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).
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.
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.”
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?