I’m a bit slow and only now catching up on the “crying racism” frenzy that was generated by Mia Freedman’s recent piece, “The boy who cried ‘Racist’“.
I’d seen a few tweets fly by about how white people shouldn’t tell minorities how they should be feeling, or set themselves up to be arbiters of what constitutes racism.
When I clicked through and finally read Freedman’s piece, I understood what everyone was going on about.
I also did the unthinkable and read (some of) the comments.
Apart from chuckling at Delta tragics who refused to countenance any besmirching of their idol, there was a fair array of opinions being expressed. Including a fan of Andrew Bolt who – unfortunately for Freedman – was on her side.
What I want to talk about in this post, however, isn’t whether Delta or Freedman are the anti-Christ. Nor whether the blackface depiction of Seal was ‘intended’ to be racist.
I want to engage with the concept, expressed in the comments, that dressing up is ‘just a bit of fun’ and, by implication, harmless.
During the London Olympics, my daughter’s primary school had an ‘Olympics Day’ where the kids dressed up in the colours of particular countries and they had a mini-sports carnival. All good fun. Mostly.
I was a bit disturbed that, in one of the photos we had of my daughter, there was a girl behind her in the background whose class had obviously been assigned “Japan”.
How did I know? Because this girl was dressed in a kimono, had put on thick-rimmed joke-spectacles, and had her hair done up vaguely in ‘geisha’ style. Now, the brief for the day wasn’t to dress up as the people from those countries, just to wear the colours of that country’s flag.
This dressing up as ‘Japan’ spoke volumes to me about costume and stereotypes. Much was said in the comments on Freedman’s piece about the notion of intent. That is: Did the person dressing up in a clichéd and caricatured style mean to be offensive or racist? This angle ignores so much work that’s already been done on discrimination, whether it’s in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, whatever.
Mike Le puts it succinctly in his article about yellowface in Cloud Atlas: “acts of exclusion and discrimination cannot be about intent, but only about outcome” (The Cloud Atlas Conversation, Racebending.com).
Le was talking about big studio films and their overwhelmingly white casting history (check out some of the stats in his article). I would put the notion of dressing up as <insert racial group> in the everyday racism category, along with things like Google’s ‘Make Me Asian’ and ‘Make Me Indian’ apps. Examples of microaggressions, perhaps?
An Ohio University program called Students Teaching about Racism (STARS) has a campaign with the slogan, “We’re a culture, not a costume” – the 2011 campaign (second half of page) specifically features racialised Halloween costume kits (see image at beginning of this post). While some entertaining memes were spawned by the campaign, there was a backlash against it, too, that ran along the lines of: ‘This is ridiculous – can’t you take a joke?’
Is this sounding familiar yet?
I’m the first to admit that I’ve muttered before about people being overly sensitive, self-righteous, or hypocritical when it comes to race politics and racialisation. It’s a very tricky area, made trickier by exhortations when one group deems that another is ‘never’ allowed to comment on their experiences. I don’t believe in separatist or essentialist politics. I’m extremely wary of anyone who invokes ‘Native Informant’ status, for another or themselves (there’s a good definition of ‘Native Informant’ at Abagond’s blog). I’ve often rolled my eyes at ‘ironic’ academic attempts to invoke Native Informant status – they’re doing it because, y’know, we know it’s all bad, but let’s trot the offensive out again because it’s so much less offensive when someone with a PhD says it….
The flipside of being overrepresented as caricatures that collapse race and nation is the feeling of negation from the place where you live. What I mean by that is: an ‘Australian’ will almost definitely be represented by someone who is not of Asian appearance, unless it’s a determinedly multicultural or pro-migration campaign. Asian groups are most often treated as from elsewhere, all the time.
Now, much older and with race politics reading under my belt, I understand – and have the language to discuss – the foundation of my discomfort with racialised dressing up and irritation with the ‘can’t you take a joke?’ attitude. It’s the signalling of cultural reductionism, ignorance about other groups and their sensitivities, and the centring of your own culture as the one against which others are deemed exotic.
As a child and teen, however, I just know that I hated seeing people dressed up as ‘Asian’. The whole buck-toothed, coolie-hatted, pig-tailed lot of it. I resented being given “China Girl” as my Grade 8 class song in our list for the end-of-year magazine; it’s not like they allocated it to me because they knew I liked David Bowie.