Beyond Black And White: How The 2016 Oscars' Treatment Of Asians Undercut Its Message Of Inclusion

Lost amidst all the stories about how Chris Rock ripped into the Academy last night is how poorly people of other races were treated who weren't black or white. I think it was about two hours into last night's broadcast when the first mention of Asians or Hispanics even happened: during a remote video segment from a man-on-the-street interview Rock conducted in front of a theater.

"This should not just white. It should be Asian, Hispanic. There's so much talent out there of all races," the man says, while holding an Oscar statue and delivering a mock acceptance speech.

I wish the rest of the presenters and producers had taken this message to heart.

"This is the wildest, craziest Oscars to host because we've got all this controversy," Rock proclaimed in his opening monologue. Indeed, to many people (including us), it felt like the Oscar nominees this year did not reflect the diversity of talent and achievement within the industry. Again and again, Rock hammered home the message that black actors were underrepresented and needed more opportunities.

"It's not about boycotting anything," Rock explained. "It's just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunity as white actors."

Indeed, Hollywood's record right now on providing equal opportunity is pretty dismal. A 2015 USC Annenberg Media study found that most of the top grossing films of the past few years have had little to no significant gains in diversity in front of or behind the camera. For instance, of the 779 credited directors of the 700 most popular movies since 2007, 28 were women, 45 were black and 19 were Asian. And just this week, The New York Times published a moving piece on how difficult it is to be taken seriously in Hollywood if you are not a straight white male.

One throughline for these pieces is that diversity goes beyond just black and white — all people of color are having a hard time getting represented on screen and behind the camera.

And for all the calls for equal opportunity, it felt to me like Asians specifically were not only underrepresented at last night's event, they were occasionally the object of derision. While I was overall pretty happy about how the broadcast went down, the evening will always leave a sour note in my mind due to some pretty unfortunate juxtapositions.

For instance, while most below-the-line winners gave speeches in constant danger of being played off by that awful "Ride of the Valkyries" music, it was particularly galling that Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won the award for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, could barely get through her speech discussing how her film might impact honor killings in Pakistan before being hustled off. While I'm an enormous fan of popular culture confections like Mad Max, I also realize that films like A Girl in the River are among the few films nominated each year that actually have the potential to make a material impact in the world. Maybe give her the extra 15 seconds to finish what she's saying?

But like I said, everyone was being hurried off the stage last night. It's just that shortly afterwards, we had to deal with more of Rock's protracted and unfunny bit about Girl Scout Cookies. The trade off did not seem worth it.

The coup de grace came when Rock did the typical segment acknowledging the auditors of the evening's awards. "As always the results of tonight's Academy Awards have been tabulated by Price Waterhouse Cooper," Rock said. "They sent us their most dedicated and hardworking representatives. I want you to welcome Ming Zu, Bai Ling, and David Moscowitz."

Three short Asian kids were trotted onto the stage in full accountant garb, complete with mini-suitcases, as the audience laughed. It's hilarious to laugh at them because we think Asians are good at math, you see.

Rock continued, "If anybody's upset about that joke, just tweet about on your phone that was also made by these kids!" Thanks, Chris Rock! The reminder that young Chinese people in slave labor conditions help to build our smartphones really takes the edge off of knowing that you still feel the need to fall back on Asian stereotypes to get a laugh.

It all made Academy President Cheryl Boone-Isaacs' speech feel a little hollow, when she got up on stage after this bit and said, "Everyone in the Hollywood community has a role to play in bringing about the vital changes the industry needs so that we can accurately reflect the world today... Each of you is an ambassador who can influence others in the industry. It's not just enough to listen and agree. We must take action."

Shortly after that, we were treated to the return of Ali G, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen began by proclaiming how he wanted to speak out for people of all colors: "How come there's no Oscar for them hard working yellow people with tiny dongs. You know, the Minions!"

Listeners of the podcast will know I'm deeply ambivalent about this moment, because on the one hand, this is a pretty well constructed "boom goes the dynamite" joke and game recognize game. On the other hand, it felt pretty crappy to know that the most prominent mentions of Asians on stage for the evening (save for a few presenters such as Byung-hun Lee and Dev Patel) would be about how we're good at math and a Minions joke that plays on the popular perception that Asian men have small penises.

The Oscars aired last night on ABC, a network that has done a lot to introduce minority characters and voices onto the national stage. Shows like Black-ish, Cristela (RIP) and Fresh Off the Boat prove that we can get emotionally invested and empathize with people who might not look like us.

Last night, it failed at doing this for anyone who's not black or white. For Asians, it showed we still have a long way to go before people realize that propagating lazy stereotypes about us is unacceptable. For any message of inclusion to be plausible, it needs to include everyone.