I posted earlier in the week about the Super Bowl commercial run by Pete Hoekstra, who is running for Senate from Michigan against Debbie Stabenow.

The commercial was part of a DebbieSpendItNow.com campaign highlighting the loss of jobs in Michigan to countries like China. The url now redirects to Hoekstra’s campaign website, but here is a prior screenshot.

The use of an Asian woman speaking broken English in what apparently was supposed to be a Chinese rice paddy setting (although it actually was filmed in California) touched off howls of racism and negative stereotyping of Asian-Americans:

Claiming an opponent will send or has sent jobs to China is hardly a new threat in Michigan politics. Democrats have used such attacks. One of the most famous ads of the 2010 cycle, from the third-party group Citizens Against Government Waste, featured a Chinese professor of the future talking about the collapse of the United States.

But the broken English and stereotypical music in Hoekstra’s ad have provoked a backlash….

The Michigan chapter of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote, a nonpartisan group, called the ad “very disturbing” in a statement. A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called the ad “blatantly racist.”

A group of Detroit black ministers joined in, arguing that the spot is “no different than him having a black person speaking in slave dialect.”

People even went so far as to check the html code on the website and upon discovering the term “yellowgirl” in the code, proclaimed racist intent (I debunked that here).

Why was the commercial racist?

Since the person was not supposed to be Asian-American, but a Chinese national, why was the broken English wrong?  If the commercial were about shipping jobs to Italy and the ad featured an Italian-looking person in a setting reminiscent of Italy speaking broken English, would people have reacted the same way?

Or if there were a film about Jewish refugees from Europe heading for Israel after World War II, would it be wrong for the refugees to be caucasians speaking broken English with Yiddish accents?

The commercial was cheesy, and maybe bad politics, but I’m not seeing the claim of racism.

The controversy reminded me of a Broadway opening I saw in 1971 for  a musical called Ari.  It was a musical adaptation of Leon Uris’ film Exodus.

There’s not much information available online, but what little there is confirms my memory that it was awful.  It closed after just 19 performances, which was 18 more than it should have had.

Putting aside the bad theatrics, one image sticks in my mind.  This was a musical about Jewish refugees from Europe heading for Israel, yet one of the dancers portraying a European Jewish refugee was black.

Was it wrong to have someone portray a part he clearly did not fit based on ethnicity and race?

There certainly are many instances when a role does not dictate that the performer be of the same intended race as the character, and I pass no judgment on the producers of Ari in that regard.  I am much more upset that they wasted everyone’s time and money.

But getting back to the Hoekstra ad, if you accept that outsourcing jobs to China was a legitimate political issue, and that it was appropriate to have an ad shot in a Chinese setting to make the point, then who should have played the role?

Update 2-16-2012: Hoekstra ad actress recants and begs forgiveness