Andrew Yang might think he’s right, but his entire approach to race has felt offensively wrong.
On Saturday, Yang reached out to comedian Shane Gillis—who, at that point, had just been announced as a new cast member on Saturday Night Live—in the wake of the scandal surrounding racist, homophobic, and ableist “jokes” and comments Gillis had made in the past. Yang offered to sit down and talk with the performer.
“...I took the time to watch and listen to Shane’s work. He does not strike me as malignant or evil,” Yang tweeted, encouraging readers to forgive Gillis rather than punish him. “He strikes me as a still-forming comedian from central Pennsylvania who made some terrible and insensitive jokes and comments.”
On Monday, within an hour of SNL announcing that Gillis would not be continuing as a cast member, Yang tweeted that Gillis had reached out to him, and that the two would be having a conversation about, well... given Gillis’ racist attack toward Yang himself (he called Yang a “Jew chink”), it’s unclear.
I watched that clip of Shane Gillis’ podcast video in which he makes fun of Asian accents and says generally shitty things about Asian people before I decided, no, I really didn’t need to invest any more energy into watching this man say more racist, homophobic, ableist things.
Even now, it took but a few moments of jumping through the other clips of Gillis’ podcast to get the full picture of his “comedic” hatred—the highlights being making fun of Asians with disabilities, making homophobic comments, and that aforementioned attack on Yang, whom he also referred to as “Chang or Yang.”
(In response to the surfacing of the clips, Gillis wrote that he was “happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said” and characterized his comments as “risks” taken for comedy; when he was fired, he said he found his necessity to make a public statement “ridiculous” and that he understood his inclusion on the show to be a “distraction.” Nothing to be sorry for, he apparently thinks.)
On one level, I can understand Yang attempting to diffuse Gillis’ hateful commentary instead of responding in anger—something people of color often have to do when faced with racism. There is sometimes an urge to call someone in over fear that calling them out is too much of a risk to your own wellbeing.
But this is a time to fight racism, not yield to it. And Gillis’ blithe reaction to his derogatory comments is all the more reason why I’m dismayed that Yang is still attempting to jumpstart the redemption tour for someone who hasn’t expressed an ounce of remorse or willingness to understand the negative repercussions his behavior has on Asians, gay people, and people with disabilities.
Dismayed, but not surprised. Yang’s stance on questions of race has long been suspect. When attempting to explain why anti-Asian racism feels to him like it’s still societally acceptable, Yang compared it to the use of the n-word, as if the people in public office or other public positions we know to have said the n-word, or said other derogatory, dehumanizing things about black people, or worn blackface, have faced any sort of just treatment. It was a complete misunderstanding of how racism operates in the U.S., especially towards black Americans.
I have also been consistently frustrated with Yang—none too versed in the art of making people laugh himself—for his willingness to make himself the butt of the joke, and lean into Asian stereotypes. In his frequent telling, he is the antithesis to Trump: the Asian man who likes math. During the latest Democratic presidential debate, he commented, “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” If they’re laughing with you, they’re too busy to laugh at you.
I know this routine so well. I was one of a handful of Asian kids at my elementary school in Texas, located in a prominent neighborhood for newly-transplanted Dell employees during the company’s growth in the 90s and early 2000s. I leaned into being “the Asian” hard. So hard that the stereotype became my identity, that I felt I had nothing to say to classmates when they slanted their eyes at me (which made no sense—I’m Filipino and white with almond eyes, but Asians are a monolith, and so it goes), because I had encouraged them.
I don’t want to blame Yang completely, because we are shaped by our experiences, and I get it. But I wish he could understand that when he leans into these stereotypes, he can’t just “hope” that people take them the right way, as he’s said he does. Racism is too serious to gamble with in that way. That’s where Gillis comes in as well; people like him aren’t just laughing along—they’re writing it down to use for their own material.
Andrew Yang doesn’t have to meet with Gillis, but he will, and no matter what kind of intent he has going into this conversation with a man who sees nothing wrong with his racist comments, he’s not going to have the impact for himself—or for the Asian community—that he wants.