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Barbershop: Andrew Yang And Shane Gillis


It's another week, and there is yet another story about a public figure facing a consequence after past racist statements or acts were uncovered. This time, we're focusing on comedian Shane Gillis, who had just been hired as a new cast member on "Saturday Night Live" and days later was fired after a YouTube video surfaced showing Gillis making a litany of racial slurs against Asian people. More came out in May. Speaking on a podcast, Gillis referred to Asian American Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang that managed to be both racist and anti-Semitic at the same time. And no, we're not going to say it. If you really care, you can look it up.

But anyway, there have been these kinds of controversies around comedians before which inspire a lot of hot takes on comedy and cancel culture. But here's something that kind of sets this one apart. Andrew Yang tweeted, for the record, I do not think he should lose his job and, quote, "we would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive. We are all human," unquote. Yang also tweeted an invitation to meet with the comedian, and that meeting looks like it may actually happen. On Monday, Yang tweeted, Shane Gillis reached out. Looks like we will be sitting down together soon.

But there's another twist here. The universe does not love everything Andrew Yang has said, either - especially his own jokes about being Asian American. Most recently, at a presidential debate, for example, he said, I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors. That was a prelude to talking about health care. We wanted to talk about all these things, so we decided to take it to the Barbershop because that's where we talk with interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Joining us today are Kevin Xu. He's the co-host of the "Model Majority Podcast." That's a podcast about politics and culture through the eyes of three Asian American political organizers. Kevin Xu was a White House communications and press adviser under President Obama.

Welcome, Kevin.

KEVIN XU: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Jeremy Gordon is the deputy editor at the online publication The Outline. He wrote an article about the events we've been discussing called "Shane Gillis, Ms. Swan, And When It's Acceptable To Make Fun Of Asians."

Jeremy Gordon, welcome to you as well.

JEREMY GORDON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And last but not least, Jenn Fang is joining us. She writes the blog Reappropriate, which is about feminist issues and race with a particular focus on Asian Americans.

Jenn Fang, welcome to you as well.

JENN FANG: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I'm glad to have all of you here. OK, so let me just do a quick whip-around on the question about what you think about Andrew Yang's offer to meet with Shane Gillis right as it's being discovered that he made these remarks about people, neighborhoods, culture - even direct slangs against Andrew Yang himself. So I don't know - Jeremy, let me start with you since you wrote about this directly. What do you think about that?

GORDON: Well, it's fascinating because Yang is trying to do this balancing act of reaching out to everybody while also acting as a sort of stand-in for the greater people. But I think the sort of upsetting thing is that Gillis didn't just refer to Andrew Yang by these terms. He referred to all Asian people. And so by sort of making himself a stand-in for the broader diaspora, you know, Andrew Yang making this magnanimous act of sitting down with Gillis to offer his forgiveness and to have a dialogue - he's really sort of wiping out all the legitimate feelings of literally every Asian American who might have feelings about this which may not be so magnanimous. And he's sort of putting the pressure on other people to even have to defend the reason why they wouldn't necessarily just want to sit down and say everything's fine.

MARTIN: But, Kevin, I take it you take a different tack. I know you were quoted as saying that even though you think that Gillis should have lost his job because he's racist and not funny, you don't really take issue with Andrew Yang's handling of the situation. Tell me more about that.

XU: That's correct. So I can totally, first of all, understand where Jeremy's coming from as far as representing the Asian American diaspora. That being said, through the lens of Andrew Yang being a presidential candidate and one that's gaining quite a bit of traction, I do think overall, the way he handled the whole Shane Gillis episode - being kind of a bigger person, taking the higher road and doing what he can to turn this into a teachable moment - is the right way to go about it.

MARTIN: Jenn, where are you on this? Kevin's point is that he is a presidential candidate, which means he's trying to represent something bigger than himself and that perhaps it's an opportunity to take him into a different place. Just...

FANG: To take...

MARTIN: ...To take Shane Gillis into a different place and for - also to Andrew Yang to present himself as a representative of a bigger idea.

FANG: Right. To that point, I think that the other question is, is Mr. Yang the right person to do it? And I would also argue that Mr. Yang isn't because he has his own history on the campaign trail of relying on Asian American stereotypes that reference the model minority myth. And whether or not he's doing this purposefully or as a way to garner more attention, my concern is that he doesn't seem to have a very nuanced or sophisticated conversation even within himself about the hurt of Asian American stereotypes or anti-Asian stereotypes. And so my concern would be that there would be two people meeting about stereotypes and racism towards the Asian American community that's not informed by sort of the history of racism that Asian Americans have faced.

And so I don't think that this is the right meeting between the right two people. If we want to have a national teachable moment about Asian American racism, we need to be having it with people who have been participating in the discourse around Asian American stereotypes for decades now.

MARTIN: One of the things that struck me about something else that - you talked about how they - how this strikes you as an Asian American man yourself, Jeremy. And Andrew Yang tweeted in regards to Shane Gillis - he wrote, it's also the case that anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it's somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the N-word, the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.

And I've got to tell you, I had not observed that there was some shortage of anti-black stereotyping happening here, whether the N-word was used or not. I mean, I particularly find it's "SNL." I mean, "Saturday Night Live" has relied on racially charged humor for decades. I mean, I'm thinking about a cast member who recently left, Leslie Jones. I mean, there are a number of people who found her characterizations, her caricatures, you know, embodying stereotypes aimed particularly at black women as being angry, mannish, sexually starved - you know, the whole sort of deal.

So, Jenn, I'm going to go to you on this because one of the things your blog is about is race and how these issues show up. How did you react to that - sort of the rank hierarchy around stereotyping? You know what I mean?

FANG: Right. I think Mr. Yang was trying to demonstrate how important he felt the issue of fighting anti-Asian racism was. But I think he did it in a very unsophisticated and frankly offensive way, which is to bring up this sort of false comparison to anti-black racism - one that, as you've pointed out, doesn't bear out when you look at the facts but also co-ops the history and the fight and the movement for black liberation as the framework by which to legitimize our own outrage about anti-Asian racism. And so it suddenly brings in the black community and says, well, you know, there's some sort of privilege in the hyper-visibility of anti-black racism. And that's a false comparison in my opinion.

MARTIN: So let me let me close this out with this way - by asking each of you - because each of you identifies as Asian American. Each of you has written about this, and you think a lot about these issues and talk about these issues. Do you feel like we're getting somewhere in having these conversations? Are they productive? I don't know - Jenn, maybe I'll go to you first on this.

FANG: I think on the one hand, it has been helpful because we are having sort of a conversation and an education of the - about the model minority myth in the national spotlight. And that's been good. Folks in the Asian American community who talk about race all the time - we've been having this conversation for a very long time, so it's kind of nice to be able to do it in outlets like this and sort of educate a little bit about the model minority myth.

But I also think it's been a missed opportunity. We have here sort of a very unapologetic racist in Mr. Gillis. And we also have Mr. Yang, who I think has missed the mark on being able to take a truly presidential stance. He could have used this as an opportunity to talk about much of the racism and oppression and economic issues that face many within the Asian American community. And we are not talking about that. As Kevin pointed out, we could be talking about policy, but we're not.

MARTIN: Jeremy, do you feel like this conversation - are we getting anywhere with this conversation? Because, as you know, that, you know, whenever something happens like this - particularly when it's around jokes - some people will say it needed to be said, and other people will say everybody is too sensitive. They need to lighten up. So, Jeremy, how do you think about this whole week and what's happened and what we're talking about?

GORDON: I'm inclined to take a more negative view, unfortunately. I think - and this is sort of reflected in the broader dynamic of Andrew Yang genuflecting so deeply in order to curry favor with the people who support Shane Gillis while Gillis has continued to make these racist jokes on the stage and showed no remorse whatsoever while Mr. Yang is preaching the values of tolerance that it's not quite sure what we're - who we're tolerating and if they return the favor to us. And I think personally, I've seen - just experienced so many people who sort of amazingly continue to defend Gillis and his right to free speech even though, again, we are talking about literal slurs and with no ambiguity of it.

MARTIN: Kevin, the last question - the same question I asked the other two guests is, as we've said, some people feel that the society is too sensitive. Other people feel like, you know, it's long past time for people to be able to express themselves if they feel people have gone too far. Do you feel that this conversation is moving the ball forward or not? As you know, I mean, President Obama, whom you - with whom you worked had to navigate these things, as you've pointed out. So do you feel that the ball's being moved forward here or not?

XU: Well, this might just be my Obama Kool-Aid still running through my veins, but I am forever hopeful for teachable moments whenever they can come. Even if there was a 1% chance that we can bridge our differences and have more understanding, it's certainly worth trying as public figures. President Obama certainly throughout his entire presidency had to navigate that water, and I think that will be true for any candidate of color, whether it's Asian American or others running for president right now.

MARTIN: That was Kevin Xu. He's one of the co-hosts of the "Model Majority Podcast." We also heard from Jeremy Gordon from The Outline and Jenn Fang from the blog Reappropriate.

Thank you all so much for talking to us today.

XU: Thank you, Michel.

FANG: Thank you.

GORDON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.