Watters’ Whitewashed World

JACOB LY assesses the effects of O’Reilly Factor contributor Jesse Watters’ recent jaunt into New York City’s Chinatown.

 

Under the guise of “reporting” on the presidential election and the state of US-China relations, Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters recently ventured into New York City’s Chinatown to conduct on-street interviews with local Chinese-Americans. His piece for the O’Reilly Factor, splicing clips of interviews and Hollywood movies, failed to shed any light on the subjects’ actual opinions about and interpretations of recent political developments. What Watters was able to accomplish, though, was the perpetuation of stereotypes and generalizations about China and the Chinese population in America.

To summarize: the segment is littered with questions and comments made by Watters that serve to demean the Chinese community while strengthening generalizations made about Chinese culture. For example, by asking a Chinese-American if he should bow upon greeting or if it’s the year of the dragon, Watters builds upon stereotypes of Chinese culture already constructed by mainstream media. By maintaining and developing these simplistic views of Chinese culture, Watters reinforces a narrative that misconstrues the depth and meaning of Chinese traditions. By reducing Chinese customs to a handful of symbols—such as zodiacs signs and bowing—Watters epitomizes the view that the Chinese and their culture are simplistic, foreign, and, by extension, unworthy.

Yet, Watters truly shows he has no limits when he bombards an elderly Chinese woman, who seems unable to speak English, with questions about Trump’s anti-Chinese statements. The woman politely smiles and nods in response, acknowledging Watters’ presence. Yet the clip was edited to emphasize her assumed inability to understand Watters’ question. By taking advantage of the language barrier, Watters humiliates an elderly woman and once again, succeeds in asserting the supposed simple-mindedness and naiveté of the Chinese population.

The clip also demonstrates one of the larger problems faced by many Asian-American communities: the homogenization of many cultural, national, and ethnic groups in the eyes of white Americans. Watters’ inability to distinguish between the people and cultures of China, Japan and Korea is illustrated when he asks if an interviewee “knows karate,” a Japanese martial art, and when he is seen sparring in a martial arts studio with a Korean flag hanging in the background. The piece worsens as Watters splices together pieces from movies that depict Japanese and other Asian groups. Watters’ ignorance demonstrates how overgeneralization under the label “Asian” has led to a devaluation of unique cultures and practices.

After the segment aired, activists and members of the Asian-American community took to social media to draw notice to the piece’s racism. Despite calls for an apology from the Asian-American community and notably, from the Asian-American Journalists Association, neither Watters, Bill O’Reilly, nor Fox News have acknowledged the blatant racism in Watters’ piece. Watters has simply expressed “regret” for potentially causing offense.

Nevertheless, Fox’s reluctance to apologize for, or even acknowledge, its mistake highlights a core issue with the portrayal of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the media. Mainstream news sources and reporters lack the understanding that other cultures hold just as much value as American and European cultures. Coming from positions that are cemented heavily in Euro-American centricity, reporters perpetuate oversimplified deconstructions of Chinese and Asian cultures as a form of mean-spirited comedy—as is so widely demonstrated by the Watters segment. These reporters turn distinct cultures into a threatening “other,” worthy of being belittled on national television.

One thing that I hope Jesse took away from his time in Chinatown is summed up eloquently when he asks a passerby to teach him some Chinese words. In response to Watters’ incorrect pronunciation, the passerby remarked “you’ve got to do it properly—otherwise, forget it.” Hopefully, that’s something Watters will take to heart in his future reporting.

 

Jacob Ly is a sophomore at Yale University. Contact him at jacob.ly@yale.edu.

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