comes to tell you what to be mad about,” Huang said. “Don’t tell me what needs to be offensive to me.”

Inspired by Huang’s viral punchline (and the hilarious family show), conversations and controversies arose online concerning the boundary between offensive language and free expression. Students at Palo Alto High School also discussed their opinions on where the boundary should be drawn between acceptable and unacceptably insulting statements or actions, particularly focusing on racial stereotypes and assumptions.

Junior Zack Kirk touched on the precarious way of defining “offensive” and the broadness of what things could be considered insulting .

“Taking offense is a purely subjective idea that is decided by the norms and commonly held beliefs of the present,” Kirk said. “[What offends someone] can be as simple as cartoons or a few choice words.”

Because people respond differently to various events or actions, it is impossible to create a universal bank for “offensive” and “not offensive” sayings or actions. This lack of clear boundaries allows for anything to pass as “offensive” as long at least one person deems it so.

“If someone finds a certain statement, image or idea to be defamatory and derogatory, especially towards marginalized groups, that individual has every right to define a certain experience to be offensive,” junior Molly Kraus said.

Kraus herself feels that certain statements are by nature insulting and intolerable.

“I find jokes about sexual harassment, gender identity and marginalized groups to be disgusting, disappointing and not in the least bit entertaining,” Kraus said. “I’ve never understood why joking about violence and bigotry is funny or socially acceptable.”

In contrast, Kirk believes that nothing can be discriminated as unacceptable to express, because every person is entitled to his or her own opinion and expression.

But there is a catch for those who might try to abuse this right: free self-expression includes open recrimination of statements that some consider offensive.

“Nothing is safe from criticism,” Kirk said. “Even unwelcome words and hateful speech should be allowed to be heard and hopefully ridiculed. This is the beauty of the First Amendment.”

Kirk offered a possible reason for why people take offense to various comments or actions.

“In my opinion, taking offense is the easy way out,” Kirk said. “Attacking ‘offense speech’ with a refutation is more effective than just claiming to be offended. When one claims to be offended, all dialogue halts and the question becomes more about feelings than the original argument. This immediate shield retards healthy debate and ensures ignorance on both sides of the arguments.”

Though Kirk feels that hard feelings hinder healthy discussion, Kraus feels that the “feelings” mentioned are vital aspects of relationships that cannot be ignored. Kirk places the importance of the original argument and right to debate above the bitter feelings that may result, whereas Kraus focuses on the emotional impacts people have on each other.

“I think most people, especially well-educated Palo Altans, should have a basic conception of right and wrong in terms of perpetuating racism against [systemically] oppressed groups,” Kraus said. “Common courtesy calls for basic kindness: treat others better than you wish to be treated.”

Sophomore Albert Hwang also believes in this idea of “common courtesy” taught in his community.

“I personally can’t remember a time when I was truly offended … partially because I’m growing up in a well integrated community such as Palo Alto where the school system tries to educate students … [that] judging people based on stereotypes is not acceptable,” Hwang said. “That doesn’t mean that [judging] doesn’t happen, [but] it just means that a greater number of people are aware.”

Part of the reason Kirk feels that the possible emotional effects should not stop someone from voicing his or her opinions is his own self-assurance in his stance.

“Even the most vile, racist rhetoric does not affect me,” Kirk said. “Though rhetoric like this is both harmful and purely unconstructive, I take the words as more of a reflection on [the insulter’s] ignorance and stupidity.”

Hwang echoes Kirk by explaining why insults pointed at him usually bounce off without any significance.

“I think that it is ridiculous to let anyone else’s opinion or thought about my identity affect me [since] other people’s perceptions and stereotypes influenced by the media and their generalizations based on others are not what define an individual,” Hwang said.

He expanded on the ignorance behind assumptions about people and introduced stereotypes due to insensitivity.

“Stereotypes stem from people with shallow outside perspectives who are not familiar with a culture or nationality and proceed to make judgments based on their first observations,” Hwang said.

Kraus offered a more detailed explanation for where stereotypes and initial assumptions come from and touched on their relation to racism.

“I think most stereotypes are created by privileged and dominant cultures that see perpetuating the subjugation of marginalized groups as entertaining and necessary in order to maintain power,” Kraus said. “Racism is the institutionalization of racial prejudice against a systemically oppressed group. You cannot be racist towards a dominant culture; when a marginalized group uses the tactics that are used to oppress them against a privileged majority, they are not being racist but instead are fighting for equality.”

Thus, according to Kraus, if someone were to make a joke about stereotypes against a minority group, it would be utterly, intolerably racist but if someone made a joke about a powerful majority group’s stereotypes, it would not even be included in the realm of “racism.”

But regardless of whether one’s stereotype-based statements are considered “racist” or not by Kraus’s definition, he or she could still offend the targeted group. Because of this possible effect, making stereotypical assumptions without knowing a person is unfair, because they degrade a person’s identity and self worth.

“It’s not okay to expect a certain group to conform to a stereotype,” Kraus said. “Stereotypes assume that all people of one group can be categorized in a way that effectively strips them of individuality. No one has the right to strip another human being of their personal identity, no matter what personal prejudices someone holds against their culture.”

Hwang agreed with Kraus and elaborated on the harmful impacts that stereotypes can have on a person.

“Stereotypes are definitely restrictive of a person’s abilities and actions,” Hwang said. “Opportunities are not always determined by one’s own actions but often the biases of others. College admissions and employment prejudice are just a few of many examples that come to mind when stereotypes limit other people’s opportunities. Being expected to follow negative stereotypes isn’t necessarily offensive [or wrong], depending on the situation and since some [stereotypes] are true, but it does perpetuate [the] belief [that all people should conform to their racial stereotypes].”

In contrast, Kirk feels that though one’s situation may limit a person, stereotypes are innocuous.

“Stereotypes themselves are not binding, [but rather] the economic and social circumstances that different ethnicities find themselves in are restricting,” Kirk said.

Though racial stereotypes are not the only things that could be deemed offensive, they are prevalent examples of statements that often cause offense, hurt and sometimes violence.

We live in a country where freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental values ingrained in the American culture and where no American would consider destroying the First Amendment. Each person has the right to say what he or shepleases, and everyone has the right to respond.

But when does using one’s liberties go too far? If a statement, action or assumption is deemed “offensive” by someone and causes hurt to people or incites a violent response, where should the line be drawn between the freedom to say whatever one pleases and the responsibility to be kind and considerate of others and their beliefs? Just because everyone has the right to say what he or she wants, does that mean everyone needs to say everything that comes to mind, especially if it may cause chaos or harm to one’s community?

“Everyone has a different level of tolerance for offensive jokes and comments,” Hwang said. “If what you’re about to say … could offend the least tolerant person, then do not speak it. Never assume that an individual will not be offended, and never assume [that] it’s okay to pass judgment.”