Archives for posts with tag: racism

Do people know what is meant when it’s said that ‘race’ is a social construct? I mean, I hope they do, since it’s something important to know. Given the increasing frequency of certain news items I keep seeing, the answer is probably not. Race being a social construct means that what people see as ‘race’ is ascribed by society, and does not reflect anything real. To be black in America is to possess ‘blackness’ which is defined by the history and contemporary reality of race relations in America. Blackness is laziness tinged with amoral greed, as defined by Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” rhetoric. Blackness is criminality, as personified by the ‘black culture‘ of the commercialized violence of hip hop, gangsters on TV, and then overtly legislated in the criminal justice system that pegs them as super-predators. In Canada, much of this carries over to our Native population, who must also endure the caricature of the Dead Indian, the feather-wearing Brave that no longer exists outside of its representation of our forlorn past. Most importantly, it is irrelevant to modern society. The more we perceive our Indians to be a thing of the past, the less likely we are to take them seriously today. Whiteness in turn has its own social construction: white people are more civilized (Modernization Theory posits that societies outside of Europe and its descendants are struggling toward a European model of civilization, since it allegedly has already reached the societal peak), and with that gift of civilization, whiteness is generous as it loves to impart that gift onto others (commonly called the white saviour complex). Despite those who seek scientific research delineating innate racial differences, the answer is that we’re all basically the same, and it is only public perception that defines what we call ‘race.’

Which leads to ethnicity. Ethnicity is seen to be the ‘real’ race, since it is linked to a shared culture and nationality. People have an essence of Polish to them, for example, if their grandparents were born in Poland, and they eat lots of pierogi. However, ethnicity runs into its own problems. What happens if someone who is of third generation Polish descent lives in North America and is fully assimilated into North American culture? Do they maintain their Polish ethnicity? Would the same be said of a fully assimilated person of Korean descent? Alternatively, what if that Korean American really loved pierogi and ate just as much as our original Polish family? What if that Korean lived in Poland and participated exclusively in Polish culture? Can there be a Canadian or American ethnicity?

There are two factors that are at play in answering these questions. First of all, outward appearance: someone of Korean descent will never be considered as ethnically Polish simply because they look different. The second is blood: those who declared the assimilated Pole as still ethnically Polish will likely look to ancestry as the chief determinate. In Métis culture, there are those who demand that a bloodline to the original Red River Settlement is necessary in order to be a ‘true’ Métis. So ethnicity boils down to innate qualities derived from genetics, and what a person looks like, irrespective of how much or how little of their assumed culture they participate in. It’s gussied-up race, is what I’m getting at here. It’s the difference between saying black people smoke pot, which is an offensive generalization, and Jamaicans smoke pot, which alludes to Rastafarian culture, but in reality is simply refining a stereotype. Claiming an American or Canadian ethnicity is absurd because of the diversity within those nations, but that diversity apparently does not apply anywhere else.

People have different reactions to ethnicity. It’s almost a trope to ask Asians where they are really from, as if their ethnicity will determine every future interaction with them (Vietnamese people drive like this whereas Chinese people drive like this). Others are proud to be a part of a tradition passed on through the generations. However, participating in rituals, venerating symbols, and basking in the comfort of a common community are the markers of religion, not race. Believing in an insoluble bloodline that creates a human essence is a matter of faith, with all the spiritual significance and potential for destruction that that implies. And just as with religion, someone’s heritage can mean as much or as little to them as they choose. That is always up to them. If you find yourself assuming the importance of someone’s heritage, or making blanket statements about someone’s “culture”, then remember how ethnicity and race are interchangeable, and how this then would make you a racist.

Don’t be a racist.

The rallying cries to end racism, to end homophobia, and to smash the patriarchy are all passionate pleas calling for sanity in a world gone crazy with unfounded hatred and hegemonic power imbalances. They all wish for the same thing: the elimination of injustice. We want to destroy capitalism. We want to abolish racism. We use colourful language like this with grand images of violent revolution because it is an anger that stirs within us that wants to lash out in retaliation against the oppression that we see inflicted upon the less fortunate. Seeing the devastation that injustice can bring would indeed drive any rational person mad, so to condemn the seething reactions begotten by this social terrorism is as absurd as condoning the appalling apathy that inevitably accompanies it. I use “we” because I am not excluded from these feelings, though my preferences tend toward simmering cynicism over boiling rage.

What are these injustices? Racism is the preference of one race over another, often structurally enforced by anachronistic institutions built prior to the bleeding heart enlightenment. Basically samesies with sexism, replacing race with gender where appropriate. And so on. Now, obviously they’re not identical and intersectionality has come a long way in explaining why, but they do share one common element: they are all ideas. Ideas fused into systemic practice, yes, but at their foundation they are intangible worldviews.

How do you destroy an idea? Tangible things are easy. Audrey Lorde’s quotation about being unable to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools would be irrelevant if she were talking about a literal house. That shit would be a breeze to knock down. We have hate speech and anti-discrimination laws in Canada that prevent overt oppression meaning that, on paper, injustice has been triumphantly eliminated from our country. Well done, Canada! Except obviously it hasn’t. The tangible injustice is all but gone, leaving only the insidiously abstract injustice to be destroyed, and it seems the abstract is far more resilient.

Yet to destroy, demolish, dismantle, and decimate (if you wish to reduce injustice by a tenth) can only succeed negatively. What I mean by this is eliminating injustice can only ever negate the status quo. It seeks to thwart an inherently destructive idea with other destructive ideas. If you believe Lorde, then it’s simply never going to work.

Within the last year, there have been several sexual assault cases that were gravely illuminating about the flaws within our justice system. Kesha was forced to continue working with a man who sexually assaulted her. Brock Turner received a slap on the wrist. The judge for the Jian Ghomeshi case highlighted the problem by stating that without hard evidence, it comes down to the testimony of the accuser against the accused. This is then subject to often harsh cross-examination which can easily raise reasonable doubt as trauma is neither the best for memory nor unambiguous in its mental affectations. Thus, too often does justice ignore the victims of one of the most heinous crimes today. The legal system is an institution, but more than an institution, it is an idea. It is an idea that did not take into account the unique tragedy of sexual assault victims during its conception.

Screaming that the legal system is broken will not fix it. An argument could be made that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but imagine a group of workers complaining about the conditions of their factory to the owner. The owner may eventually implement a solution, but it will be a solution created by the owner who is likely going to avoid shifting the system too far as he is the one currently benefiting from it. Progress requires new ideas. The elimination of injustice will be the byproduct of these new ideas, not their predecessor.

The Broadway musical Rent has a lyric that states that the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation. This line is then followed by a jubilant WOOOOO! to celebrate its veracity. Peace is only the stagnation of where the war left off. Creation is the opposite of war because creativity produces something new. We need to stop trying to destroy, and start building.

#OscarsSoWhite is something that I am as usual addressing much later than most, in no small part due to my unrelenting contempt for Twitter-based social justice trends. However, as the trend does accurately point out, there are a substantial number of white people in Hollywood movies, to the point where characters who are canonically non-white are often portrayed as white people. Scarlett Johansson in the American remake of the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell is one contemporary example. This generates immense online backlash in the form of the electronic version of rolling one’s eyes. On the flip side, there is backlash when canonically white characters are portrayed as non-whites. A black James Bond and a black Spider-man were both vehemently opposed and neither made it to production. As common as the themes of these arguments are, it’s not the same people arguing both sides. One group is demanding respect for the sacredness of an entirely fictional canon (Spider-man isn’t real), and the other is arguing against the forced monochromatic nature of films (black people are real).

Let’s talk about diversity in films. To be clear, there isn’t much. Black James Bond and black Spider-man never got made, remember, yet Ghost in the Shell, Pan, Gods of Egypt, and Dr. Strange did (or are, for those that aren’t released yet). Is this a huge problem? America is predominantly white, so why not pander to the largest demographic? Bollywood films are pretty much exclusively Indian, and Korean films all star Korean actors. Somewhat ironically, the original Ghost in the Shell anime has a white character voiced by a Japanese man. The film industries of these countries make films depicting their dominant group because that is their audience. It makes sense. Nobody complains about the lack of diversity of language in Hollywood films, because America is an English speaking nation.

It seems logical then that movies should depict the demographics of their host countries. America is 63% white, 16% Hispanic, 12% black, and 5% Asian, so why not aim for that? This is where it becomes complicated. For example, a Hollywood movie would need 20 characters before one of them was Asian, or another solution might be that every 20th movie would need to be casted entirely as Asian. Neither of these are feasible options. Most movies only have one or two protagonists. Or if the film was entirely Asian, it would ignore the largest demographic and would therefore have less of a chance to be a box office success. This is something no movie mogul will abide in our wealth-driven movie industry. Now we’re left wondering: should the film industry ignore 14.5 million Americans just because it would be complicated to incorporate them?

Failing to depict Asians in film does not only a disservice to Asian-Americans who are looking for representation on the big screen, but to the entirety of the population. It is our myths that socialize us, and now that religion is dead, we’re left with the entertainment industry to teach us how to be human beings. Depressing, right? Well life is miserable, get over it. We idolize our fictional heroes and heroines, and so we relate to and emulate their personality and characteristics. Ignoring Asians in film not only denies role models to maturing Asian-American youth, but also prevents Asian faces from being a part of white socialization. If whites aren’t shown any images of another race, they won’t know how to respond to them in person. And we all know how well humans behave around people they don’t understand… It’s poorly. We behave poorly.

So diversity in racial depictions is necessary for social cohesion, demographics be damned. Great. We’re left with one more problem. How do we depict races on screen? I hope I don’t need to argue that racist stereotypes are bad. If all black people on screen are depicted as gangsters, then everyone will be socialized to think of black people as gangsters. It is fairly common to see people arguing for normalcy in racialized depictions in movies. Like a black Spider-man or James Bond who behaves identically to their already established white counterparts. These films have been indistinguishable remakes for years now, what difference would it make to simply have a different race portrayed as the protagonist? Characters with accents or who adhere to dramatic outside cultures might make racial minorities seem like exotic foreigners who do not belong, and portraying other races as identical to whites would foster racial equality within North American culture.

This has one glaring problem: defining normalcy as imitating established white culture makes other cultures abnormal. The First Nations in Canada are in the midst of fighting for cultural sovereignty and to depict one as fully assimilated into white culture, interchangeable with their white peers, would be wholly offensive (especially given the context of our Residential Schools whose barbaric practices aimed at establishing exactly this). Different is not a bad thing. Some people have accents, different styles of clothing, and different cultural practices. Should a Sikh not be shown in a turban because it makes him an exotic foreigner rather than a neighbour? Portraying the rich cultures that make up the diverse American population would allow respect to blossom for alternative ways of living that people have every right to live.

However, this portrayal forces people into their ethnic culture, however respectfully it is portrayed. Some people want to assimilate. It’s not intrinsically evil. Or even pick and choose their practices; it’s their right. How can this translate to film when one version will be offensive to one group, and the other will be offensive to the first? The answer is simpler than you might think.

Let people tell their own stories, define their own characters. Diversity starts in the writing room. It is the only way to authenticity.