The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
It’s Halloween time again. Around this time every year, many people — particularly high school and college students — think it’s “all in good fun” to dress up as a member of some racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural minority group as a “costume” for Halloween. As some examples, they might dress up as a geisha, or a Muslim terrorist, or a Mexican border-crosser, or in blackface as a rap star. Unfortunately, in virtually all cases, these kinds of “costumes” end up reinforcing and perpetuating offensive imagery and racist stereotypes against such minority groups.
Inevitably, when members of that minority group protest and criticize them, the costume-wearers reply that it’s just a joke, that they don’t mean to offend people, or even that the costumes are meant to “celebrate” that particular personality or culture that they’re portraying. The problem of course, is that it may just be a joke to them, but to the minority group being portrayed in such a stereotypical manner, it is deeply offensive and does nothing more than promote the naive and misguided idea of colorblindness — that since we now have an African American president, that we’re all equal now and as such, it’s perfectly fine to make fun of minorities and not suffer any consequences from it.
Fortunately, many young Americans around the country are fighting back. Specifically, a student group at Ohio University named Students Teaching About Racism in Society has put together an awesome campaign to encourage everyone to think twice about Halloween costumes (thanks to AngryAsianMan for first mentioning it). Some of their posters are below.
Please help to circulate their message as widely as possible.
My fellow sociologist blogger Jessie at Racism Review has an excellent writeup on a new study conducted by education professors Brendesha M. Tynes and Suzanne L. Markoe entitled, “The Role of Color-Blind Racial Attitudes in Reactions to Racial Discrimination on Social Network Sites.” In studying the notes written by people on popular social networking sites such as Facebook, the authors find that people who have colorblind racial attitudes were actually less likely to find racial theme party images offensive. The abstract of their study reads:
This study examines associations between responses to online racial discrimination, more specifically, racial theme party images on social network sites and color-blind racial attitudes. We showed 217 African American and European American college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace.
Reactions to racial theme party images were not bothered, not bothered-ambivalent, bothered-ambivalent, and bothered. A multinomial logistic regression revealed that participants differed in their reactions to the images based on their racial group and color-blind racial ideology. European Americans and participants high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group.
Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers. Conversely, those low in color blindness were vocal in their opposition to the images with some reporting that they would “defriend” a person who engaged in the practice.
For those who have been reading this blog for a while, these findings should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Professors Tynes and Markoe for doing this study and articulating the the relationship between having colorblindness and racist attitudes. We only have to look at the recent controversies about the racial tensions at the University of California campuses and other colleges around the country (along with past incidents of blackface racism) to see real-world examples of how being colorblind really means being racially blind.
Hopefully this study will help make all of us see that as an individual-level and interpersonal perspective and ass an institutional basis for public policy, colorblindness is not only a dismal failure but in many ways, hinders our nation’s quest for true and meaningful racial/ethnic equality and justice.
As many of you presumably already know, “Blackface” is the practice of non-Blacks using dark-colored makeup or other materials to darken their face and skin so that they appear to be Black, usually for the purpose of impersonating a Black person in a public setting. The history of this practice is a long and sad one and almost always is associated with reinforcing and perpetuating racist stereotypes about Blacks. In fact, I recently wrote about a high-profile Blackface incident in Australia and commended entertainer Harry Connick Jr. (who is White) for calling it out as racist.
Similarly, “Yellowface” is the practice of non-Asians impersonating Asians in a public setting, usually by dressing them up in traditional “Asian” garments, altering their eyelids, or donning some other prop such as buck teeth, all of which again serve to reinforce and perpetuate racist stereotypes against Asians and Asian Americans.
Recently, there was a skit on Saturday Night Live (SNL) that included actor Will Forte impersonating Chinese President Hu Jintao, along with Iranian American actor Nasim Pedrad playing the role of an interpreter. The video of the skit is below:
Since Will Forte is in fact White and is portraying an Asian character, this is technically Yellowface. But the question then becomes, is this racist and offensive? I know that many Asian Americans do find this particular portrayal offensive and they certainly have a right and reason to do so.
For me however, I will go out on a limb and say that I personally don’t think this particular portrayal was that offensive. It would be one thing if SNL had an Asian male cast member who could have played Hu Jinato but was passed over in favor of Forte, but obviously this was not the case (although it would be nice if SNL eventually had an Asian American male cast member). Further, Forte’s portrayal of Hu did not include the racist characteristics usually found with offensive Yellowface portrayals.
In other words, Forte did not artificially alter his eyes or eyelids or wear traditional garments to look more “Oriental.” Nor did he use racist caricature features such as buck teeth. Further, even though Forte did impersonate Hu speaking Chinese, it was very muted and not a central part of his portrayal, as opposed to the traditional exaggerated and blatantly offensive “ching chong” artificial dialog that we’ve seen in the past.
Further, the SNL skit did not include any elements or activities that have been associated with offensive Asian characters through the years, such as performing kung fu, working as a cook or waiter, or as an evil villain. Also, Forte did not try to portray Hu speaking English with a Chinese accent, which would have been much more offensive. Further, Pedrad’s portrayal of the interpreter did not include an exaggerated Chinese accent either.
In fact, fellow sociologist blogger Lisa at Sociological Images has just compiled an excellent video retrospect of White actors playing Asian characters through the years. If you watch the videos included in her post, you will see that all of them include at least one of these offensive characteristics that I listed above.
The larger point I am trying to make is that there are different degrees of offense when it comes to Asian Americans. Regular readers to this blog know that I’ve spent plenty of time pointing out different individual- and institutional-level incidents and examples of that I have found offensive and racist toward Asians and Asian Americans. But ultimately, American society and the world in general are not simple either-or, black-or-white, yes-or-no dichotomies. Instead, we need to realize that there are varying degrees of oppression, inequality, and in this case, potentially offensive media portrayals.
Asian American actors are likely to tell you the same thing when it comes to which roles they accept or reject. As this clip from the Turner Classic Movie series “Race in Hollywood: Asian Images in Film” shows, even well-respected Asian American actors will take on roles that have them playing a sweatshop worker or one that has them speak with an Asian accent, if other aspects of their character are more nuanced and substantive:
Similarly, even Asian American writers and filmmakers have been criticized when it comes to how they portray members of their community. Relatively recent examples include when author Amy Tan and director Wayne Wang were criticized for promoting gender stereotypes in the otherwise critically-acclaimed and watershed Asian American book and movie The Joy Luck Club, or when director Justin Lin was criticized for his less-than-model-minority portrayals of Asian American high school students in another breakthrough Asian American film Better Luck Tomorrow.
In the end, yes, it would have been nice if SNL had an Asian American male cast member who could have played Hu in this particular case. But given that limitation, I did not find their skit to be nearly as offensive as past portrayals that have made me wince in disgust. Maybe this just means that I’ve been desensitized by so many blatantly racist portrayals through the years. But more likely, I think it just shows that there are different levels of offense when it comes to how Asians and Asian Americans are portrayed.
Earlier this week, musician, actor, and community activist Harry Connick Jr. was a guest judge on the Australian talent show Hey Hey It’s Saturday. One of the acts was a skit featuring a group of White men wearing blackface (using dark-colored makeup to appear racially Black), doing an impression of the Jackson Five. As ABC News reports and this video segment shows, Connick’s reaction to their performance was swift and sharp:
[Connick] was visibly shocked by the skit, in which [five] men with afro wigs and blackface sang and danced behind a Michael Jackson impersonator wearing white makeup. Connick, 42, gave the performance a zero score and told them that if it had been done in the United States it would have been pulled off the air.
Blackface was a traditional trope of minstrel shows in the U.S. that dates to the 19th century. Whites playing stock black characters — usually offensive stereotypes meant to demean — rubbed coal, grease or shoe polish on their faces. . . .
Public reaction to the “Hey Hey” performance in online forums was mixed. Some Australians said they were embarrassed such a racist sketch had been broadcast, while others said detractors were too politically correct and that the skit was funny. . . . Anand Deva, the frontman of the “Jackson Jive” act, said it was not meant to cause offense but added he would not have performed it in the United States.
There are two interesting sociological points to note here. The first is the apparent differences in racial attitudes between the U.S. and Australia. That is, even though many Americans still are rather ignorant of the racial significance and racist legacy of blackface and still wear it from time to time (especially around this time of year, Halloween, as seen in the photo on the right), for the most part, I will presume that most Americans understand that blackface is offensive (or at least the reactions and criticisms to it are much more intense).
This diminished level of cultural knowledge comes through in the responses by Anand Deva in defending his group’s skit with the usual refrain, “It wasn’t meant to be offensive, it was just a joke.” What he and other Australians do defend the skit don’t understand is that whatever the intent, the result was that it definitely came across as racist and offensive.
Secondly, the reason why they don’t understand why it was offensive is because as Whites in a White majority society, they have the position of being able to make fun of non-Whites while claiming that they did not intend it to be offensive. That, my friends, is the quintessential definition of White privilege.
As it relates back to Harry Connick Jr., as the video segment notes, he has been accused of being hypocritical because he participated in a previous comedy skit (apparently from MadTV) in which he played some kind of witch or voodoo doctor that some argue also makes fun of Blacks, although Connick counters that his character in the skit was actually White.
Despite this criticism of Connick, I give him credit for speaking up in the moment and denouncing the skit as racist and offensive. It takes courage to recognize such racial ignorance first of all, and second, to speak up and stand in opposition to it, rather than just keeping quiet, as many Americans from any racial background but particularly Whites, are more likely to do.
I know that as a native of New Orleans, Connick was affected by how his city and particularly the Black community were both devastated after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the disaster, he organized several benefits and other activities to begin rebuilding the city and its inhabitants.
At this point, I can only speculate, but I suspect that as a result of Hurricane Katrina and perhaps after understanding the cultural consequences of such media portrayals as his MadTV skit, he “got it” — that as an affluent entertainer and as a White person, he is very privileged person and has a lot of power and influence that can be used to make fun of people, or to help uplift them.
In other words, Connick’s actions — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and in regard to this blackface skit — are a great illustration of what I tell me students all the time: for racism to continue, individual Whites like you (referring to my students) do not have to commit racist acts yourself. Instead, for it to continue year after year, generation after generation, all you have to do is to sit by and accept the consequences of discrimination committed against others.