The Long-Overdue Apologies of Jay Leno Will Never Be Enough

Why is Leno just now apologizing for decades of anti-Asian jokes?

Jay Leno attends the 20th Anniversary Hudson River Park gala at Hudson River Park's Pier 62 on October 11, 2018 in New York City.
Jay Leno attends the 20th Anniversary Hudson River Park gala at Hudson River Park's Pier 62 on October 11, 2018 in New York City.
Getty Images

For nearly 15 years, the advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) has been campaigning for an apology from Jay Leno for decades of racist jokes the former Tonight Show host has made about Chinese and Korean people eating dogs. Now, a little over a week after a horrific hate crime in Atlanta in which a gunman killed eight people — six of them Asian women — they finally have it.

“At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless,” Leno said in a joint press release with MANAA leader Guy Aoki. “I was making fun of our enemy North Korea, and like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them.”

“At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that some group is always complaining about something, so don’t worry about it,” he continued. “Whenever we received a complaint, there would be two sides to the discussion: Either ‘We need to deal with this’ or ‘Screw ‘em if they can’t take a joke.’ Too many times I sided with the latter even when in my heart I knew it was wrong.”

“I am issuing this apology,” Leno concluded. “I do not consider this particular case to be another example of cancel culture but a legitimate wrong that was done on my part. MANAA has been very gracious in accepting my apology. I hope that the Asian American community will be able to accept it as well, and I hope I can live up to their expectations in the future.”

It’s hard to believe Leno’s apology is genuine, however, when he has spent the better part of the last 20 years insisting that his comments were harmless and, in fact, repeating them. The MANAA press release notes that, “The day after the first of those jokes in February 2002, then Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC, of which MANAA is a founding member) chair Karen Narasaki and the Executive Director of Korean American Coalition had a conference call with Leno, who insisted some Koreans ate dogs.” Back in 2019, according to a Variety interview with actress Gabrielle Union, Leno allegedly made comments on the set of America’s Got Talent about Koreans eating dogs that offended Union and other staffers and contributed to a “toxic work environment” at that show. Why, then, after so many years of trying to get him to apologize and change, has he just now seen the error of his ways?

Leno is just the latest celebrity to issue a long-overdue apology over past behavior due to recent public pressure. Britney Spears received scores of them — from everyone from Sarah Silverman and Perez Hilton to, most notably, her ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake — in the wake of the Framing Britney Spears documentary, which reminded us all of the brutal, misogynistic ways Spears was objectified and treated as a punchline while publicly suffering a mental health crisis. Is an apology really enough, though, if it’s issued 20 years too late and only because the person saying sorry has been publicly shamed into it?

In the case of Leno, at least, the answer is obviously no. Perpetuating stereotypes on national TV is dangerous, and the shooting in Atlanta is just the latest example of what can happen when casual racism is laughed off and minority groups are presented as some strange “other” whose culture disgusts us. The wording in Leno’s statement is further proof that he doesn’t really get it. “Like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them“? He admits that “in my heart, I knew it was wrong,” yet he still chose to dig his heels in and defend his racist jokes for decades. But now that there’s increased attention being paid to anti-Asian hate, he’s suddenly sorry?

It’s worth noting that in order to get this apology, MANAA had to threaten Leno’s job. Variety reports that “MANAA’s Aoki said he appealed to Leno’s new employers at Fox, where he hosts the game show You Bet Your Life, initially offering them an ultimatum of firing the host or MANAA would approach sponsors to boycott the project. After appealing to Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy, and producers Tom Werner and David Hurwitz, Aoki connected with Leno.”

If Leno and the other celebrities who are currently scrambling to issue decades-late apologies out of fear of getting canceled were truly sorry, they’d show us action, not just empty words. Let’s see a big donation to Asian-American charities from Leno and an interview where he can demonstrate that he fully understands how harmful his words were. Let’s see him publicly call out his peers over their own racist jokes and hire some Asian writers on his new show. Let’s see him do real activism work, participate in marches and sensitivity training, use his influence to put pressure on legislators.

Until then, he might as well have said nothing at all.

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