Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ethnic Cleansing (and Knitting) in Doonesbury

I read today's (24 Jan 2010) Doonesbury this morning in the Sunday comics section. I am only showing the last panel of it because I don't want to get in trouble for copyright infringement.  You can look it up by day at the Doonesbury archive at  My first thought was, "Is she wearing the ruffles scarf from Scarf Style?" Because that is a really cool scarf and it's in my queue of stuff I would like to knit someday.

My second thought was WTF?  That cannot possibly be a cafeteria at MIT. But all eight panels, showing various figures walking in the background were guilty of the same thing.  I showed it to MIT alum, Bad Dad.  His first thought was, "Cool, MIT is in the comics!"

"That character has been at MIT for years.  Is there anything odd about the picture?" I asked.

"Is this supposed to be present day MIT?"

"Yup, and he's killed off all the Asians at MIT."

I shouldn't have typecast.  I expected better from Garry Trudeau because he appears to be a liberal.  But I guess liberals are just as racist as anybody else.

The Backstory
I lived in many places as a child, but spent more time in the San Francisco Bay Area than anywhere else.  I consider that my hometown.  When I moved from Berkeley to Boulder, I was homesick.  When I heard about a new TV show set in SF called Party of Five, I tuned in to catch a glimpse of home.

It was sickening.  I was physically ill.

It wasn't just incredulity that these financially-struggling orphans could be living in a multi-million dollar mansion in pricey Pacific Heights (with Danielle Steele for a neighbor).  It was a classroom scene with 11-year old Claudia who supposedly attended a public school in SF.  The camera panned across the classroom and all but one student was white.  There was a token black kid in the back row of chairs*.

We were wiped out of the picture.

I told Bad Dad about the disturbing scene and the dearth of Asian characters in movies and TV overall.  He said that, to be fair, a lot of movies are constrained in their casting by their genre.

"How so?  Which genres?" I asked.

"Science fiction and things set in the future."

"Are you saying that, in the future, a virus has wiped out all the Asian people on earth, over half the world's population, and it is never mentioned in the story lines?"

Now that is creepy.

In the original 1966 Star Trek TV series, there was Sulu.  (OK, one character represented all the Asians on Earth, but at least he was there.)  Fast forward to the four Star Trek series from 1987 to 2005 and all the Asians in the universe had died out with the exception of Sulu, who made a brief guest appearance.

Other TV series purportedly set in SF were no better.  Dharma and Greg, Suddenly Susan--all ethnically cleansed.

A friend told me that televisions are not designed to bring entertainment to people's homes.  It's designed to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. 

If TV shows are going to advocate ethnic cleansing, then they will have to do it without my eyeballs.  I haven't watched network television (with the exception of the Simpsons) for the last 15 years.

And now you know the secret to my knitting and sewing productivity and why I have time to read so many books (and blog)!

I grew up in the burbs, but Eric attended public HS within the SF city limits.  Would he care to state the ethnic breakdown of his senior class?

* At around that time, I read in the newspaper that the public school population of SFUSD was about 80% Asian-American.  The rest were mainly Latino and black.  See the current demographics.  Whites (second column) now make up 10% of the district overall and Asians represent about half.  I wonder when we will see that on TV or in the movies?  I won't hold my breath.

See pictures of present day MIT when we attended Bad Dad's college reunion last year.  I need to print a retraction/clarification about what Iris was emulating in the photo.  She was not taking a swig as I had joked; she was emulating a park ranger who had shown her how to tear open a paper packet of gunpowder with her teeth and load a musket (and then fire the musket at redcoats).


  1. you forgot to mention "Full House" in the list of unrealistic SF examples. :)

    Actually now a thousand (non-SF) examples are popping into my head, like how about the whitest New York City ever on "Friends"?

    I still can't even think of 5 famous Asian actors that I know by name (they're all more like, "That guy that always plays the Chinese takeout guy" and "That lady that always plays the Asian grandma". Looks like there's still a long way to go.

  2. Still not representative, clearly, but actually the more recent Star Treks do have a couple of Asian actors - Harry Kim in Voyager, and Hoshi Sato in Enterprise,

    Revealing my geekiness here...

  3. Oh, and Deep Space Nine, my favourite Star Trek series, had Keiko O'Brien - not a Starfleet officer, but an important character, and I think in the later part of the series, her child also.

  4. @Rebekka- Keiko first shows up in Next Generation, but you're right, she isn't an important character until DS9.

    I don't normally watch much TV, either. However, Petunia likes to take a very long afternoon nap in someone's arms, so on the days I'm home with her, I tend to sit and watch some TV. I've been noticing this one Asian actor who shows up in several commercials, always cast as a bit of a dweeb. What's up with that?

  5. Per Bad Mom's request: Circa 1980, the population in my public high school in San Fran was certainly majority Asian. It was not uncommon for me to look around the cafeteria and notice that of the 200 students I could see, I was the only one whose hair wasn't black. This statistic is slightly skewed by the fact that for some reason white kids (except for me) in my high school seldom ate in the cafeteria. They brought bag lunches and ate outside. That particular fact aside, my memory is that whites did not make up as much as 1/4 of my graduating class, and my high school was probably whiter than most in San Francisco.

    Re TV, I was randomly channel surfing here in Bangalore last week and found myself watching a rerun of a show I had heard of but never seen, Grey's Anatomy. It featured an Asian character, a young surgeon. I got the impression she was a regular on the show. She sort of stuck out for exactly the reason Bad Mom says -- she is such an exception on American TV. Of course, here in Bangalore, almost all the characters you see on TV are Asian...

    In defense of Trudeau, his comic strip has for a decade or more featured the only Asian character you can see in the funny pages of the Daily Camera. And Kim is a pretty sympathetic character, as figures in Trudeau's universe go.

  6. @Eric
    Let us also not forget Barney, the chemist with the bow tie. He's white, but he actually does resemble an actual chemist he went to school with.

    In the 1990s, SF's American Conservatory Theater discussed race-blind casting. The school's student population was majority non-white. They said they would be derelict to gave roles only to the white students. They gave roles to the talented ones who earned it, regardless of race.

    Furthermore, there has been a long history of casting more broadly. Shakespeare cast English actors to play Italian parts. ;-)

  7. Boy, there sure are a lot of really terrible TV shows set in San Francisco. I hope the Asian actors were holding out for better roles than the average episode of "Suddenly Susan" provided!

    With some thought, I was able to name 8 Asian television actors, and came up with another 5-6 with regular roles whose names I did not know. That's not a tremendously large number, but it's more than I could have named in the early '90's.

    Finally, the Battlestar Galactica universe has lots of Asians! It's just that most of them are copies of Grace Park.

  8. Marie-Christine02:46

    Sigh. I have a small bit of consolation for you: Avoiding Racist TV Can Save Your Life!
    So there.

  9. Thanks for the reminder Marie-Christine!

    I feel two statistics postings itching to be written. One about Eric's pet peeve, one about mine.

    If you drew a random sampling of people in the MIT cafeteria, what are the chances you would draw all white people? Eric is right in that cafeteria denizens do not necessarily represent the general student population.

    I will tackle confusing correlation and causality with the health of TV watchers.

    SFGate got it right, the LAT got it wrong. More later.


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