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The Academy Apologizes After Called Out for ‘Tone-Deaf’ Asian Jokes

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Actor Chris Rock presents children representing accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers on stage at the 88th Oscars on February 28, 2016.Photograph by Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences once again found itself apologizing for insensitivity.

The issue of race in Hollywood was front and center at this year’s Academy Awards, as the host—comedian Chris Rock—used his opening monologue to deliver a scathing take on the movie industry’s lack of diversity. Then, later in the evening, Rock made a much-criticized joke stereotyping Asians.

After an outcry from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, as well as several other prominent Academy members, who blasted the “tone-deaf approach to its portrayal of Asians,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Tuesday issued an apology. “The Academy appreciates the concerns stated, and regrets that any aspect of the Oscar telecast was offensive. We are committed to doing our best to ensure that material in future shows be more culturally sensitive.”

More than two dozen prominent members of the Academy—including Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, as well as actors George Takei and Sandra Oh—signed a letter sent last week to Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the rest of the organization’s leadership in which the members said that last month’s telecast “was marred by a tone-deaf approach to its portrayal of Asians.” The letter, which takes exception to jokes told by Rock and presenter Sacha Baron Cohen, came from a group of film industry veterans who all identify themselves as being of Asian descent.

The Rock joke in question came mid-way through the February show and it featured three Asian children as the basis for jokes about sweatshops and the stereotype that Asians are good at math. Later during the event, the comedian Cohen (acting as his alter ego, Ali G) made a joke about the movie Minions that also seemingly referenced Asian stereotypes.

The jokes were especially unfortunately timed considering the fact that Rock had put in such an effort to address the controversy over this year’s lack of non-white acting nominees during the telecast’s opening. The outcry over this year’s Oscar nominations led to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trending, while the Academy and Boone Isaacs announced changes to the organization’s membership and governance structure in January aimed at improving diversity among Academy voters in the future.

Here is the full text of the letter:

Dear Cheryl, Dawn, Members of the Board of Governors, Reginald and David:

We are writing as Academy members of Asian descent to express our complete surprise and disappointment with the targeting of Asians at the 88th Oscars telecast and its perpetuation of racist stereotypes.

In light of criticism over #OscarsSoWhite, we were hopeful that the telecast would provide the Academy a way forward and the chance to present a spectacular example of inclusion and diversity. Instead, the Oscars show was marred by a tone-deaf approach to its portrayal of Asians.

We’d like to know how such tasteless and offensive skits could have happened and what process you have in place to preclude such unconscious or outright bias and racism toward any group in future Oscars telecasts.

We look forward to hearing from you about this matter and about the concrete steps to ensure that all people are portrayed with dignity and respect.

We are proud that the Oscars reach several hundred million people around the world of whom 60% are Asians and potential moviegoers.

Sincerely,

Don Hall, Sound Branch, John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation, Academy Governor, 18 years
Freida Lee Mock, Documentary Branch, Academy Award winner, Academy Governor, 6 years
Arthur Dong, Documentary Branch, Academy Award nominee, Academy Governor, 4 years
Ang Lee, Directors Branch, Two-time Academy Award winner
Chris Tashima, Shorts and Feature Animation Branch, Academy Award winner
Christine Choy, Documentary Branch, Academy Award nominee
David Magdael, Public Relations Branch
France Nuyen, Actors Branch
George Takei, Actors Branch
Janet Yang, Producers Branch
Jessica Yu, Documentary Branch, Academy Award winner
Jodi Long, Actors Branch
Laura Kim, Public Relations Branch
Marcus Hu, Executives Branch
Maysie Hoy, Film Editors Branch
Nancy Kwan, Actors Branch
Peter Kwong, Actors Branch
Renee Tajima-Pena, Documentary Branch, Academy Award nominee
Rithy Panh, Documentary Branch, Academy Award nominee
Ruby Yang, Documentary Branch, Academy Award winner
Sandra Oh, Actors Branch
Steven Okazaki, Documentary Branch, Academy Award winner
Teddy Zee, Executives Branch
William Hoy, Film Editors Branch
Yung Chang, Documentary Branch