Why Brazil's Asians Are Turning to Comedy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because laughter can raise awareness.
By Catherine Osborn
The Brazilian YouTube comedy ensemble Yo Ban Boo has a sketch called “Baby, I Turned White.” First one, then the other member of an Asian couple are replaced by white actors, horrifying the other partner who cries, “Who did you become?” The camera zooms out to reveal that the scene is occurring inside a television set. “TV is crap,” says an Asian woman who is watching the whites-swapping-out-Asians program with her family. “We’re switching to YouTube.”
OK, so you had to be there, but the sketch aims to make an important point: It critiques “whitewashing,” the casting of white actors to play roles originally written for people of color (think Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese manga heroine in this year’s Ghost in the Shell). The term was hurled in 2016 in Brazil, when a white actor played a Japanese protagonist on the prime-time soap opera Rising Sun.
It appears we’re saying something that needs to be said when we can laugh together about anti-Asian stereotypes …
Leonardo Hwan, Yo Ban Boo
At 1 year old, the politically savvy comedy of Yo Ban Boo, by Leonardo Hwan, Beatriz Diaféria and Kiko Morente, has earned a loyal fan base among and beyond the more than 2 million Brazilians of Asian descent. The troupe’s themes are inspired by growing Asian-Brazilian activism centered in São Paulo that in the past half decade has been provoking new discussions about identity for a minority that’s been in Brazil for 150 years. “Until recently, Asians in Brazil did not recognize themselves as a collective, but rather as separate groups based on country of ancestry,” says Lais Miwa Higa, an anthropologist doing doctoral work on Asian-Brazilians at the University of São Paulo.
The shift comes from contact with Brazilian and international social movements that urge intersectionality — the embrace of overlapping social identities. These activists condemn both discrimination against Asians and conservatism inside the Asian community, encouraging solidarity with other nonwhite groups. When it gets uncomfortable, Yo Ban Boo uses laughter to help stomach difficult truths.
Beginning in the early 20th century, nearly 200,000 Japanese immigrated to Brazil due to government agreements aiming to improve agricultural production and “whiten” the Brazilian race. Tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean immigrants arrived from the 1950s onward. Emory University historian Jeffrey Lesser, who specializes in immigrant identity in Brazil, tells OZY that a key goal of Asian-Brazilian identity formation in the 20th century was membership among white Brazilians in the nation’s racial hierarchy, which they largely achieved.
Today’s Asian-Brazilian movements aim instead to differentiate themselves from whites. They say this helps reveal persistent problems such as being fetishized as docile geishas or nerdy “model minorities,” stereotypes that limit how they are treated in everyday life and written into media portrayals. Yo Ban Boo critiques this stereotyping in a sketch about an actor who is turned down for a hero role for looking too Asian, despite a near magical audition.
Internet-based collectives such as the Lotus feminist group and Yellow Peril, both of which formed in the past year, act as theoretical playbooks to Yo Ban Boo’s comedy. Lotus aims to boost the voices of Brazilian women of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent. Yellow Peril’s Gabriela Shimabuko says, “I don’t think we can talk about race in Brazil without talking about anti-Blackness.”
In March, she and Hwan created Yo Ban Boo’s most serious video yet using old footage from a film-school project of Hwan’s in which he and a white classmate enacted a shoot-out in São Paulo’s streets with prop pistols. They were stopped by police, then released, because in the words of one police officer, “a guy in a suit and a Japanese guy [Hwan is of Taiwanese descent] … didn’t look like criminals.”
Hwan says in the video he believes he received deferential treatment for being Asian, treatment that “comes at the cost of others, specifically Black people.” He called for solidarity, and after the video was widely shared, Yo Ban Boo introduced a “coffee chat” segment approaching a range of political topics. The founder of the LGBT group Asians for Diversity was a hit guest, hearing afterward from dozens of people across Brazil who joined his group based on the Yo Ban Boo appearance.
Yo Ban Boo is wading into seldom-trod comedic waters in Brazil. Perhaps in only one other case — Bahia’s Olodum group — have nationally known comedians of color base their material on race and racism; most humorists stick to situational jokes and general mockery of politicians. “It appears we’re saying something that needs to be said,” says Hwan, “when we can laugh together about anti-Asian stereotypes and have more candid conversations condemning our own racism and homophobia.”
Politically, says Higa, “the idea of solidarity among different groups of people of color is a new idea in Brazil, and precisely what elite ideas about race here have historically tried to prevent.” Seemingly silly moments of embracing a pan-Asian-Brazilian identity — Yo Ban Boo’s inclusion of Chinese, Korean and Hawaiian restaurants in their slapstick filmed reviews, for example — can lead to powerful political unity, Higa says, in a country with a history of public opinion that some Asian groups were superior to others, and all were superior to Blacks.
What stands as a limit to new Asian-Brazilian consciousness is persistent conservatism among some diaspora elders, says Lesser. When in one Yo Ban Boo episode, Hwan criticized the idea that Asian immigrant social ascension proved affirmative action unnecessary, angry commenters wrote that Asians truly do work harder than Blacks. Diaféria reports that some older Asian-Brazilians remain stalwarts in Brazil’s national anti-gay sentiment.
Faced with this, Yo Ban Boo’s approach to creating new attitudes is summarized by a recurring character in their sketches: a whiskey-swilling uncle who doles out advice on dancing and Tinder flirting. With off-color encouragement for following one’s passion that Hwan describes as very Brazilian — Asian descendant or otherwise — the uncle declares, “Just get off the toilet and do it.”