I was at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival yesterday — one of the featured programs highlighted Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) in the greater Washington DC area.
I saw an Asian American woman in her 20s or so wearing a T-shirt with this on the front:
Pinyin: bai ren kan bu dong
English: White People Can’t Read This
At first, I was a little taken aback. Was this some kind of racist put-down of white people? Were there white people in the crowd who in fact could read the t-shirt?
Lord knows that there are probably millions of Asian people in the world who are on some kind of Asian Superiority trip. But I’m not sure this is an example of anti-white-ism.
If you’ve ever been to Asia, you’ve undoubtedly seen young people wearing T-shirts with inappropriate, if not downright bizarre, Western phrases on them. My wife tells me that when she visited Taiwan, she saw one upscale-looking woman walking down the street wearing a T-shirt that read: If you want me, buy me. In Seoul I saw a woman wearing a shirt that read: Voulez-vous le phoque? (Literally, French for Do you want the seal? But of course the word “phoque” sounds an awful lot like a certain English word.)
And in America, some white people have been known to use random Chinese characters as a fashion statement. (Whenever I see a white person with a tattoo of a Chinese character, I fight the urge to tell them that it’s upside down.)
Plus, there’s that Woody Harrelson movie White Guys Can’t Jump.
So if you put it all together, you can look at the bai ren kan bu dong T-shirt as a deep joke about cultural appropriation and fashion.
The more I thought about it, the funnier it got.
So here’s my bottom line:
- Sure, you can argue that the T-shirt is racist. But I’m willing to give the designer the benefit of the doubt.
- The T-shirt is probably funnier if a white person wears it.
- If you wear the T-shirt in public long enough, you’re bound to run into a white person who isn’t going to get the joke, and who is going to be offended.
- It’s going to be next to impossible to explain the joke to an offended white person.
- But on the other hand, how many times has a white person tried to explain to me how I shouldn’t be offended by one of their jokes? (Does the name Sarah Silverman ring a bell?)
You can buy the T-shirt at the Post-JDM Productions site.