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Asiana jokes: Racist or just bad taste?

By Madison Park, CNN
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some question why KTVU's fake pilot names were offensive
  • Racial jokes have been made about deadly plane crash that killed 3
  • Advocates decry jokes about Asian driving, Korean culture theories and fake names

(CNN) -- The names, which some liken to slurs, spread everywhere -- triggering anger in the United States as well as South Korea.

Last week, KTVU, a TV station based in the San Francisco area, aired what it believed were the names of the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 pilots. A National Transportation Safety Board intern confirmed the bogus names -- phrases which sounded like "Something Wrong" and "We Too Low."

And hello, perfect storm. Or as one blogger put it -- "an epic mind-blowing fail."

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Read: KTVU corrects story, issues apology

The crash of the South Korean carrier had already hit racial notes -- with jokes mocking Asian driving or piloting skills and questions whether the crash had to do with the Korean culture.

U.S. comedian Bill Maher quipped on his show, "Now that we know the cause of that Asiana Airlines crash was the pilots flying too slowly, I don't want to hear another word about me doing Asian driver jokes." His comment followed an array of similar jokes on social media.

Phil Yu of the "Angry Asian Man" blog, said he was bracing himself for jokes after the crash.

"It's completely inappropriate especially because we're talking about a tragedy. People died, people were seriously injured," he said.

The crash prompted speculation as to whether the Korean cultural deference to authority played a role in bringing the Boeing 777 down on the San Francisco runway on July 6. This is a hypothesis made about Korean airlines long before the Asiana crash.

A blogger at Ask a Korean sarcastically asked: "What is it about American culture that contributed a local station with heavily Asian population to blindly buy the obviously false representation from the NTSB? Is there an inherent deference to authority in American culture that contributed to this gaffe?"

The bogus names prompted the South Korean carrier to say it would take legal action against KTVU, because "it was their report that resulted in damaging the company's image."

Several legal and PR experts questioned the wisdom of the lawsuit -- which the airline later said it would not pursue, while others on CNN's discussion board questioned whether the joke was even racist.

"Ah yes, the "r" word: racism. And the "o" word: offensive," wrote one commenter. "Get over it. A mildly clever person pulled a reasonably funny (if insensitive - to the victims of the crash) prank."

"I honestly believe nobody has a sense of humor anymore, and when someone does, they have to apologize for it. Get over it. It was hilarious!" another wrote.

Asiana won't sue TV station

Asian-American advocates say that creating vaguely Asian sounding names to crack jokes about a deadly plane accident that killed three Chinese girls is completely insensitive.

"Making up Asian names or mimicking foreign accents are not innocent forms of satire," wrote Paul Cheung and Bobby Calvan, of the Asian American Journalists Association. "Doing so demeans and hurts."

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Asiana flight attendants return home
Crash of Asiana Flight 214

Racial jokes around the fatal air crash "are not benign," said Claire Jean Kim, an associate professor of political science and Asian American Studies at the University of California Irvine.

"Those kinds of jokes reflect a deeper view of Asian Americans as culturally different and inferior," she said. "That's not a joke, that has material effects. It leads to a general sense, even those who are born here in the U.S., they simply don't belong."

Kim says denying that something is racist is a sign of the times.

"People are minimizing it as a joke," she said. "In this particular period, many people claim that racism is a thing of the past, we live in a colorblind society, we should brush these things off."

The mocking of Asian names dates back to when immigrants arrived to the United States, said Gary Okihiro, founding director of the Center for Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University.

"In the 19th century, many immigration officials who first greeted Asian migrants demeaned them, by first of all, making fun of their names because they couldn't pronounce them properly, or assigning them names like John Chinaman or China Mary," he said.

"Anything foreign seems to be open season or free game," Okihiro said.

Passengers begin legal action against Boeing

CNN's Kyung Lah, Wilfred Chan and Jinjoo Lee contributed to this report.

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