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Posted on Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 6:12 a.m.

Minorities pummeled by ethnic stereotypes at Halloween and election time

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

My neighbor was cleaning out her college-aged daughter’s room and gave me a large sombrero for the kids. Maybe for Halloween, she suggested, if they do not already have a costume.

Six-year-old Little Brother already had a costume, but he was thrilled to discover his new sombrero when he came home from school, so stately and grand, with its sweeping green brim, pink accents, and fancy blue stitching, that he immediately put it on and ran outside to “show the guys.”

The older neighbor boys good-naturedly teased him: “Where’s your horse? Where’s your guitar?”

He came home puzzled and embarrassed that he had thought it was a cool sombrero when, by their comments, it must have been some sort of cowboy hat. But it did not look like what he thought a cowboy hat looked like. So what did they mean exactly?

How to explain this? How to protect him? Little Brother knows some (real) Hispanic Americans, but none who wear that kind of garb. (Hey NPR’s Juan Williams! Check out Muslims Wearing Things at

I suppose this is how we learn stereotypes, by hearing jokes or comments from other people, seeing recurring images, learning to put together certain characteristics (including value judgments) with certain groups of people.

Sometimes even when we know a stereotype is not real, we still have to be careful because the stereotype is still in the room with us. A Polish American friend (back in the heyday of the Polish joke) always used to enter the room stereotype first, revealing his real self in contrast to stereotypical expectations of what Polish people were supposed to be like.

As the child of immigrants, however, there were a lot of stereotypes I did not know growing up, because my parents did not reinforce the same ethnic jokes or slurs that I heard outside the home. Nor were they able to fully prepare me for how others might see and treat me as they themselves did not know what to expect.

I was shocked and hurt by the racist revelations caught by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in his fake documentary film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan". I had no idea people really thought those things; I could not have imagined such specific detail. A Caucasian friend chided: “How could you not know?” He heard those sentiments every day in casual conversation.

Clearly, people were not saying those things to me.

Halloween is a time when ethnic stereotypes come out of the closet in very public and physical form. Last week I saw a teenager dressed as a sexy Chinese woman in such a bizarre way that it took me two hours to figure out her storebought outfit was someone's idea of Chinese garb.

However, with Election Day coming so close to Halloween this year, the bad taste that goes with tacky ethnic costuming and alarmist political campaigns are blending together. In Ohio, candidate Bob Gibbs is accused of sending jobs to China, but the image shown in the commercial is Asian Americans celebrating Lunar New Year on Sutter Street in San Francisco (which is not in China). In a CAGW commercial, a Virginia auditorium of Asian American students who wanted to be extras in "Transformers 3" is transformed into the evil China of the future that has taken over America. Add on Nevada’s Sharron Angle telling Hispanic American students that they look a little Asian to her and that she has been called Nevada’s first Asian legislator.

I am bruising from these attacks.

Thank goodness for the parodies and replies.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


Ann Dwyer

Fri, Nov 5, 2010 : 3:23 p.m.

I was offended by a costume this year. An adult in blackface as Obama. Politics aside, blackface?! His original "statement" (he had a shredded Constitution on his back) was lost, and he just looked like an ignorant fool.


Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 9 a.m.

@Frances, Tim Wise, yes!! LOL


Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 8:58 a.m.

@robyn and Gilbulet, That is the exact opposite of what I am saying. All apologies for my lack of clarity. I'll try this again. "All of those statement bear some sort of generalization that you apply to an entire group of people. That is JUST as bad as outward racism; you are assuming that all people of those groups do these things." Guilty as charged in generalizations, but generalizing is a totally valid method of illustrating a point and is not racism. Any/all talk of race is not racism. How are we to critically analyze including potential areas of improvement as well as our strengths without words? White culture sees all talk of race as racist. It simply isn't true. Yes, I agree generalizing based on race is clumsy at best, and not my favorite form of discussion to be sure, but simply necessary when describing larger cultural values. No reason to feel personally responsible. We all share in responsibility. To be clear, I'm not talking about individuals, which we all know are varied with our own strengths and weaknesses, but instead I'm examining the whole here for all of us to look at critically. Psychology vs. sociology. Does that make more sense? Whites do not see white culture as real and distinct; instead we use it as the template of what is 'normal'. Because whites still get to tell much of the 'story' (past and present) of what is America, what we THINK about our culture as well as other cultures gets translated into the larger picture. Which brings me back to my original point, colorblindness and feelings that people of color are too sensitive is just too convenient of a point of view from whites. Generalizations based on race is NOT RACISM. Of course there are racist stereotypes, those happen to be generalizations too, but that is not what I am doing here. When whites understand that white culture has it's own mores and values and is not the only normal, we can then begin to have dialog that moves us forward toward more understanding of one another. THAT is what I am promoting. When whites continue to insist that people of color are too sensitive and looking for things to be offended by, we continue to stay stuck and will continue to pass on our (unknown to us?) racist thoughts and ideas. Let's get real and talk about what is really going on. Ground rules, yes? Since this still remains the author's column, I propose she sets them.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Tue, Nov 2, 2010 : 8:10 a.m.

@gibulet: what I think @jenh means by "White culture teaches that race does not matter, yet is all that matters about people of color." is that white culture is quick to discount the concerns of people of color by saying race does not matter, yet at the same time race is all some white people need to know to not hire, not rent to, not vote for, not trust, not befriend, etc. She is not saying anything about people of color. Sounds like she's been reading Tim Wise. He is a great white-anti-racism educator who looks at how race factors into so much of our history and our policies that we do not even realize. @robyn: but you miss my point that children do experience racism and are hurt by stereotypes irregardless of parents. If we do not talk about it, they may think there is something wrong with them or that the racism and stereotypes is real. Many children of color never tell their parents about the things that happen to them on the playground. Similarly, i have received letters from heartbroken Caucasian parents who caught their kids saying or doing racist things because they never taught them not to, they thought the absence of racism in their homes would be enough. We have to teach all our children how to safely identify and handle those bugs which may or may not be poisonous. thanks all for your thoughts, these are all big and tricky issues, frances kai-hwa wang


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 7:52 p.m.

Where I live - bugs are generally safe and my fear of them is pretty much my own issue and not the bugs... I do realize that if I lived in an area with poisonous insects and snakes - my fear would have a logical basis and more importantly - it would be a very desirable fear to instill in my kids. You did get the point I was trying to make though. To further expand on it - we also teach our children our own prejudices and bias by our own behavior and our own 'words'. Our kids don't even realize or understand what they are being taught and by the time they are old enough to question it - the behavior has been ingrained so deeply that they have a difficult time 'letting it go'. I've heard children say things that I KNOW they have no basis in their own short life experience to think or feel, they are only repeating what they have heard or been taught by the adults around them. I can't be upset at a child for parroting - but I can use it as a lesson to myself and for my own children.


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 2:19 p.m.

JenH - "Do we really think whites are a good judge of whether or not someone is or something that is said is racist? Better than people of color themselves?" "White culture teaches that race does not matter, yet is all that matters about people of color" "Many of these conversations need to happen among whites. People of color have carried the burden of racism way too long." All of those statement bear some sort of generalization that you apply to an entire group of people. That is JUST as bad as outward racism; you are assuming that all people of those groups do these things. I don't know if you are trying to prove that you empathize or understand both sides, but you don't do either. You switch from complaining about white people, actually insulting them (YES, I am white and YES I can tell what racism is, thanks) then switch to saying that skin color is all black people find important. I do not believe anything you said is accurate and whatever your point was it was lost completely by a lack of focus. I find the beliefs you seem to hold about ANY of the ethnicities you mentioned to be more offensive than a Halloween Costume. Robyn - I completely agree, well said.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 12:47 p.m.

@RodneyT I am not looking to be offended. I am certainly not making value judgments about childrens Halloween costumes--children are innocents. Rather, I was talking about the childhood hurt of always being the butt of the joke without really understanding why and then learning to laugh along. Unfortunately, the difficulty with ethnic stereotypes is that many cannot tell what is stereotype and what is real. According to the New York Times, 29 campaigns are using fear of China in their campaign strategy this election, and many of them do not draw much distinction between the government of China and Americans of Chinese and Asian descent. This indiscriminate all-Asians-are-the-same-and-to-blame outlook is the environment that led to the violent murders of Vincent Chin, Balbir Singh Sodhi, and many others. There is a connection. I agree with @robyn that parents do well not to create unfounded anxieties in their children, however, the analogy about bugs assumes that bugs are basically safe. If you lived in an area filled with poisonous bugs, you would probably teach your children to distinguish the poisonous bugs from the nonpoisonous ones and how to properly handle them. When I teach workshops on preparing children for racism, lesson #1 for parents is how to take a big breath and not react, to ask the children what they think, listen, and let them lead the way. It is also important to--without teaching them to expect it--give them the tools to deal with it when it arises. Studies show that children encounter racism as early as preschool. Children whose families talk about race and stereotypes are much better equipped to handle it and understand that it is not them when it eventually arises rather than just internalize it. Another recent study shows that the best way to raise a racist child is to not talk about race. And @jenh is right--we expect more of America because it is America. We want it to be all it can be for all its citizens and all our children. Thanks all, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 11:47 a.m.

Jen H - I'm not quite sure where you're coming from... Do you think that we should NEVER see color or difference between people? That is impossible. Even among ethnic groups there are differences that set groups within the larger community apart for one another. EVERY community has their own ideas and perceptions of other communities. Do you not think blacks have some stereotypes about whites? Asians? Hispanics? Same thing with Asians - they have their own ideas about whites, blacks and Hispanics... Each group does. That will never go away. Then you have the stereotypes of people within any particular group and how they views others within their group. Maybe just accepting that people are different and ACKNOWLEDGING it is a better solution than being offended when someone points out a difference. There will ALWAYS be something that people will point to as a 'difference' - am I supposed to be offended every time people refer to those who live in rural areas as 'bumpkins' - like because we don't live in the big city we are not 'with it' or as culturally open minded? You can really split hairs if you want to - and you can make the CHOICE to be offended or be the victim if that's what you want. But the rest of us don't need to feel 'victimized' for you to prove that we accept you.


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 11:16 a.m.

Sad that you have to choose. What if your grievance is actually real? Where to go?


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 11:11 a.m.

As a person of mixed Asian ethnicity,, I am beginning to realize that a lot of my fellow Asian-Americans, especially those that are in academia, or are from the liberal-left of the political spectru, have decided to play the identity politics/ethnic grievance-mongering game. This does not bode well for th e future of Asians in this country. D owe want to be regarded as people who are part of what makes America great, or do we want to be seen as a bunch of whiny complainers, who want to get ahead, not by dint ofour own merit, but by whining aboutbeing discriminated against, demanding quotas, etc?


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 10:50 a.m.

Except racism is not lighthearted teasing of ones own race or ethnic background. Are we next going to say it is racist that African Americans can use the 'n' word and we whites cannot? That is not racism either. Of course there are culturally specific mores that are OK within one context and not another. Why are we unwilling to see that these could be based on race? Doesn't race form someone's reality? White culture teaches that race does not matter, yet is all that matters about people of color. Confusing, no? Not surprising that communities of color are far beyond white communities in their conversations and understanding of race in the US than whites. We are left mute by our own cultural values of colorblindness...and left to carry the racist bag left us by our ancestors. Unless we are willing to begin to unpack it. I won't argue this to death, but this IS subtle because there is a percentage of our society (mostly white, doesn't that say something about race?) that deny that we all should be offended by these racist jokes and costumes. That folks that complain are too sensitive. So it continues. Until we are all ready to say, 'that's enough' it will. I agree there are other examples. I'm not surprised or offended that the author will not discuss this with you further. She is not obliged to do so. Many of these conversations need to happen among whites. People of color have carried the burden of racism way too long. And it didn't originate there; I'm not surprised with the exasperation, yet am continually amazed that there are those that STILL put themselves out there and try to get through with columns in local papers, talks, poetry and etc... In our country we have a ways to go in really understanding someone else's point of view. In listening to immigrant stories throughout American history, including modern, the 'melting pot' ideal really meant that if you are coming to the US and can pass as white, you melt. If you are identifiably 'other' (skin color, accent) you don't. The hammer of history is what hits hard in these instances that the author points to in her original essay. History cannot be re-written (although many have tried) and until whites fess up to their part in both historical impacts as well as modern day 'subtle' racist ideas that people of color are too sensitive and can't possibly know what they are talking continues. White kids being teased for hair color, eyeglasses, stuttering, regional differences among whites, etc is downright mean. But a person of color being teased, especially by someone who is white, because of race is different. Remember that history hammer? Only made worse by whites claiming, 'it was a joke...jeez, lighten up!'. Yes, our kids are watching.


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 9:56 a.m.

Stereotypes are everywhere - even within countries with people of the same basic ethnicity. Look at the US... People from the south are portrayed as rednecks and hill billies, from the north they are yankees - out west they are cowboys. Go to any comedy show and you'll see at least one comedian making fun of his own race or regional background by dramatically stretching the smallest of 'truths' into a wildly funny (to some) verbal picture of 'his/her people'. People do tend to view anyone who is different as 'odd' - it's not unusual to make fun of what we don't understand, or perhaps it's just an attempt to make us feel more 'normal' than some other group. But we really needn't read too much into what we believe is 'racist' - especially around our kids. As adults we view things from our own perspectives and based upon our own experiences (real and imagined), when we become noticably upset about something - that 'fear' or whatever it is - becomes a part of our kids' perspective and experience. This may sound like it's totally off topic - but if you think about it - it holds true for a lot of different things we instill in our children without even realizing what we are doing. When I had my first child I read an article about how we as parents have a profound effect on our kids. The exapmle given was the fear of spiders, bugs and other creepy crawlies. I could relate, I never had liked those things and screamed whenever I saw one. A single spider could drive me out of my own house! The psychologist explained that children don't have that fear. OUR reaction to the spider is what teaches them to be afraid of it. They see Mom or Dad freaking out - and they do it because they emulate what we show them. At that point I decided NOT to freak out (in front of my child) when I saw a spider or some other groos thing that makde my skin crawl. What happened was that I have two kids that are not afraid of bugs or spiders or snakes or any of that stuff. Unfortunately their lack of fear or disgust of these creatures resulted in them bringing me EVERY one they found (which was not cool at all - I learned to scream silently and eventually got to the point that I could do it without tears streaming from my bulging eyes). The point is - our own fears and beliefs are passed onto our children through us. If we keep teaching them the same angst that we have (real or imagined) they are going to carry that with them - just like we do. They will begin to look for the things that cause that angst - and react. Just like we do.

Morris Thorpe

Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 6:59 a.m.

Jen, I'm not sure this is subtle. Someone wearing that halloween mask from the link is not subtle. They're ignorant or flat-out racist. So they wear it and either offend or amuse. I'd go on about what I think subtle or covert racism is but the writer does not seem interested in extending the conversation.


Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 7:19 p.m.

This IS the subtle stuff. Turning covert only when we 'lighten up' and just take it. I believe that is why this author allows us the gift of her insight week after week in this column. To make all this subtle stuff not so subtle so we can finally realize it for what it is (rooted in racism) and let it go. Why so quick to discount her? Doesn't it make sense to you that flat out racists are easy to spot but the subtle ones (maybe even unintentional ones) need pointing out? Do we really think whites are a good judge of whether or not someone is or something that is said is (intentionally or unintentionally) racist? Better than people of color themselves? Just because racism is found throughout the world, and even worse in some places, does not make it OK here. I hear a lot of rhetoric about Americans and our liberties and freedoms and America as the greatest nation on Earth...shouldn't we actually BE that? Or does just saying it make it so? Why are people of color ALWAYS questioned when they voice frustrations and concerns? Seen as complainers or 'playing the race card'? Let's be the Americans we think we are. Racism is deeply rooted in the history of this nation, let's admit it, talk about it and let it finally dry up in the light of day instead of working so hard to deny our history.


Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 5:11 p.m.

I think we all need to lighten up. Having travelled internationally often this is not an an American only issue. Being misinformed does not mean malice was intended. Hop in the melting pot and give it a stir it is plenty warm for all. Oh, I have a couple kids with red hair but don't get me started.

Morris Thorpe

Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 11:07 a.m.

Frances, I appreciate your thoughts but it feels like you're looking for things to be offended by. If some ignorant reveals himself as racist in Borat, so what? That is not a majority (or even a significant portion) of "people." We are a nation of 300M, there are all kinds. Someone wears an offending costume? Yes, it happens. More than 100 kids come trick or treating to my house. I've never seen an offensive outfit. I am much, much more concerned about subtle, intentional racism. Covert actions that do real damage.