The Disturbing History Behind Steve Harvey's "Asian Men" Jokes

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Harvey (center), flanked by Mr. Chow from 'The Hangover' and Han Lee from '2 Broke Girls'

The TV host is the latest entertainer to get in hot water over racist punchlines whose origins can be traced all the way to the mid-1800s.

Last week, Steve Harvey aired a segment on his eponymous syndicated talk show about obscure, absurdly specific advice books. These were niche interest titles like Dating for Under a Dollar: 301 Ideas and How to Date a White Woman: A Practical Guide for Asian Men.

The audience laughed at the latter book in anticipation as Harvey took 15 seconds to gather himself. “That’s one page,” he finally gasped. “’Excuse me, do you like Asian men?’ ‘No.’ ‘Thank you.’”

The comedian then offered a sequel, How to Date a Black Woman: A Practical Guide for Asian Men — “Same thing. ‘You like Asian men?’ ‘I don’t even like Chinese food. It don’t stay with you no time. I don’t eat what I can’t pronounce.’”

Harvey was delighted at his skewering of the book, doubling over at his own punchlines.

Problem is, he didn’t actually manage to hit any of the eminently mockable aspects of the book, from its predatory creepiness to its own racist profiling (of white women). Instead, the butt of his joke was Asian men (all 2 billion of them), and the point of the joke was: the idea that they could possibly be attractive is hilarious.

Not even a full 12 months ago, I wondered why an ostensibly “sorry about #OscarsSoWhite” Academy Awards ceremony thought it would be funny to include a couple of jokes about Asians being good at math and sweatshop labor, plus an off-script gag from presenter Sacha Baron Cohen confusing the tiny dongs of Despicable Me’s Minions for Asian men. 

This isn’t edgy humor. It’s tired — so tired, in fact, that its origins can be traced all the way to the mid-1800s. To counteract the massive wave of imported cheap Chinese labor (“coolies”), Asian men were subject to a series of targeted laws that systematically stripped them of rights that signified manhood, such as property ownership, job opportunities and the ability to marry freely. The legislation worked hand-in-hand with the campaign on the cultural front, warning men and women of the Yellow Peril and peppering newspapers with caricatures that clearly showed these coolies as less than regular men. (MTV News' webseries Decoded has a good — and educating — rundown of this history.)

This is where the "tiny Asian penis" jokes on our talk shows, playgrounds and Oscar stages come from. It’s the legacy of deliberate discrimination in our country’s history, just as the hypersexualization of black men has its damaging roots in slavery. These crude reputations aren't harmless. Without even getting into the more life-threatening ramifications of sexual stereotyping, there's ample statistical and anecdotal evidence that black and Asian men take a hit in the dating pool because of perception bias. (So do black women, which is one reason why Viola Davis has repeatedly celebrated her How to Get Away With Murder protagonist's sexual desirability and prowess.)

Short of personally evaluating enough members of a single race to form a statistically significant judgment on their sexual viability, we tend to rely on popular culture to shape popular opinion. Like the cartoonists of the 19th century, today's artists have the power to perpetuate malicious stereotypes about Asian men, as Steve Harvey and the creators behind The Hangover’s Mr. Chow (whose penis was mistaken for a shiitake mushroom) and 2 Broke Girls’ Han Lee (that show is still on) have done.

But others in the industry have instead chosen to subvert the 200-year-old trend, as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does with Josh Chan as the object of the title character’s obsession and The Walking Dead did with the late Glenn, one-half of the show’s longest-enduring couple. (And shout out to The Good Place for Jianyu, the hot Buddhist monk who's a lot more -- or less? -- than he seems.)

Jokes about sexless Asian men are soooo 1882. Time to get some fresh material.

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