Just a bit of fun

Created by the STARS program at Ohio University (Source: angryasianman - http://blog.angryasianman.com/2011/10/were-costume-not-culture.html)
Created by the STARS program at Ohio University (From this Angry Asian Man post)

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.

17 thoughts on “Just a bit of fun

  1. But did they know you liked David Bowie? And would Major Tom not have been the better allocated song?

    I’m going to repeat the last sentence of your second last paragraph to anyone who tells me to lighten up when I try to address my own discomfort about costuming. Ad nauseaum.

    1. No, my liking of Bowie didn’t really come through till about Yr 9 or 10. I think. It was so long ago! But obviously not long enough ago that I’m over the “China Girl” thing… 😉

  2. I think one thing that clouded this whole issue was the lack of nuance in how some anti-racist folks approached the question of whether it was racism.

    Since I don’t know the guy who dressed up as Seal and don’t want to put things in his head that are not necessarily there, the way I would describe what he did was “doing something which has historical racist overtones, probably without thinking of it as such”. Delta, by finding the photo amusing, is guilty primarily of being ignorant of racial historical context, or not deeming it an issue that was offensive enough to comment about.

    Nazeem Hussain declared “blackface is not funny, it’s racist.” This is a fair enough point … although it does assume that any time a white person puts on black makeup, it has the same implied mockery of black people as the original blackface entertainment.
    Aamer Rahman took it a step further and declared Delta to be racist. This to me is a big leap. It takes it from the realm of behaviour – what someone does – to the realm of what someone “is”. So while Nazeem declared that Delta should not have been laughing at something that is racist, Aamer went the whole hog and put Delta in the box marked “people who are racist”.

    I think this actually fuels the chorus of people who say “Calm down, don’t be so sensitive.”

    Had the reaction been more nuanced; for example, “Wearing blackface is something a lot of black people find offensive because it is associated with historical racism – so it’s really not cool to do it or to laugh at it”, then perhaps more people would have got that. Australians are not really familiar with the connotations of blackface. It’s not really fair to expect everyone to have a sociology degree, but if things are explained in a reasonable way, I think many would see how it makes sense.

    Instead, when we go straight to “you are racist because you found that picture funny”, we are making a judgement about not just Delta, but everyone else who found that picture funny. And no one likes to be declared a racist by someone who doesn’t even know them, so of course there will be a kickback.

    Regarding intent, I agree that some things are offensive regardless of the intent behind them. Yet at the same time, when calling these things out as racist, we need to take a different tack compared to when people are intentionally being racist.

    But aside from that, the idea that “it’s not the intent, but the effect”, or as you put it, “white people shouldn’t tell minorities how they should be feeling, or set themselves up to be arbiters of what constitutes racism” also raises some issues for me.

    Within any activist-minded group – feminists, anti-racists, and so on – there are some people who are determined to see the dreaded -ism in everything.
    To show what I mean, someone on Facebook commented that Mia Freedman’s use of the phrase “The boy who cried racism” was in itself offensive because Nazeem and Aamer are brown, and historically in the US there was a racist connotation in calling black men “boy”. That connection is complete nonsense, of course – unless one wishes to see it. Yet these types of people have very loud voices, and thus it is the angriest on each side who tend to dominate any debate, to the detriment of actual understanding.

    I think there is a risk in the assumption that just because any one person of colour interpret something to be offensive, then the rest of us must all go along with that. The KFC example from a few years back is an example of this. Some people found it to be racist, but that was because they added interpretations that were not there in the first place. Just because someone is a POC doesn’t make them the universal arbiter of what constitutes racism either.

    While I think it’s very important that white people need to be more aware of the history of race-based injustices and how they can still be applied today, I don’t think it’s helpful at all for them to be afraid to say anything for fear of someone yelling “racist!” If that happens, at some point they might just stop engaging with us coloured folk.

    1. Thanks for reading, Chris, and great to read your comment. I’m in vehement agreement with what you say, and compulsive ‘calling it out’ may not necessarily be the best way. I can understand, however, that some racial minority groups and individuals feel they shouldn’t have to be the constant cultural bridge-builders who are required to ‘translate’ their race/culture to Anglo society. More sensitivity from all sides, and an awareness of diverse POVs can go a long way.

      When I saw:

      “or as you put it, “white people shouldn’t tell minorities how they should be feeling, or set themselves up to be arbiters of what constitutes racism””

      I felt I needed to clarify that that’s not what I think, it’s the attitude that many of the people ‘calling out’ Freedman’s ‘racism’ seemed to exhibit. I may have misunderstood you? If so, sorry!

      Shutting down discussion on the basis of racial authority (or lack of it) is highly problematic. Like you, I think there are differences when someone’s being intentionally racist, but the common apologia of ‘I didn’t mean it that way‘ can be a convenient way of turning taking offence into the problem of the stereotyped person/group.

    2. Tom

      I’m not so sure that the angriest people on each side tend to dominate any debate. I think it’s heavily dependent on the conditions in which those debates are aired and who’s in charge of those conditions – for example, who is invited to appear on television panel shows, who is invited to write newspaper columns, etc. If anything, I find it more telling to think of the anger that is characterised as deserved and undeserved – that is, the anger that is socially sanctioned as justified and the anger that is portrayed and even caricatured as radical, overly-sensitive and groundless (e.g. the stereotype of the angry feminist).

      Unfortunately, the claim of “no intent to offend” so often becomes dismissive and trivialising of someone’s experiences of hurt. It’s a shame that the conversation can’t at least start from the point of acknowledging hurt. It’s also pretty telling that despite whatever anti-racism rebuttals emerge (“it was not my intention”, “I’m not racist! I can’t stand bigotry…”, etc), the rebutter and their supporters are usually so instantly defensive that their ability to listen to discussions about racism decreases rapidly. And then, before you know it, you’re reading the comments section of an article that made you furious in the first place and you only get more furious. Or maybe that’s just me 😉

      1. Being an internet denizen, Tom, you should know better (than to read the comments)… 😉

        Thanks for your thoughts. I think you’re right about whose anger (or outrage) gets affirmation, and others are dismissed. Not sure if you caught the recent tortuous discussion on Twitter between Luke Pearson and Paula Mathewson on privilege and ‘obligation’ for activists of colour to always be the ones to educate/inform curious white people (the discussion and one discussant was tortuous; it wasn’t Luke). It was very interesting to witness, and brought home how comfortable someone with white privilege is with making demands for explanations of, and accommodation from, Others.

  3. This is a really helpful read against the messy situation in Mia Freedman’s blog and the many, many comments, thank you so much.

    A while back I was preoccupied with the use of corporate dunk tanks as entertainment in campus orientation programs, because their origins are racial in the ugliest way.

    But this backstory in US racial history is is not at all well known in Australia — much less even than blackface. I came to feel that the use of dunk tanks in Australian university orientation programs was problematic for reasons of its own, but reading your post I realise I’m still really trying to figure out what it means to go along with the unintentionality of it all, the bit of harmless fun.

    1. I think you’re right about the fact that there’s so much minority-centred history that remains unknown (not even suppressed) in Australia.

      I was reading your comment and it brought to my mind the re-naming of racist places in Australia (or, indeed, elsewhere). Sites that were “Chinaman’s Creek”, etc. I must admit to being a bit torn about this process. On the one hand, I understand the desire to remove offensive terminology and associations, the wish to ‘move on’ from a racist history. On the other, I think there’s value to be had from remembering the sociopolitical climate of particular times, and our inheritance of racist/discriminatory ideas in the present.

  4. There were so many different issues of concern in both Goodrem’s actions in forwarding on the pic to others and in Freedman’s article, that its not surprising that anti-racism responses were also diverse and wide-ranging.
    The diversity of responses was healthy and informative and respondents addressed the actions that resonated most for them personally. Some addressed the act of wearing blackface “Wearing blackface is something a lot of black people find offensive because it is associated with historical racism” others took issue Goodrem endorsing the pic by her act of forwarding it to others, and others took issue with Freedman’s response – the intent vs outcome argument, which you analysed so well.
    For me, the issue raised many aspects of racist behaviours and attitudes and helped me to interrogate my own behaviours/attitudes to peoples of other cultures, and I thank all the respondents who sought to educate and inform in civilised and intelligent discussion, such as this blog did.
    My final word is that we should all be on the side of anti-racism and anti-stereotyping of other cultures. I would add that I also find it offensive when differently-abled people are caricatured oir stereotyped.

    Most of all I think its about time for people of privilege to show up and stand up for these values too.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It’s easy on the internet for polarising debates to melt down into finger-pointing/name-calling. I’m always grateful for engaged and sensitive commentary.

      I think the process of recognising privilege is still a tough one for many people. It requires a decided (and permanent) shift in perspective that applies to just about everyone.

  5. To reduce the big argument to my own confusions

    I don’t find it offensive that white people dressing up in ao-dai and non-la to portray Vietnam on UN day. I find it a little sad that’s what they think the culture is. What really annoys me is all those ao-dai pageants that the community itself organizes in the name of Vietnamese culture. But who am I to comment, I’m only a daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese diaspora not a true blue “native informant”.

    Now having said that, I wonder if it’s better or worse than the dilemman posed by my having to portray my bred-in-the-blood Singapore culture. No national dress, no national language, only 45 years of history… We have nothing but orchid shirts. There isn’t even a national dish to celebrate.

    1. Thanks for reading, Audrey. I’m not a huge fan of beauty pageants overall, but ethnic beauty pageants are fascinating (if frustrating) things. Have you ever read Christine Yano’s Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawai’i’s Cherry Blossom Festival? It’s an excellent study of ethnic community beauty pageants, and the cultural politics around them.

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