Friday, 20 March 2009

On racism, pop culture and political correctness: comment response

Yesterday, in the Comments section of the Watchmen review, we got to talking about representations of race and sexuality in the Zack Snyder-directed film adaptation of Frank Miller's 300. And a reader made the following comment:
I've been meaning to write about this kinda thing. Do you think it was a consciously done racist thing? As in, it may have been consciously done, but was it done with purposeful racism in mind? I am not trying to make excuses for it either mind you, but I find we over analyse and make more out of some things that for the most part are innocent coincidences. To avoid it, we would all have to spend our time politically correcting everything we say and do so as not to piss off some demographic, race, social group etc.

So I thought I would share some thoughts on the questions he raised, both in relation to the film and in a general context. A bit heavy for a Friday, yes, especially when my brain synapses are pretty much through firing for the week and are already heading down the pub. But let's give it a shot anyway.

First, the idea of intent:
"...was it done with purposeful racism in mind?"

I think that the question of whether someone sets out to denigrate an entire group of people, or whether it happens as a result of their own unexplored or unresolved prejudices, is not as important as we make it out to be. In fact, I might argue that the latter is more insidious and therefore more dangerous than the former. If racism has become so ingrained in the business of living that it is evident even when people aren't trying, then that is a much sadder reality than if there are fringe elements of people out there going "you know what? I hate black people and I'm going to make a movie about it." But aren't we lucky! We don't have to choose, because both exist.

So yes we'll find people like the bus driver in the DR who let the fair-skinned people board but left my friends and me at the bus stop because he thought we were Haitians and he "doesn't stop for 'negros' (spanish)". But perhaps much more common in our lifetimes will be the films, TV shows, songs, comedians that reinforce ugly stereotypes about certain groups of people. And for these cases, "I didn't mean it" does not cut it as an excuse. Because what "I didn't mean it" really means is "I didn't care enough about these people to do better".

It's comparable to my work as an economist. You go to talk to Ministers of Finance or budget directors and they say "We didn't develop this budget to discriminate against women" or "The economy is gender-neutral!" Well no it isn't, because you're operating within a system that since it existed has made much of women's work invisible. So the results that you get if you depart from that system are also going to exclude those women, whether you 'mean it' or not. It is your responsibility to interrogate your own assumptions and do better. Because otherwise, you're hurting the group in question, and that hurts everyone.
"...we over analyse and make more out of some things that for the most part are innocent coincidences."

Definitely, for 300, these weren't innocent coincidences. This wasn't a film that included one walk-on role of an Asian person in a laundromat, which after they saw it made three white University anthropology majors in Seattle somewhere roll their eyes and mutter about stereotypes. We're talking about a film that, in depicting an epic battle between Persians and Greeks, digitally manipulates the features of the players to make the Persians appear as dark, faceless (therefore inhuman, unimportant) devils and the Spartans white gods. It excludes any redeeming characteristics about Persian society at that time like their famed religious tolerance and focused only on Xerxes' obsession with enslavement. It called the Athenians "boy lovers" (bad) and portrayed the Spartans as hypermasculine (good). None of this is coincidence, especially when you consider Frank Miller's Islamophobia, which I didn't know of until after the film when I went searching to find out what all that mess had just been about . (I couldn't possibly explore this as well or as thoroughly as others have done, so I've included some links for further reading at the bottom.)

Yes, we can say that comics and films are meant to have a good guy and a bad guy, and that the Persians were in fact invading Greece for the second time so doesn't that pretty much make them the bad guys? Of course. But what films like this do is make one-dimensional, faceless demons out of people of colour, and then celebrate their mass slaying by a white superior race. They say it doesn't matter what their faces look like (and face here is a metaphor for actual identity and value system), just where they come from and the colour of their skin; because odds are if they come from there and look like that, they have one intent, so better to pre-empt that. And the effects are not harmless. People are not as adept at separating out fiction from reality as you might think, especially in an environment of cultural tension between the groups in question. The Persians were not Muslim, but many people, after having watched the film, equated the two and transferred the images from one to the other.

In terms of innocent coincidences in other films, I can understand the dilemma. You see black people represented in certain ways and don't know if you should follow your natural urge to laugh or your intellectual urge to be offended. For me, some things are clearly, neck-bristlingly offensive; or just annoying, old, unimaginative stereotypes; or perhaps born of generalizations but true and therefore hilarious. But honestly, when I do get really offended or annoyed, it isn't as a result of an innocent coincidence. For example, in all my years watching ER (which has now hideously jumped the shark), I've seen my fair share of black crack addicts and drug dealers and Mexican gang-bangers. But not only have some of those characters been treated with complexity, to show other elements of their realities, but there have also been people of colour as doctors, activists, little nerdy kids, anything that people might be; and there have also been white criminals and drug addicts, some among the 'heroes' of the cast. So while I'm not going to necessarily get annoyed because the drug addict on a particular show happens to be a black man, I'm damn sure going to be annoyed if it is always a black man, or if they make a point to pit black ignorance and helplessness against white perfection.

I'm going to finally say just a little about political correctness. The reader wrote:
To avoid it, we would all have to spend our time politically correcting everything we say and do so as not to piss off some demographic, race, social group etc.

I think there's a growing backlash against political correctness. People now think that refusing to indulge others' sensitivities will make them seem cool and smart, like mavericks who are willing to take back their speech from hypersensitive tree-huggers. Yeah I call bullshit on all that. How about trying to seem smart the old-fashioned way? By actually being smart, and informed, and analytical, and socially responsive. Unfortunately, I sense this more acutely in Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean, where we're so used to other people looking and behaving like we do, we carry on indefinitely not being challenged on our bigotry. It is firmly entrenched and we find it comforting. We are so used to yelling slurs at gay people, Asian people, fat people, Guyanese people, that we act like it's just a quaint part of Barbadianna: it's cultural and harmless. Well it's not. And if we stepped back and considered it, we would realize that we're not only perpetrators of it, we're also victims. But some of us are too stupid and too busy trying to seem edgy to figure that out.

I know it can seem like the acceptable language is constantly changing. So what? Change it. You don't need to "spend all your time" doing it: it's not as if groups are meeting every week trying to see how they can piss people off by making them learn new words. And no one is going to put you in a pillory because you had a slip and said 'disabled' and not 'differently able'. But if a group of people gets up and says "listen, we really hate this word, and here's why, and here's what we prefer," who the hell am I to say "yeah well I don't like that word so I'm just going to call you Blackie"?

In my experience, the people who rail most against political correctness are (as just one example) the pigs who not only want to persist in calling women bitches and whores, but also want them to like it. So these people aren't the ones who find themselves having to change their lexicon every day and get genuinely confused but want to do better; it's in great part the ones who just don't want to bother with anyone but themselves and the group to which they belong. They want their bigotry to be sanctioned not only by their peers but by those they're bigoted against. It's another case where "I didn't mean it" really means "I don't care enough about these people to do better."

And I wouldn't call any of it innocent.

See also:
Osagie K. Obasogie on The Rebirth of a Nation?
Touraj Daryaee on Go tell the Spartans: How "300" misrepresents Persians in history
Jehanzeb Dar on Frank Miller’s “300″ and the Persistence of Accepted Racism


  1. My boyfriend said to me yesterday that one of the things that is wrong with the world is that nothing is important anymore. He gave the examples of sharing a meal with someone as a covenant, a sign of trust and love; and shaking someone's hand meaning pretty much the same thing. Both of these things we take for granted, and we shake the hands of people we do not respect and go to dinner in the homes of bigots and hateful people. We say to ourselves that if we don't agree with them, that makes it alright. But does it?

    Similarly, we don't place importance on our words. I remember one of my best friends saying once that her ex-boyfriend was always proud of his ability to lie to her and have her believe him. Her response was, "What is the point of speaking if you aren't telling the truth? Of course I will believe you, otherwise I would never listen."

    People don't expect that their words will be listened to and respected. What we say doesn't matter, and often what we do doesn't matter either. We live in an age where our humanity barely means anything at all. If we don't value our own words and actions, what the hell are we are all doing here anyway?

    I think we need to start paying greater attention to our words and the meaning behind them, so we can get to know and love ourselves a little better, grow more human and perhaps even sound intelligent while we're doing it.

  2. Just to comment on the point of political correctness going to far and words being changed etc. I think we will get to a point where the words lose their meaning and the whole point of being politically correct (showing respect for the group's delicate sensibilities) is going to be an after thought. It will be like ohhh ok, 'Life Partner', is that what we call them now? Cynicism will reign supreme. I really don't think it will maintain the respect it was meant to.

    Your boy clint had something to say about this to, take a look.

    "People have lost their sense of humour. In former times we constantly made jokes about different races. You can only tell them today with one hand over your mouth or you will be insulted as a racist," the Daily Express quoted him as saying.

    "I find that ridiculous. In those earlier days every friendly clique had a 'Sam the Jew' or 'Jose the Mexican' - but we didn't think anything of it or have a racist thought. It was just normal that we made jokes based on our nationality or ethnicity. That was never a problem. I don't want to be politically correct.

    We're all spending too much time and energy trying to be politically correct about everything," he added.

  3. Jodi:Great comments. Thanks for that. It's so true.

    GBLBlog: The need for political correctness doesn't come from 'delicate sensibilities'. It comes from a group's dissatisfaction with the meaning or connotation of a word and the implied attributes it confers on them. And if one chooses to be cynical (although I don't see what there is to be cynical about) about it and only make a show of tolerance, but secretly persist in one's ignorance, then I suppose that person is content to fail at life and there's not much we can do about that.

    I saw that now famous comment from Clint and I think he is misguided. Of course it is possible to refer to someone as Sam the Jew and not consider him a lesser being, but not everyone can make the cognitive dissociations that make that ok. So when we start saying that it's ok for everyone, and close the conversation there, we're going to start to have problems, which we currently do.

  4. The same way we can't expect everyone to make the cognitive dissociation and not consider Sam a lesser being, we can't just assume that everyone is be content to fail at life. Some people genuinely don't give a f*ck ya know.

    People are starving to death in Africa and we're watching you plug the preferred and less offensive (to you) way to call your social group on a network news morning show. I would not say that someone who doesn't care is persisting in ignorance really. We can't and won't care about everything. There are many things we have little no emotional or social connection to and would abide by the politically correct norm 'just because', and keep it moving. That particularly thing may never enter our mind save a chance occurrence over the next decade. Does that make me fail at life, cuz you could give me my F now. lol.

  5. This is a really great post. It's always comforting to find others who felt the same way after watching "300."

    I don't think there is anything coincidental about the film either, especially when you consider Frank Miller's interview on NPR, where he spewed out Islamophobic nonsense. When he demonizes the Persians and makes them dark-skinned, it is a conscious decision made by the writer. People can argue, "well that's what happened in history, the Persians were the invading force" and so on, but those kind of "arguments" completely overlook the way Persians are presented as one-dimensional, barbaric, and inhuman demons. It reinforces "us" versus "them," and that only works when the "other" is so dehumanized that you don't even care about their perspective, their history, their culture, and most of all, their lives.

    I remember walking into book stores when the movie was released and there were countless books on Spartans being showcased. Of course, there was nothing about the ancient Persians, but why should there be, right? There is nothing "heroic" or "cool" about them because the film refuses to show any appreciation for their civilization.

    As for political correctness, I think a lot of people are ignorant of how offensive and hurtful certain words really are. In my opinion, for someone to say they don't want to be politically correct is a matter of White privilege. It's very easy for someone who has never been discriminated or stigmatized to sit back and say, "oh well, people have lost their sense of humor." lol, I don't understand this attitude where it seems as if people are suffocating so much that they need to make racial jokes! C'mon, seriously? Do you really need to abandon political correctness to liberate yourself and have your "free speech?" Is it really a huge barrier in your mind? Remember Michael Richard's racist tirade? People said that was "free speech!" That's probably the best way for people to cover up racism. Just say it's "freedom of expression" and everything is gravy, right?

    For those who argue against political correctness: Be real. Step outside of yourself and try to empathize and learn something about other people's experiences. Trust me, we have a sense of humor. I'll make jokes about Muslims with my Muslim and non-Muslim friends, but I will not make the jokes around people I don't know. And even if I make racial jokes about my White friends, I'm not going to make those same jokes with other White people that I don't know. I'm not going to be like, "oh well, I can say this because I have White friends." I remember when I was younger, I was playing miniature golf and some random guy at the course kept calling me "Gonzalez." He was trying to be funny (and he made other people laugh), but I didn't know him. I didn't like the fact he called me that throughout the whole day. Just because I have brown skin doesn't mean I'm Hispanic, and even if I was Hispanic, why are you going to assume my name is "Gonzalez?"

    I was fired from my part-time job last summer after a customer called me a "terrorist" just because the line wasn't moving fast enough for her. Since then, I have become very sensitive to the word and my friends are understanding of that. I'm grateful that my non-Muslims have an appreciative understanding of Islam and don't have ridiculous generalizations like most of the people in my suburban, predominately White town.

    It's not just about political correctness, it's about being educated and having multi-cultural awareness. To make ridiculous claims that it limits our meaning of words or our sense of humor are just pathetic excuses from actually seeking to learn. In order to learn, one needs to empty their own prejudices and opinions. It is to actively seek new knowledge in order to gain a richer and more detailed understanding about situations and experienced that they themselves may never go through.

    And I find it insulting how "GBL Blog" compares "people starving to death in Africa" with political correctness. I always find it offensive when people make such comparisons because it suggests that one situation needs to completely ignored. BOTH subjects are important, but there is no need to make comparisons. They are SEPARATE topics; you have to discuss each one individually. Things like racist and sexist terminology *are* hurtful too and they can lead to dehumanization and discrimination. It doesn't matter whether you care or not -- they are REALITIES, they EXIST. People of color are getting picked in high schools as we speak right now, in playgrounds, in workplaces, in social gatherings, in mainstream media, in comic books, in magazines, in advertisement.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this post, Mar. And thank you for sharing the link to my post on "300." Just one correction: My name is "Jehanzeb" not "Jehanzed." Thanks :)

  6. Thanks so much for this response, Jehanzeb. Sorry for the misspelling. Your comments really flesh out what I'm trying to get at in this post. I agree with you that

    "..for someone to say they don't want to be politically correct is a matter of White privilege. It's very easy for someone who has never been discriminated or stigmatized to sit back and say, "oh well, people have lost their sense of humor." lol, I don't understand this attitude where it seems as if people are suffocating so much that they need to make racial jokes!"

    And in some cases, it's not even White privilege. We often think that we're exempt from being challenged on our bigotry if we're not White. But in some societies, such as the one GBL Blog and I are from, the prevailing culture is non-White and although still minority in some power relations, does enjoy the privilege of not being the Other in that particular context.

    So we get nice and comfy in our prejudices. And we think that if we as Black (or whatever the majority ethnicity) people, who have been persecuted for centuries, can "have a sense of humour about it" and perpetuate it ourselves, then surely everyone else can just get over it. It is a very unfortunate blindness that is in fact born of privilege and comfort. And if we were placed in another dynamic where we were the Other, we would realize how misguided we had been.

    I would've liked to leave your post as the final word on this, but I wanted to say thanks for this comment and for the original article, which is a great resource.

  7. They want their bigotry to be sanctioned not only by their peers but by those they're bigoted against. It's another case where "I didn't mean it" really means "I don't care enough about these people to do better."

    That particularly stood out with me. Ultimately those that complain about PC Speech are doing so from a position of privilege. They want to retain the power to label and thereby construct the body of another as less than and this where the resistance comes from. We are continually working within systems of power and it is that which is never acknowledged. The new hipster style conversation where it has become ironic to be racist, sexist, abelist etc is nothing but a continuation of our dissonance in worth and value. It has never been cool or acceptable to view someone as less than from the point of view of the oppressed and until we can acknowledge that all people matter we will continue to live in an unbalanced world


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