Racism is one of those topics that the vast majority of people in the world will agree is bad. Which is helpful, because it provides a common factor in ethics, a value that is actually hard to argue against. However, the definition of racism is something that is often not pinned down very well, so broad in scope that the epithet is often applied in situations where the detriments cannot even be seen.
While I’m not going to attempt to define it distinctly here, I am going to throw out a lot of things to consider, among them stereotypes and caricatures, which we’ll tackle in order. A stereotype is the idea of a class of people, sometimes racial but more often not, that all bear some particular trait (or at least a majority do.) Stereotypes come about largely because people recognize certain tendencies in the first place, a pattern that is already present, but they can also be an introduced stereotype, something that is culturally supported and repeated but not really represented within the class, any more than any other class. Think of the idea of the idiot husband, which is such a huge facet of TV sitcoms that it can be hard not to find it repeated. This is not any more, or less, racist, sexist, bigoted, or biased that the ‘woman driver,’ yet it is rarely ever addressed, much less capable of inspiring a vehement reaction when introduced. Then there are the stereotypes of the nerdy kid or the jock, the nosy neighbor or the gypsy-attired spiritualist, the fat filthy mechanic or the lilting-voiced homosexual. When these are used in most fictional works, it is because someone is attempting to get across a particular idea quickly, with a minimum of time devoted to character development. Quite often it is used for comedic effect, which is enough to spark the idea that some form of judgment is being passed on a class of people – this is where it gets interesting. “Gay guys do not all lisp or bear an obsession with decorating!” come the protests – but it’s never clear whether anyone was trying to say that in the first place. Characters are created by far not, as some would believe, to promote an agenda, but to serve as a vehicle or a foil, a simple method of driving a plot or joke. And again, we don’t ever protest the stupid husband or the jock, do we? Why not? Aren’t these just as pernicious influences on our culture?
The use of the word “nigger” is considered extremely bad – when done by any non-black person. In certain music genres, however, it is ridiculously overused, sometimes defiantly, sometimes with pride. All of these genres are performed by black musicians and vocalists. What does this tell us about the word itself, its acceptability in “society,” its function, its meaning? Moreover, is it a stereotype to portray a black person using “nigger” conversationally, or is it a distinctive culture? Where is the line that is crossed? Now, think about this: if we insist that everyone else cannot use a particular word that is common among blacks, isn’t this a racial distinction by itself? How weird is it that someone would have to know someone’s skin color to ‘properly’ classify the word usage, as if its definition could evolve for black people but remains fixed as distinctly negative for everyone else?
What about speech patterns? The same cultures tend to have very distinctive mannerisms in speech, both in timbre (which is a prevalent trait among black people, so much so that one can often tell the color of someone’s skin over the phone,) and in word usage and slang. Now, if I (an unarguably white male) were to imitate such a speech pattern, is this racist? Am I, in some way, offering commentary on all black people by doing so, even when it is a common trait within this country? Does this only apply to certain classes or racial distinctions, or does it also apply to, for instance, the Dutch Minnesotan accent? And if not, why not?
That’s just to start the thought processes. Right now we’ll move on to caricatures. There is a caricature hanging on the wall where I can see it right now, of The Girlfriend and The Younger Sprog. It is far from an accurate portrait, and shamelessly exaggerates the features of both, but it isn’t hard to fathom that the artist was portraying them, and they’re easy to tell apart. A caricature is a method of exaggerating traits that we tend to notice – accuracy is not the goal in the slightest, but the portrayal of someone in a recognizable yet simplistic and often cartoonish way. Is this making fun of those traits, or denigrating the people depicted for having them? In some cases, perhaps the argument could be made, but in most of them it’s just a method of producing an easy portrait. Again, finding the line that’s crossed is highly subjective – and subjectivity is not something upon which we should ever pass judgment. While I might have an opinion of the artist’s motives, this doesn’t make it correct in the slightest.
Not to mention the ridiculous pop psychology that arises at such times. Even if, for instance, the artist really was trying to say something nasty about The Girlfriend’s smile, so what? That’s the artist’s problem. It’s one individual’s impression of another individual – to carry it further would require a lot more supporting evidence than one quickly-drawn portrait. But much much worse, to believe that anyone else seeing this depiction would in some way be influenced in the same negative manner is, to put it bluntly, total horseshit. We constantly hear how things like children’s television or favorite books must be influencing their malleable and unquestioning little minds, and even hear it about grown adults as well, the same ones entrusted with voting and driving cars and paying bills; we’re never the ones that can be influenced so readily by a cartoon, but, you know, they undoubtedly will. Aside from the bizarre idea that any human could be imprinted like a duckling by trivial contact with some particular attitude, there’s the ironic fact that negative judgment is being passed on a very large segment of our population, as being too stupid to recognize fiction or satire.
That brings us to humor. It’s not hard to find someone that insists that some topic should never be the target of humor, or that a humorous depiction is actually the true feelings of someone, disguised as humor to make it more acceptable. And while I’m sure the latter does occur, how often it occurs, and determining for certain that it has, are again almost entirely subjective; there’s no easy way to tell, and making that judgment in the absence of much supporting evidence is, again, an irrational bias. Humor is a very convoluted thing, and a surprisingly large number of aspects within the topic are in some way based on denigration or misfortune – if you find this hard to believe, start classifying all of the humor you hear and see how often someone comes out of it in a bad light. Stereotypes and caricatures are used often therein to both establish the premise, and to avoid any real target of this (admittedly mild) abuse.
We also have to be careful about how we view humor, especially in taking it too seriously – it’s a topic that is specifically not intended to be taken seriously, even if (such as in the case of satire) it is a method of highlighting something that might bear serious consideration; sometimes, the goal is to make us think, or recognize a situation that we might have been ignoring for whatever reason. But to claim that any topic is ‘off limits’ to humor is to miss the entire purpose of humor. We might not personally find something funny, but this is only an opinion, and the judgment should remain personal; not liking a particular song does not make the musician or the music itself bad in any way (except for ‘Jack and Diane,’ which really should never be played again. Ever.) We might find something in bad taste, and that’s fine – it means the humor failed for us, and if enough people hold that opinion, the humorist will switch to another approach. But to think that any topic should not be permitted is censorship, which is only practiced when someone has something to fear.
Moreover, the vast amount of political satire that exists, and its minimal impact on how politics is pursued, gives lie to the idea that humor is a big influence on anyone. In most cases, we find something compelling when it supports views we already hold, and fail to find it amusing when it contradicts such views. We will even, surprisingly often really, convince ourselves that something supports a particular agenda when the evidence for this is extremely thin; it doesn’t have to be an agenda that we support, either, if we’re motivated to prove a point. Again, politics demonstrates this readily, with enemies lurking behind every tree, but the overly health-conscious can create a ‘toxin’ out of anything.
There tends to be a lot of fuss about some older works, such as several Disney films and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The latter, especially, has been on and off several banned lists, and a few years back formed the center of much debate when some over-anxious people introduced a ‘cleaner’ version of it, mostly by taking out the word, “nigger.” There are a lot of things to consider here. First and foremost, the use of the word was a cultural norm for the time frame depicted, and today’s cultural standards have no impact on the past – nor does our current attitude define how it was used then, the context, the meaning, or the attitudes supposedly held by those (note: fictional) characters that used it. Once again, the book receives this kind of attention because it is often introduced to young readers, who are believed to be far too susceptible to trivial influences – an extremely common pop psychology belief that has never been supported by any study, ever. And this is a special form of irony, because the book is one of the better, yet subtler, ways of introducing anyone to critical thinking. Words are not defined by the dictionaries, but by their usage, as we see above with black music, and throughout the book the word “nigger” is used solely how we might use “black” today – or “African-American” if one is silly enough to fall for this clumsy attempt to now make “black” a negative word. All characters therein, however, are defined by their actions and attitudes, and the primary black person, the escaped slave and Huck’s companion Jim, is compassionate, protective, and at times astute. There are quite a few people in the book with moral characters ranging from questionable to reprehensible – and all of them are white. If we are to believe that anyone is easily influenced by a book, equating “nigger” with “bad” or even “racism” is not what anyone can take away from the story in any way.
Here’s where it all gets interesting. We find racism bad, because it assigns a set of negative traits to a broad class of people, instead of simply seeing them as individuals that, like everyone else, possess some good traits and some bad traits. In other words, racism is a superficial and shallow way of making a decision. But curiously, the application of this very label is also done, far too often, in a very shallow and superficial way, thinking that anything that bears any racial or ethnic characteristic whatsoever denotes racism, or that humor is disguised contempt, and so on. When we see the scene with the raucous crows in Dumbo, are we seeing something bad? Yes, the crows carry a lot of traits of black culture from that time period, and they’re pretty dismissive of the little elephant – and they’re also clever and talented. Who decided that just bearing black cultural traits, or being sarcastic, was somehow negative? Moreover, who can support the claim this is an intentional indictment of all black people, everywhere? Why isn’t such an unwarranted assumption treated just as distastefully as racism itself; isn’t it the same damn thing?
[As an aside, I need to point out the frequent reaction that also comes up, where any depiction of some member of an ethnic group in a negative light is considered inappropriate as well, as if there’s some class of people who cannot be assholes. We might see a film with a character that is corrupt in some way, but because this character is a recognizable member of any ethnic group does not mean that the producer or director intended them to represent all members of such ethnic groups; in such cases, are we the ones making broad over-generalizations about an ethnicity when all we saw was a greedy person, that just happened to be Jewish or Italian or whatever? Did they perpetuate a stereotype, or did we?]
I can imagine that a lot of people reading this will interpret me as trying to say that there’s no such thing as racism, or that I am permitting or condoning it in some way; ‘reading between the lines’ is a favorite pastime of many, quite often when they cannot even read the lines themselves in the first place. Yet when people have a personal crusade, or fancy themselves as possessing a more ‘correct’ attitude, they’re capable of finding supporting evidence for this attitude where little to none rightfully exists. If our goal is to improve our society, then the things that we choose to decry should be able to demonstrate a harmful effect. We can’t just imagine that there might be an issue, or rely on ignorant pop psychology; we can argue that there are subtle influences that all add up, in which case we should be able to demonstrate that this is a measurable effect, and not a fool’s idea of the suggestibility of the human mind. Even more importantly, we shouldn’t be on a quest to find examples, anxious to drive forward our goals of political correctness; in such cases we’re far more likely to be reaching desperately, trying to make a plausible case just to support our preconceived ideas, rather than determining what any particular case really represents, and whether it’s even worth the bother. Feminism is presently in the thrall of crusading activists that can find gross improprieties in the strangest places, which creates an atmosphere of melodrama and anxiety, and a distaste over even being associated with such extremism – and which often leads to kickback, the spiteful swing in the opposite direction. Seizing some example that may or may not be a subtle indication of bias and pronouncing it ‘heinous’ and ‘aberrant’ is more likely to produce resentment than shame, and what’s that going to accomplish? Is judgment really likely to lead to improvement, or is it just another example of bias, the desire to appear more worthy than others? Isn’t this a form of classism all by itself? If we assign traits that don’t exist – if we apply a label that isn’t supportable – in what way is this different from what we protest in the first place? Rather than playing fast and loose with the criteria so we can find fulfillment in our roles as community watchdogs, shouldn’t we be sure that what we’re combating is actually detrimental first?