Skip to main content

I'm still waiting for Ashton Kutcher's apology

By Ling Woo Liu, Special to CNN
June 29, 2012 -- Updated 1004 GMT (1804 HKT)
Popchips featured Ashton Kutcher in a video campaign that drew complaints of racism after he played a Bollywood producer.
Popchips featured Ashton Kutcher in a video campaign that drew complaints of racism after he played a Bollywood producer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kutcher played Indian movie producer in ad for popchips
  • Kutcher's Twitter and Facebook accounts still link to video
  • He is popchips' "president of pop"
  • Liu points to history of racist minstrel shows

Editor's note: Ling Woo Liu is the director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, which helped pass California's Fred Korematsu Day, the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American. She is a former reporter and video producer for TIME, CNN's sister publication, in Hong Kong.

(CNN) -- I'm starting to lose patience. It's not like the guy doesn't understand communication. Actor Ashton Kutcher has 11 million Twitter followers and nearly 13 million Facebook fans. Maybe he just forgot to put a stamp on the letter he should've written to America, saying, "I'm sorry I painted myself up in brown-face and spoke in a mock Indian accent in order to sell potato chips. I understand the serious impact this has on society, and I'm trying to undo the damage I've caused."

It's been nearly two months since Kutcher's offensive commercial -- disguised as a dating video -- for popchips, a snack food company, appeared on YouTube, showing him as "Raj," a Bollywood producer. (In it, he also plays a hippie, a fashionista and a biker.) And while the ad has been removed, and popchips CEO Keith Belling has issued a predictable "we did not intend to offend anyone" apology buried on the company's blog, Kutcher has gotten away scot-free.

As the Internet buzzed over the gaffe last month, Kutcher was posting links on how to "pull out a tooth with a rocket" and "80s Cartoon Beats by DJ Tee." Today, Kutcher's Twitter and Facebook accounts still link to the original popchips video, while the company's website prominently features him as its "president of pop."

Ling Woo Liu
Ling Woo Liu

I work at a civil rights organization located two blocks from popchips' San Francisco headquarters. Walking to the office every morning on Montgomery Avenue, I am assaulted by Kutcher's 15-foot tall ads for popchips. Seeing his relaxed, smiling, "never baked but perfect if you are" face, I am reminded that the controversy has not scratched his reputation or earning power.

Many of you may be thinking, get over it! It was just a joke! Why do you have to take this so seriously?

History can tell us why. In 1961, actor Mickey Rooney taped his eyes, wore buckteeth and spoke in a mock Japanese accent in order to take on the role of a bumbling landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Hilarious? Well, this was just 15 years after the closure of the last of the Japanese American World War II internment camps, which incarcerated 120,000 innocent people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.

Up until the 1960s, white entertainers were still painting their faces black and their lips bright red in order to play the roles of hapless houseboys or eager-to-please mammies. These minstrel shows amused generations of audiences with their grotesque exaggerations of stereotypes and reinforcement of crippling Jim Crow laws, which upheld a separate and very unequal society in the South for nearly a century after the Civil War.

Popchips\' Facebook page had featured the video campaign with Ashton Kutcher but not \
Popchips' Facebook page had featured the video campaign with Ashton Kutcher but not "Raj."

Kutcher's brown-face ad comes at a time when South Asian Americans, along with Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans, have been subjected to more than a decade of post-9/11 racial and religious bullying, profiling and hate crimes.

Need I go on? Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples. But Mr. Kutcher, don't feel helpless, because here's what you can do:

Ashton Kutcher looking for love?

1. Apologize. Just do it. C'mon, you apologized (and took a Twitter leave of absence!) for lamenting the firing of Penn State coach Joe Paterno. For an example of a truly excellent I-take-responsibility-for-my-actions apology, look to actor Jason Alexander (George Costanza on "Seinfeld"), who apologized on June 3 for calling cricket a "gay" sport two days earlier.

2. Work with people who make you better. You are in the enviable position of being rich and famous, so you have more flexibility than others in choosing whose money you take. Do some research on the companies you work with before accepting their paychecks. Do they advocate the causes you claim to support?

3. Invest in solutions. We may never know the total cost of the damage your popchips ad inflicted on society. But there are ways to curb it. Invest your time and money into educating the public about Indian Americans, Asian Americans and other ethnic groups, and support solutions that promote the equality and dignity of all people.

If you can do those three things, I promise you, it won't just be me smiling the next time I walk up Montgomery Street.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT