800px-Andrew_Yang_by_Gage_SkidmoreIt’s two or three weeks into the school year—so pop quiz time!

Hope you prepared for it by watching the latest Democratic presidential debates in Houston.

But no worries. I won’t ask you anything difficult, like the policy differences between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Or whether Julian Castro has a penchant for bullying harmless old people like Joe Biden.

I’m asking a super-easy question and it’s multiple choice, so you can’t fail. It’s about your opinion of presidential aspirant—and one-time Davis Polk & Wardwell associate—Andrew Yang and use of Asian stereotypes. (I’m not getting into Yang’s $1,000 per month prize giveaway to families—which is way too complicated for today’s quiz.)

Specifically, I’m focused on this statement by Yang during the debate on health care: “Now, I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” (He was trying to show that he understood the challenges faced by health professionals.)

So how would you describe Yang’s comment:


a) cute/clever

b) cringeworthy

c) meh

Based on my highly scientific poll of eight or nine Asian American lawyers that I know, I’d say the review was mixed.

On the positive side, one lawyer says she “loved this line and many other aspects of his debate performance.” Another called it “hilarious” because it hit home, as she’s married to a Chinese American doctor.

But some were emphatically negative: “My reaction: STOP!!!!!!!!!!! I want Andrew to find a way to embrace his Asian American identity without promoting stereotypes.” Another texted me: “I was like, plz no plz! I cringed so hard.”

In the Twittersphere, the negative comments were flying. Some flat-out called him racist for playing up the Model Minority stereotype. Others said he was being insulting to Asians who don’t know a lot of doctors. Comedian Terrence Williams tweeted about Yang’s comment: “I’m BLACK SO I know a lot of People that make Fried Chicken!

Whoa. Can we chill for a moment?

Personally, I didn’t find the content cringeworthy (it was ironic, OK?), though the delivery arguably was. Yang kind of laid an egg on the debate stage—the audience didn’t laugh.

“ He said it tongue in cheek but since his delivery was so deadpan I think most people did not understand his attempt to be humorous,” sums up an Asian American lawyer in California.  “I didn’t think it was particularly funny, but appreciated his attempt to inject some levity into a pretty dull debate on health care.”

That’s also the view of an Asian American lawyer in the Midwest who thought Yang’s doctor comment “was mild and OK,” adding, “Overall, he seems to say it with a wink and a smile, so it comes off as self-deprecating and jokey, which has the slight benefit of humanizing him.”

“Slight” also means it could tip to the opposite side. “I think Andrew Yang was playing with fire by using such one-liners on the national stage,” says a Big Law Asian American partner in New York, noting that Kamala Harris made a similar blunder about smoking marijuana in her youth when she said: “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”

All this fuss also shows that jokes shared within certain racial/ethnic groups won’t translate well to a larger audience. “Andrew’s comment was the type that we Asian Americans might make at a dinner party, but not in ‘mixed company’ and definitely not on national TV,” says one of the lawyers.

Well, this is getting complicated—and who has time for that?

So let me simplify things: If you’re in politics, you can’t make jokes about race—even if it’s at your own expense.

Not much fun, is there?


Contact Vivia Chen at [email protected] On Twitter: @lawcareerist.com.