To Laugh Or Not To Laugh At Cultural Stereotypes?

Stereotypes also signal the presence of different ethnicities around us and in a sense play a part in preserving aspects of ethnic cultures.

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he media coverage of the San Francisco Asiana airline crash earlier this year put the spotlight once again on the proliferation of cultural stereotypes in society today. One announcer on a US television station read out racist sounding, fake pilot names of the Korean-owned flight on-air. The headline “Fright 214” accompanied a US newspaper story covering the tragedy, a headline dubbed as mocking the common Asian accent. Some chimed in on social media with racially-tinged jokes to lighten the incident, but others have said all these sentiments were inappropriate as the tragedy involved fatalities. This begs the question: should we keep laughing at cultural stereotypes?

Psychological factors explain why we laugh at stereotypes. When we laugh at cultural stereotypes, it means we are entertained by the traits of certain groups. It also usually means we do not find certain stereotypes offensive. There are also people who laugh at stereotypical representations of their own race. Do we actually learn anything from laughing at stereotypes?

Perhaps we can answer this question by asking ourselves what we often interpret from noticing stereotypical portrayals that tickle our funny bones. It is not surprising for some of us unfamiliar with Asian cultures to narrow-mindedly equate “Asianness” with “Chineseness”: a good number of stereotypical portrayals of Asians perpetuate the silly generalization that all Asians are Chinese. As mentioned, US media published fake Asiana pilot names including “Sum Ting Wong” and “Ho Lee Fuk” and the headline “Flight 214” – names that sound distinctly Chinese and a headline closely mimicking the way some Chinese sound when speaking English. Similarly, Maggi Australia’s crowd-sourced YouTube campaign promoting its Fusian “Asian” Noodles range features lots of kung fu. These repetitive Chinese-esque stereotypes arguably overshadow the presence of other Asian ethnicities around us. It does not help that Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are still prominent, popular Asian icons and household names today.

More obviously, Asian stereotypes constantly impart the idea Asians do not speak English well. In reality, Asians in the West tend to speak the language quite fluently. In other words, “Asian” is often used as an umbrella term, an umbrella term callously implying all Asians speak with one accent and are “one race” when in fact there are various Asian groups speaking with different tonalities. The mention of Korea’s “(strict) hierarchical corporate culture” within the Asiana media coverage was unfortunately twisted to suggest this caused the tragedy. As such, to those unfamiliar with Asian customs, stereotypes give off the impression Asian values are undesirable in certain contexts.

On the flip-side, cultural stereotypes arguably do have their relevance. Studying how stereotypes are evidently part and parcel of everyday life can assist us in understanding the significance of customs and why some embrace longstanding cultural norms. For instance, some of us re-learn our mother tongue so as to reconnect with our ethnic roots, fulfilling the common perception Asians, Indians, etc. speak their own language. However, some Asian Australians choose to re-learn their mother tongue not to discover the significance of their Asian heritage, but purely to communicate with the older generation.

Stereotypes also signal the presence of different ethnicities around us and in a sense play a part in preserving aspects of ethnic cultures. Tired scenes of a Chinese person jumping around doing kung fu or speaking in broken English or fluent Mandarin tend to appeal to many (think the popular Rush Hour franchise). Kung fu and Mandarin have been salient parts of Chinese/Asian culture for the longest time and many often recognize this, drawn to looking intently at Asian culture when they see/hear kung fu/Chinese, and so encouraged to take an interest in other races, ultimately instigating the virtues of multiculturalism for just a moment.

So should we laugh or not laugh at cultural stereotypes? Not all of us are ignorant and do know that exaggerated stereotypes are simply generalizations. Maybe we should not laugh at stereotypes as there is bound to be someone who will get offended. But there is no law against laughing at stereotypes. So if we do laugh at stereotypes, maybe we should be mindful that not everyone might laugh along. Or maybe we should not laugh at all.

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Photo Credit: El Mundo, Economía y Negocios

One thought on “To Laugh Or Not To Laugh At Cultural Stereotypes?”

  1. Yeah I heard about the Asiana incident, it was horrible. In regards to stereotypes, I think the media plays a huge role in reinforcing them. People embrace stereotypes because it reinforces their ideas therefore making feel intelligent, insightful and most importantly – they feel they are right. In many blockbusters that feature Asian stars it’s always related to Kungfu and speaking English with an accent. And because audiences are familiar with that, they tend to watch those sorts of movies – no one wants to see a Chinese main character as a hero saving the world or his country.

    I think people should try to learn a bit more about the culture and its people before making any judgements. If unsure, one can always ask, there’s no shame. I work in the multicultural sector and if there’s something I’m unsure about i.e. customs I ask.

    And another great article by Mabel!

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