Jay Leno Apologizes for History of Racist Jokes About Asians: 'I Thought Them to Be Harmless'

Jay Leno has issued an apology for past racist jokes he made about Asians following decades of criticism.

The former Tonight Show host, 70, sat down with Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) leader Guy Aoki for a February Zoom call and acknowledged some of his derogatory comments, many of which centered around the stereotype of Korean people consuming dog meat.

"At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless," Leno said during the call, according to a MANAA press release. "I was making fun of our enemy North Korea, and like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them."

He continued, "At the time, there was a prevailing attitude that some group is always complaining about something, so don't worry about it. 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. I do not consider this particular case to be another example of cancel culture but a legitimate wrong that was done on my part," Leno added. "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."

The comedian's apology comes after years of the advocacy group calling him out for his public jokes about Korean people, which date back as far as 2002 and as recently as 2019, when Gabrielle Union spoke out about him making a derogatory comment while they were filming America's Got Talent.

"Many Americans are unable to distinguish between persons of Korean heritage living in North Korea, South Korea or the U.S., or between Asians and Asian Americans generally," Aoki said of Leno's jokes in 2012, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Therefore, when Mr. Leno jokes about North Koreans and the consumption of dogs and cats, he perpetuates a persistent belief held by many Americans that Asian Americans and Korean Americans are perpetual foreigners who bring their objectionable dining habits to the U.S. We are not accepted as real Americans; rather, we are subjected to ridicule, disdain and abuse, which has resulted in a rise in racial profiling and hate crimes against Asians, Asian Americans and immigrants."

According to the press release, MANAA's long-sought conversation with Leno occurred only after the organization told Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy and producers Tom Werner and David Hurwitz that they would contact the advertisers for Leno's upcoming game show, You Bet Your Life, if they did not take action.

A representative for Fox tells PEOPLE the network is "very supportive" of Leno speaking with MANAA and apologizing. Reps for Leno, Werner and Hurwitz did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.

Leno's apology comes amid a wave of increased hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. A recent report released by Stop AAPI Hate revealed that there have been at least 3,795 hate incidents targeting the AAPI community from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021. More than 500 of those incidences have occurred in 2021.

Earlier this month, eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were killed in a spree shooting at three Atlanta-area spas. The victims include Hyun Jung Grant, 51, Soon Chung Park, 74, Suncha Kim, 69, Yong Ae Yue, 63,  Xiaojie Yan, 49, Daoyou Feng, 44, Delaina Ashley Yuan, 33, and Paul Andre Michels, 54.

To learn more and to report crimes, go to: Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Stop the AAPI Hate, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, and Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council.

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