Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has been more attuned to the changes in Saturday Night Live’s cast than any political campaign in history, at first for a good reason and then for a terrible one. The good reason has to do with Asians overcoming white supremacy: The Democratic party has not historically done a great job of promoting Asian-American politicians—Yang is the first Asian-American man to run for president as a Democrat—and similarly, Saturday Night Live has not historically done a great job of promoting Asian-American performers. So when NBC announced that comedian Bowen Yang was moving from the writing staff to the cast, it was natural for one pioneer to salute the other:
Awwww! Much less heartwarming, however, was the news that one of NBC’s other new hires, comedian Shane Gillis, had a history of using anti-Asian racial slurs. And least heartwarming of all, from Andrew Yang’s perspective, was the news that Gillis had specifically referred to Andrew Yang, personally, as a “Jew chink” in a May 2019 podcast episode. Yang wasn’t impressed by the non-apology Gillis offered on Twitter, and said so, tweeting at Gillis that he was willing to “sit down and talk,” perhaps in response to Gillis’ offer to “apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.”
Later, Yang clarified that he didn’t think Gillis should be fired from Saturday Night Live, writing that “we would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive.”
It’s clear, however, that Gillis’ dismissive reference to “anyone who’s actually offended” includes Yang, and for good reason. The candidate wrote about his experiences with anti-Asian racism in The War on Normal People, crediting his instinct to root for underdogs to the classmates who hurled racial slurs at him in middle school:
I was one of the only Asians in my local public school. That didn’t go unnoticed. Classmates offered frequent reminders as to my identity:
“What’s up, chink.”
“Hey, Yang, what’s it like having such a small dick? Everyone knows Chinese guys have small dicks. Do you need tweezers to masturbate?”
Most of this was in middle school. I had a few natural responses: I became quite self-conscious. I started wondering if I did indeed have a small dick. Last, I became very, very angry.
Perhaps as a result, I’ve always taken pride in relating to the underdog or little guy or gal. As I grew up, I tried to stick up for whoever seemed excluded or marginalized. I became a Mets fan. I’d go to a party and find the person who seemed the most alone or uncomfortable and strike up a conversation. I worked out a little too much in college.
What’s striking here, besides the lifelong psychological consequences white supremacy inflicts on people of color, is a matter of chronology. The War on Normal People was published in the spring of 2018, and Yang, who graduated from Exeter in 1992, would have been in middle school from about 1985 to 1988. And yet in the winter of 2018, Louis CK was “pushing boundaries” by telling the same jokes bullies tormented Andrew Yang with during the Reagan administration. Worse still, it appears that when Shane Gillis “pushed boundaries” in May of this year by “referring to Andrew Yang, specifically, with an anti-Asian racial slur,” he was actually easily crossing a boundary that some anonymous middle-schooler had pushed decades ago. So either this country has a lot more boundary-pushing comedy geniuses running around than anyone suspected, or racist jokes aren’t quite as brave or original as the people who tell them keep insisting. NBC hasn’t commented on the controversy, so we may all be able to make up our own minds about Gillis on Sept. 28, when Saturday Night Live returns with more of the avant-garde, boundary-pushing comedy the show is famous for.
Update, Sept. 15, 2019: Yang has elaborated his thoughts on Twitter:
Yang also discussed his views on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday morning, saying that although he found Gillis’ use of slurs offensive, he believes the country “has become excessively punitive and vindictive about remarks that people find offensive or racist” and hopes others can forgive Gillis:
Gillis has not commented since his Twitter apology.