Kutcher played Indian movie producer in ad for popchips
Kutcher's Twitter and Facebook accounts still link to video
He is popchips' "president of pop"
Liu points to history of racist minstrel shows
Editor’s Note: Ling Woo Liu is the director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, which helped pass California’s Fred Korematsu Day, the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American. She is a former reporter and video producer for TIME, CNN’s sister publication, in Hong Kong.
I’m starting to lose patience. It’s not like the guy doesn’t understand communication. Actor Ashton Kutcher has 11 million Twitter followers and nearly 13 million Facebook fans. Maybe he just forgot to put a stamp on the letter he should’ve written to America, saying, “I’m sorry I painted myself up in brown-face and spoke in a mock Indian accent in order to sell potato chips. I understand the serious impact this has on society, and I’m trying to undo the damage I’ve caused.”
It’s been nearly two months since Kutcher’s offensive commercial – disguised as a dating video – for popchips, a snack food company, appeared on YouTube, showing him as “Raj,” a Bollywood producer. (In it, he also plays a hippie, a fashionista and a biker.) And while the ad has been removed, and popchips CEO Keith Belling has issued a predictable “we did not intend to offend anyone” apology buried on the company’s blog, Kutcher has gotten away scot-free.
As the Internet buzzed over the gaffe last month, Kutcher was posting links on how to “pull out a tooth with a rocket” and “80s Cartoon Beats by DJ Tee.” Today, Kutcher’s Twitter and Facebook accounts still link to the original popchips video, while the company’s website prominently features him as its “president of pop.”
I work at a civil rights organization located two blocks from popchips’ San Francisco headquarters. Walking to the office every morning on Montgomery Avenue, I am assaulted by Kutcher’s 15-foot tall ads for popchips. Seeing his relaxed, smiling, “never baked but perfect if you are” face, I am reminded that the controversy has not scratched his reputation or earning power.
Many of you may be thinking, get over it! It was just a joke! Why do you have to take this so seriously?
History can tell us why. In 1961, actor Mickey Rooney taped his eyes, wore buckteeth and spoke in a mock Japanese accent in order to take on the role of a bumbling landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Hilarious? Well, this was just 15 years after the closure of the last of the Japanese American World War II internment camps, which incarcerated 120,000 innocent people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.
Up until the 1960s, white entertainers were still painting their faces black and their lips bright red in order to play the roles of hapless houseboys or eager-to-please mammies. These minstrel shows amused generations of audiences with their grotesque exaggerations of stereotypes and reinforcement of crippling Jim Crow laws, which upheld a separate and very unequal society in the South for nearly a century after the Civil War.
Kutcher’s brown-face ad comes at a time when South Asian Americans, along with Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans, have been subjected to more than a decade of post-9/11 racial and religious bullying, profiling and hate crimes.
Need I go on? Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples. But Mr. Kutcher, don’t feel helpless, because here’s what you can do:
1. Apologize. Just do it. C’mon, you apologized (and took a Twitter leave of absence!) for lamenting the firing of Penn State coach Joe Paterno. For an example of a truly excellent I-take-responsibility-for-my-actions apology, look to actor Jason Alexander (George Costanza on “Seinfeld”), who apologized on June 3 for calling cricket a “gay” sport two days earlier.
2. Work with people who make you better. You are in the enviable position of being rich and famous, so you have more flexibility than others in choosing whose money you take. Do some research on the companies you work with before accepting their paychecks. Do they advocate the causes you claim to support?
3. Invest in solutions. We may never know the total cost of the damage your popchips ad inflicted on society. But there are ways to curb it. Invest your time and money into educating the public about Indian Americans, Asian Americans and other ethnic groups, and support solutions that promote the equality and dignity of all people.
If you can do those three things, I promise you, it won’t just be me smiling the next time I walk up Montgomery Street.