Denver University Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy Discussion

Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916RESEARCH ARTICLE
Ji Hoon Park, Nadine G. Gabbadon & Ariel R. Chernin
Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104
In this paper, we examine the ideological implications of racial stereotypes in comedy
through a textual and audience analysis of Rush Hour 2. Although Asian, Black, and
White focus group participants differentially engaged with racial stereotypes in the film,
most participants, regardless of race, found the film’s racial jokes inoffensive. Many
Asian and Black participants found a positive source of pleasure in the negative portrayals of their own race and did not produce oppositional discourse. Our study suggests that the generic conventions and textual devices of comedy encourage the audience
to naturalize racial differences rather than to challenge racial stereotypes.
doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2006.00008.x
Rush Hour 2 (2001), the sequel to Rush Hour (1998), achieved enormous commercial
success, grossing over $226 million in the United States and $329 million worldwide.1 As of March 2005, the film ranked 45th in the all-time U.S. box office.2 The
movie follows two police officers, one from Los Angeles (Chris Tucker as ‘‘Carter’’)
and one from Hong Kong (Jackie Chan as ‘‘Lee’’), as they pursue Asian gang members attempting to execute an elaborate counterfeiting plot. Although Rush Hour and
Rush Hour 2 can be classified as action-comedy ‘‘buddy movies,’’ the films depart
from convention by pairing an African American and an Asian in the lead roles.
Although such a casting decision could have alienated White viewers, the film’s
incredible mainstream success suggests that it appealed to both minority and White
audiences. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Rush Hour franchise, the current
film landscape reveals a growing number of comedies that feature Asian and/or Black
leading men, among them I Spy (2002), Shanghai Knights (2003), and Harold and
Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).
It is possible to argue that the growing number of comedies starring racial
minorities has facilitated racial tolerance, as well as the acceptance of Asian men,
Corresponding author: Ji Hoon Park; e-mail: jpark@asc.upenn.edu
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Naturalizing Racial Differences Through
Comedy: Asian, Black, and White Views on
Racial Stereotypes in Rush Hour 2
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
J. H. Park et al.
Racial stereotypes in comedy
Stereotyping serves multiple purposes, both cognitive and motivational, and it
‘‘emerges in various contexts to serve particular functions necessitated by those
contexts’’ (Hilton & von Hippel, 1996, p. 238). A wide range of situations, such as
cognitive overload, group conflict, power differences, or a desire to justify the status
quo, can give rise to the formation and activation of stereotypes (Hilton & von
Hippel). From a media industry perspective, stereotyping results from the need to
quickly convey information about characters and to instill in audiences expectations
about characters’ actions (Casey, Casey, Calvert, French, & Lewis, 2002; Omi, 1989;
Wilson, Gutiérrez, & Chao, 2003). Stereotypes are important in comedy because not
only do they help to establish instantly recognizable character types but such character traits and stereotype-based jokes also constitute a source of humor (Bowes,
1990; King, 2002).
Critical attention has been paid to the ideological implications of the stereotypical treatment of racial minorities in comedy, whether stereotypes are ‘‘read as
a symptom of existing social relations or as a more active component of the politics
of representation’’ (King, 2002, p. 129). With regard to the disruptive potential of
comedy, King notes that comic representations of race (i.e., exaggerated portrayals of
racial traits) can be identified as a parody of the stereotype and a strategy of subversion, thereby opening up the possibility of critiquing the racial norm and rejecting
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in particular, who have been consistently marginalized from mainstream cultural
representation in the United States. However, it is premature to claim that these films
represent a substantial shift in the cultural representation of race. A critical investigation reveals that not only is the racial hierarchy a crucial part of these films’
narratives but also the characters consistently conform to negative minority stereotypes that can be deemed racist. The relationship between explicitly stereotypical
portrayals of race and commercial success seems highly problematic and contradictory. If blatant stereotypes are embodied in films, why do people enjoy them? Rush
Hour 2’s enormous commercial success makes it an ideal example through which to
explore the apparent paradox between potentially racist representations in comedy
and its widespread popularity transcending racial boundaries.
Through Rush Hour 2, we examine the ideological implications of racial stereotypes in comedy and discuss how the genre of comedy privileges a reading of racial
stereotypes as harmless, despite the potential negative consequences of such representations. Our textual analysis of Rush Hour 2 identifies the kinds of stereotypes and
the textual devices that attempt to diffuse viewers’ critical interpretations. Through
a cross-racial reception analysis, we investigate how Asian, Black, and White viewers
react to racial jokes in Rush Hour 2 and examine if they differentially engage with the
film’s racial stereotypes. Although the present study is specific to Rush Hour 2, the
findings provide valuable insight into how racial stereotypes in comedy naturalize
racial differences.
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prejudice. Denzin (2002) suggests that the conventional narrative in the interracial
buddy films, where two men of different races develop trust and friendship, can be
read as an imaginary utopia in which racial differences do not matter. In fact,
comedy often inverts stereotypes to generate humor. For instance, in the Lethal
Weapon (1987) film series, the Black character is middle class, conservative,
and family oriented, and the White character is unpredictable and dangerous (Malanowski, 2002). Jewish and Black comedians tell jokes about their own race to criticize
social injustice and racial inequalities (Haggins, 1995; King).
Scholars, however, concede that it is often difficult to distinguish social
commentary and satire from the ideological reproduction of racial stereotypes in
comedy. The most frequently debated question is whether viewers laugh at stereotyped minority figures or with them (Bowes, 1990; Hall, 1990). For critical scholars,
the distinction is less important than the negative social consequences of seemingly
harmless racial jokes. Critical views on race in comedy posit that racial stereotyping
serves an ideological function, normalizing racially defined characteristics and legitimating the racial hierarchy (Bogle, 2001; Hall; King, 2002; Means Coleman, 2000;
Omi, 1989; Wilson et al., 2003). Critical scholars claim that in a social environment
in which racism is deeply rooted, racial jokes and stereotypes inevitably reinforce
hierarchically structured racial differences (Hall; Omi). Omi argues that racial
jokes told across the color lines ‘‘will, despite its ‘purely’ humorous intent, serve
to reinforce stereotypes and rationalize the existing relations of racial inequality’’
(p. 121). Schulman (1992) questions the satirical use of racial humor as a tool for
criticizing racism. She argues that an attempt to critique racism through comedy
results in unintended consequences, namely, the reinforcement of the very stereotypes that the humor attempts to ridicule. Race-based comedy often juxtaposes
racially characterized non whites against socially dominant Whites: ‘‘[racial humor]
appears at the same time to have internalized something of the very despicable
images that oppressors of the black community have harbored for centuries, however
blatantly it parodies their absurdity and illogic’’ (Schulman, 1992, p. 6). Bogle claims
that although comedy is perceived as having the potential to comment on the
problematic nature of stereotyping, it rarely capitalizes on the opportunity. In the
world of the film, minority characters rarely resist or reject the stereotypes that are
forced upon them. In his discussion of 48 Hrs. (1982), Bogle argues that the character
Reggie Hammond (played by Eddie Murphy, a Black actor/comedian) never gets
mad at Jack Cates (played by Nick Nolte, a White actor) for making racially insulting
comments, thus ‘‘greatly neutralizes the inherent racism’’ (p. 282).
Scholars also highlight the harmful effects of minority actors embodying stereotypes associated with their own race. King (2002) points to the enactment of racist
stereotypes, particularly that of the ‘‘coon,’’ by Black comedians, such as Eddie
Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Chris Tucker, and notes that their performances
are uncomfortably reminiscent of racist ideologies that have been used to justify
racial discrimination in the past. Means Coleman (2000) also claims that Black actors
appearing in what she terms ‘‘neominstrelsy’’ sitcoms, such as Martin (1992–1997),
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The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–1996), and The Wayans Bros. (1995–1999), are
‘‘taking part in their own racial ridicule by adopting Jim Crow, coon, and Sambo
characterizations’’ (p. 130). She argues that Black sitcoms emphasize self-deprecating
humor, physical comedy, provocative and flashy clothing, and ‘‘ghettocentric’’
characterizations, all of which contribute to a narrowly defined portrait of African
American men and women.
Theories of genre suggest that the naturalization of racial difference through
stereotyping is more likely to occur in a comedic format because generic conventions
discourage viewers’ critical engagement with the racial discourse. Feuer (1992)
argues that ‘‘the genre positions the interpretive community in such a way as to
naturalize the dominant ideologies expressed in the text’’ (p. 145). Genres structure
viewers’ expectations, which, in turn, limit the ways in which viewers can interpret
the film (Altman, 1987; Feuer; Neale, 1980). Comedy as a genre essentially extends
the alleged harmlessness of interpersonal jokes, which allows controversial content in
mainstream films to be considered acceptable (King, 2002, p. 149). The nature of the
genre and the comedic performance dictate that audiences should not take stereotypes seriously because they are intentionally humorous and that taking offense to
stereotypic representations simply signals a misreading of the filmmakers’ intent
(Bowes, 1990; Casey et al., 2002; Malanowski, 2002). Bowes argues that comedy
affirms the dominant ideological positions because it diffuses viewers’ critical interpretations. Hall (1990) characterizes race-based comedy as ‘‘a licensed zone, disconnected from the serious’’ and argues that its generic convention ‘‘ultimately protects
and defends viewers from acknowledging their incipient racism’’ (p. 17).
We contend that seemingly innocuous racial jokes and stereotypes in comedy
need critical attention in the current social climate. Most people claim to be color
blind and antiracist; however, race continues to serve as an important cognitive
category with which people make sense of their social world (Myers & Williamson,
2001). Much of the existing scholarship expands the understanding of racism and
racial differences in conjunction with racial stereotypes as representational devices or
cognitive categories. Racial stereotypes play a significant role in maintaining the
racial ideology in post–civil rights America where blatant declarations of racist views,
bigotry, and violence have become uncommon and unacceptable (Essed, 1991;
Myers & Williamson; van Dijk, 1984, 1987). Racial stereotypes ultimately reduce
and naturalize racial differences and, thus, preclude alternative ways to think about
the category of race (Hall, 1997). Once the beliefs of racial differences are naturalized
as objectively existent and immutable, these differences provide insight into how
people see their world. Given that racial stereotypes are most frequently used to
represent people of color, the reified racial beliefs help maintain the racial hierarchy
and White privileges. These beliefs also lead to social consequences, including the
negative judgments of racial minorities and social injustice (see Schaufer, 2003). We
argue that racial stereotypes in comedy should be taken seriously because of their
potential to naturalize racial differences through humor. However, the potential
of comedy to subvert racial stereotypes cannot be underestimated. The purpose of
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Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
the present study is to examine the ideological implications of racial stereotypes
in comedy and to determine whether they humorously naturalize or possibly disrupt the beliefs of racial differences that constitute the ideological basis of the
racial hierarchy.
The textual analysis that follows has three parts. First, a descriptive synopsis of Rush
Hour 2 situates racially stereotypical moments in the specific situations where they
occur in order to examine how race is configured through dialogue and how racial
jokes are related to the film narrative. We identify the stereotype-based racial jokes in
Rush Hour 2 that are consistent with previous scholars’ discussions of the dominant
representations of Asians and Blacks in American mass media (see Bogle, 2001;
Hamamoto, 1994; King, 2002; Lee, 1999; Shim, 1998). The descriptive narrative
analysis of the film is followed by a critical analysis that attempts to decode the
racial ideology embedded in the film. The ideological analysis of Rush Hour 2 was
conducted in conjunction with the two important theoretical categories, character
and narrative, as suggested in the work of Fiske (1987) and White (1992). Fiske
claims that character is a crucial category of textual analysis because characters are
discursive constructs embodying ideological positions and values; they are not individuals existing independent of textual and broader social relations. Narrative serves
as another significant category of textual analysis in that narrative orients viewers’
understanding of stories and naturalizes meanings and events that are ideological
(Fiske; White). Finally, we examine the ideological limitations and possibilities of
several textual devices in the film narrative.
Rush Hour 2 features the character James Carter (Chris Tucker), who is a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, and his friend, Lee (Jackie Chan), who is
chief inspector of the Hong Kong Police Department. The movie begins in Hong
Kong, where Carter is visiting Lee on vacation. Amidst Carter’s preoccupation with
picking up women, Lee receives a call from his boss, who informs him that the
Hong Kong Police suspect that Ricky Tan (played by John Lone), the cunning head
of the Fu-Cang-Long Triads gang, is responsible for an explosion in the American
embassy that killed two Americans. Carter’s desire to enjoy a stress-free vacation
leads him to warn Lee that, if Lee takes the case, ‘‘I’ll slap you so hard that you’ll
end up in the Ming Dynasty.’’ Throughout the movie, Carter is high pitched,
childish, irresponsible, and hypersexual. When Carter sees a few Chinese women
in the car next to theirs, he yells, ‘‘Let’s get some sushi!’’ to the women, revealing
his cultural ignorance.
Disguising his intentions to begin investigating the case, Lee brings Carter to
a club where the Triad gang has gathered. When Lee tells Carter to act like a tourist,
Carter replies, ‘‘I’m two feet taller than everybody in here.’’ Carter impulsively
decides to roust the bar and demands that people reveal Ricky Tan’s whereabouts.
Carter’s irrational antics alert Ricky Tan’s beautiful but deadly henchwoman, Hu Li
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Textual analysis
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(played by Zhang Ziyi) and her fellow gangsters, resulting in a fight between Chan
and the gang members.
After their first scuffle with the Triads, Lee takes Carter to an upscale massage
parlor called ‘‘Heaven on Earth’’ to perform another undercover operation. Carter is
shown a group of scantily clad Chinese women and the hostess assures Carter that he
can pick any girl to perform his massage. When Lee tells Carter to speed up his
selection process, Carter exclaims, ‘‘You don’t jump in front of a black man in
a buffet line!’’ Instead of choosing one girl, Carter greedily selects five. Later at the
massage parlor when Lee and Carter find Ricky Tan, Carter starts another fight with
the Asian gang members, despite Lee’s attempt to verbally reason with Tan. During
the fight, Carter exclaims to a gang member, ‘‘No wonder you’re mad!’’ after the
man’s towel falls off and he is standing fully naked. Carter accidentally punches Lee
instead of a gang member and explains, ‘‘You all look alike.’’ Defeated, Lee and
Tucker are kidnapped and later tossed out onto the highway.
Circumstances lead Carter to a yacht party hosted by Ricky. Carter meets and
immediately begins flirting with a Latina woman named Isabella Molina (played by
Roselyn Sanchez) who ignores his advances. Carter discovers that she is affiliated
with Steven Reign, a wealthy White businessman from Los Angeles who claims that
he is in Hong Kong to sightsee. When Carter meets Lee on the boat, he says, ‘‘No one
understands the words coming out of your mouth’’ due to his accent. Carter shares
with Lee his theory of investigation, which is, in sum, ‘‘follow the rich white man,’’
stating that every major crime has a rich, White man behind it expecting to make
large financial gains. After seeing Reign on the yacht, Carter becomes convinced that
he is involved in the smuggling and that he is the key to solving the crime.
Lee and Carter follow Reign to Los Angeles where they run into Isabella Molina,
who they learn is an undercover Secret Service agent. Molina tells them that Steven
Reign and the Triads are involved in producing and shipping hundreds of millions of
dollars in counterfeit ‘‘superbills.’’ Isabella asks Lee and Carter to help find the plates
used to counterfeit the money, and they agree. Carter boasts, ‘‘She chose me because
I’m tall, dark and handsome, and you’re third-world-ugly.’’ Lee responds, ‘‘I’m not
third-world-ugly. Women like me, they think I’m cute. Like Snoopy.’’ Tucker then
says, ‘‘Snoopy is six inches taller than you.’’
In pursuit of the plates, Lee and Carter are captured by Hu Li. Trapped and tied
up inside a truck, Carter and Lee discover thousands of counterfeit bills and Carter
takes some of the money, saying it is for ‘‘evidence.’’ Lee and Carter start fighting.
Carter exclaims, ‘‘I will slap the hell out of you right now!’’ Lee responses, ‘‘I’ll bitchslap you back to Africa!’’ They eventually work together to escape, only to find
themselves in Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas, Carter and Lee see a casino called the ‘‘Red Dragon’’ (the same
name as Ricky Tan’s yacht) and realize that this is where the money is being laundered. When they enter the casino, Carter tells Lee to look for the plates and that he
distracts the security guards. Carter uses some of the counterfeit money that he
got from the truck and starts gambling at one of the craps tables in his usual
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loud-mouthed fashion. He complains to the White dealer that he gets $500 chips
instead of $1,000 chips because he is Black. Carter then brings up the issue of
Black slavery, exclaiming, ‘‘You gave me $500 chips because I’m black? You think
my people suffered 362 years of slavery so you could send us to cotton fields with
$500 chips? Do I look like Chicken George to you?’’ During the film’s climax, Lee and
Carter once again face Hu Li and Ricky Tan. Both gang members die, and the
counterfeiting plates are recovered.
Rush Hour 2 promotes numerous Black and Asian stereotypes through characters
that personify and verbalize these racial myths. Lee is a respectful but culturally
ignorant and asexual Asian man who excels at Kung Fu. Henchwoman Hu Li serves
as the Asian ‘‘dragon lady’’ who is desirable but dangerous (Ogunnaike, 2003, p. E1).
The Chinese women at the massage parlor embody the stereotype of obedient Oriental dolls readily fulfilling Americans’ sexual desire and fantasies. These two images
of Asian women may seem contradictory, but they reflect two major stereotypes of
Asian women frequently found in the mass media. Omi (1989) suggests that
although it is possible for racial minorities to be stereotyped in multiple ways within
the same text, such contradictions do not challenge the one dimensionality of
minority images. Carter is a loud, impulsive, hypersexual yet childish Black man
who is often portrayed as ignorant and causing trouble. He constantly reinforces
stereotypes associated with his own race. He tells a Chinese woman that he likes his
chicken ‘‘dead and deep fried,’’ as if it is natural that a Black man likes fried chicken.
He also furthers the African American stereotype in his manner of speaking, such as
‘‘she’s the bomb,’’ ‘‘mack out,’’ and ‘‘look fly.’’
A critical reading of Rush Hour 2 indicates that racial ideology is coded both in
the characters and in the narrative. First, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker both portray
likeable characters that do not problematize or transgress mainstream racial images
and boundaries. Their characters are buffoons or ‘‘symbolically castrated men’’ that
do not challenge White masculinity (Lo, 2001, p. 474). In contrast to Chan’s Hong
Kong–made action movies, where his characters are not only affable but also masculine and tough (Teo, 1997), Chan’s Hollywood films, such as Shanghai Noon
(2000) and Shanghai Knights (2003), cast him in the role of the funny, desexualized,
and unthreatening Oriental male. Lo argues that Chan’s masculinity has been toned
down in Hollywood in order to ensure that his characters conform to racial conventions. Tucker as Carter is an infantile Black man who, despite his masculine
physical presence, is incapable of protecting himself without Chan’s help. King
(2002) indicates that the Black comedian’s high-pitched voice and childish tone
are unthreatening to the racial status quo because they help ‘‘reduce any threat
created by the spectacle of a seemingly dominating Black character’’ (p. 149). Most
of the racial jokes in Rush Hour 2 are directed toward minorities, which strengthens
Whites’ positive self-image and their dominant position in the racial order.
Second, the narrative’s binary opposition of powerful Whites and subordinate
minorities contains the symbolic threats to the racial hierarchy. The contrast between
the powerful and the powerless becomes a ‘‘metaphor for power relationships in
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society and thus a material practice through which the dominant ideology works’’
(Fiske, 1987, p. 9) because a binary opposition in narrative naturalizes and universalizes the hierarchy implied by the opposition. Although White characters only
have small roles in Rush Hour 2, they still occupy key ‘‘overseeing’’ positions in
the storyline, regardless of whether they are good or evil. Steven Reign, the billionaire
hotel owner, funds gang leader Ricky Tan’s operation and provides his casino as
a means of money laundering, and agent Sterling of the U.S. Secret Service supervises
the criminal investigation into Tan’s and Reign’s activities. The main villains of
the film are Asian. Ricky Tan, Hu Li, and the team of Chinese gangsters all threaten
American interests by blowing up the American embassy in Hong Kong and by
circulating counterfeit U.S. currency. Although Lee and Carter play a crucial role
in avenging the Chinese villains and maintaining justice, they act in service of
White America by defeating those who challenge White patriarchal power. Ultimately, the violence of and against Asian gangsters does not constitute a threat to
White masculinity and domination but helps maintain the racial status quo.
In addition to generic conventions that communicate the innocuousness of racial
stereotypes, several textual devices in Rush Hour 2 diffuse viewers’ potential claims of
racism and promote the acceptability of racial stereotypes. First, the minority status
of two main characters signals that their racial jokes are acceptable and not racist.
Because people of color are usually portrayed as victims rather than perpetrators
of racism, they are not perceived as having power over the others (as opposed to a
White character having power over a minority character).
Second, racial jokes in the film cross color lines, creating an impression that all
races are subject to stereotypes. Although there are only a couple of instances in the
film that could potentially be interpreted as promoting White stereotypes, the inclusion of these few quips creates the impression that all racial groups are targeted by the
film’s racial humor. Marchetti (1991) argues that ‘‘Hollywood films often play various positions one against the other, so that a text can appear to espouse rather liberal
attitudes toward race’’ (p. 279).
Third, the film’s stereotypes are coded as realistic and natural and based on the
characters’ personality differences and the execution of the plot. For instance,
Carter’s impulsive behavior is used to propel the plot and causes Lee to engage in
fights with the Triad gang members. Carter is also always the funny distraction
when Lee is responsibly investigating the crime. The relevance of stereotypes to
the plot and characterization makes the racially stereotyped content acceptable
and realistic.
Fourth, the two leading men are portrayed as good friends. Because neither
Carter nor Lee is hurt by the racial remarks, the film encourages viewers to interpret
the humor as acceptable. They are seen singing together in the car, and they often
help each other out of difficult situations. At the end of the movie, Lee gives Carter
his father’s badge as a symbol of friendship. This also implies that despite all of
Carter’s racial jokes and comments, Lee was still a true friend and there were indeed
no hard feelings between them.
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Researching the audience
Method
The focus group interviews were conducted with White, Black, and Asian participants. Several studies have demonstrated the strengths of focus groups in identifying
audiences’ response to the media portrayal of race beyond their surface attitudes and
in mapping out a subtle picture of audience reaction (see Bird, 1996, 2003; Bobo,
1989, 1995; Jhally & Lewis, 1992). Blacks, Asians, and White viewers were placed in
separate focus groups with a moderator of their racial group. We felt this approach
created an atmosphere where participants would feel comfortable discussing potentially sensitive topics, such as racism. It also facilitated comparisons between racial
groups.
There were eight focus groups with three to eight people per group: two groups
of White Americans, three groups of Black Americans, and three groups of Asian
Americans. Of the 40 volunteers who participated in the groups,3 race and gender
were as follows: 11 White (7 males, 4 females), 18 Asian (7 males, 11 females), and
11 Black (6 males, 5 females). Age ranges were as follows: White participants,
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Although a critical analysis suggests that these textual devices serve an ideological
function by promoting the acceptability and believability of racial stereotypes, such
devices can simultaneously be read as strategies to subvert or disrupt the racial
status quo. For instance, the friendship between Carter and Lee can signify two
conflicting meanings to the audience. Although it communicates the acceptability
of negative racial jokes by suggesting that ‘‘in this world of racial integration, ugly
racial slurs are reserved only for the bad buys’’ (Denzin, 2002, p. 101), it may also
change viewers’ racial attitudes by cultivating favorable views on Blacks or Asians.
Lee can be read as subservient to the (White) authority, but he can also be considered
respectful and responsible. Kenny, Carter’s African American informant, who owns
a Chinese restaurant, wears traditional Chinese clothing, and is married to an Asian
woman, may, through juxtaposition, make Carter appear to be the ‘‘normal’’ Black
man. Kenny’s unusual traits may also challenge viewers’ preconceived images of
African Americans. There are many other aspects of the film that can be read as
potentially subversive: People from two different cultures developing friendship and
trust, two good guys learning about each other in life and death situations and
overcoming cultural misunderstandings, and so forth.
A discussion of the ideological limitations and possibilities of racial stereotypes in
comedy cannot be complete without exploring audiences’ interpretation of the text.
We now turn our attention to the viewers. We examine how viewers of different races
make sense of the racial stereotypes in relation to the genre of comedy and the textual
devices that we discussed above. How do audiences interpret Rush Hour 2’s racial
stereotypes? Are White, Black, or Asian audiences offended by any content in the
film? Do White, Black, and Asian American audiences differ in their sensitivity to the
portrayal of race in this film?
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
J. H. Park et al.
Offensiveness
Irrespective of race, the majority of the focus group participants laughed throughout
their viewing of Rush Hour 2. They stated explicitly that they enjoyed Rush Hour 2,
and that the film’s racial humor did not offend them. Although participants gave
numerous reasons for why they were not offended, several common themes emerged.
First, Black, White, and Asian participants mentioned that Rush Hour 2’s status as
a comedy dictated that the film should not be taken seriously. Many participants
stated that they would have taken offense at racial jokes and stereotypes if they had
been conveyed in different generic forms, such as drama.
Jeff (White male, 19): It’s not as offensive when you know it’s supposed to be
funny, as opposed to just coming out of nowhere, and you’re like, ‘‘what?’’
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18–21 years (mean 19.7 years); Black participants, 18–28 years (mean 21.2 years);
and Asian participants, 18–31 years (mean 21.6 years). The majority of the participants were recruited from the undergraduate population of a large East Coast
university through e-mail, in classrooms, and by word-of-mouth. One Asian participant had a graduate degree; two Asian participants and one Black participant
were graduate students.
For each focus group, the participants were brought together either in someone’s
home or in a classroom. They watched Rush Hour 2 together, and then, the moderator facilitated a discussion about their views on the movie, including questions
about their opinions on the characters, what they thought about the stereotypes in
the movie and whether they were offended. The moderator also asked participants to
comment on issues of racial stereotypes in general in order to explore how they made
sense of the film’s stereotypes in relation to their own actual beliefs on race. The
semistructured discussions were relaxed and informal so that much of the information shared emerged from the natural flow of conversation. The moderators asked
questions to keep the discussion on track and to probe participants to explain their
comments in more detail. Discussions, which lasted about 30–60 minutes, were tape
recorded and transcribed at a later date. Pseudonyms are used to protect participants’ anonymity.
In analyzing the focus group data, we looked at two overarching areas: offensiveness and perceptions of stereotypes. With regard to offensiveness, we assessed
whether or not the participants were offended by Rush Hour 2 and why. With regard
to stereotypes, we explored which stereotypes the participants noticed in the movie
and which, if any, they perceived as true. Instead of simply reiterating how participants of different races responded to racial stereotypes in the movie, we provide
accounts of why they responded in the ways that they did. Radway (1986) notes that
researchers’ critical accounts of informants’ own interpretation of a text is a crucial
task because audiences ‘‘live ideology . they are produced by it to accept a particular
limited view of their situation. Their self-understanding, when seen from some other
perspective, then, might be constructed as ‘false’’’ (pp. 106–107, emphasis added).
J. H. Park et al.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
Justin (Asian male, 18): I think since it’s in a comedy movie, people can let it go.
Most participants in all three racial groups acknowledged, however, that even
within the context of a comedy, racial humor could potentially be racist. Several
participants said that the race of the person telling a joke can dictate whether or not
the joke is racist. In comedy, it is often considered acceptable for racial minorities to
tell racial jokes, whereas the same jokes told by Whites would be considered racist.
Most participants agreed that if a White character told the same jokes as Carter and
Lee, audiences would probably be offended.
Vanessa (Black female, 20): Well, I guess culturally people would be less
inclined to take offense, in my opinion, [because of] the fact that Chris Tucker
is black and Jackie Chan is Chinese . . They’re both minorities . . Whereas I
feel that if one of the characters had been White, there’s a historical stigma of
White oppressor that could maybe just not let people think his intentions don’t
have any racial prejudice or racial hatred or patronizing feelings in any way.
Ryan (Asian male, 19): I think it’s more acceptable I think. There’s one line
when Jackie Chan was in a truck, he’s like ‘‘I’ll slap you back to Africa.’’ There’s
no way that a White character would ever say that in the movie because . . You
can’t say that.
Ethan (White male, 20): The movie works because it’s two minorities. They
can rag on each other. It wouldn’t be acceptable if one of them was White
because . . It just wouldn’t work out. People would be offended and stuff.
The White participants’ discussion of racial stereotypes revealed that they were
keenly aware of Whites’ stigmatized position as perpetrators of racism. One White
participant explained that the main characters’ minority status allowed White people
to enjoy the jokes without feeling guilty.
Amy (White female, 20): Maybe the jokes are more politically correct
because . you’re making fun of your race against someone who can also make
fun of their race and White people don’t have to stand back and be, like, ‘‘Oh,
shit, sorry.’’ Like, I’m sorry I’m an oppressor, or something.
Second, several of the Black, Asian, and White participants stated that the movie
was not offensive because the jokes were targeted at Blacks, Asians, and Whites—and
not at one group in particular.
Stacey (White female, 20): I think a lot of it has to do with that they ragged
on every race in this movie. I think if it was just focused in on one race, and they
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Aaron (Black male, 20): The context of putting the whole interaction with the
comedy so people aren’t necessarily offended when Lee says, I’m gonna bitchslap you back to Africa or something. Like, that was funny because of the
context but if he said it anywhere else, it wouldn’t.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
J. H. Park et al.
only made fun of that one race, it would start to get a little racist . . If it was
just only Black jokes or only Asian jokes, or only White jokes .
Nathan (Black male, 18): I think a lot of the joking about the stereotypes in the
movie was kind of softened by the fact that Jackie and Tucker are friends .and
they’re cool.
An interesting aspect of the discussions within the Black and Asian focus groups
is the fact that although most participants denied being offended by Rush Hour 2,
many were still able to label the film as offensive on an intellectual level. We propose
that this happened in part because of the nature of the focus group experience;
participants were forced to think about the film and its implications. However, even
after they acknowledged the movie’s potential offensiveness, most were still accepting of the film and insisted that they were not offended.
Stereotypes
Although not offended by Rush Hour 2, White participants made reference to the
implicit stereotypes expressed in the film, including the Asian man skilled in martial
arts who cannot speak proper English, Asian women as seductresses, and the Black
cop with ‘‘street credibility.’’ White participants also commented on the stereotypes
verbalized by the main characters, including the idea that a rich White man is behind
most crimes, Asian men are short, and Black people like fried chicken. Most White
participants felt that both the implicit and the explicit stereotypes were not only
blatant and contrived but also very funny.
White viewers’ interpretations of the film characters were structured around
racial stereotypes. Jackie Chan’s character was read along the line of typical Asian
male stereotypes. White participants found Lee entertaining but did not consider
him attractive. Chris Tucker’s character was also perceived of in terms of particular
Black stereotypes (i.e., loud and childish) but to a lesser extent than Chan’s. Many
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Even when Lee told Carter that he would ‘‘bitch-slap him back to Africa,’’ some
Black participants stated that there was no need to be offended by the comment
because earlier in the film Carter had said he would slap Lee back to the Ming
Dynasty. One Black participant suggested that making jokes about every race was
a deliberate move by the filmmakers. Our textual analysis, however, shows that
Whites were portrayed differently than Blacks and Asians in Rush Hour 2. The film
successfully creates the impression among the viewers that all races are objects of
mockery, distortion, and exaggeration.
Third, in assessing the offensiveness of the film’s racial humor, Asian, Black, and
White participants considered the movie’s internal context of two close friends
making fun of each other’s race. Participants felt this type of racial humor was
acceptable because neither Carter nor Lee seemed offended by any of the comments.
Their banter was interpreted as harmless ‘‘inside jokes.’’
J. H. Park et al.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
Sandra (Asian female, 22): I think you always cheer for the Asian guy. I am not
saying that ‘‘Oh, I relate with Jackie Chan.’’ But when he does something good,
I’m like ‘‘Yes! Fight for the Asians!’’
Bobo’s (1989, 1995) study of Black female viewers’ positive engagement with
The Color Purple suggests that non white audiences are not necessarily critical of
a racially controversial film because they quickly sift through contentious parts of
the film and identify positive elements that resonate with their own experiences.
We found such evidence in our Asian and Black focus groups. Asian and Black
viewers overlooked the negative stereotypes of their races and instead focused on
positive aspects of minority representations. In Rush Hour 2, minority characters
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of the White participants felt that Chris Tucker’s acting was intentionally over
the top, and they assessed his performance not only in terms of Black stereotypes
but also in terms of his previous roles and general acting style. Overall, White
participants’ reading of Rush Hour 2 was straightforward in that their understanding of Black and Asian characters did not go beyond their stereotypical depictions.
For White participants, Lee and Carter were no more than typical Asian and Black
men in their imagination. We did not see any alternative or creative engagement
with the movie among White participants. We proposed that this is because White
viewers were comfortably aligned with the dominant racial ideology that promotes
White invisibility and minority stereotypes (see Dyer, 1997) and thus readily
adopted the reading strategy privileged by the film. We argue that the White
participants felt no need to contest or negotiate with the film’s representation of
race since their relation to the racial ideology is much less resistive. The racial
imagery in the film did not challenge prevailing notions of race and did not provoke feelings of discomfort or anxiety in White viewers. The absence of a major
White character did not alienate White viewers because the inclusion of a White
character verbalizing racial stereotypes could have implicated White people as
perpetrators of racism and thus would have made White viewers uncomfortable
and resistant.
As the most stereotyped and joked about group in Rush Hour 2, Asian participants were quick to point out the Asian and Black stereotypes in the film, including
culturally ignorant Asian men, submissive Asian women, and impulsive Black men.
The recognition of negative and objectionable Asian stereotypes, however, did not
prevent participants from enjoying the film. We argue that Asian participants were
uncritical of the film because of the unique way Asian characters were interpreted.
For Asians, who have long been under- and misrepresented in the American media,4
Rush Hour 2 could be perceived as a sign of progress. Unlike previous Hollywood
films where Asian men play subservient or villainous roles, Rush Hour 2 presents
a self-confident, successful, and heroic Asian man. Thus, while the film promotes
numerous Asian stereotypes that are potentially racist, it nonetheless offers a positive
image of an Asian man in a leading role that Asian viewers can be proud to cheer for
and support.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
J. H. Park et al.
Justin (Asian male, 18): Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan complement each other.
Obviously Jackie Chan is better in fighting and stuff. But Chris Tucker is better
at talking and everything. So they kind of cancel each other out. They are a good
combo. But I think with a White person and an Asian person, it always feels like
the White person is better than the Asian person.
We observed that Asian participants’ positive interpretations of Chan’s character
extended to their view of the portrayal of Asian women. Despite the film’s stereotypical representation of Asian women as submissive and seductive and as ruthless
‘‘dragon ladies,’’ none of the Asian participants raised the issue of racialized sexism.
In contrast, several of the female participants stated that they were empowered by
Zhang Ziyi’s character in the film.
In general, the Asian participants accepted and found humor in the potentially
racist comments directed toward Lee and other Asian characters in Rush Hour 2. We
suspect that this occurred because the participants perceived important differences
between themselves and Lee with regard to national identity. The Asian participants
felt that they could laugh at Lee, a Chinese man, because the stereotypes associated
with him, such as poor English-language skills and cultural ignorance, did not
apply to them as Asian Americans. Overall, Asian participants read the Asian
characters in Rush Hour 2 as Chinese more so than Asian American. As a result,
although Asian participants were glad that Asians had prominent roles in the film,
they simultaneously distanced themselves from Lee and other ‘‘Chinese’’ characters and felt comfortable laughing at the jokes directed toward Asians; Asian
participants depersonalized the Asian stereotypes. It should be noted that although
Asian participants were keenly aware of the Asian characters’ national origins,
White and Black participants read the characters much more broadly, that is, as
generically Asian.
Black participants recognized many racial stereotypes in the film and characterized them as exaggerated racial traits, which they found to be funny and entertaining.
They acknowledged Chris Tucker as representing the loud Black man who is always
after women and is essentially placed in the film to elicit laughter from the audience.
The participants saw Jackie Chan as a stereotypical Asian man who knows martial
arts, is not fluent in English, and is calm and respectful. The participants also
recognized Carter’s statement that a rich White man is behind most crimes.
Although Black participants did not feel empowered by Tucker’s character, a few
of them identified with him and suggested that they would have reacted the same way
he did in several of the film’s scenes. Although Rush Hour 2 presents numerous Black
stereotypes that can be deemed offensive, Black participants did not seem critical of
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are not just sidekicks but good guys who end up winning. Asian and Black participants also recognized that two men of color were positioned in a nonhierarchical relationship. For Asian and Black participants, the sense of cross-racial
equality and friendship expressed in the film outweighed the negative minority
stereotypes.
J. H. Park et al.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
Moderator: What are some of the stereotypes in the movie?
Stacey (White female, 20): Tucker kicks Jackie Chan in the face and says all
Asians look alike.
[People laugh]
Josh (White male, 21): Or that all Asians are short.
Emily (White female, 20): [Quoting movie]: ‘‘I’m two feet taller than everyone
else in the room.’’
[People laugh]
Moderator: And why is that funny? I can see everyone sort of giggling when they
remember it.
Anthony (White male, 18): It’s just so true.
[People laugh]
Moderator: So you think there’s truth in it. Is there truth in the stereotypes?
Stacey (White female, 20): Yeah.
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nor did they take them seriously. We propose that this is because Black participants
were inclined to see the positive aspects of the film’s representations of African
Americans instead of being upset by unpleasant portrayals. For instance, Black
participants concentrated on the fact that the ideas perpetuated are ones that most
people do not get upset over or that are usually considered humorous (e.g., Black
people like fried chicken, all Asians know karate). They contrasted these ideas with
joking about serious stereotypes, such as poverty and drug use, claiming that had the
movie made light of these issues, it likely would have offended them. In addition,
several participants remarked that in contrast to films that position Black characters
as criminals, Tucker’s character does not commit a crime but solves one. Some
participants also considered Tucker’s character as more important than Chan’s in
the narrative. We also argue that Black participants were often accepting of Carter’s
comments about Black people because they are accustomed to Black entertainers
capitalizing on their own racial stereotypes (Means Coleman, 2000). Having recognized the importance of Tucker’s role, several Black participants commented that
White viewers would have enjoyed Rush Hour 2 the least because there is no positive
portrayal of Whites and White viewers are not entitled to laugh at Black stereotypes
like Black viewers. They also felt sorry for Asian viewers because Asians were the most
joked about in the film.
Regardless of race, the majority of focus group participants did not take Rush
Hour 2’s portrayal of race seriously, stating it was only a comedy and thus not
intended to offend viewers. Throughout the discussions, participants frequently
commented that it would be unusual to discuss a fictional comedy like Rush Hour
2 at length and that the moderators were reading too much into it. Although participants made light of the racial stereotypes in Rush Hour 2, they perceived and
accepted many of its racial portrayals as real. Participants in all three racial groups
felt that the racial stereotypes in the film were humorous and acceptable because they
were based on a ‘‘kernel of truth’’ that had been exaggerated.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
J. H. Park et al.
Mark (Black male, 21): I think most stereotypes Tucker brings out are true.
They are things that you don’t usually think about or just say. But they are kind
of true . . In general, of course you can’t stereotype every single Black person,
but I think Carter is supposed to be that average Black person from the ghetto.
Despite participants’ emphasis on the fictional nature of Rush Hour 2, they
perceived a sense of realism in its racial representations; few participants stated that
racial stereotypes in the film were unreal or incorrect. Although many participants
claimed that they could distinguish between fiction and reality, we observed strong
continuity between the film’s representations of race and participants’ general opinions about racial traits. As participants’ comments suggest, many revealed (likely
without realizing it) that they thought many of the stereotypes expressed in the film
were based on truth.
Throughout the focus group discussions, many participants displayed a blurring
of the distinction between the fictional characters and the actors who play them,
using Lee and Chan, or Carter and Tucker interchangeably. One White participant
implied that Black stereotypes in Rush Hour 2 are likely to be true because Chris
Tucker (as an actor) plays off of stereotypes and he makes jokes about his own race.
As Jhally and Lewis (1992) note, fictional media are simultaneously real and unreal
and therefore have a significant impact on how we perceive the social world. Fiske
(1987) argues that realism in the media encourages viewers to incorporate on-screen
attitudes and beliefs into the real world. Although it is beyond the scope of our study
to determine whether participants of our study transformed Rush Hour 2’s racial
characterizations into their everyday common sense, we found evidence that the
movie influenced how participants made sense of racial differences. We observed
several incidents in which participants used Rush Hour 2 as a reference to validate
their own actual racial beliefs.
Amy (White female, 20): It was funny, because in the outtakes, Jackie Chan got
his lines wrong, and Chris Tucker’s phone goes off, and he’s like, ‘‘No, brother,
get off the phone. Get off the phone.’’ The outtakes almost played into the
stereotypes and it’s the actual people, not their characters. I don’t know if that
was a very politically correct thing for me to say.
The sense of realism participants perceived in Rush Hour 2 has ideological effects
because it authenticates the racial stereotypes in the film and grants them an objective status. We claim that a comedy like Rush Hour 2 can contribute to viewer’s sense
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Moderator: Do you remember ‘‘Carter’s theory of criminal investigation’’?
Richard (Asian male, 23): Follow a [rich] White guy. [There’s always a rich
White guy behind every crime].
Sandra (Asian female, 22): When I heard that, [I thought] ‘‘Oh my God. It’s
kind of funny’’ because I guess .
Steve (Asian male, 22): Because it’s true.
Ken (Asian male, 19): Stereotypes are based on some types of truth.
J. H. Park et al.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
Conclusion
The fact that almost none of our focus group participants were offended by Rush
Hour 2’s explicit racial jokes is revealing but potentially misleading. Viewers’ claims
that racial stereotyping in comedy is funny, inoffensive, and therefore acceptable do
not automatically establish that it is harmless. Racial stereotypes in comedy are
problematic precisely because they help validate racial differences through humor,
thus rendering them natural and unchallengeable. Inoffensiveness in comedy is
a necessary condition for the naturalization of racial differences because if overly
antagonistic racist remarks or assumptions were presented in ways that were offensive, they would likely trigger an oppositional reading, resulting in a straightforward
rejection and critical evaluation of the cultural construction of racial differences.
Because racial stereotypes in comedy rarely offend the audiences and are presented in
an enjoyable way, audiences are able to naturalize specific knowledge about racial
minorities without resistance. The generic conventions and textual devices of comedy ensure that viewers actively consume and derive pleasure from racial jokes and
stereotypes without critical and interrogative engagement with them. Comedy ultimately controls and limits audiences’ critical reflection of potentially racist characterizations, thereby making viewers susceptible to the beliefs of racial difference. Our
study suggests that not only do different racial audiences enjoy racial jokes and
humor in comedy but they are also much more inclined to see truth in racial stereotypes than to cast doubt on them.
We also gathered evidence that audiences of different races do not engage with
racial stereotypes in comedy in uniform ways. In comparison to White viewers who
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of the real and foster the believability of different racial characteristics. Although not
all participants stated explicitly that the film’s stereotypes are based on truth, most
of them hesitated to claim that they were false, confessing that their first-hand
experience of different races is limited. We argue that the humorous portrayal of
racial traits and the sense of realism in Rush Hour 2 encouraged participants to see or
seek ‘‘true’’ components in racial stereotypes rather than to challenge or argue
against the exaggerated and totalizing nature of stereotypes. Most participants in
all three racial focus groups agreed that there are certain characteristics about different racial groups that are more common than others and that the film simply
exaggerated these traits to make them funny and entertaining. In addition, the
participants of all three racial groups rarely talked about White stereotypes while
preoccupied with minority stereotypes. Although participants identified several jokes
about White people in the film, they did not see a strong association between
Whiteness and stereotypes. In the general discussion of racial stereotypes, participants of all races infrequently mentioned stereotypes associated with Whites. Our
study suggests that Rush Hour 2 successfully promotes a sense of normality of
Whiteness among viewers while encouraging them to see non whites as racially
marked and different.
Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy
J. H. Park et al.
Notes
1
2
174
Box Office Prophets. (n.d.). Rush hour 2. Retrieved March 3, 2005, from http://
www.boxofficeprophets.com/tickermaster/listing.cfm?TMID = 169
Internet Movie Database. (n.d.). All-time USA box office. Retrieved March 3, 2005, from
http://www.imdb.com/Charts/usatopmovies
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interpreted minority characters strictly within the confines of stereotypes, Black and
Asian participants found a positive source of pleasure in the seemingly offensive
portrayals of their own race. However, we claim that it is inaccurate to take this as an
indication of comedy’s potential to disrupt the racial status quo. Viewers’ creative
and positive engagement with racial stereotypes does not necessarily indicate that the
text’s subversive potential is realized by audiences, for their negotiation with racial
stereotypes does not always work to disrupt the racial ideology. Communication
scholars note that the selective and creative activity of the audience may not constitute critical viewing (Condit, 1989; Morley, 2005; Schudson, 1998). Morley suggests that the notion of interpretative freedom often leads us to underestimate the
power of the media to shape our social reality, arguing that ‘‘the power of viewers to
reinterpret meanings is hardly equivalent to the discursive power of the centralized
media institutions to construct the texts which the viewer then interprets, and to
imagine otherwise is simply foolish’’ (p. 175). Condit claims that audience pleasure is
not sufficient ‘‘to certify a positive role for mass media in the process of social
change’’ (p. 103). We are skeptical of the disruptive potential of race-based comedy
because in our study, minority participants’ pleasure did not transcend but occurred
within the discursive confines of the racial ideology. Although participants of different racial groups employed different hermeneutic strategies to negotiate their readings, such negotiated readings involved rearticulating the genesis of each racial
stereotype (e.g., kernel of truth). In other words, participants’ active viewing and
pleasure were based on the self-validation of racial characteristics rather than on the
subversion of stereotypes. Bird (2003) would describe this as ‘‘constrained cultural
activity’’ (p. 167) in that although the audiences do many unexpected things with the
images provided by the media, their meaning making is constrained by the boundaries set by the media. Audiences’ pleasure in viewing racial humor tends to require
the acceptance of the beliefs of racial differences because there would be little pleasure if viewers perceived racial stereotypes in comedy as unreal or false. We claim
that viewers’ validation of racial stereotypes is the ideological effect of comedy that
encourages them to perceive racial differences as essential and natural, not culturally
constructed. Although creative, none of our focus group participants produced any
oppositional discourse with regard to the problematic aspects of racial characterizations in Rush Hour 2. The absence of a critical discourse and the validation of
racial stereotypes among the viewers suggest that racial stereotypes in comedy successfully enable viewers of all races to naturalize the beliefs of racial differences
while allowing them to enjoy the humor.
J. H. Park et al.
3
Except for one Black participant who was born abroad and migrated to the United States
at an early age, all the White and Black participants were American born. ‘‘Asian
Americans’’ refers to Americans of East Asian decent. All Asian participants were of
Chinese, Korean, or Japanese descent and used English as their first language. Among the
18 Asian participants, 14 were American born and 4 were foreign born. Two foreignborn Asian participants were adopted and raised by White families, and the other two
foreign-born participants immigrated to American at their early age.
For discussions of the representations of Asian Americans in American film and television, see Hamamoto (1994), Shim (1998), and Wong (1978).
Acknowledgments
This study was presented at the annual conference of the National Communication
Association in Chicago in November 2004. The authors thank Paul Messaris, Oscar
Gandy, Barbie Zelizer, Larry Gross, Toby Miller, and two anonymous reviewers for
their comments and suggestions on previous drafts of this paper.
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