It’s a wobbly subject.

This 1958 Jell-O commercial from America gives us a peek into vintage representations of Asia. Of course it’s not intentionally racist – it was just a product of its time. But racism doesn’t have to be intentional. Some of the most insidious racism can be unintended and arising from ingrained beliefs rather than any malicious intent.

The ad here was designed for light-hearted humor. It certainly wouldn’t fly in today’s world. But in the 1950s it was A-OK.

 

 

My general observation is that Asian-Americans (and non-Asian Americans) are much more sensitive to racism than Asians in Asia. This is a very rough rule, and no doubt there are exceptions, but the political correctness of America does not exist as strongly in Asia.

Hard racism and discrimination is a different matter. But soft racism like ethnic caricatures may result in indifference, the mildest offense, or even a laugh. I’ve seen Asian friends laugh at foreign caricatures of Asians a number of times.

Maybe it’s because “Asian” is just a nebulous category and people don’t take personal offense. It’s almost like these caricatures are addressing an abstract concept rather than a specific community. Also, inter-Asian racism in hard and soft forms is widespread. Cross-Asian caricatures are common in Asian entertainment and joking banter, not to mention Asian representations of other races.

It might also be because the hot button issues are different. Fake accents and chopsticks jokes? Who cares?

But Westerners can – and do – cause serious offense with statements and actions that would be fine elsewhere but cross local sensibilities, values, cultural and religious icons, etc.

The parameters of racism can be as hard to pin down as those on the baby’s plate. Paradoxically, the most politically correct Westerner might avoid comments that would be received with a smile and think of themselves as a stand-up individual – but make other comments that are serious affronts without knowing or caring … or even get upset themselves and wonder what the big deal is.

Whether Jell-O is an offense to the definition of “dessert” is another matter.