Race transforming: more than meets the eye

This post was intended to go up on Monday. My apologies for the past month of shakiness. I am hoping to see things settle down in the next couple of weeks.

I left a somewhat cryptic message for you on Monday:

I want to remind people that it’s not okay to dress up as a First Nations person. While it might be a totally cute costume, it’s incredibly disrespectful to wear a feathered headdress and “war paint” to a bar, particularly if you’re going to forgo a shirt for simply a bra, get up on stage and sing a song about fucking guys in exchange for alcohol.

Some of you inquired as to what exactly I was talking about. It seemed like an oddly-specific caution to give – who would actually do something like this? Well, I can report with more than a little sighing and eye-rolling that this is something that I witnessed on Sunday night. A duo of women who called what they were doing “parody” got up on stage at the open mic I host with my band and did some rapping that was offensive not only because of how bad it was, but because of how they were dressed while performing. I mentioned to their friends that they might want to let these ladies know that what they’re doing is incredibly racist – the response was “well she was given that headdress as a gift from a First Nations person.”

A reader contacted me by e-mail to ask a follow-up question about my ‘positive stereotypes’ post last week:

…do you think the desirability of full lips and ample bottoms should be discouraged in the white community? (Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, etc.) I understand how it could be problematic- that these women made a feature that typically “belongs” to a minority group suddenly desirous when the minority group has had it for many years without it being remarked or noticed. Yet, are physical features different than culture theft?

I sent a reply along the lines that features on their own aren’t necessarily the problem – it’s when those features are racialized (like having “a black girl ass”) that I start to get uncomfortable. Reducing members of minority groups to sexual characteristics is incredibly dehumanizing. While that’s enough of a reason to be suspicious of that kind of fetishization, there was a larger issue that I felt deserved some discussion.

Another reader sent me an e-mail asking for my response to a blog post he had written:

On August 3rd, I came across a news report on MSNBC about Quera Pruitt, a Black student suing her old high school over a homecoming celebration known as “Wigger Wednesday”  by students while she attended.

The story in question concerns a school in Minnesota where the student body held a day when the student body was supposed to dress up as “wiggers” – a contraction of the words “white” and “nigger”. I pointed out that above and beyond my objections to using the inherently-racist word “wigger”, it was an event that by definition excludes any student that isn’t white, since there is already a word for a black person that “dresses like a nigger”. Even beyond that, though, there’s another problem that his discussion missed that I think is salient.

All three of these examples speak to an issue that I have alluded to before but never made explicit: race transforming. That is, dressing up or in another way appropriating the hallmarks of another ethnocultural group. I want to first be clear about what I’m not talking about. I am not talking about making an effort to participate in the practices of another group, or trying to incorporate the traditions of another group into your daily life. I think it’s great when people break out of their cultural silos, particularly when it comes to innovating new types of music or food (yum!). Provided that your participation is respectful and you engage in due diligence about the context of whatever tradition you’re involved in, then go nuts.

When I talk about ‘race transforming’, I am talking about taking an image or feature that is specifically associated with one group, and divorcing it of its context. There are a variety of reasons why people do this. In the case of the ladies at the open mic, I guess they thought it was sexy – completely ignoring the fact that those headdresses aren’t just a fashion accessory and have deep cultural significance (to say nothing of the sexualization of the “squaw” image that flies insultingly in the face of the disproportionately high rates of sexual abuse faced by First Nations women). In the case of “black girl asses” or “Puerto Rican eyes” it’s usually intended as some kind of compliment, but is inappropriate for reasons I discussed in my post last week. In the case of “wigger Wednesday” it’s intentional mockery of an already-marginalized group – playing up their poverty for laughs.

The other side of this issue is the fact that while the rappers can slip back into their Lululemon and American Apparel, Scarlett Johansson is a blonde bombshell, and the Minnesota students will go back to being just regular students once they doff their basketball jerseys and chains, the groups they are lampooning have no such recourse. First Nations women have to deal with the double whammy of being sexualized as women and as First Nations people, regardless of what they say, do or wear. Black women might have great asses, but those ‘positive’ features also come alongside a whole host of decidedly-negative stereotypes about black women that are intrinsically-tied to skin colour. “Wiggers” might be comical, but when dressing that way in earnest makes you a target for police profiling and not dressing like that makes you a social outcast, you’re stuck in a bit of a Catch-22.

Of course, this entire line of reasoning assumes that people actually bother to take the time to sit, reflect, and listen to the points of view of other groups. By and large, anyone who thinks that these behaviours/attitudes are acceptable aren’t the kind to really give it a whole lot of thought. They have the ability to ignore the racial marginalization of other groups (gosh, if only there was a word for that), and when confronted about their behaviour they usually pivot to blaming their critics of being “too sensitive”. Perhaps the problem is not an excess of sensitivity, but exactly the opposite.

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  1. says

    A recent event in Oz that made me come back and read the above post again: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-08-28/qantas-under-fire-over-blackface-stunt/2859228.

    In light of your above text, does this count as racialization…? While I realize that many differences are present (we’re not talking half-dressed, drunken karaoke, here), there is still an aspect of deliberately distinguishing a person by their racial traits.

    As one commenter put it, “I think it’s the opposite. This isn’t at all racism. They aren’t being negative or hostile, they are in no way implying that they are superior to him, it’s actually the complete opposite. People need to remember the actual definition of racism before they go accusing others of being racist. Racism is a low low act and should not be tolerated, but that doesn’t mean that any comment about someone’s race is negative and therefore racism. It’s a huge accusation to make.”

    I’m inclined to agree with the commenter.

  2. says

    Blackface has a particular history. There is never an acceptable circumstance or excuse for blackface – period. Whether they intended it as a racist act is beside the point. Intent has absolutely nothing to do with the issue. If I went to a ‘monster’-themed costume party at the local B’nai Brith chapter dressed as Hitler, I would be rightly condemned. There simply is no way to make such an act non-racist. Even if they were ignorant about the history of blackface (and I doubt they were), it’s still inextricably linked with the history of the marginalization and suppression of black people.

    And, since we’re looking at this particular post, I’ll remind you that while the two fans can go home, shower, and instantaneously turn back into white people (with its associated privileges), Mr. Samo doesn’t have that luxury. There was a piece on AJE this morning about black football players in Russia who are being pelted with bananas (comparison to monkeys – stay classy, Russia) while they’re playing. I wonder what Mr. Samo’s reaction would be if he played in the Russian league rather than in NZ?

  3. says

    While I don’t know that I can agree with your comment about intent having nothing to do with the issue, I certainly understand the points you make about historical connotations and the ability of the fans to go back to their non-minority lives.

    I suppose my only concern is that if you can’t use positive connotations/intent to shun the negative, then how do you ever get to a place where the historical hurt is of less impact?

    Thanks for the reply – I’m off to read your latest!

  4. says

    If I do something that’s intended to be a joke (in my mind) but which is hurtful and exclusionary to an underrepresented group, does it take their hurt away if I say “it was only a joke”? If my actions surreptitiously contribute to a climate of dismissal and hatred of that group, does the fact that I was only kidding somehow reverse that? Of course not. Intent is meaningless – it is the consequences by which we judge actions.

    Who appointed these guys to ‘shun the negative’? When was it decided that these guys had some kind of ‘get out of racism free’ pass whereby they could appropriate a racist activity to ‘fix’ the historical hurt? The way we get to mutual respect and understanding of these kinds of issues is through dialogue – it is certainly not by just saying “well I was only kidding, therefore you’re overreacting.”

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