Tuesday, January 14, 2003 (SF Gate)
You can bet Trent Lott wishes he could come back in a second life as a
7-foot-1-inch, 335-pound black man playing center for the Los Angeles
What Shaquille O'Neal said about people of! Asian descent is more direct
and more racist than anything Lott may have conjured at Strom Thurmond's
last birthday party.
And yet, today, Lott has been thoroughly ridiculed and stripped of power,
while O'Neal remains playing above the rim, a beloved multimillionaire
Why can a famous black person get away with saying something a famous
white person could never say?
The double standard must have Lott practicing his foul shots.
O'Neal made his comments on "The Best Damned Sports Show" on the Fox
SportsNet last June. Never mind that it was broadcast way back in the
summer. The comments have been taped and replayed as recently as
mid-December, the ugliness replicated like a bad virus.
Shaq was talking about Yao Ming, the 7-foot-5-inch center from Shanghai,
China, now playing with the Houston Rockets.
Said Shaq, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-! wah-ah-so."
It didn't seem to bother the producers of the television show, or those at
the radio show that has kept playing the tape.
" It's a racist statement," Evan Mandelbaum, producer of radio station The
Ticket 1050AM's "Tony Bruno Show," said to me over the phone this week.
"But does that make Shaq a racist?"
Well, uh ... yes.
Or, at the very least, guilty of extreme ignorance.
Someone else who thought so was Irwin Tang.
Tang, 32, is a teacher at Austin Community College in Texas and a research
fellow at the University of Texas' Center for Asian American Studies.
Imagine waking up, as Tang did on Dec. 16, to hear Shaq say,
Tang couldn't believe it.
Then, while driving to work the next day, Tang heard the sound bite again.
"I was sick," Ta! ng told me during our phone call. "I just sat in my car,
listened to it and felt sick. But then I just got pissed off. I was very
Tang went to the mainstream media. But no one was interested in the story.
Finally, AsianWeek, the national Asian-American news weekly, which I
contribute to, published Tang's op-ed piece just last week.
The Associated Press and other outlets suddenly became interested. And
then Shaq, not known for his candor -- or his embrace of reporters -- came
"If I offended anybody, I apologize," O'Neal told reporters.
But he didn't seem very contrite.
"To say I'm a racist against Asians is crazy," O'Neal told the media. "I'm
an idiot prankster. I said a joke. It was a 70-30 joke. Seventy percent of
the people thought it was funny. Thirty didn't.
"At times, I try to be a comedian. Sometimes I say good jokes, sometim! es I
say bad jokes. If I hurt anybody's feelings, I apologize."
Not by a long shot.
Trent Lott didn't get off with one simple apology.
First of all, if it was a joke, you know what Freud said about jokes: They
But I don't want to psychoanalyze Shaq. His math is more troubling. If
he's right, and 70 percent thought the joke was funny, America is in real
To an Asian American, "Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so" is simply no joke.
It's a flat-out, unadulterated racist taunt, the prelude to an ass
whipping, the prefatory remark to hate crimes against Asian Americans that
include extreme physical acts of violence.
(In previous years, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United
States has ranged from 400 to 500 cases a year, according to annual audits
conducted by the National Asian Pacific American ! Legal Consortium. In
fact, in the three months following 9/11, the organization documented
nearly 250 cases, including two murders.)
To put it in more universal terms, would you laugh at a cross burning?
At the defacement of synagogues?
How about the bombing of African-American newspaper offices?
These aren't laughing matters.
Perhaps we should put it in terms Shaq might understand: If a white
comedian imitated Shaq by making monkey sounds while eating fried chicken
and watermelon, would the point be clearer?
Unfortunately, reaction to Shaq's apology has only garnered more apologies
-- for Shaq.
Los Angeles Times columnist J.A. Adande wrote, "It's 100 percent correct
to say that O'Neal is wrong. What shouldn't even be considered for one
second is that O'Neal is a racist. In private conversations, I've never
heard! him denigrate anyone on the basis of race."
No, he's only done it publicly: "Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so."
Certainly, it doesn't help O'Neal's case that the New York Post has linked
him to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a guest at O'Neal's recent
wedding. Farrakhan, the former calypso singer, is a noted black
And yet, most of what you'll see in the media has amounted to presenting
Shaq with one huge "Get out of jail free" card.
All of a sudden, Shaq is getting media love.
Meanwhile, no one ever mentions Irwin Tang or others in the Asian-American
community who know there isn't much difference between Shaq's joking
taunts and the real ones that harm and instill fear and intimidation.
To Tang, last week's apology is not good enough.
"I don't want Shaquille O'Neal to be sitting around after the game and
have a bunch of reporters ! asking him about this and say, 'Well, I'm
sorry,'" Tang told me. "That's not going to satisfy me or the rest of
Tang thinks the Lakers and the Rockets should organize a formal press
conference where everyone dresses up and shows the proper respect. Shaq's
comment wasn't just a slight against Yao. It was a slight against all
people with Asian blood.
"There should be representatives of the Asian-American community there --
something more formal," Tang said. "And it should be a milestone in
Asian-American history. After this point, this sort of thing should not be
able to go unpunished."
Asian Americans, especially males, have been living with this sort of
disrespect for years. If Shaquille O'Neal only knew a little more about
history, about, for instance, how Chinese men were brought to America to
replace slave labor at the turn of the century, he'd see how the struggle
for equality facing blacks! and Asians is a lot more similar than not.
That's why I've always considered Yao Ming a real breakthrough -- an Asian
star in the NBA.
I have written that Yao is the great hope for all people of Asian descent
in America -- the "Great Yellow Hope." He's a real stereotype buster. The
end of Asian-male short jokes.
I even see Yao's first meeting against Shaq on Jan. 17 as a real cause for
celebration, especially if Yao should stuff Shaq or go in for a monster
dunk in a genuine SportsCenter moment more memorable than the driving of
the Golden Spike, which marked the completion of the transcontinental
I envisioned Yao's rise as the beginning of a newfound respect for Asian
Americans. Instead, Shaq's comments indicate just the opposite. Heard any
good Chinaman jokes lately?
But now comes an opportunity for something really historic. Here's the
chance for an NBA pre! ss conference where Shaq apologizes and then embraces
Yao in a true display of sportsmanship, and perhaps an acknowledgment of
the multiple double standards that exist on race in this country.
Just ask Irwin Tang. Or Trent Lott.
It could be a big step forward.
And all of it just in time for Martin Luther King Day.
Emil Guillermo is a radio and TV commentator and the author of "Amok:
Essays From an Asian American Perspective," winner of an American Book
Award. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org