I found out about Blog Against Racism Day via Monica Jackson (her contribution can be found here, but I’m not going to touch THAT particular topic with a ten-foot pole). Anyway, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about racism and racist speech and racist intent, none of these thoughts being particularly organized, but you regulars are used to me kind of rambling ‘round and ‘round the point instead of addressing it directly, right? I hope so, because this entry is really rambly.
So here’s my first thought about racism:
Not all racists are evil people, though racist acts are always evil. I also think one does not have to perpetrate racist acts to be a racist; racism is an attitude.
Racism has become a very charged word—accuse somebody of it and images of flaming crosses and lynchings come to mind. Those images aren’t unwarranted, but I think a lot of nuance is also lost. There are racists, and there are racists. It’d be nice if race weren’t an issue, but then it’d also be nice if gender, sexual orientation, social and economic class and religious beliefs (or non-beliefs, as the case may be) weren’t targets for discrimination, either. People are people, and people, for whatever reason, seem to enjoy pissing on others who are different from them in whatever way. I have observed, though, that people who identify themselves as, say, feminist and queer-friendly are also much less likely to be racist, while racists tend to be anti-feminist and homophobic.
My parents are racist. They’re not bad people. Some of my siblings are racist, which they undoubtedly picked up in part from my parents, and some of them aren’t. I like to think I’m not racist, but I also know I’m not the best judge of myself. (I do freely acknowledge that I harbor prejudices, but near as I can tell, none of them have anything to do with race—my bigotry tends to be belief-based, e.g., if you believe Intelligent Design is scientific or that gay people should never be allowed to marry, I’m going to think you’re a moron and/or an asshole, no matter what else you say or do. This goes double if you like Celine Dion or Richard Marx, because I refuse to believe anybody who loves Richard Marx has a soul. Je refuse.)
My parents said racist things and were deeply, deeply uncomfortable when my best friend in middle school was a Malay girl. However, they only ever expressed their displeasure to me and never in any way indicated to my friend that they were less than pleased that we were close. Similarly, they blew a gasket when my sister dated a Kenyan guy in college, but they were courteous when they met him—in fact, my mom was kind of pissed when they broke up because HE WAS GOING TO BE A LAWYER, DAMMIT, and bless her practical Chinese soul, the status and salary more than made up for everything else, up to and including his coal-black skin.
Oops, did I just make a racist comment about my mom? I guess so, but a lot of Chinese people, especially those who live in South-East Asia will tell you: a lot of those jokes about kiasu, mercenary Chinese people hold true. I know it does for a lot of members of my family, and I have to actively repress some of my own kiasu tendencies because I was brought up to be insanely competitive.
Maybe I’m culturalist, not racist? Because I don’t think race determines these attitudes or attributes. I don’t think us chinkies are inherently better at math and the sciences than other races, for example—but I do think that the high value our culture places on education, especially education with high perceived status and extensive practical applications like engineering and medicine, encourages kids to excel in these fields. My mom never got a fair shot at an education—it’s tough to be born a girl in a shitty-poor Chinese ghetto in the late 1930s in Malaysia—and it really burned her ass, which is why she ragged on all of us kids to do well in school.
And oooh, look, I used the word “chink”! I must be racist. And so was a friend of mine when I was telling him about a racist incident at work and he replied with “Goddamn you brown people! You’re taking over America! We need to kick your asses out and make it ours again. It’s time for the round-eye to rule supreme!”
People. It’s known as irony. It’s supposed to poke fun at racist people by caricaturizing them. It takes away some of their power if we’re able to look at them square in the eye and say “You’re ridiculous, the words you use are ridiculous, and we’re going to laugh at you and refuse to let you hurt us. Oh, and the Jews DO run the mass media and the banks, and they ARE out to get you.”
On the other hand, east Asians have had an easier time with assimilation than black people here in the States, plus our history here in the US isn’t quite as traumatic or long-lived, which is probably why the n-word still has the ability to make me flinch.
1. Is it racist if it’s true?
2. Is it racist if it’s employed for the sake of comedy and/or irony?
Shameless relativist that I am, I say: it all depends. Context is important. Racist speech can be used without racist intent—in fact, quite the opposite.
I have to admit that item 1 stymies me, though. You can make claims that are scientific and empirical (e.g. that a certain race tends to score higher or lower in certain areas of study) and then draw racist conclusions that aren’t necessarily supported by the data (that this proves a certain race somehow has superior or inferior reasoning abilities, etc.) which then go on to support racist actions (denying somebody a job, for example, just because you’re convinced that on average, somebody of a certain race is going to do poorly at a certain kind of task). So the latter two are most definitely racist, but is the first racist, too? Hell if I know. What do you think?
For the record, the John McPherson cartoon that got Chris Clarke’s panties in a twist and Sarah Silverman’s chink joke? I don’t think either are racist. The McPherson cartoon is painfully unfunny and depends on inaccurate depictions of cannibals and cannibalism for its joke, but hell, Hagar the Horrible is still running and I don’t hear people boo-hooing about what a travesty to Scandinavian culture that strip is. Dude. It’s a COMIC STRIP. Clarke’s objection seems to be that the cannibals are brown people. My question is: if you want to make fun of cannibals, would making them white make ANY kind of sense? Because really, how many white cultures engaged in ritual cannibalism up until the 20th century? I can’t think of any.
Or is Clarke especially sensitive to misrepresentations of cannibals in comic strips? I admit: I don’t get it. I really don’t. The strip is unfunny, but I don’t get the racist component.
And I thought Silverman’s chink joke was awesomely funny. In my opinion, it pokes fun at people who are desperate to get out of jury duty, if anything, and it strikes me that the people who’d cry “Racist!” at that joke would also be the kind who whine about the use of “niggardly.” But I have to say, the messenger matters just as much as the message. If the joke had been made by, say, the mother of the Gaede twins, that would’ve given the joke a truly unsavory spin.
Man, this was even more unfocused and rambly than usual. My apologies. But these thoughts have been percolating in my head for a few days, and I’m glad to get them out. Hopefully discussing this with you guys in the comments will help me solidify some positions while discarding others as untenable.
I have some other thoughts about non-white protagonists in genre fiction in general and romance novels in particular that also has some bearing to racism, but they’re far too amorphous for me to express at the moment.
So everybody: Happy Blogging Against Racism Day!