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May 25, 2008 11:32 AM   Subscribe


 
I'm going to go out on a limb and say, yeah, probably.
posted by dismas at 11:42 AM on May 25, 2008


all I'll say is that the blackface link is terrible art, racist or no.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 11:46 AM on May 25, 2008


yes, racism is NOT exclusive to whites.
posted by limited slip at 11:54 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


yep, still racism.
posted by anansi at 11:58 AM on May 25, 2008


Tokyo Breakfast (NSFW, language)
posted by stifford at 12:00 PM on May 25, 2008


well this is interesting...english blackface circa 1978

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIga4I3Nchw&feature=related

they're good.
posted by billybobtoo at 12:01 PM on May 25, 2008


Mandatory Iona Rozeal Brown reference. She's an artist who does images in the style of Japanese prints about the role of black culture in Japan and internationally.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 12:03 PM on May 25, 2008


Well, according to Wikipedia, the problem with American blackface is that
Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy.
The Japanese video may not do that, since it's a representation of actual black people and not stereotypes. But blackface is now as much a symbol of racism as it is racism itself, so it's going to be offensive to a lot of people no matter what--just like an Indian swastika would make many uncomfortable despite it's actual meaning.
posted by footnote at 12:03 PM on May 25, 2008


Well, wait, hold up here. Blackface is considered racist because it was used in minstrelsy, a very deliberate and mean spirited mocking of racial stereotypes. Today when we see someone in black face (like Zwarte Piet) we (americans) freak out because we equate blackface with minstrelsy.

Here though, they seem to be (surrealy, poorly) imitating individual black (and white) skinned people. There doesn't appear to be any caricaturization going on either - they're trying in earnest to sound and look like Stevie Wonder and company. So no, I don't think this is racist, because it doesn't generalize on race.

This is racist.
posted by phrontist at 12:06 PM on May 25, 2008


On preview: damn you footnote.
posted by phrontist at 12:06 PM on May 25, 2008


Isn't a defining characteristic of blackface that ring of pale skin around the mouth which says, 'I'm not really black.' - - as opposed to just makeup which attempts to make one look black.
posted by jfrancis at 12:06 PM on May 25, 2008


How many black people do you think they've got to play the part of Stevie Michael & Ray? Japan is full of Japanese people, almost exclusively, no? But they're singing an American-produced song. In fact, they're doing "whiteface" as well, if you're going to start noticing.

The issue is not "non-whites" doing blackface, but Japanese culture digesting and regurgitating American culture. It's fun - the little bits of food are hilarious. Appreciate it for what it is.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 12:07 PM on May 25, 2008


Blackface is a specific genre, which this is not. The way the post was framed, I expected an actual minstrel show. There are lots of times when people do impresssions of people of different races, including of black people, but it's not blackface. It's not about the race, it's about the person.
posted by jb at 12:19 PM on May 25, 2008


So is the title of this post racist?
posted by naju at 12:19 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nothing is racist, ever.
posted by Edgewise at 12:22 PM on May 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Everything is racist, always.
posted by phaedon at 12:31 PM on May 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'd say these Japanese Only signs are more problematic.
posted by jfrancis at 12:32 PM on May 25, 2008


Dear god, don't call what those Japanese people are doing "blackface". They're putting on make-up to attempt to look like famous people, some of whom are black. When a drag performer comes out as Diana Ross, do you think that's blackface, too?

Blackface is usually racist. These Japanese people? Totally not blackface, and totally not racist.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:33 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Exactly. This is known as "monomane" in Japanese -- just a bunch of crazy Japanese people imitating some famous singers.

Except for Michael Jackson, of course, who was played by himself.
posted by sour cream at 12:44 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


In Japan on October 1st, 1982, Sony released the first fifty titles ever on compact disc. The one that gets all the attention as the "first commercially-issued CD" is Billy Joel's 52nd Street — but it was actually only the first one in the CBS/Sony 35DP catalog number series, which was used for Western popular music.

Another line Sony launched that day was the 35・8H Japanese pop series. And its first title — Epic/Sony 35・8H-1 — was Soul Shadows by The Shanels.

So this kind of thing isn't exactly without precedent.
posted by Lazlo at 12:52 PM on May 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Some things that are generally regarded as offensive in certain cultures and contexts aren't regarded as offensive in others.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:02 PM on May 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Japanese have done reasonably well with imitation over the years. This show is hardly racist.

There is a fascinating Japanese print from 1853 that depicts a blackface ministrel show being performed for visiting Japanese dignitries by the crew of the U.S.S. Princeton, one of Commodore Perry's "black ships." This may, in fact, have been the first recorded blackface perfomance in Japanese history. It also shows how pervasive minstrel shows were in mid-nineteenth century America.
posted by rdone at 1:09 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


just like an Indian swastika would make many uncomfortable despite it's actual meaning.

Pity about that really, though in Asia it's a common religious symbol with none of the Nazi connotations that it has in the Western world. It had no bad connotations whatsoever until Hitler came along.

There's probably some commentary to be had about perceptions and context in there.
posted by WalterMitty at 1:29 PM on May 25, 2008


The offense is on the receiving end. Hence, anything that the intended audience finds offensive, whether or not intended to be so, is offensive. Racism, on the other hand, is racism regardless of context. Therefore a Japanese audience in Japan might not find blackface offensive, but it sure as hell is still racist.
posted by tommasz at 1:34 PM on May 25, 2008


Wearing makeup to make your skin darker to play a character isn't 'racist' or even really 'blackface'.

On the other hand, WTF is going on here? (It's not so much offensive as it is just confusing).
posted by delmoi at 1:35 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


delmoi: I remember hearing that 'Little Black Sambo' is popular in japan. Could that be it?
posted by sexymofo at 1:48 PM on May 25, 2008


The offense is on the receiving end. Hence, anything that the intended audience finds offensive, whether or not intended to be so, is offensive.

But the intended audience is not Americans but Japanese people. And they will not find this clip offensive but rather wonder what all the fuss is about.
posted by sour cream at 2:04 PM on May 25, 2008


So is the title of this post racist?

Yes it are! Happycat juz wantz an cheeseburger.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:16 PM on May 25, 2008


Tell you the truth, as a cracker I'm more concerned about how the Japanese are stereotyping all whiteys as CYNDI LAUPER in this clip. The NERVE of these racist fucks.
posted by tachikaze at 2:23 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here though, they seem to be (surrealy, poorly) imitating individual black (and white) skinned people. There doesn't appear to be any caricaturization going on either - they're trying in earnest to sound and look like Stevie Wonder and company. So no, I don't think this is racist, because it doesn't generalize on race.

Exactly. It's important to be vigilant against racism, but this ain't it. (It is, on the other hand, a terrible performance.)
posted by languagehat at 2:33 PM on May 25, 2008


s/racism/Saturday Night Live/g
posted by effugas at 2:37 PM on May 25, 2008


This isn't racism.

(you fucking idiots).
posted by autodidact at 2:37 PM on May 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


Oh, the title is just a LOLCATS thing? I thought it was LOLJAPANESE or something. Sorry, carry on.
posted by naju at 2:39 PM on May 25, 2008


Before I begin the official worrying over whether or not this is racist, I need to know - should I be wearing white or black gloves as I commence my handwringing?
posted by adipocere at 2:40 PM on May 25, 2008


A serious discussion about this needs consensus over the meaning of "racist," otherwise people may be arguing apples vs. oranges.

When is something racist?

1. When it suggests to most reasonable people that race A is superior to race B?

2. When it's offensive to members of a particular race (e.g. if Black people say, "Wearing hats is racist," is wearing is racist).

3. When a reasonable person will likely assume that the speaker/communicator is racist? (e.g. intent is what's important.)

5. When the thing is likely to add more racism to the world. (e.g. regardless of intent. This definition suggests that, for instance, we shouldn't tell true stories about black people who commit crimes.)

4. When it's on the "list" of racist things.

Re item four, the swastika and burning cross are symbols rooted in very real racist acts. But these symbols have transcended history. They've become magically bad. If I draw a swastika, it doesn't matter whether or not I have racist intentions. The act of drawing one is "bad" regardless of intent or context.

(Naturally, some people have strong/real associations with swastikas and burning crosses. I'm not claiming they don't. I'm claiming that, for some people real conflicts can become ritualized to the point where context is beside the point. Symbols become magic symbols. Words become magic words.)
posted by grumblebee at 2:41 PM on May 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


The title has nothing to do with LOLcats. It's "engrish", and it's not racist either.
posted by autodidact at 2:41 PM on May 25, 2008


This is racist... actually so racist it's almost surreal. To think it was once prime time entertainment. The past really is a different country.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:20 PM on May 25, 2008


Wait, where is the stereotyping in the linked video? I usually catch those things, but I don't see any there. No racism either. Just a pretty delightful Tina Turner impression. Please advise.
posted by youarenothere at 3:45 PM on May 25, 2008


imitation & parody - not blackface for the sake of blackface in the US when the excuse was to mock or worse, not hire blacks to perform - this is a parody ... just as when SNL face paints whathisname to play Obama ... just painting someone darker is not automatically racist - it's the context ... darking OJ's face on Time is racist ... painting Joel Grey to be a Korean is racist but made up to mock Joel Grey as a Korean is not racism, it's parody ...
posted by jbelkin at 3:53 PM on May 25, 2008


The title has nothing to do with LOLcats. It's "engrish", and it's not racist either.

Sorry, I forgot the <> <> tags were dropped back in HTML 3.2.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:20 PM on May 25, 2008


Bah. It looked OK in preview. It should be joke and /joke.

Carry on.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:21 PM on May 25, 2008


Y'all gots nothin' betta to do today? This? Racist? Naw. Not even close. They're poorly mimicking/imitating/copying at worst; that's what the TV show's all about. (The video is a little fuzzy and my Japanese is rusty, but from what I can tell, it appears from the side bar list early on in the video that folks be doing the "Who can do the best imitation" thang to Japanese artists as well.) Tasteless? Um, yeah. But fact is, if I was still living there, I'd probably have ended up being asked to judge an event similar to this. I mean, being a Negro an' all, I'm an expert on all things of this sort, right?

(Now, that's racist, at least from my perspective, knaamean?)

[1] Just my perspective n' all, but if there be racism in this here instance, it be the racism we done exported.

[2] Context, y'all. As one of the people who should be offended, I'ma do the Negro raising his hand in class thang, thereby representin' all black folk, an' say that I'm less offended by the Stevie Wonder/Lionel Richie bit than I"m offended by the fact that the people doin' the imitatin' can't sing. Shee-it, even Tay Zonday can carry a (just one) note.

Now get off my porch.
posted by t2urner at 4:27 PM on May 25, 2008


Being more serious (if I have to) I know someone on Indian descent who is married to someone who is Jewish. There is a symbol that is known to both of these cultures with distinctly different meanings. Thanks to a clear eye, and little self-adhesive stickers of hearts or roses or some such, wackyness did not ensue.

This is why I'm pretty much always going to go with Grumblebee's definition #3.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:43 PM on May 25, 2008


Blackface and the stereotypical presentations of people with dark skin in insulting ways are a long-time standby of Korean 'gag' comedy -- basically low end vaudeville on TV, targetted at older people, and are no less common these days than they always have been. I won't speak for Japan, but there is deeply-entrenched systemic racism based on skin colour here in Korea, and it's rarely if ever the subject of any self-examination. Here's one link of many to some discussion of one of the recent irruptions of anger about this in the small foreign community (amusingly (or depressingly, I suppose) in the context of a blithely sexist TV program).

Over the years I've personally talked to executive directors of major, well-known corporations here in Korea, to captains of industry, to university professors and to ordinary people, all of whom have at one time or another casually come out with shockingly racist (through ignorance, but no less disturbing for that) things about black (or brown) people, and in particular African American. Not everyone talks this way, certainly, and it may not be any more prevalent than similarly execrable attitudes in other countries, but there is certainly a feeling here that such ideas are uncontroversial, and little self-censorship due to social pressure.

Even Koreans with darker skin (there is a wide range of physiognomy, despite the anachronistic dogmatic insistence on the 'racial purity' of Koreans) are targets of discrimination, but this is a more socio-economic bias making itself felt, perhaps, since dark skin means you work in the sun, which means labourer or farmer, which means you're from a lower stratum of society than the lily-white actress on the TV.

Presumably the folks upthread speaking about Japan know what they're talking about -- I don't, because I haven't spent the decade in Japan that I've spent here in Korea -- but I have my doubts that there's a very different dynamic going on there.

A lot of it is sheer ignorance of the world outside of Korea, which is changing, but ignorance isn't really much of an excuse these days, if it ever was.

Pity about that really, though in Asia it's a common religious symbol with none of the Nazi connotations that it has in the Western world. It had no bad connotations whatsoever until Hitler came along.

The 'swastika' which denotes the location of a Buddhist temple in Korea (and elsewhere, I assume) is 'rotating' clockwise. The Nazi symbol 'rotates' counterclockwise. They are, appropriately, mirror images of one another.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:49 PM on May 25, 2008


On the other hand, WTF is going on here? (It's not so much offensive as it is just confusing).

That's a really good video, thanks for reminding of it.
posted by puke & cry at 5:11 PM on May 25, 2008


Here's an interesting sidenote. In the new film Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr plays a white actor, Kirk Lazarus, who is hired to play the part of a black character, and (Robert as Kirk) dyes his skin and hair. (He's not the only one with an image change.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:12 PM on May 25, 2008


@stavrosthewonderchicken: (Nods head in agreement) I've had some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations about social/racial issues I can imagine in Japan...as well as some of the most intellectually ignorant. Replace "Korea"/"Korean" with "Japan"/"Japanese," and almost word for word you'd be hearing an "Amen!" from this part of the congregation.

(And the above is most definitely not meant to mean that all Asians--or all Asian experiences--are alike; I'm just noting that my experience in Japan was remarkably similar to stavrosthewonderchicken's in Korea. Aiight?)
posted by t2urner at 6:00 PM on May 25, 2008


Japan has its fair share and somewhat unique brand of racism, to be sure. I was with a (fellow white) friend Friday night in a Tokyo suburb, and we stepped into a old yakitori place to eat dinner. Just as we sat down at one of many empty tables, the old man behind the counter said "Dame, dame" (No, no, can't do that). "Why?" I asked in polite Japanese, but he didn't answer, just kept shaking his head. It was because we were gaijin, and not just that we were white, any flavor of non-Japanese I'm sure he kicks out of his shop.

Blackface is a taboo in America, and for a very good reason, but there are genuine cultural differences around the globe and we can't assume that all cultures automatically find blackface offensive. When I first saw blackface on Japanese TV I was somewhat appalled, but after giving it some thought realized that the negative connotations came from my American sense of values. BTW, Japanese comedians, when doing an impression of a white person, will put on a blonde wig and a fake, oversized nose.

The blackface on TV shows is always done in order to do an impression of a specific famous person. On one show, one comedian seems to love dressing up as Ronaldino, complete with blackface. Then he bounces around a soccer ball, does some goofy stuff, and that's it. Ronaldino even came on the show at one point and laughed about the whole thing. Compare that with the minstrels who were intentionally mocking a race of people, not individuals, and the difference is night and day. The last thing on a Japanese comedian's mind is 19th century American minstrels.
posted by zardoz at 6:29 PM on May 25, 2008


That's a really good video, thanks for reminding of it.

2nd'd! I had no idea such an awesome song was released in 2005.
posted by tachikaze at 6:42 PM on May 25, 2008


Stavros and t2urner said it best, but I'll add this:

I spent about ten years in Japan. One day, about five years in I complained my fellow expat J, who is African American, about the fact that Japanese people stared at me all the time and treated me, a Caucasian differently, etc.

"That's how I feel back in the States," said J. "I guess I'm used to it. In fact, Japan isn't as bad."

The Japanese are more ignorant than racist, and this perspective is a result of little or no exposure, first-hand, of foreign cultures.

But compare the case of blonde-haired Lucie Blackman versus the shocklingly common murders of Philippine women working the bar scene. Although it's a tragedy what happened to Blackman, whose grisly murder provoked international outrage, the murder and dismemberment of a southeast Asian (brown) bar girl resulted in far less interest.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:57 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I apply to the opinion of a racial expert. Surprisingly, although it's a somewhat different situation, looks like it might not be racist!

Now myself, although I'm no kind of racial expert, and pretty much as white as they come, I would go out on a limb and guess that black people in America probably have some slightly more serious shit to worry about in the racism department.
posted by nanojath at 8:41 PM on May 25, 2008


No, wait... May have gone down the wrong branch of that flow chart. It's still possibly racist. So complicated!
posted by nanojath at 8:47 PM on May 25, 2008


@sour cream: that was Cyndi Lauper playing Herself :)
@rdone: Holy cow! I was an extra in a movie about that, Bushido Blade , you will never see it on Tv because of that very scene. I remember the minstrels (young white guys) were very matter-of-fact about it just being another acting job and we black sailors (from the Yokohama area U.S.Navy bases) being more into the fact that we were at legendary TOHO studios, home of Godzilla, with Toshiro Mifune. Priorities...

Stavros, zardoz (hahaha) and KokuRyu have it right. Japan has it's own form of racism you foreign talking animals ;) but this ain't it. This is just another glimpse at the crazy prism that is the Japanese humorview looking at western culture.

and it's friggen funny.
posted by djrock3k at 9:07 PM on May 25, 2008


Pff. Blackface freaks Americans the fuck out and that's all. There's no problem with using make-up in an celebrity impersonation.
posted by Artw at 9:36 PM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually, I believe it's called "awesome."
posted by luckywanderboy at 12:41 AM on May 26, 2008


One of the earliest (if not THE oldest) forms of Iranian theater is Takht-e Hozi, a primitive lowbrow type of comedy in which the main character is a servant in black face. The "Siah" (literally black) is a clown in a red silk pajama-like costume and a red hat that resembles a fez or bellhop's hat. Takht-e Hozi plays usually involve a family and their servant and some peripheral characters. All the characters are exaggerated and deeply flawed, and the Siah (often named Noruz) gets all the funny lines and snappy comebacks as he exposes their shortcomings and hypocrisy. In the course of mocking the rest of the characters, he sometimes receives beatings (often in the form of kicks in the ass) which usually come at the hands of the Haji (head of the household) who is no match for Noruz when it comes to verbal sparring and repartee.

Although Takht-e Hozi, which is also known as "Siah Baazi" (playing black), is arguably very racist in its portrayal of the black character who is an lowly illiterate servant who speaks pigeon Farsi, is foulmouthed and routinely makes a fool out of himself, he's also the only honest moral character in the play, and at point, usually towards the end or at the very end of the play, breaks character and delivers a moving heartfelt soliloquy in which he plainly addresses all the injustice, hypocrisy and turmoil behind the veneer of comedy.

I tried finding a link to a description of Takht-e Hozi, but there are only about 30 results from google, none of which go past mentioning the name of the particular style of theater/drama.
posted by Devils Slide at 9:48 AM on May 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


an lowly illiterate character? Oh the irony.
posted by Devils Slide at 9:51 AM on May 26, 2008


1) Racism is sometimes not so much denoted by intent as by an adherence to popular reference. This may be ignorance, but it doesn't stop it from adhering to a type of depiction always used to satirize and demean blacks.

2) What really bothers me about blackface is that it represents this notion of abnormality and difference -- that black people have literally something on their face, something opaque, dirt-like, that you rub on top of white skin as to emulate black people. Obviously I'm not arguing that these people think that this is actually so, but that this notion of portraying a black person by rubbing pigment on the entire face is really nothing more than an expression of a belief of difference and latent racism. This is totally different than makeup or putting a mask on the face, because makeup isn't meant to obscure but to enhance the skin underneath, and a mask is a self-contained, independent face that you just wear. For any culture, blackface indicates some sort of twisted underlying belief in the identity of black people as existing on a level of skin color, yeah, but more sinisterly that this skin color different is an alien ingredient, a sullying, to a lighter-colored face which "should" be there already.

3) Side note, offtopic:
One of the things that I've always found interesting when people go to Japan/Korea/China and talk about their experiences is this encounter with racism. Often, so very often, when people (specifically whites) go to Asia and realize the extent of racism there, and realize that even they are perceived differently and discriminated against, its a major paradigm shift. That's fine, but what bothers me is that this new treatment of the self by another society isn't attributed to racism so much as to the fact that the country is so strange. It's a "somewhat unique brand of racism", to quote zardoz -- with a twist!. (nothing specifically against you, zardoz, just using your example.)

Racism felt abroad is often treated as this strange new experience -- that is rarely linked to racism 'at home'. When some acquaintances I knew (who are white) came to Korea, they mentioned several times how people treated them differently or would look at them in the street. The connection that they never really made was that asians/hispanics in the US have similar experiences.
posted by suedehead at 10:07 AM on May 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


What really bothers me about blackface is that it represents this notion of abnormality and difference -- that black people have literally something on their face, something opaque, dirt-like, that you rub on top of white skin as to emulate black people. ... this notion of portraying a black person by rubbing pigment on the entire face is ... an expression of a belief of difference and latent racism. This is totally different than makeup or putting a mask on the face, because makeup isn't meant to obscure but to enhance the skin underneath, and a mask is a self-contained, independent face that you just wear. For any culture, blackface indicates some sort of twisted underlying belief in the identity of black people as existing on a level of skin color, yeah, but more sinisterly that this skin color different is an alien ingredient, a sullying, to a lighter-colored face which "should" be there already.

Though I'm pretty appalled by blackface, I don't get this sort of argument at all: this armchair psychoanalyzing of culture. You make a ton of claims about what how people interpret various acts. How can you possibly know what goes on inside people's heads? On what basis do you assume some sort of uniform view?

What really bothers me about blackface is that it represents...

Represents to whom? Had you written "What really bothers me about blackface is that it makes me think of..." I would have followed you. Presumably, you know what it means to you. You don't know what it means to me or anyone else.

makeup isn't meant to obscure but to enhance the skin

Again: passive voice. WHO doesn't mean makeup obscures skin? My guess is that some people wear makeup for exactly that reason. Others wear it for other reasons.

For any culture, blackface indicates ... that this skin color different is an alien ingredient, a sullying, to a lighter-colored face which "should" be there already.

You finally say who: any culture. You believe that all people in all cultures interpret blackface this way? That they necessarily must? That their brains can't possibly go in another direction? To me, that falls into the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" category.

Racism is horrible. To me, it's the most horrible of all human horrors. I would love to see it wiped out. But I think we actually hinder progress by this sort of pseudo-scientific mind-reading.
posted by grumblebee at 10:42 AM on May 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Grumblebee - It seems like you want a scientific, objective definition of racist speech and acts. But that's just not going to happen, because much of what people experience as racism is descriptive, subjective and rooted in history. So the only way you're going to find out what's racist is by asking people who experience racism whether they think it's racist, and why. You're also going to have to stop worrying about the exact words and try to understand the experience instead. Try reading some blogs on race -- I like racialicious lately, myself.
posted by footnote at 12:21 PM on May 26, 2008


All cultures == America, apparently.
posted by Artw at 2:30 PM on May 26, 2008


I don't think racism is the problem, prejudice is.

As it happens some races are inferior to others, but this inferiority is averaged over an entire population, so isn't noticeable when comparing individuals. Just because somebody is one race doesn't mean you should assume they are the embodiment of all that is petty and stupid about their race as a whole.

These inferior races: Australians, Canadians and the Welsh need our help, not our hate. We need to work together to offer them the best quality of life as possible, without discriminating against them as individuals.

But don't get me wrong some of my best friends are Ozzies.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:52 PM on May 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Grumblebee says: armchair psychoanalyzing of culture. You make a ton of claims about what how people interpret various acts. How can you possibly know what goes on inside people's heads? On what basis do you assume some sort of uniform view?

Again: passive voice. WHO doesn't mean makeup obscures skin? My guess is that some people wear makeup for exactly that reason. Others wear it for other reasons.

Okay, clarification. What I mean is that TO ME there seems to be a difference between blackface and makeup/masks.

Makeup is usually worn to enhance the body so that it achieves a desired ideal that the body deviates from, no? Light-skinned people don't wear dark foundation, or vice versa. I'm arguing that the motive behind makeup isn't to change one's identity but to enhance it. If your skin is cracked, etc -- someone might put on makeup, but to obscures skin blemishes, not to change one's identity. I'm talking about traditional uses of makeup, not Halloween costume makeup or such, and I'm arguing that this is the social use behind makeup, based on my understanding of makeup, media portrayals of makeup, etc. Feel free to disagree with me, but if you do, tell me why.

Masks, on the other hand, do change identities. They've been used in plays, religious rituals, etc, in which the wearer of the mask is conceived to actually acquire the identity of the person that the mask represents, a sort of talismanic signifier. I'd argue that the identity that a mask contains is not situated in the ritual, but in the physical object that, in the process of wearing it, transcends its physicality to hold spiritual/psychic power -- "psychic power" as in a power to change one's psyche and identity.

In contrast, TO ME, blackface is something totally different, perhaps between these two. When Al Jolson wears blackface, its so that he can look like a black person (that's part of the point) -- and in this case the blackface pigment operates as a mask, and changes his identity. But not really -- he's still Al Jolson, supposed to be a black person. FOR ME, this notion of supposed-to-be-but-not-really, this half-hearted emulation is the core of blackface. The face is darkened, but by not changing much else and/or by exaggerating certain changes (painted lips, etc), a blackface actor makes it clear that he is in blackface (that's the rest of the point) by emphasizing the painted nature of the face. This considered in combination with the fact that blackface entertainers were always usually in comedic acts, not in serious roles of depiction, to me reinforces this sense of pretending, of semi-faked identity.

What bothers ME about blackface is that this change of identity is achieved not by wearing a mask, but by putting paint/pigment on the skin, as if to say "that's it, my skin color is different, my costume is ready, I'm a different person". This is different than what I believe makeup does. Like I argued above, blackface advertises its fakery by make it clear that the face is actually painted, as if that the knowledge of face paint somehow offsets the effect of face paint -- that is, to supposedly change the wearer's identity. It seems TO ME to represent this underlying belief in racial identity as inherent in skin color, not as cultural, contextual, or performative. And because racism between blacks and whites has been so much about skin color (whereas racism between asians and whites, I'd argue, has been more about cultural/linguistic discrimination), it's especially disturbing to me.

And on top of this, the original use of shoe polish as black face paint indicates this sort of sullying, a dirtying, a coloring. If the entertainer's desire is to just portray a black person, why not wear a mask? This notion of coloring, of pigmenting a lighter skin to emulate darker skin parallels racist views of blacks as dirty, sullied, which makes me uncomfortable even more.

--

Just because the originating motive of an action wasn't racist doesn't mean that the action itself isn't racist. Consider this far-fetched example/thought experiment: someone has a bad experience at 2nd ave deli, is blissfully ignorant of the Holocaust or Nazism, and says "I hate all Jews - I wish all of them didn't exist". Is that racist? Of course. Is that only as racist, only as offensive as a comment by someone who says "I hate all whites - I wish all of them didn't exist"?

I disagree. I argue that whatever the motive, the fact that this person was ignorant of historical facts isn't very relevant -- what matters is that his statement parallels an attitude that led to the Holocaust, and that his statement will offend a lot of people. Racism exists not in originary motive but in social/discursive reception, always always in context. Ignorance is an explanation, but is not an acceptable excuse for offense, discrimination, racism.

So, Grumblebee, you say: "You make a ton of claims about what how people interpret various acts. How can you possibly know what goes on inside people's heads? On what basis do you assume some sort of uniform view?" My response is: I'm not a mind-reader, nor am I trying to be. What I'm trying to talk about is how the effects of blackface -- how, for me, I perceive blackface this way and it's disturbingly parallel to these issues and thus racist in reception.

I apologize if my previous words came across otherwise.

--

Racism is horrible. To me, it's the most horrible of all human horrors. I would love to see it wiped out.

I agree that racism is horrible. But I'd also argue that some desire to see racism 'wiped out' is to think of it as some sort of strange external evil that can be killed, invaded, warred against -- and that this sort of thought is more harmful than helpful. If you really insist, though, we can have the War Against Racism after we finish the War on Terrorism.
posted by suedehead at 5:26 PM on May 26, 2008


Makeup is usually worn to enhance the body so that it achieves a desired ideal that the body deviates from, no? Light-skinned people don't wear dark foundation, or vice versa.

That's not universally true, as there are cases when the desired ideal that makeup helps to achieve is to lighten one's darker-than-desired skin (i.e., Ye Olde lead face powder or vampiric-looking goths) or darken one's paler-than-desired skin (i.e., ganguro girls or self-tanning).
posted by CKmtl at 5:46 PM on May 26, 2008


That's fine, but what bothers me is that this new treatment of the self by another society isn't attributed to racism so much as to the fact that the country is so strange. It's a "somewhat unique brand of racism", to quote zardoz -- with a twist!.

I think what's different between the "racism" I as a white foreigner experienced in Japan and the racism that, say, African Americans experience in the US or First Nations ("Indians" in American parlance) in Canada, is that, in North America, there is the underlying menace of physical violence.

People in Japan are ignorant of other cultures. There isn't a whole lot of "those darned foreigners", etc. If you learn to speak the language and correctly observe customs (and don't live near an American base) it is pretty easy to fit into society. Unlike the US or Australia, Japan is not an immigrant, officially multicultural society...yet, so fitting in is important. It's not always easy, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

One of the negatives to living in Japan is firmly entrenched, and ever-creeping institutionalized racism. And it's no secret zainichi Koreans suffered terribly during and after the war.

But I've been to some outback, seemingly redneck bars in Japan, and every tough-looking guy becomes as gentle and as friendly as a pussycat after a couple of drinks. Racism is a little different in Japan, because it's not a method of suppressing an entire class of people as it is in the States.

And, btw, foreigners are never called "hairy barbarians" etc., in Japan (although there is the word "yabanjin," which is never used in conversation. Foreigners are simply called "gaijin", or "outsiders." No reference to hair or body odour, etc. Just differentness.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:12 PM on May 26, 2008


Grumblebee - It seems like you want a scientific, objective definition of racist speech and acts.

No, I want two things (both of which are different from what you think I want -- sorry if I wasn't clear):

1. I want people to agree (or agree to disagree) on a definition of racism during a specific discussion of whether or not X is racist. If there's no agreement, there's no point to the conversation.

If I think racism is a dog and you think it's a fish, there's no point arguing whether or not it lives in the sea.

Please note that I'm not saying ALL discussions about racism should be about pinning down definitions. I'm saying that discussions about whether or not a specific thing is racist must start this way (in order to be meaningful). You can't categorize X without first defining the categories.

There doesn't need to be agreement. It's fine for person A to say, "I think it lives in the sea, because I think it's a fish," and for person B to say, "Well, I think it doesn't, because I think it's a dog." At least we now know where A and B stand. What's pointless is for A and B to just go back and forth with "It lives in the sea!" "No it doesn't!" "Yes it does!" Do they both think it's a fish but disagree about where fish live? Do they both think it's a dog but disagree about where dogs live? Or do they not even agree about the type of animal?

Unless the whole point of the conversation is to vent and share feelings. I agree that we (who don't daily suffer racism) have much to learn from others (who do).

I'm all for emotional/experience-based conversations, but this one wasn't framed that way. It was framed as a conversation about whether a specific thing was racist or not. All I'm saying is that it's pointless to argue that until all participants clarify what they mean by racist.

2. My other point is that people can't read each other's minds. And society at large doesn't have a mind. I'm suspicious of statements like, "In America, we think X" or "In America, blackface means..."

Such statements can be useful shorthands. "In America, blackface means..." can be shorthand for "In American, many people associate blackface with..." but it can also be dangerous, misleading rhetoric. There are lots of Americans with lots of different, un-unified mindsets and associations.
posted by grumblebee at 5:21 AM on May 27, 2008


I'm all for emotional/experience-based conversations, but this one wasn't framed that way.

And here, boys and girls, you see grumblebee's hypocrisy. In my zeal to prove my point, I lapsed into passive voice. Convarsations aren't framed. People frame conversations. I wouldn't blame anyone for saying, "What do you mean 'the conversation was framed'? By whom? Maybe you frame it that way, but that's not how I frame it."

The "whom" I should have referenced is parmanparman, the original poster. He wrote, "Is it racist when non-whites do blackface?" That's the framing I meant. If George thinks "racist" means "what offends the victim" and Bill thinks it means "a speaker's intent to cast one race as inferior to another," Bill and George will likely have a non-sensical argument.
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 AM on May 27, 2008


I agree that racism is horrible. But I'd also argue that some desire to see racism 'wiped out' is to think of it as some sort of strange external evil that can be killed, invaded, warred against -- and that this sort of thought is more harmful than helpful.

Yeah, I can see how it comes across this way. But I don't think racism is a "strange external evil." There's nothing external about it. It's a rather natural attitude. Playing armchair (is there any other kind?) Evolutionary Psychologist, I suppose it's rooted in tribalism. Evolution selected in favor of tribalism (makes sense: there's safety in numbers, etc.), but if tribes get too big, they become mired in chaos. So we form into teams and hate the other team.

We form teams quickly, without thinking. And we need markers to tell team A from team B. In sports, such markers are usually colored uniforms; so in non-sporting life, why not colored skin?

Yes, such attitudes seem pretty embedded. And yet for this world to become a place I want to live in, we need to be rid of them. I often think that goal is impossible. In fact, much of the time, I'm even more pessimistic. Much of the time, I think it's impossible for the situation to even improve much.* Given that without improving, the world (for me, anyway) is a pretty horrible place, that's not a thought that makes my want to tiptoe through the tulips. So much of the time, I just bury my head in the sand.

* I do think it's possible to make life better for black people (Jews, gays, women, etc.), but that's a bandaid approach. Squeeze one end of the balloon and the air just shifts into the other end. The problem, as I see it, is not racism but tribalism (or, if you'd rather, teamism). Racism is just one manifestation of tribalism. I really hate living in a world in which cultures are based around "this is my team, and if you're on the other team, I hate you." (See: Democrats vs. Republicans, etc.)
posted by grumblebee at 7:17 AM on May 27, 2008


Grumblebee, I apologize for my 'war against racism' snipe, and I appreciate that you're a person levelheaded enough to respond to it civilly.

One thing:

I agree that we (who don't daily suffer racism) have much to learn from others (who do).

Please. Don't do this.

You're assuming that a collective 'we' exists, presumably the readership of Metafilter, and that this readership/'we' doesn't suffer racism. Either, you're assuming that the readership of Metafilter is of a majority group and therefore doesn't suffer racism --- or at best, that 'we' live in a society civilized and cosmopolitan enough to not have racism. Since you've mentioned multiple times how pessimistic you are about racism being embedded in human attitudes, I'm going to go on a limb and assume the former. In short -- you just assumed that the readership of Metafilter is white.

I think you're an intelligent, thoughtful guy, but I absolutely abhor these assumptions -- they're part of the worst kind of racism, just after overt racism. I don't believe in a we, or a collective of any sort -- the 'teamism' that you mention starts not from A vs. B, but from the designation of a single team that, by definition, is an exclusionary operation that differentiates between outside and inside. Your 'we' acts in the same way -- who is this we? By assuming that this 'we' that you designate doesn't suffer from racism, you define this difference, ultimately "form[ing] teams quickly, without thinking."

These cavalier assumptions are the worst, always the worst. I'm an American guy of Asian descent* and every once in a while someone (always happens to be white) will meet me and say some variant of "What country are you from?". I speak English fluently without an accent -- it has nothing to do with my language skills, but with my race. Would someone ever ask a black American the same question? Obviously not. I hope the assumptions here are crystal clear, as they are to me -- that certain races are assumed to be inextricably tied to nationality, biology tied to society, and therefore that specific biological identity is affected to be seen as distant and alien due to its connection to a foreign, far-away country. This happens all the time in the midwest, , southwest, or northeast US, sometimes here in NY-fucking-C, and it just happened here on Metafilter.

*I hate this phrase, but it's the only understandable way to say it
posted by suedehead at 10:38 PM on May 27, 2008


In short -- you just assumed that the readership of Metafilter is white.

Heh. The funny ironic thing is, here, for me, that I'm caucasian, but choose to live in Korea, and so deal with racist (or merely xenophobic) attitudes directed towards me as a visible minority every single day. Most are harmless, some are less so. *shrug*

Doesn't bother me much, because the one thing I've learned about all this is that the kind of tribal monkeythink that is our heritage as a species is universal, that education and awareness of the universality of human experience is the only antidote, and that the only workable response (in my humble) is to eschew it in your own behaviour, and avoid and shun those who display it.

Talking about it -- well, that's fine, I guess. We do love to talk.

suedehead is right, though. The moment you say 'we', you imply the existence of a 'them'. This way lies all the horrors humans have ever inflicted on one another.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:35 AM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree that we (who don't daily suffer racism) have much to learn from others (who do).

Please. Don't do this.

You're assuming that a collective 'we' exists, presumably the readership of Metafilter, and that this readership/'we' doesn't suffer racism.


Sorry for the confusion (all my fault). I didn't mean Metafilter (or our society at large). I totally understand how a reasonable person, reading my comment ON Metafiler, would likely assume that my "we" was a reference to the collective members OF Metafilter.

But I meant a much more insular "we." I meant me and my small group of friends (and people like us). I'm Jewish, so I have suffered some racism in my life, but it's not a daily occurrence for me. It's not even in the top 100 things I worry about. So I fit the bill of "someone who doesn't suffer from racism who has much to learn from those who do." And so do my friends. Hence my "we."

I'm well aware that Metafilter is multi-racial and multi-cultural (with some biases towards white America.) I wouldn't have it any other way.
posted by grumblebee at 8:03 AM on May 28, 2008


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