Is This Racist?

By: hawkgrrrl
September 10, 2013

Singapore values migrants based on their perceived ability to boost the economy.

Are we becoming hypersensitive to racism in the US?  Will our perspectives be viewed as racist by future generations the older we get as those views of prior generations appear to us?

Singapore practices what I would call “institutionalized racism.”  There is a hierarchy within the races in the country, and some races are given preferential treatment.  Others are assumed to be the low end labor force and have more restrictions than others in being allowed to live in the country.  Preference is given to white anglos (officially this is based on nationality, not race, but race is often used as a proxy to indicate nationality and professional class) who work for corporations that are high contributors to the economy.  Likewise preference is given to native Singaporeans.  It is not a melting pot like the US, and the country doesn’t use permanent immigration as an economic strategy due to the limited size of its geography.

The racism that we saw there at times shocked our American politically correct sensibilities and was one cultural disconnect we learned to identify quickly.  The darkness of skin color was sometimes a quick way for locals to assess where a person fit on the racial hierarchy, and in the case of Singapore, lighter was considered better.  Products to whiten the skin or make one’s nipples pink were commonly sold.  My very pale skin which in the US gets me nicknamed “Casper” or perhaps even “Gollum” is highly prized there.  In fact, my assistant even commented that my husband is darker than I am.  He’s even more English than I am, just with brown hair.  Although there is a large population of Indians, there were resident Indians from the professional class (lighter skinned) and guest worker Indians from the labor class (darker skinned).

Some efforts to fight racism rely on “positive” racial stereotypes that are inherently limiting and racist.

My mother, who is nearing 90 years of age, is a product of racist times.  While she doesn’t hold any hatred toward other races, she has used derogatory racial terms from bygone eras and made statements that were shocking to us, her kids, because we didn’t think or talk like that about other races.  She has learned from us to question the stereotypes she was taught in her youth.  So it is with our own kids.

I recently made a comment about “Charo,” the comedic Brazilian bombshell of the 1970s.  My kids had never heard of her, so I Googled her and watched this video from the Carol Burnett show with them.

Charo on Carol Burnett

I still cackled at Carol’s first appearance in this sketch, probably as much as I did the first time I saw this sketch.  My kids were appalled.  “That’s racist!” they cried.  Maybe they are right.  Charo certainly is trading in stereotypes, but I’m not sure Brazilian is a race so much as a nationality.  Of course, a lot of contemporary standup comedy also uses racism to point out racism.

I just finished reading Sarah Silverman’s book The Bedwetter:  Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee.  She tells a story about being on the Conan O’Brien show and telling a racist joke about getting out of jury duty.  The gist of the joke is that she really wants to get out of jury duty, so a friend advises her to make a racist remark on the form to get out of it.  She doesn’t want people to think she’s racist, so instead she writes on the form, “I love [insert racial group].”  She gets into a back and forth negotiation with the censors about what racial epithet will be allowed.  Finally, they settle on “Chinks” (having discarded “dirty Jews,” “Spic,” the phrase “the N word,” and what the N word stands for).  The next day, she finds that a representative of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans is demanding an apology.  She writes the following response to him:

” . . . I used a derogatory slur for Chinese and other Asian people.  You demanded an apology and received it from NBC, who also promised to edit my piece out of repeats of that show.  I believe you have not served well the cause of rooting out racism.

I am grateful to people, like yourself, who dedicate their selves [sic] to naming and making public the bigotry that they see.  As a comedian, I use irony, often playing the role of ignoramus–like in the Conan piece in question–to turn the public eye toward the bigotry that goes unnoticed.  The subtext is clearly in direct contrast to the text.  It is ironic humor, and I see it as part of a larger effort–the same effort of which you are part.

In this case, you reacted to a buzz-word without paying attention to its context.  It is unfortunate, then, when the first reaction to an incident of suspected bigotry is to name an enemy and make demands.”

I’m so glad we’ve had this time together, just to have a laugh at another race’s expense.

Her point is well taken (at least by me; the guy from MANAA not so much).  Carol O’Connor played the role of Archie Bunker on the show All in the Family, using then-common racial epithets and stereotypes and playing the part of ignoramus ironically to illustrate the bigotry that was still prevalent in the 1970s through comedic exaggeration.  This caused a national conversation that changed the way race is discussed.  But maybe we’ve gone too far in the direction of political correctness.

  • Are all stereotypes racist?
  • Is humor an effective way to point out and eventually eradicate (through awareness) racism?  Or is it in itself a form of racism?
  • Is Charo racist for trading in stereotypes?  Is the linked Carol Burnett sketch racist?

Discuss.

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9 Responses to Is This Racist?

  1. Will on September 10, 2013 at 8:09 AM

    This political correctness has weakened our nation.

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  2. EOR on September 10, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    Like with almost everything perception is reality. I think it is fairly easy for a non-offended party to claim that something wasn’t offensive. I find that it takes nothing away from me to sincerely apologize if I have hurt someone with something I have said. Other times, if I am unapologetic and it is something I felt needed to be said then I won’t apologize at all.

    I think we could all do a lot worse than trying to feel each others pain and minimizing it where we can.

    As far as humor goes, I don’t really have an answer. I think there are certain subjects that are and should be off limits because they are just not funny–short of that, I think it matters whose expense the joke is made at. If the joke is on the racists, sure, laugh away I say. If the joke is on the race/ethnicity/etc… not so much.

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  3. Jeffrey on September 10, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    Humor is a fantastic way to educate and point out things in a sneaky way. I once worked with a black guy from Canada. It was both frustrating and heartbreaking to hear some of his stories on how he would get treated in day-to-day life. I would use humor to bring attention to the absurdity of the racism of others. I would say things like, “Did they do that because…you know…you’re…Canadian?”

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  4. Jeff Spector on September 10, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Like all good things, it can be taken to its logically absurdity, which the term “racist” has when used the wrong way. So it has, in many ways, lost its intended use and now is a standard-issue pejorative like the term “liberal” has become when rolled off the tongue of a right wing extremist, or like the term “Mormon” use to be.

    Here in the US, being the uber-enlightened society that we claim to be, the race card gets over played a lot as we look down our collective noses at other cultures who have not reached our level of Operating Thetan. And while some make a living playing the race card, heaven forbid anyone should try to play the morality card in this country. Then you are truly intolerant.

    Humor can be an effective tool to actually combat racial stereotypes, as Silverman tried to point out. But, like anything else, put in the wrong hands, it can become hate speech.

    But, i think we should retire the racism word. It’s old, it’s tired and it’s lost its meaning.

    Let it go. And maybe some folks will need to find a real job.

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  5. Mary Bliss on September 10, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    I am of the opinion that the use of racial epithets or the embracing of negative stereotypes that have their origins in exclusion or racism is crude and disrespectful, whether used in humor or not. Generating laughter with material or words that have been previously used to denigrate others will also revive memories of being hated, disregarded, treated as second-class and excluded in the minds people who have been identified by those epithets and who have not embraced those words as part of their identity. Using that language or stereotyping to get a laugh shows that, at that moment, you are mostly interested in getting what you want, a laugh, and that you are dismissive of the pain your language may be causing to those who have experienced denigration couched in that terminology.

    So whether or not you want to classify Silverman’s writing on the jury form as “racist”, I would probably classify it as an example of choosing to write in a way that is unthinking, short-sighted and self-absorbed.

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  6. Casey on September 10, 2013 at 1:27 PM

    I’m increasingly convinced that Will isn’t actually a person, but a cleverly designed bot set to give terse, grumpy replies to anything perceived as vaguely liberal.

    Anyway, comedy can definitely blur the lines between jokes and racism (and any other offensive -ism) to point out the absurdity of them, but to me a useful barometer is whether the comedy is directed up or down: is it ultimately mocking people who are marginalized or the ones doing the marginalization? For example, Sarah Silverman makes a living seeming to cross the line, but ultimately she and the audience know that the butt of the joke is herself, not on the stereotypes she trades in–the joke is that we all know she’s playing the fool. Same goes for Archie Bunker. That kind of humor, of course, is easy to misinterpret, and people who do it poorly often are straight-up offensive. Take Daniel Tosh, whose jokes about women actually do seem to reinforce a kind of contempt against them, and so definitely qualify as sexist in my book. Not so sure about Charo…mostly I just found that clip not very funny. Different times and tastes, I guess.

    Also, even if the “race card” (whatever exactly that means) is sometimes applied unfairly, I’m very leery of privileged people breezily dismissing the perspectives and the feelings of others on issues like racism. It’s very easy to make judgements about who does and does not have a right to be offended when it doesn’t apply to oneself!

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  7. MH on September 10, 2013 at 9:46 PM

    Hawk, you and I have the same sense of humor. My wife–not so much.

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  8. Wyoming on September 12, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    The conversation needs to shift from race to culture. There are cultural attributes across all races that build healthy communities just as there are damaging cultural beliefs and behavioral norms. On my mission, I did a lot of work in the south in minority communities. The cultural norms seemed to be economic and substance dependency, promiscuity, devaluation of fatherhood etc. We also had the opportunity to teach a number of Africans attending US universities. They came from a cultural value set of independence, initiative and service. I also work with Native Americans and see a wide spectrum of ‘cultural’ norms from community to community. Race inflames so much emotion that people become blinded to the greater issue which is cultural norms and behaviors.

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  9. Jen on September 19, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    Race is overplayed. Especially by elitists that think their education and opinion makes them smarter than anyone who disagrees. People highly concerned with what they label as racism operate based on emotions rather than logic.

    Prime example: Trayvon Martin case. He’s being compared to true victims of racism like emmit till in an effort to keep the idea of racism alive in a false example. Media has an agenda and mislabels Zimmerman as a caucasian repeatedly, further enflaming those eager to have something to be angry about. People start saying stupid stuff like Zimmerman had no right to shoot him because if the way they feel and show their own ignorance of THE LAW.

    They label the jury racist as is the whole country or anyone who disagrees. In reality, Zimmerman is biracial. In reality, he tutored and fostered African American kids and had friends of all colors–but that’s apparently not enough anymore to show he’s not racist. In reality, there had been many recent break ins AT NIGHT locally. IN REALITY trayvon allowed Zimmerman to exercise his right to self defense the minute he attacked him. Media continued to show a pic of Trayvon as a adolescent boy when in reality he was much larger.

    People are trying to judge assumption Zimmerman made. His assumptions may have been correct–Trayvon was recently found with burglar tools and women’s jewelry on him. He was concealing his face in a hoodie (so what if its hip hop style–the CULTURE and music celebrate crime). Media put his parents on but didn’t bother to reveal his dad quickly had a gang tatoo removed on his neck. Media focuses on the fact that his dad’s girlfriend lived in the complex and he was going “home”. In reality, he was unknown to the community and walking around bushes in between units–off the public areas that were well lit. In reality, he’s the only one who used racial slurs (cracker) and attacked because of homophobic showboating. Media portrays Zimmerman as racist cause he told 911 trayvon’s race yet doesn’t mention he was simply answering a direct question about it from the operator and had first described Trayvons odd behavior at odd hrs.

    Celebrities rally for Trayvon with all the misinformation and emotion they can muster. Public wants to emulate and feel identity with celebrities and lives to decry victim hood.

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