MadTV & my family’s collective internalization of racism

Apparently, MadTV is doing a reboot. Apparently, one of the characters they are bringing back is Ms. Swan. Apparently, MadTV didn’t get the memo that it’s 2016 and we ain’t about that racist humor no more.

To promote their reboot, MadTV posted a clip of the return of Ms. Swan on their Facebook page — which I did not watch and which I will not post or link. Of course, because it IS 2016, there was some backlash from many POCs and our allies about this racist character and her skits. Included in the mix were people who were coming to the realization that Ms. Swan is not an okay television character, but they admitted that they had previously enjoyed her MadTV skits when they were much younger. Others were only just realizing that Alex Borstein, the woman who plays Ms. Swan, is not of Asian-descent — a mind-blowing fact for those of us who thought she might be at least part Asian (which then led to further discussions about whether or not that makes the character okay then; a discussion for a later time). It was fascinating to watch people of all races coming to terms with their previous acceptance or ignorance of such racism within a single Facebook thread. Of course, it spurred me to reflect as well.

Reading all of these comments (my vice) made me think back to decades ago when my family first moved to the States and somehow discovered MadTV. We’d watch some of the skits together, and I recall my dad loving the Ms. Swan moments. He used to walk around the house saying her catchphrase, “He look-ah like a man” and then chuckling. Despite having a slight accent himself (Hong Kong-British), my dad would adopt the Ms. Swan accent when imitating her — an “Asian” accent that I later in life found to be horrendously inauthentic. During the time, at my single-digit age, I actually didn’t even realize that Ms. Swan was supposed to be an Asian woman (and, according to the Facebook comments, I was not alone in this). I just knew she was an immigrant and that Alex Borstein was not good at doing accents since Ms. Swan’s was an indecipherable one.

It wasn’t until my dad started watching with us and laughing at her that I learned that she was supposed to be an ambiguous-Asian character. Still, I laughed at MadTV when she came on. I laughed because my brothers and my dad laughed. I laughed because the audience on MadTV would laugh. I laughed despite a small part of me feeling like I shouldn’t be laughing. Why did we do this? Why did we laugh at a skit that was poking fun at our people?

I don’t know the exact reasons, but I’d venture to guess that it was in part due to the fact that it was a vulnerable time for my family, being new immigrants and trying to assimilate as quickly as possible. Perhaps laughing at a gross caricature of an Asian person made us think that we were more Westernized, more American, more acceptable. We saw the way that the American media portrayed us — that Asians are laughable humans with squinty eyes, poor social skills, and lower intelligence — and perhaps we thought that laughing at that version of us made us separated from that. If we looked down on Asians, we were less Asian, which was ultimately the goal of assimilating.

The internalization of racism began so early for me and, in reflection, probably permeated my family as well. I remember being a child and feeling constantly embarrassed for being Chinese. My brothers and I were bent on proving that we were not really Chinese — at least, not in the same way Ms. Swan and Long Duk Dong were Chinese. We took pleasure when people said we were so white-washed, a comment that I still hear today but I feel immensely sad about instead of proud about now.

I’ve known for nearly half of my life now that internalized racism is real in myself, and I have been learning to undo it. But this MadTV reboot and the discussions around Ms. Swan is the first time I really reflected on my family’s collective adoption and internalization of racism. It’s one thing to know I can work on undoing this in myself, but it’s another to have to realize that my family has suffered this as well. I haven’t figured out what more there is to these thoughts or what next steps there are, but I did feel the need to write this reflection out and process it aloud.

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