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Mitali Perkins and Gene Yang on Race and Humor

June 7, 2014

Mitali Perkins is an author and educator. Her books are primarily focused on young readers. Her works include Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl, Bamboo People, and Secret Keeper.  Mitali Perkins is the editor and one of the ten contributors to Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices. The ten authors She brought together for open mic were herself Gene Yang, David Yoo, Cherry Cheva,G. Neri,Varain Johnson, Naomi Shibab Nye, Francisco X Stork, Debbie Rigaud, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.  Bboth Gene and Mitali were kind enough to step up to the mic for us as well giving us some of their time to talk about race and humor. Racebending.com contributor Gabrial Canada spoke to Mitali in October before the release of Open Mic as part of his podcast and spoke with her and Gene Yang via email one the subject of Race and Humor after the Cancel Colbert controversey and BookCon’s conspicuous lack of diversity brought #hastagactivism into the fore of public discussion on the topic.

Racebending T-ShirtRacebending: As a writer for Racebending.com I apprecaited your shoutout about our nifty t-shirts in Open Mic. It was fun seeing a reference to us in in print! The book is a collection about race and humor and there is certainly humor present in your work. Gene, you make use of and make fun of stereotypes in American born Chinese and that humor and embracing racial identity plays an important role in the growth of its characters. Do you have any advice or guidelines about writing this way, knowing when humor is making fun of racism or when a joke becomes racist itself. I’m thinking partly of the Cancel Colbert controversy recently.

Gene Yang: Advice?  I don’t know.  I’m still trying to figure it out.  Racism is funny, but it can be funny in two very different ways. We can laugh at racism because we recognize the absurdity of the racist ideas, or we can laugh because we think those ideas might be true.  The dividing line is pretty fuzzy, and the same joke can be interpreted by intelligent, sincere people in very different ways.

My one regret with American Born Chinese is that I did not exaggerate Cousin Chin-Kee enough. I thought I’d gone pretty far, but every now and then I still get reader feedback telling me that Chin-Kee is “cute.”  I definitely did not mean for him to be cute.  I guess my advice, based on my own experience, is that if you’re in doubt, push it over-the-top absurd.

 

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices. Edited by Mitali Perkins

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices. Edited by Mitali Perkins

Racebending: One of the funnier things in your book is the opening in which essentially you have your ground rules there. You are trying to make sure that people can kind of exhale as it were and say, ok I do not have to worry this is not a book of racist jokes It is a book of jokes that may in fact involve race. Because it can be funny. There are funny and awkward situations that happen when anyone is growing up and that can be compounded if race is injected as something people have to contend with as a kid. Can you explain what those rules were? I think it is legitimately helpful to say this is one of the things that helps it be not offensive. To let out that deep breath and feel that this is something that is ok to laugh at.

Mitali Perkins: Right! Right! Humor is powerful and I think storytelling itself is powerful. It really becomes a question about power as I think about using humor as a way of talking about race. I feel it can be used to alienate instead of build affection.

So my first rule is good humor pokes fun of the powerful and not the weak. There is a nice video by Craig Ferguson from when Britney Spears was having her complete breakdown he had this eleven minute monologue on How the best kind of humor does not pummel someone who is down, who is weak who is broken. It really takes aim at the powerful.

My second rule is that it always builds affection for someone who is other. So it does not alienate as I said. When I teach it to my class, I teach a class on this issues of race and culture in storytelling, I show some different youtube clips to show what I mean. There are some comedians who really succeed in this. At the end of the comedy rift you feel very close to the person who is other than you. There are other (comedians) who are really funny but at the end of it you feel you have been made to laugh at someone who has been pushed away from you, its is a wider rift. I think that is another rule that it builds affection and not alienates.

The third rule is that the best humor is always self deprecatory. Usually I am very free about who can write for whom but when it comes to jokes and humor because I think the best humor in this category is about yourself, it almost seems as though it should be a little more restrictive. You can see this in jokes. When people tell jokes its like you can tell a joke about your own ethnic group but if you tell a joke about another ethnic group it just does not come off as well.  So I guess it is just poking fun of your own culture that is the best way to stay out of trouble. Though there are lots of areas where it can get murky there. What if I am biracial what does that mean? How much of that race do I have to be to be an insider and to tell that joke?

It can get very complicated. It is a question of identity and self affiliation. If you are telling a joke as if it is one of us against me than it is different than if you are telling a joke about “them.”

Bamboo People cover 300[1]Racebending: The Cancel Colbert Campaign recently highlighted the importance of understanding race and humor. I wonder if you had any opinion on the discussions it engendered and at the same time diversity in publishing has also come to the fore in recent weeks with the question, why do we need diverse books as the rallying cry. I would love to add your name to the chorus of authors answering that question. Why do we need diverse books?

Mitali Perkins: The Cancel Colbert Campaign underlined the need for a renewed combination of freedom, humor, and civility in discussions about race. It’s become such a fraught subject that an attempt at satire brings about a knee-jerk attempt to censor. People are increasingly worried about saying the wrong thing, resulting in a climate of suspicion, hostility, fear, and silence. To renew the conversation, smart, self-deprecatory humor is key. Funny, intelligent books and movies featuring this kind of humor can be the “water cooler” around which people gather to talk again. That’s yet another reason why #weneeddiversebooks.

You can listen to the entire interview with Mitali Perkins on Kind of Epic Show. Please note that the opinions expressed do not necesarilly represent the view of Racebending.com and the discussion itself is meant to be humorous and entertaining to fit the subject material of the book: Mitali Perkins Steps up to the Mic

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About the Author

Gabriel Canada is a contributing writer to Racebending.com. Gabe Canada is from Indianapolis, Indiana where he is currently studying Journalism at Indiana University. He joined Racebending as a fan of the original Airbender series. Outside of school he runs a local anime meetup group and is the cofounder of a production company, Kind of Epic Films.

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