“Speaking American: Cultural Expressions of Race and Nationality in Harold and Kumar”

Curator's Note

“Speaking American: Cultural Expressions of Race and Nationality in Harold and Kumar” In the first film, “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle,” (dir. John Leiner 2004) Harold (John Cho) and Kumar’s (Kal Penn) cultural and national identity was bound up in their quest for American masculinity (burgers). Both men had to resolve issues of career and profession, and social prowess (with both women and pot consumption) all in one night. The film was a sleeper hit of the summer that drew the coveted 17-24 white male demographic but also was popular with a wider audience including Asian Americans. The sequel where Harold and Kumar go to Amsterdam has been widely anticipated and after much delay opens on April 25, 2008. The trailer from “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008) allows us to examine how we can identify American cultural expression in racialized Asian American bodies. Even if you do not identify with Harold and Kumar physically, verbally they express American sensibilities, accents, values, curse words, and even current frustrations with airport security. As Robert Lee, Darrell Hamamoto, and others have shown, dominant media images of Asian American men usually emphasize characters who are “foreign” (strange customs, or fighting styles and accents) and emasculated (physically or psychologically weak, deviant, no heterosexual relationships and subservient to others). Harold and Kumar challenge these images through comedic portrayals that nod and wink at our worst fears and in the process create an alternative medium to “see” and “talk” about Asian, Korean, and Indian American stereotypes as well as regional stereotypes in the U.S. The premise and joke in the second film is that everyone in an authority position (except for the President) visually identify them as threats without them even speaking a word. When they do speak or when their parents speak, the intelligence agent says, “They are speaking some sort of dialect I’ve never heard before.” And indeed they are for the film allows us to see how the visual can overwhelm other forms of cultural communication. In the imagination of old white woman, Kumar is magically transformed into Osama Bin Laden and labeled a terrorist. However, it is not just white Americans who doubt him but also the black security guard at the airport. While Kumar questions his “blackness” what this scene reveals is how blackness is just as much an American racial identity as white but the conundrum is where Kumar and Harold fit in this picture. They are considered foreign and a threat by Secretary Fox in Homeland Security. In the interrogation scene, both men are identified as part of a plot where Al-Qaeda and North Korea are working together. Harold’s epicanthic fold marks him as different whereas Kumar’s brown-ness gets him detained. If the first film is a journey to attain a sense of sense and American masculinity, the second is literally and figuratively an “escape” from the shallow visual stereotypes we associate with threat to the creation of a different kind of dialogue that allows the audience to identify with and root for these two wayward guys in a stoner comedy. As the duo travel from Cuba through Miami, Alabama, and Texas they perform being American. They wear the sleek and simultaneously loud garb of “Miami Vice,” hunting vests and hats in Alabama, and even don the robes of the KKK. Interestingly the racial foreign-ness of Harold and Kumar are displaced by the regional stereotypes of the American South. These images allow us in the audience to reaffirm their national (albeit New Jersey) and masculine identity just as everyone in the film doubts it because they speak and act as American young men. They work or play hard, they smoke pot, and they want to hook up with a girl. My interest is in exploring how Asian Americans influence and change the way in which we think about national cultural expressions such as freedom of speech and accent and dialect. How do we hear and read freedom of speech in multi-ethnic and racialized bodies or gendered bodies? How do you culturally express freedom?


Hey Shilpa! Really interesting stuff. When you say "the racial foreign-ness of Harold and Kumar are displaced by the regional stereotypes of the American South" do you think this leveraging of the South as internal other marks a kind of accomplishment? The white south (especially as stereotype) may be a forgiving yardstick for measuring freedom but does it ensure, maybe, that we identify with these free/fleeing multi-ethnic/racialized bodies?

Hi Shipa- This is a great clip to get us thinking about Asian American media representations. Understanding the racialization of Harold and Kumar along phenotypic and linguistic lines certainly leaves much room to examine how and why certain attributes are markers of otherness. The interrogation scene you mention, where Harold’s parents—naturalized citizens for over 40 years, as they report—are characterized as speaking a “foreign dialect” is especially timely in light of the 2006 Senate approval of the Official English movement and what varieties of English are privileged over others. This, along with Kumar’s casting of the black airport guard as “barely brown,” draws attention to how narrowly citizenship and masculinity are defined, and how East Asians and South Asians remain on the periphery of these norms in different ways. The global south connection you discuss is also interesting to consider in light of Guantanamo’s location in an ambiguously “brown” locale, even though American hegemony dominates in this region. The film did really well after its opening weekend by finishing second (after “Baby Mama,” which has been promoted far more extensively, I think) so hopefully the imagery presented will lead to some inadvertent pondering of stereotypes, even when they are so well used to humorous effect.

Hi Michael, I don't think donning Southern stereotypes is so much an accomplishment as it is a deflection about thinking what your racial affiliation is. So no, I don't think it "ensures" identification. In fact what may make it so funny is "seeing" Asian guys doing redneck performance. Also a hierarchy of stereotypes is established and New Jersey native as "normal" does seem to come out on top.

hi shilpa, great clip and commentary! can't wait to see the film (which will take a while for us in the southern hemisphere). i remember watching harold and kumar go to white castle in a very red state during the last election year. the political climate certainly seems to have changed since then as has popular discourse on race and ethnicity (which from my observations outside the states anyway, barak obama seems to embody - the idea/dream of a postracial america that i suspect the target audience for the racially satirical humor of the harold and kumar films embraces or simply takes for granted - as did both my liberal and conservative, white and nonwhite students back in the states). so i guess my question would be: in what ways does this film make south and east asian american identity visibile and to which audiences? perhaps it's so successful because (as with obama) it appeals both to people of color and white liberals who want to distance themselves considerably from say, the figure of the southern redneck that continues to represent the backward racism of the us in the national popular imaginary.

Hi Jane, I was also interested in who was going and at the screening of the second film I saw a lot of young white men who were primarily college and high school students. I think that the film also fits neatly within the stoner comedy drama and so believe that it does appeal to a cross demographic. The film also moves from a very liberal stanze to a more conservative one as the film progresses. The early criticism of homeland security procedures that you see in the beginning of the film (and in the clips) takes a back seat to the southern stereotypes and a far fetched long lost love story of Kumar. The directors didn't seem to be able to fulfill the promise of the trailer. At the end Harold and Kumar declare Bush "awesome" and he ends up saving them from the overzealous feds. The film had to tiptoe around a lot of political topics and could not sustain a single narrative. The first film was about completing a rite of passage and the second one ends with them paired up with their girlfriends in a more traditional ending.

Hi Shalini, The film grossed 14.5 million on it's opening weekend and got a good review in the NY Times. "Baby Mama" made 18.2 million. The change in title from "Amsterdam" to "Guantanamo" will also signal that the film is going to talk about American politics. The gesture towards the "brown" locale (great term) is that Harold and Kumar's escape is facilitated by Cubans who are fleeing to the U.S. Otherwise location is indicated by which national or cultural stereotype occupies the space on the screen.

Hello Shilpa, This is a great way to enter into a conversation about Asian American media representation and culture ~ a conversation that will certainly continue beyond the week. I am wondering if you can elaborate upon the fact of Asian American protagonists in HAROLD AND KUMAR and the notion of heroes or heroic figures? As you know, one of my areas of focus is race and genre, and what "results" or consequences or small victories there might be when Asians are telling jokes and involved in the delivery of yes, stoner humor, but also political humor. To me, laughter is like dancing ~ an overtly personal and emotional expression. Which is not usually associated with Asians in the American context. What do you think about Harold and Kumar/Penn and Cho and their relationship to the power of humor?

Hello L.S. You ask a really important question to think about in relation to ethnic humor. There's been quite a lot of work on the history of Black and Jewish comics but I haven't seen a whole lot (with the exception of Margaret Cho) on Asian American comics. There was also an awful film by Albert Brooks ("Looking for Humor in the Muslim World") that asks a very similar question. How is humor cultural and how is it ethnic? With Harold and Kumar it seems that they are playing off different types that follows Felix and Oscar of the "Odd Couple" but with contemporary political and ethnic references. What happens in the second film is that both characters go back and forth from being objects of humor to being producers of humor (in control of the reception of the joke). The scene at the airport is one where Kumar is the object and then becomes in control of the narrative although it is at the expense of the black security guard. What's missing from the clip is the white supervisor who surveys the situation and allows Kumar to pass. What does this say. And yes, you are right--we should definitely continue these conversations! Thanks for your questions.

I am really looking forward to seeing this film, Shilpa. And I'm also enjoying this conversation as it stretches across the week. I realized that for both L.S. and Jane's piece the theme of audience reception keeps coming up - the extent to which dancing Asian bodies exert control over their audience, for instance. So I'm wondering how humor and audience work in Harold and Kumar. Racial/ethnic humor often hinges on an insider/outsider split -- who gets the joke? How does getting or missing the joke force us to align ourselves racially? -- if only for the time it takes to laugh.

Hi LeiLani and all, I also wanted to thank everyone for their comments and the really interesting discussions we are having on all clips. LeiLani, you are right about the insider/outsider split and indeed I was watching in the limited audience I was with to see who laughed when and at what? Also was it nervous laughter or a hearty guffaw? Verbal humor in general allows us to laugh at something that we understand to be true and so I do think there are "racial alignments" in how we perceive humor. However, I also believe that our positions are not fixed. One question of interest would be to ask when do we shift alignments? What kinds of moves (in a comedy) encourage us to shift and what prevents us? In the case of Harold and Kumar is it the appeal to the universal (romance narrative) or the consumption of weed? The confrontation with Southern stereotypes does play with "whiteness" and insider/outsider racial positions though it does seem there are only two options in the film--Harold and Kumar or whiteness. Some might even argue that they are a variation on "whiteness."

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