It’s not ok to mock an Asian accent. Let me say that again…


This post was triggered by another instance of a board game podcaster using a mocking Asian accent. Board gaming is the community I’m part of and that I contribute to. And both I and the community deserve better than sad dated racist jokes.

“But Suzanne,” you say, “it’s just a joke!”
“It’s harmless.”
“It’s not racist.”
“It’s no different than making fun of a French accent.”

Ok. Let’s talk. I am far from a scholar on this topic, but I feel compelled to provide a historical primer to try and help people understand why it’s not an ok joke, why it is racist (even if it’s unintentional) and even a bit on why it’s not the same as making fun of certain other accents. Instead of just being angry about it happening, I want to try and help you understand the context and meaning. It’s my hope that if you understand the context and history you’ll understand why it’s not ok to mock Asians.

First of all, as a Korean American, I’ll be talking about specific elements related, primarily, to Chinese and Japanese Americans. My apologies if I overstep. But conflation of Asian Americans is common in the USA, & when anti-Japanese or anti-Chinese sentiment rises, that conflation means many Asian Americans are impacted – no matter their actual ethnicity.

Conflation of Asian Americans is how Vincent Chin happens. (Google him.)
Conflation is why, when slurs are yelled at me it’s more common to be called a “chink” or “jap” than a “gook.”

But I digress.

Contextually, the history of Asian Americans, specifically people of Chinese & Japanese descent, is rife with discrimination & abuse in the USA. Here is a small listing of the systemic anti-Asian history of America. And because I care that you try to understand these things and learn, I’ve tried to make it easy and hyperlinked for you.

Citizenship denial laws, alien land laws, Chinese Exclusion Act, Asiatic Exclusion League, 1924 Immigration Act, Jap Hunting Licenses, Yellow Peril.

The above list is just a sampling of the institutional racism (not opinion – not anecdote… historically factual things that happened here) aimed at Chinese and Japanese immigrants that set the cultural tone for our population’s perception of Asian people. Anti-Asian sentiment in this country runs deep and long…seeded well before WWII and the internment camps. And while some may look at modern America and say “that’s ancient history” it’s that history that distills down to a reduction of Asian Americans’ humanity, the dismissal of them… of us, that led to the normalization of misrepresentation, whitewashing, and mockery that continues today.

To move us in the general direction of the catalyst for this post, which is essentially entertainment media…

Movies through the mid 1900s highlight the discrimination, othering, and mockery of Asians with the practice of “yellowface” in such roles played by: Mickey Rooney, Rex Harrison, Warner Oland, Katherine Hepburn, Yul Brynner, Marlon Brando, Linda Hunt… to name a few. These castings and representations reflected the country’s dismissive discriminatory attitude towards Asians. But lest you hand wave this as a relic of the Black and White era…

Thanks to the automotive industry collapse in the US, a whole new wave of anti-Japanese sentiment rose in the 70’s and 80s. It was literally called “Japan bashing” and was reflected in (and fueled in part by,) movies of the 80s like Gung Ho, RoboCop, Back To The Future, Rising Sun… These films portrayed Japan as a threat, a foreign invader ready to take over the country with its funny writing and rigid behavioral rules. It didn’t matter that Japanese Americans (or Chinese or Korean and other East Asian Americans who might “look Japanese”) were Americans. Their ethnicity meant they would be subjected to anger, hostility, mockery, and violence. I cannot count how many times I was called a Jap back then. And when the Japanese weren’t trying to take over the country in a film, their otherness was raided for humiliating laughs (Long Duck Dong) or exotic mysticism (Mr. Miyagi.)

And, of course, there’s a whole fresh crop of whitewashing in modern film and media to highlight that we have not learned a lot from the past. Doctor Strange, Aloha, The Martian, The Last Airbender, Ghost In The Shell, etc. Entertainment media continues to reflect that deeply ingrained othering, erasure, and discrimination against Asian Americans.

And, let’s take a little cultural context detour here. Asian and Asian American are two different things. For example, in Japan, Japanese people are the unquestioned majority (with contextual racism issues of their own.) I speak from an Asian AMERICAN perspective. It is this context that matters here. You cannot compare how a character or culture is represented and received in the USA vs Japan because the cultural context is completely utterly different.

Back to the matter at hand…

And all of the above is why it’s different to mock Japanese people than Vikings, French, or other non-marginalized people. The difference is the historical institutional racism that embedded itself so deeply in our culture that people of those ethnicities still suffer from the ramifications of that history today. Asian people are still discriminated against and marginalized on a daily basis (“Oriental” wasn’t removed from federal laws until 2016!) in America.

Even if you don’t think the history is relevant… even if you disagree with my take on everything above… If nothing else, there is no compelling reason to use a fake Asian accent in board game content. There’s no amount of theme, or setting, or character that demands you gutterly add “-san” to the end of names or pronounce “Ls” as “R.” It’s a throw away affectation that, AT BEST, is lazy.

And that whole “engrish” thing? It’s a “joke” so dated… so tired… so unoriginal that even people who aren’t offended by it can’t really find it funny. They’ve heard that joke dozens of times from their Grandpas, and 70s comedians, mediocre local shock jocks, and the dude in the booth at the diner.

When I say “don’t use a mocking Asian accent in your content,” it’s because I know the history. I’m directly impacted by the lingering effects of this history. And we don’t need board gaming content to perpetuate it.

Educate yourself. Find your empathy. Write a better joke. Stop punching down.

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5 Responses to Engrish

  1. my heart hurts so much for you needing to write this. i appreciate your taking the time. i love you. lazy, racist jokes are the worst

  2. Andy says:

    Thank you for your personal and historical perspective. It is always good to remember “jokes” at other people’s expense are not funny. We can all work on our empathy towards others.

  3. Some One says:

    You went from “engrish” to the *past* issues this country has endured – let them live in the past. They should be remembered but not lived through again.
    In the end everyone makes fun of something at *someone’s expense*, you can’t make a jokes about a doorknob — they won’t be funny. Humor is about not taking the world seriously and that includes not taking yourself seriously as well.
    Asians especially the Japanese don’t exactly have a sterling past. Life has been cheap for most of Asian history and much blood spilled. You either laugh, or cry — let’s pick laughter.
    Your contributions to the hobby are great, then you get on these SJW rants and I get turned off.

  4. T.R. Knight says:

    Thanks for continuing to challenge and enlighten us. Your voice and experiences are appreciated. You continue to make me think and rethink my own experiences, interests, and relationships in hopes I can continue to grow and be a better person each day.

  5. wolfkin says:

    Keep fighting the good fight Suzanne.

    Not a designer by trade but if it ever came up I probably wouldn’t have done it because I don’t really find it all that humorous. But I’ll definitely keep in mind that the Asian American population still finds it offensive. I completely understand what it’s like to have to explain to people that some words or phrases or depictions aren’t cool and it’s frustrating to still see them happening.

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