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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘racism

some thoughts on blackface, racism and (maybe) cultural appropriation

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Al Jolson

I’ve been only half-listening to the apparent furore about some politician having worn ‘blackface’ decades ago to a fancy-dress party (I may not even have those facts straight) and I’ve been struck by the absoluteness of pundits’ condemnation of this behaviour as deeply offensive. So heads must roll.

This is apparently about ‘race’, and black-white relations, but it has occurred to me, or rather it occurred to me over 40 years ago, that there are no ‘white’ people, and no ‘black’ people. This was a matter of very basic observation – every human on Earth (even albinos) is a shade of brown. Later, certainly by the early eighties, I had another, deeper concern. Is there such a thing as race? This wasn’t a thought driven so much by observation, but by my reading at the time. And the person who switched me on to this fascinating question, more than anyone else, was the great 20th century anthropologist and public intellectual Ashley Montagu.

In around 1983-1984 I was sharing house, as I’d been doing for years, and engaging in high-octane mostly pseudo-intellectual argy-bargy with mostly reluctant co-tenants on any subject worth mentioning. During one of these sessions I tossed out the line that ‘there’s no such thing as race’. An eruption of mockery and disdain followed, so over the the next few days or more I betook myself to Adelaide University’s Barr-Smith library, a favourite haunt in those days, and did what research I could. I ended up writing several foolscap pages in my tiny script – pre-computer days – ‘proving’ my ‘race is a myth’ thesis, which I handed to my opponent. He refused to read it, unsurprisingly.

Those old pages are either lost or hidden among the piles of pre-computer writing mouldering about my house, so now I’m going to think about the topic afresh. One question that interests me is this – if races don’t exist, can racism be said to exist? Obviously there is discrimination of people based on their skin colour, their religion and their ‘ethnicity’ – another concept that needs examination – but should we use terms other than ‘racism’ to describe this?

If there is such a thing as race, then we should be able to determine what the different races are, and how many, but we certainly know that all humans are able to breed with all other humans of the opposite sex, regardless of which race they might belong to. So race, supposing it to be a concept describing something existent in the world, is unlikely to be anything pure or stable. Jefferson Fish, author of ‘The Myth of Race’, distinguishes between social and biological race. Social race just fits with the popular conception. Africans don’t look like Europeans (and their differences in looks can be vaguely described), and so they belong to different races in this respect. Chinese/Japanese/Koreans all belong to another race (because we Europeans can’t tell them apart), Melanesians another, Indians/Pakistanis another, and so on – but don’t examine this too deeply or it will all fall apart. Biological race, on the other hand, doesn’t exist, according to Fish, and many others. Craig Venter baldly stated in 2000, at the completion of the human genome project, “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” The genome was deliberately assembled from a number of human subjects who self-identified as members of different races.

I don’t think we need go further into the science of this here. Racism exists because some people believe, for whatever reasons, that ‘white’ people are superior to ‘black’ people, that Asians are superior/inferior to Europeans, etc etc. Sometimes the discrimination is called something else – Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Indophobia, Francophobia, whatever. But sometimes ‘racism’ is used for something a little different from ‘race hatred’. It’s used for having insufficient sensitivity or respect for someone of another ‘race’. Or, I suppose, for someone who is ‘different’. And that’s where ‘blackface’ comes in, apparently.

The idea is that if you blacken your face to represent a ‘black person’, or a person with (considerably?) darker skin than yourself, whatever your intention, you are insulting/mocking that person and the ‘race’ s/he belongs to.

When I think of ‘blackface’ I think of The Black and White Minstrel Show of my youth, and Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’. People nowadays don’t condemn these examples, they largely excuse them as naive, aspects of an age of innocence. The same people nowadays say that blackface is verboten because it returns us to a history of dressing up as black people to represent barbarity, violence and general lack of civilisation.

Really?

I will use an Australian essay by Marion Gray for The Conversation as a typical example of the argument that if you dress up like someone of another culture/race etc you might offend, so you shouldn’t do it, though you might just be excused on the basis of naïveté. The essay is titled ‘Explainer: why blackface (and brownface) offend.‘ So there are poor benighted people out there who need to have it ‘explained’ to them that dressing up as someone you admire (but whose shade of brown skin is a long way from your own) by changing your skin colour to look more like them – well, that’s a complete no-no. It’s okay (perhaps) to dress up like them (watch out for cultural appropriation), but changing skin colour – even though it’s the most obvious way to look like your hero/ine – just can’t be done, because people used to do this for completely different purposes in the past. Here’s how Gray puts it re US history.

In 19th century America, white performers would put dark paint on their faces and perform ridiculous stereotypes about African Americans in Minstrel shows. As Norm Sheehan has written, blackface began as a popular movement that ridiculed and lampooned African Americans leading up to the American Civil War. It continued until the 1970s.

This passage strikes me as overly simplistic, to put it mildly. It may well be that some nineteenth century blackface was meant to mock ‘black’ people, just as whiteface was used by dark-skinned people to mock ‘whites’, but it’s surely also true that motives and intentions were mixed – and undoubtedly much more so in the 20th century. 

Let’s go further back to the case of Shakespeare’s Moor of Venice, whose skin colour is never specified but was often assumed to be – well, dark. We don’t know if the earliest actors wore blackface for Othello (in England), but it’s certain that anyone of dark skin (a ‘savage’ in those days) would be prohibited from acting, just as women were. And it’s absurd to suppose that a blackface actor would be mocking the Moor, a serious and tragic figure, just as it would be absurd to suppose that the male actors playing women were somehow mocking Shakespeare’s multivarious and complex female characters. As we know, in the twentieth century famous ‘black’ and ‘white’ actors have played Othello on screen, with the utmost seriousness, though in the past half-century the role has rightly been seen as a perfect vehicle for ‘black’ actors, given the lack of substantive roles for them in plays from earlier times. 

My main point here is that intention should be everything, as it is in law. Take, for example, the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran from 1958 to 1978. It’s described by just about everyone writing in the late 20th century and the 21st as overtly racist, but I would describe it instead as an increasingly ham-fisted attempt to suggest that ‘black’ and ‘white’ people might get along through singalong. Born at a time when racial discrimination was beginning to be raised as a serious issue in Britain, as immigrants were beginning to arrive from the colonies, it harked back to old days of Jolson-style music hall in an increasingly faux-innocent way, but it was never, I think, intended to mock or insult people of non-anglosaxon colours. That’s the issue for me. Racism is about disparaging people due either to the colour of their skin – which is an obviously trivial category – or to other features of ‘social race’, as mentioned above, and this might be the clothes they wear, the language they speak, the food they eat, the customs they keep or any form of identifiable ‘otherness’. So it’s really about discrimination, not race. 

It’s hard not to bring up the issue of identity politics here, and it’s easy for me, as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, more or less déclassé, and boring in so many other ways, to be dismissive of those who identify as different and in some sense oppressed, but I do take my humanism seriously and try to take people as I find them. As a bit of a loner, I don’t personally know a lot of oppressed people, or privileged people, or people for that matter, so I can’t always tell whether people are generally aggrieved and offended or just getting on their high horse for politically opportunistic reasons.  We do seem sometimes to take our ‘offence’ to absurd extremes. No Cowboys and and Indians nowadays, and that’s fine, but was it ever mockery? Stereotyping, yes, but that’s what kids do. First they stereotype, then over time and brain development they learn about nuance and complexity. Dress-ups too, is a time for play, for a bit of silliness, and that means stereotyping, dressing as a ‘typical’ sailor, or nun, or pirate, or geisha or whatever. 

And here’s one final example. Imagine you’re invited to a fancy-dress party, and you’re asked to go as one of your historical idols. You happen to be ‘white’ but your chosen idol happens to be ‘black’. Maybe it’s Michael Jackson, or Mohammed Ali, or Martin Luther King. So you start to dress up, but realise nobody’s going to guess who you are unless, shock horror, you darken your skin. So you’re applying ye old boot polish when your girlfriend arrives and asks what you’re doing. When you explain, she looks shocked and horrified, ‘oh no, you can’t do that!’ (or maybe ‘oh dear, what can I do, baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue, tell me oh, what can I do?’). So you’re reduced to going to the party in your birthday ‘white’ (but with Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves and poetic patter) and when you tell people who you’re dressed up as, you might well get the response ‘so you think Ali was/ should’ve been a white man, eh? Well how’d you like them uppercuts?’

It’s all a bit of a mindfield. Some say that wearing ‘blackface’ can be forgiven if people don’t know their history, for then they’re condemned to repeat it. I respectfully disagree. You can dress up to look like someone else, including lightening or darkening your skin, while knowing all the history you need to know. You’re not repeating history if your intentions are more or less completely the opposite of those of the past. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 16, 2019 at 3:23 pm

the Vietnam War – liberation, ideology, patriotism

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a heartfelt cliché from the land of the free

I’ve been watching the Burns and Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, having just viewed episode 6 of the 10-part series and of course it’s very powerful, you feel stunned, crushed, angry, ashamed, disgusted. There are few positive feelings. I have in the past called the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18 the Stupid War, from which we surely learned much, but this was yet another war whose only value was what we learned from it about how to avoid war. That seems to be the only real value of war, from which such unimaginable suffering comes. People speak of ‘collateral damage’ in war, but often, at the end of it, as in the Thirty Years’ War, the Great War, and I would argue the Vietnam War, collateral damage is all there is.

Over the years I’ve taught English to many Vietnamese people. Years ago I taught in a Vietnamese Community Centre, and my students were all middle-aged and elderly. They would no doubt have had many war stories to tell. In more recent times I’ve taught Vietnamese teenagers wearing brand labels and exchanging Facebook pics of their restaurant and nightclub adventures. For them the war is two generations away, or more. Further away in fact than WW2 was from me when I was a teenager. Time heals, as people die off.

Of course Burns and Novick provide many perspectives as they move through the years, as well as highlighting historical events and characters I knew little about, such as the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnames leaders Thieu and Ky, and North Vietnam’s Le Duan and his side-lining of Ho Chi Minh. But it’s the perspectives of those on the battlefields, wittingly or unwittingly, that hit home most.

When I was young, Vietnam was a major issue for Australians. My older brother was suspended from high school for participating in a Vietnam moratorium march in 1970. I was fourteen at the time and had no idea what ‘moratorium’ meant, except that the marchers were protesting the war. I also knew that my brother, three years older, was in danger of being conscripted and that I might face the same danger one day, which naturally brought up the Country Joe McDonald question ‘what are we fighting for’? Why were Australians fighting Vietnamese people in their own country, killing and being killed there? The unconvincing answer from government was that we were fighting communism, and that we were there to support our allies, the USA. This raises further obvious questions, such as that, even if communism was odious, it was even more odious, surely, to go to faraway countries and kill their inhabitants for believing in it. The Vietnamese, whatever their beliefs about government, were surely not a threat to the USA – that was, to me, the obvious response to all this, even as an adolescent.

Of course, the situation was more complex than this, I came to realise, but it didn’t really change the principles involved. At about this time, 1970, I happened to stumble upon a Reader’s Digest in the house, from around ’67. It featured an article whose title I still vividly recall – ‘Why not call China’s bluff in Asia?’ Written by a retired US general, it argued that the enemy wasn’t Vietnam so much as China, the root of all communist evil. China was acting with impunity due to American weakness. The USA would never win in Vietnam unless it struck at the heart of the problem – China’s support and enabling of communism throughout Asia and elsewhere. The general’s answer was to show them who had the real power – by striking several major Chinese cities with nuclear bombs.

Killing people was wrong, so I’d heard, but apparently communism was even more wrong, so the ethics were on this general’s side. Of course I was disgusted – viscerally so. These were apparently the kind of people who ran the military. Then again, if people are trained to kill, it’s tough not to allow them the opportunity… and they’re only Chinese after all.

I must make an admission here. I don’t have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve just never felt it, not even slightly. Okay, sure I support Australia in soccer and other sports, just as I support local teams against interstaters, insomuch as I follow sport. But I’ve never in my life waved a flag or sung a national anthem. When I first heard the Song of Australia being sung at school assembly, as the national flag was hoisted, I noted that the words extolled the wonders of Australia, and presumed that other anthems extolled the virtues of Guatemala, or Lesotho, or Finland, and I could have been born in any of those countries or any other. It all seemed a bit naff to me. Maybe the fact that I was born elsewhere – in Scotland – made me less likely to embrace the new country, but then ‘God Save the Queen’ – could anything be more naff than that little ditty?

So the idea of my possibly being forced to fight in a foreign war just because I’d landed up in a country whose rather vague ANZUS obligations supposedly entailed an Australian presence there seemed bizarre. I couldn’t look at it from a nationalist perspective (had I known the term at the time I would’ve called myself a humanist), which freed me up to look at it from a more broadly ethical one. From what I gathered and am still gathering, the US intervention in Vietnam, which began with Eisenhower and even before, with US military assistance to French colonial rule in Indo-China, was fueled first by the essentially racist assumption that South-East Asians weren’t sufficiently civilized to govern their own regions, and then by the ‘better dead than red’ ideology that caused so much internal dissension in the US in the fifties. The idea, still bruited today, that the ‘rise of communism’ was a direct threat to the USA seemed far-fetched even then.  The Vietnamese, it seemed obvious, had been fighting off the French because, as foreigners, they had little interest in the locals and were bent on exploitation. Naturally, they would have looked at the Americans in the same way. I certainly had little faith in communism at a time when Mao and the Russian leadership seemed to be vying for ‘most repressive and brutal dictator’ awards, but I didn’t see that as a threat to the west, and I also had some faith that a fundamentally unnatural political system, based on a clearly spurious ideology, would die of its internal contradictions – as has been seen by the collapse of the USSR and the transformation of China into a capitalist oligarchy.

So it seemed to me at the time that the Vietnamese, whatever their political views, aspirations and allegiances, were above all bent on fighting off foreigners. They were seeking autonomy. The problem was that foreigners – the Americans and their allies, as well as the Chinese and the Soviets – were all seeking to influence that autonomy to their own national and ideological benefit. Of course, the Vietnamese themselves were ideologically divided (as is every single nation-state on this planet), but the foreign actors, and their military hardware, gave those divisions a deadly force, leading to Vietnamese people killing Vietnamese people in massive numbers, aided and abetted by their foreign supporters.

War, of course, brutalises people, and some more than others. That’s where the nationalism-humanism divide is most important. That’s why, in watching the Vietnam War series, I’m most moved by those moments when patriotic bombast is set aside and respect and admiration for the courage and resolution of the Vietnamese enemy is expressed. It’s a respect, in the field, that’s never echoed, even in private, by the American leaders back in Washington. So often, patriotic fervour gets in the way of clear thinking. I was watching the last moments of the sixth episode of the series, when Hal Kushner, a doctor and POW in Vietnam, was speaking in a heartfelt way of his experience there: ‘we understood that despite different backgrounds’, he said, ‘different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, different religions, that we were… Americans.’ I actually thought, before he uttered that last word, that he was going to make a statement about humanism, the humanity of all parties, at last saying something in stark contrast to his patriotic pronouncements up to that point. But no, he wasn’t about to include the Vietnamese, the enemy. Of course, Kushner had had a bad time in Vietnam, to say the least. He’d been captured and tortured, he’d seen many of his comrades killed… I could certainly understand his attitude to the Vietnamese who did these things, but I could also understand the rage of the Vietnamese, equally patriotic no doubt, when they saw this horde of fucking foreigners coming over with their massive weaponry and arrogance and fucking up their country, destroying their land for years, bombing the fuck out of village after village without discrimination, killing countless babies and kids and young and old folk, male and female, all to prevent the Vietnamese from installing a government of their own choosing just in case it wasn’t sufficiently in keeping with the will of the US government. If patriotism blinds you to this unutterable inhumanity, than it’s clearly a sick patriotism.

I look forward to watching the rest of the series. I wonder who’ll win.

Written by stewart henderson

August 5, 2018 at 8:41 pm