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Walsh' 23: We need to have a national conversation about humor

TikTok is a social media app like no other, and its “For You” page’s algorithm is why. While the page’s exact mechanism is unclear, its goal is anything but: It monitors each TikTok user’s preferences based on their likes, views, comments and follows, curating an endless feed of videos that it predicts the user will enjoy. 

Because the “For You” page shows content from all creators, not just the ones with the most followers, small-time creators can go viral. Sometimes, this happens because the creator tried, and succeeded, to be funny. But other times, an earnestly made video goes viral for ironic reasons instead. Based on the comment sections on this latter type of viral video, it often appears that viewers are laughing at, rather than with, the creator. And it often seems that factors like race, language and disability play a role in the joke. This genre of TikTok humor, therefore, calls for a deeper investigation into what qualifies as acceptable humor and why we find certain things funny.

A Vietnamese TikTok user, @Ytietofficial, is a prime example of the above phenomenon. Videos of him singing while counting numbers in a thick Vietnamese accent thrust him into social media stardom. He now boasts more than 1.2 million followers. I first saw one of his viral counting videos on my “For You” page and admittedly, it brought a smile to my face. Whether or not he intended it to, the video also had the same effect on thousands of other TikTok users who commented with the numbers that they thought he sang the best, or just with general praise. Innocent enough, right?

Sadly, some of the top comments were pretty offensive as well. One comment I recall said something along the lines of “this is who we lost the Vietnam War to.” Others were in a similar vein. And so I began to question whether the more positive comments were as innocent as they seemed. Perhaps the fact that @Ytietofficial, whose name is So Y Tiet, has a thick accent and is both foreign and non-white played a role, and users were laughing at his odd pronunciations. And perhaps the overly positive comments were in fact patronization rather than genuine praise — after all, Americans have a racist track record of viewing Southeast Asian people as primitive and inferior. 

On the other hand, So Y Tiet seems to have embraced his large following. He still regularly posts videos, has a booking email and has even released his counting songs on SoundCloud. At the same time, it’s hard to believe that he would have the same following if he was white and a native English speaker. Many of the top comments on his videos poke fun at his pronunciation of English words or try to mock the things he says in Vietnamese. But given So Y Tiet’s embrace of his fame, he’s probably not offended. So is there a more complex reason for So Y Tiet’s popularity, beyond simple patronization?

The truth is, I sometimes have less reservations about accent-based virality. A few weeks ago, I had little hesitation laughing at a viral TikTok in which a Russian travel agent tried to explain that Russia was safe for LGBTQ+ tourists, only to ultimately undermine her message by saying a few homophobic things. Given Russia’s history of homophobic policy, I believe that her heavy accent, by emblematizing this stereotype, was integral to her virality. I felt more comfortable laughing at her video than at So Y Tiet’s because it felt as if I was laughing at bigotry, rather than at a harmful stereotype that implies Vietnamese people’s inferiority. 

However, I also wondered if I was more comfortable laughing at the Russian woman’s video because she was white. In the United States, a country with a nasty history of race-based xenophobia, accent humor has been a vehicle for racial discrimination. Hence, I worried that enjoying So Y Tiet’s videos — which people seem to find funny largely due to his accent — would mean I was also poking fun at his race.  

But accents aren’t just signifiers of race. And they aren’t necessarily tied with any one race in particular. They can also emphasize cultural differences. It may be okay to find cultural differences amusing, but if the consequence of a video is to imply one culture’s inferiority, that is obviously offensive. If that was my implicit assumption after viewing the Russian woman’s video, perhaps I should have paused before finding her video funny.

Given the ubiquity of accent humor in our media, it’s hard to argue that finding accents funny is always offensive. Perhaps using an accent to show cultural difference, then, is an acceptable premise for a joke as long as it doesn’t imply one’s culture or race’s superiority. In that case, maybe So Y Tiet’s fans are amused by the cultural difference between him and them, rather than patronizing him for his accent and Vietnamese heritage. Moreover, maybe they find his earnest attempts to learn English endearing. 

If most viewers’ enjoyment of So Y Tiet is genuine appreciation, rather than patronization, then avoiding his videos is not only unnecessary, but also harmful. If we walk on eggshells around every TikTok video akin to So Y Tiet’s, we will be suppressing the content of non-white, non-English-speaking creators. And in the media in general, treading too carefully around racial and cultural humor could deny representation to marginalized groups. For example, TikTok came under fire last year for instructing its content moderators to “suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform,” as a purported anti-bullying measure. The obvious consequence, of course, is less diverse representation on TikTok. 

Ultimately, the solution to this dilemma is a nationwide conversation about racial and cultural humor. We need to investigate why we find certain things related to race, culture and language funny so that we can understand to what extent plain old prejudice plays a role. At this point, it is unclear. It will require not only widespread introspection among ordinary people like me, but also the help of cognitive scientists and sociologists, who can provide academic insight to the conversation. It’s often said that explaining a joke ruins it. But identifying and eliminating offensive humor, I believe, is a more worthy mission.

Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at matthew_walsh@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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