The XX Factor

Was the Actress in a Racist TV Ad Really That Oblivious?    

Former Rep. Peter Hoekstra has been under fire for airing a racially-charged campaign ad in Michigan the night of the Super Bowl

Alex Wong/Getty Images.

How should we think about Lisa Chan, the recent UC-Berkeley grad who starred in Pete Hoekstra’s devastatingly racist campaign ad against Debbie Stabenow? In the clip, which aired on the night of the Super Bowl, 21-year-old Chan, the daughter of “100 percent Chinese” parents, smiles beatifically between spells of Pidgin English. “Debbie spend so much American money,” she says. “You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak.” Then, with an adorable shrug: “We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spenditnow.” 

The ad, part of the contentious Michigan Senate race, predictably sparked a furor among viewers who had moved past the “yellow peril” bugbears of the 1920s. Michigan’s chapter of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote group denounced it as “very disturbing” and full of “harmful negative stereotypes” about both Asian countries and Asian Americans. GOP consultant Mark Murphy hailed it as “really, really dumb.”

Now, Chan herself has come forward to apologize. “I am deeply sorry for any pain that the character I portrayed brought to my communities,” she posted on Facebook. “As a recent college grad who has spent time working to improve communities and empower those without a voice, this role is not in any way representative of who I am. It was absolutely a mistake on my part and one that, over time, I hope can be forgiven. I feel horrible about my participation and I am determined to resolve my actions.” 

But it’s still hard to understand why a Chinese-American woman would take on such a demeaning role in the first place, even if she is struggling to pay off student loans. Why didn’t Chan run screaming from the script when she first read it? Sometimes it can be difficult to be the first to express outrage. You second-guess yourself.

One of the scariest things in life (at least intellectual or mental life) is feeling anger when the people around you seem to think all is well. Chan’s eloquent apology suggests that she is not usually the type to sanction prejudice; I wonder whether she felt any twinges of discomfort when the cameras began to roll. If so, then what? Did she suppress them?

In May 2010, the Florida Congressional candidate Dan Fanelli ran an ad featuring a white, elderly man beside a ripped, darker-skinned guy (sartorial subtext: snowy polo equals good. Black tee equals evil). Fanelli appeared between them, asking, “Does this look like a terrorist? Or this?” He said the swarthy actor in his ad supported racial profiling.

In Turn Right USA’s infamous attack ad on Janice Hahn, two gun-waving black dudes exhort Hahn to “give us your cash, b–ch” while butts undulate in the background. The rappers, part of The Splack Pack, a Florida hip hop group, helped write the clip.