Is NBC’s Community Racist?

By Brian

I happened upon the Christmas claymation episode of NBC’s sitcom Community and was so taken by their ensemble cast’s characterizations and the ultimately heartfelt sense of humor that I went out of my way to watch every episode before and since.

Fortunately, there are only one and a half season’s worth of them, and each at little more than 20 minutes each. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing undercurrent of racism in the writing as the show goes on, especially with regards to the Senor Chang, the Asian American character played by Ken Jeong. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)

As a backgrounder for those unfamiliar with the show, Wikipedia has a details, including character descriptions, episode summaries and potential spoilers. Practically every main character on the show is portrayed as flawed but with clear redeeming qualities and/or redeeming actions throughout the series, which makes them sympathetic. However Ken’s character as Senor Chang goes from being a somewhat antagonistic but realistic character, to one that is pitiful, devious, and without any sort of redemptive quality whatsoever.

An example of Chang’s early portrayal can be seen on the Season 1 episode “Introduction to Statistics.” Chang comes from the angle of a not very physically attractive guy and gives pick up line advice to Jeff (played by Joe McHale), the tall, svelte, main white male character who is hitting a wall on his attempts to have sex with his hot statistics professor. The begging tactic worked and Jeff tips his hat to Chang. This is already a somewhat negative characterization of Chang, but he seems realistic and balanced given the context.

As the series progresses, Chang is written as having his wife leave him and having falsified his qualifications as a teacher, thereby losing both his home and his job, weaseling his way into Jeff’s home (having to be carried in again like a baby after being kicked out), and desperately wanting to join the other main characters in their study group so he can be part of the cool crowd. This is probably the most thorough emasculation of a male character I’ve seen, short of actual castration.

An ongoing story arc introduced in the Season 2 episode “Epidemiology” has Chang and Shirley (played by Yvette Nicole brown), the Black, Christian, single mother, presumably having sex in the middle of a zombie attack after they managed to recognize each other’s racebending Halloween costume. Shirley was supposed to be Glenda the Good Witch while Chang was dressed up as Peggy Fleming, which I find to be another emasculating touch with the genderbending. Wouldn’t Chang dressing up as John McEnroe and being mistaken by others as Michael Chang work just as well for the racebending point?

Interestingly Shirley was given similar treatment in the Season 1 Halloween episode, where she was supposed to be Harry Potter but kept on being mistaken as Urkel. Couldn’t Shirley have dressed up as Hermione but be mistaken as Jennifer Hudson from Dreamgirls?

The racebending may be a side effect of there being more white personalities for costumes and punchlines, but why is the genderbending not applied to any of the other characters? Could it be a perpetuation or reflection of Americans’ prejudices against Black women and Asian men being less attractive (as reflected in interracial coupling statistics)?

There is also a pattern I noticed in the show’s writing of all the main characters’ backgrounds and how they came to be at Greendale Community College:

  • Jeff’s falsification of his law degree was discovered  and now he has to get a real one.
  • Britta is a white woman who dropped out of high school to impress Radiohead, joined the Peace Corp, and did random stuff like foot modeling.
  • Abed is half-Arabic and half-white (but looks Arabic) sent by his dad to prepare him to run the family falafel business. He also has some form of autism/Asperger’s and his American mom had left his Arabic dad.
  • Troy is a Black star high school quarterback who was not able to face the pressure of the college football draft and deliberately injured himself.
  • Pierce is a white retired moist towelette magnate just looking for something to do.
  • Shirley is a Black divorcee and single mother who missed out on her education before due to motherhood.
  • Annie is a Jewish overachiever-wannabe who dropped out of high school after getting hooked on pills, ‘little Annie Adderall’.

The white characters (Jeff, Britta, Annie, Pierce) are all aspirational despite getting into trouble, while the non-white characters (Abed, Troy, Shirley) all suffer from victimization of some sort. Is this just a coincidental distribution of character backgrounds, a Freudian slip on the writers’ part, or realistic reflection on contemporary community college students?

In addition, Annie was supposed to have the hots for Troy but was never noticed while they were in the same high school. Other than marginal references in the initial episodes, the story arc promptly moved on to Annie going after a white hippie musician, Jeff, and a nice preppy white doctor.

There is not a single Hispanic character in sight. Annie was originally written to be either Hispanic or Asian-American, but supposed lack of acting talent resulted in Annie (played by Alison Brie) being Jewish. Even as originally written, it would be an example of gender bias in American racism against non-white men while promoting a white man’s harem of women of multiple races.

It is a big disappointment for me that after such well-rounded portrayals of sympathetic Asian and Asian-American male and female characters on shows like Lost and Heroes, Community is using an Asian-American male as a comedic punching bag in an otherwise ultimately warm and fuzzy show. It is also disturbing that several significant racist undertones exist on one of the most diverse and creative shows on mainstream American TV today. Clearly there is a lot of work still to be done so that non-whites are not portrayed with prejudice in mass entertainment, either blatantly or subtly.

However it is a good development that so many minority characters are part of an ensemble cast on a broadcast sitcom, as it gives everyone a chance to see how they are portrayed and includes everyone in the universal language of laughter (at least in the American sitcom dialect).

As Community has managed to pull quite a few positive twists in its storylines, I am going to keep watching and hope that they turn the Ken Jeong’s character around. Maybe there is a follow-up review of Community in my writing future.

ABOUT BRIAN: Brian Lam is a 1/2th generation Chinese  American (immigrating to the US during high school), techie turned comic book and storyboard artist.

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