Monday, November 28, 2011

Music Video: Hitomi Shimatani - いつの日にか

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hollywood Racism: The Comedy Show "Big Bang Theory"


I’ve been hearing about The Big Bang Theory for a while now, and it has been recommended to me a few times by associates within my academic circle–by friends with both Asian and non-Asian backgrounds.
Interesting… I thought to myself. A clever comedy? That could be refreshing. And of course, I was also interested to see how they would play out the character of Raj Koothrappali, as East Indians are rarely favourably portrayed (or even included) in American sitcoms.
I’ll have to admit I was less than impressed with the initial episode I watched. What had been sold to me as a “smart sitcom” seemed more like a series of dull, mildly depressing and unintelligent ramblings of grown-up Superbad characters. But it’s alright for light-entertainment before bed, I convinced myself, slightly out of desperation as there are so few quality shows on the air nowadays.
Still, there was something that didn’t quite sit right with me about the show. I even felt mildly uncomfortable watching it. After a few more episodes, I started to admit to myself that I really disliked the show’s attitude toward Raj, but once again, the critic in me acquiesced to the more naive part of myself, and I told myself that I was just being hypersensitive.
Then the racist element really started to get under my skin, and I started documenting the evidence for societal observance purposes. That and blog fodder.
The first moment that I probably felt that internal burn that we all feel when we know we are being discriminated against is during the first episode, when Penny (the show’s token “hot girl,” who actually is pretty adorable) addresses Raj, and he doesn’t answer her. Her immediate response is, “I’m sorry, do you speak English?”
This problematic assumption is worsened by the fact that it is sidekick Howard who steps in and speaks for him, explaining that he cannot answer her because he is “a nerd.” Great, I said to myself, so the one time an East Indian is cast in a lead role in an American sitcom, not only is he part of a group with questionable attitudes towards women, a group so pathetic, so painfully nerdy that even I want to give them all wedgies, but he also has to be silenced.
Raj Koothrappali is robbed of his voice: a key feature of colonialism, sexism, slavery, and oppression in general. Is it the tale of Columbus, or of the scores of  humans he slaughtered, that we are taught of with semi-folklore status in our history classes today? Is it the women or the men who are noted as the prime social reformers and philosophers of their time? When we discuss politics, both national and foreign, ancient and modern, who has their say? Certainly not those whom it would be most relevant to hear from. And let’s face it, in American history, it’s the Anglo-saxon version that dominates despite the myth of the melting pot. This is what subjugation is all about.
Is Raj’s inability to speak a comedic aspect of his character, or a symptom of something more insidious in The Big Bang Theory? Why couldn’t it be the socially inept Sheldon, the uncouth and sexually repulsive Wallowitz, or even lame Leonard who is rendered with this ignominy?
Relax! You say to me. You are over-analyzing it! It’s just a show. And anyways, Wallowitz is Jewish. He is also a member of a minority group that has faced extreme discrimination in American society. So what if he spoke for Raj in this instance? He does not have the agency to be racist.
Okay, let’s agree to disagree and say that Raj’s fleeting loss-of-voice isn’t racist. But it isn’t only Wallowitz who speaks for–and even defines–who Raj is. In The Precious Fragmentation, (S3 E17), it is the leading-nerd Sheldon Cooper, a Texan of Anglo-saxon ancestry, who distinguishes Raj as “the foreigner who tries to understand our culture and fails.”
This instance draws parallels to the Hegelian master/slave dialectic, wherein the slave, through systemic oppression, is (at least initially) only able to see himself through the eyes of his oppressor. His oppressor ends up being the one who provides him with his identity.  Moreover, why is Raj’s character forever seen as an outsider incapable of assimilation? He is a smart, functional (aside from his encounters with women) member of society who speaks fluent English and almost seems to abhor anything remotely “Indian.” Yet he is not “one of them.” He is not an American, and in the eyes of Sheldon, who emblematizes not only the dorky Anglo-saxon, but also small-town, White American nerd-dom, he never will be.
The show doesn’t stop there with Sheldon’s sense of entitlement to speak as the wiser, more advanced one in comparison to his foreign comrade. In The Gorilla Experiment (S3, E10), after Penny cutely throws and catches food in her mouth, Sheldon makes a condescending remark about how he dislikes when she acts “willy nilly” towards food without concern for its equitable distribution. He then addresses Raj with an uncalled-for and inaccurate attack, stating “Raj, this is essentially why you have famine in India.” This is an instance of the classic “ruler-knows-best” colonial symptom.
It doesn’t take a self-appointed genius like Cooper to know that India, a major exporter of the world’s food, hasn’t had a famine since after the British left. Under British rule, millions Indians died of starvation during at least 25 well-documented famines, while the colonists gained inspiration for their later behaviour in Ireland by inducing Indian famines through looting the country’s food and goods and taxing people for everything (see: The Bengal Famine, which killed 1/3 of the population, or 15 million people). Interesting how colonial thought enjoys distorting these basic facts.
In The Jiminy Conjecture (S3 E2), Sheldon even reminds Raj of his ancestral colonial connection during a disagreement where Raj remarks he would be “kicking [Sheldon's] butt” if this argument was in his Native tongue.
“English is your Native language!” Sheldon quickly and thoughtlessly repudiates, met by the laughter of the audience.
So Sheldon can state that Raj’s Native tongue is English, however Raj is still far from an American, “failing” to comprehend his cultural norms. This attitude is typical of the British Raj, who forever tried to Anglocize India, while never agreeing that India was “Anglo” enough. For example, Sir Babington Macaulay, a hailed reformer of the Indian education system (whose role in the outlawing of all homosexual activity is conveniently ignored) and a fierce proponent of English-medium schools despite his inefficiency in the English language, had this to say about India: “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit [sic] or Arabic, but [...] a single shelf of a good European library are [sic] worth the whole literature of India and Arabia.”* Even after Macaulay had done his damage and outlawed homosexuality, Vicery Elgin still referred to homosexual amour as “special Oriental vices.”** Macaulay’s “reforms” reveal an example of the British colonial view that although India was English-speaking, it’s still not English. Their so-called “backwardness” was basically an inherent “Oriental vice.” Similarly, Raj may speak English, but Sheldon will never see him as on-par with his fellow Americans.
It’s not racist, it’s funny! you protest. Raj knows he is “the foreigner” and he plays upon it, calling his friends out on their racism and coming back with witty remarks whenever he’s faced with it! This show is far from depicting Raj’s role as that of the inferior immigrant.
Not always. Again in The Jiminy Conjecture, when the nerds meet with a cricket expert (who has just been fired) to settle their asinine dispute, he lashes out at them with comical irrationality–at least, until he gets to Raj, where his anger takes on a racist turn.
“What’s your deal?” he says to Raj, as he gives him the cat-eye. “Are they out-sourcing my job to Bangalore?” Again, this question is met with audience laughter. Raj’s retort is simply, “I’m from New Delhi.” Although this response does elicit the sense of incomprehension that educated people when confronted with extreme ignorance, I was disappointed that none of Raj’s friends stood up for him, and I was left with that same uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.
Further, I would argue that Raj’s homeland is seen as subordinate to The Land of Opportunity. In The Pirate Solution (S3 E17) when Raj faces deportation, he whines incessantly about how he doesn’t want to go back. After all, India is “hot, it’s loud, and there are so many people! You have no idea–they’re everywhere!” He rebukes the McDonald’s in Mumbai for not selling beef, degrading his culture while glorifying this ethically questionable MNC by going on and on about the wonders of animal flesh. As an animal rights activist, frankly, I was horrified to watch this episode.
Yes, this is just Raj’s opinion of India I’m discussing here, but none of the other characters even attempt to cheer him up. Rather, Sheldon suggests becoming a pirate as a suitable alternative to living in India, contending that it’s what he would do in Raj’s position. To the Big Bang nerds, India is a strange, uninteresting, faraway land they wouldn’t visit even for one of their closest friends. Howard remarks that India is a very far plane-ride away, and that instead they should “Skype.”
(I could probably find even more instances of racism in a show that is so chock-full of it, but as you can probably tell, I only watched Season 3, and I feel that that is more than enough for a lifetime.)
So overall, this is The Big Bang Theory‘s stance on India: boring, far, hot, and inferior. A place undeserving of even fact-checking before you throw a few reproachful comments its way. In fact, India is so unworthy that even Howard wouldn’t go there for his best friend, with whom he shares a latent but palpable bi-curiousity.
The end.
* Quote from Macaulay’s Minute on Education can be found here. PS–Why Macaulay took an opportunity to diss Arabia when he was supposed to be commenting on education in India will always be beyond me.
** Suparna Bhaskaran. “The Politics of Penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code,” in Queering India, ed. Ruth Vanita, p. 17. Routledge, 2002.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Too-white TV must tune in to the real Team Australia

 here in Anglo-America where there is a growing immigrant and non-white population. the white-owned and often racist networks only show programs with all white actors, anchors and hosts and engage in tokenism. non-whites are barely seen. In Australia, it;s the same thing. You go outside, go to school and work and see many people of different backgrounds and a growing non-white immigrant population, when you turn on the tv and all you see is white hosts and actors and programs with all-white casts.


MORE than 2 million Australians were born in Asia and our Indian-born population has more than trebled in a decade, but mainstream television, other than SBS, rarely reflects this fact.
Newsreaders and current affairs show hosts are almost exclusively white. And while The Slap was hailed for mirroring contemporary life, the average family drama is still palely Eurocentric. Is this an innocent case of the blonde leading the bland or a subtle form of racism?
The ABC provides stellar news coverage, from News Breakfast to Lateline. But as journalist Margaret Simons recently observed: ''Anyone watching ABC's main news and current events shows could be forgiven for thinking that Australia was still a nation composed of blond or red-headed, blue-eyed Anglo Celts.''
Hosts of commercial programs are similarly white - from Kochie and Karl Stefanovic to 60 Minutes and The Project.
Most commercial TV dramas inhabit an eerily pale Australia of yesteryear. The Neighbours website features 17 white actors and one (Gemma Pranita) whose father is Thai. Winners and Losers had 11 white leads and one ''part-Asian''. Home and Away has 22 white leads plus Jay Laga'aia. Packed to the Rafters features a loveable white family. All Saints, a medical drama that ran until late 2009, was spectacularly fictitious. ''How can a show that is based entirely around a hospital have no brown or Asian doctors?'' asked Melbourne comedian Nazeem Hussain.
The ABC's charter requires it to ''reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community'', and it's making some headway. We have had The Slap and recent series from comedian Lawrence Leung and chef Poh Ling Yeow. Still, prime-time ABC brims with British shows. It rarely reflects the everyday world of my daughters' state school, where their classmates have Chinese, Lebanese, Anglo-Celtic, Polynesian, Indian and Vietnamese ancestry.
On commercial screens, multicultural Australia bursts into focus only on reality TV. The X Factor finalists, for instance, included R&B trio Three Wishez who are, respectively, ''Tongan-New Caledonian, full Greek and African-British''. This year's Masterchef contestants included Sri Lankan-born Kumar Pereira and Malaysian-Australian Billy Law. On The Amazing Race Australia, Melbourne Muslims Mohammed El-leissy and Mostafa Haroun were a hit.
Though it's great to see this wider spectrum of ''ordinary Australians'', there's a degree of tokenism and typecasting here. (And reality TV also includes Bondi Rescue and Border Security). The Block, meanwhile, was recently criticised by Multicultural Arts Victoria for its lack of ethnic diversity.
Of course SBS was set up by the Fraser government specifically as a multicultural broadcaster. It has been accused of chasing ratings at the expense of its charter and last week new chief Michael Ebeid emphasised that its purpose was to ''inspire all Australians to explore and appreciate our multicultural world'' and contribute to an inclusive society.
Two of SBS's best recent shows, East West 101 and Go Back To Where You Came From, have been truly ground-breaking, inviting viewers to investigate assumptions about religion or race or refugees. Still, since SBS began, Australia has become a lot more Asian and the number of free-to-air channels has tripled. You would think this would have made mainstream TV more representative. But change has been slow.
Almost half Australia's population was born overseas or has one parent born elsewhere. While British and New Zealanders are still the two biggest migrant groups, they are followed by Chinese and Indians. Our Vietnamese-born community is almost as big as our Italian one and recent new settlers have come from Iraq, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines.
This week, Victorian Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Minister Nick Kotsiras said that up to a third of the students in classes he visited did not feel Australian. ''What makes you feel that you're not part of Victoria, not part of Australia?'' he asked. ''Our young people, when they grow up, if they keep that impression then that would cause some frictions. We need to see why and then try programs to assist them to feel part of … Team Australia.''
Kotsiras' comments seemed purely anecdotal and had a whiff of the dog whistle. But if kids from India or Vietnam or Somalia saw more people who looked like them on TV, might they feel more a part of Team Australia? Hussain, whose parents are Sri Lankan-born, recalls getting excited as a kid when he saw any non-white person on TV. It was that rare.
TV can bring us together, bridging cultural or religious divides. Civil society evolves and finds shared values and narratives through entertainment, says Andrew Jakubowicz, professor of sociology at Sydney's University of Technology. ''There is a crisis of recognition of diversity in Australian public culture which gnaws at the heart of the country,'' he has written. ''It is racism at its most systematic, unselfconscious and destructive.'' (And yes, I'm aware of the irony of myself - an Anglo-Celtic journalist - lamenting TV's lack of diversity.)
Why is TV so white? Does the existence of SBS, despite the wonderful shows it makes, allow commercial producers to regard non-white communities as a kind of ghetto? Does racism influence some programming decisions? Ten's appalling new breakfast show host, New Zealander Paul Henry, has form for making racist comments about Indians and Hispanics.
Or is commercially driven caution the chief problem? ''Executives want shows that rate,'' Hussain says. ''They're not willing to try something risky because their career is at stake. And having non-white people in a show is something they think is risky … It needs to be normalised.''
White Australia has faded into history. Surely it's time for commercial TV executives to look at the world around them.

Music: Naelle - Je serai là

Thursday, November 24, 2011

a new trend in Racist American TV? The Black best friend


He’s an experienced homicide cop. Married many times, he wants nothing more than to help his younger, naturally gifted partner nail any murderer foolish enough to commit a crime in their city.
His name is Hank Griffin, a character on NBC’s new fairy-tale cop drama “Grimm.”

And he’s a Black Best Friend.
You’ve seen characters like Griffin, played by “Lincoln Heights” alum Russell Hornsby, many times before in film and television.
They’re the folks who offer emotional support, wise, world-weary counsel and a kick in the pants when needed — often administered with a dash of sass and the occasional finger snap.
Loyal. Cool. Exotic. Supremely confident. And eternally useful to the lead character. These are just a few traits that define the Black Best Friend — the newest way to make the cast of a TV show or film look diverse, while ensuring nonwhite characters never really steal the spotlight for long.
The title BBF may sound demeaning, as a flip dismissal of a hardworking actor. But it’s really a cry of frustration, expressing a burning disappointment in the lack of truly well-developed roles for nonwhite characters that has smoldered so long that it has become a bitter humor.
Once upon a time, the lack of substantive roles for characters of color was front-page news.
Back in 1999, when the Big Four TV networks advanced a slate of new fall shows with no minorities in starring roles, advocacy groups like the NAACP complained loudly about a “virtual whitewash” and media outlets peppered executives with tough questions.
This fall, out of 26 new scripted shows, there is not one featuring a person of color as its sole star.Annie Ilonzeh on ABC’s canceled “Charlie’s Angels” reboot and Shelly Conn on Fox’s sci-fi extravaganza “Terra Nova” come the closest, as cast members in an ensemble jockeying for a memorable scene or two.
Many new series have no people of color at all in the core cast, including ABC’s “Pan Am” and CBS’s “A Gifted Man.” At a time when census figures show America is more racially diverse than ever, network TV seems to be heading in the opposite direction.
But there has been little, if any, notice paid to this year’s whitewash — thanks mostly to the BBF.
* * *
I first heard about BBFs in 2007, when the Los Angeles Times delivered a spot-on feature about all the African American actresses stuck in black best friend roles, especially in romantic comedies.
These days, the trend has gone unisex, crossing gender and racial lines. That’s right, Black Best Friends can be guys of any ethnicity; say, Kato in the Green Hornet film or Detective Julio Sanchez on “The Closer.”
What they have in common — besides not being white, of course — is a devotion to helping their white friends achieve, sometime to the detriment of their own circumstance. And despite the BBFs often having an amazing pedigree, with cool jobs, prestigious careers or intriguing personal history, viewers rarely see their lives away from the lead character.
Indeed, there are so many BBFs on new fall shows this year — I count 13 shows, from NBC’s canceled “Playboy Club” to CBS’s hit “2 Broke Girls” and Fox’s “The New Girl” — that you can stick them in their own categories.

Hornsby’s Hank Griffin is a sidekick BBF. He’s a loyal, unquestioning pal backing up lead character Nick Burckhardt (David Guintoli), a police detective who can see fairy-tale characters disguised as average people.
Griffin is a walking plot device; showing up with handy forensic results when their investigation needs to move forward, joking with his buddy about marriage when we need a peek at Nick’s personal life.

Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson is a different kind of black best friend on CBS’s “Person of Interest.” She’s an adversary BBF.
On the surface her Detective Carter is trying to track down star Jim Caviezel’s ex-CIA agent John Reese, but she’s really a sympathetic character who offers help and advice when she first meets him.
Some actors are so good at playing BBFs, they do it twice in the same TV season.
Damon Wayans Jr. was the black best friend on Fox’s “The New Girl,” until ABC decided to keep making “Happy Endings,” a comedy where Wayans’s character is less of a best friend and actually gets some of his own story lines. (Onetime Cartoon Network game show host Lamorne Morris took over the BBF gig on Fox.)
The tragedy of the BBF is that it strands accomplished actors in lesser roles. Hornsby was a magnetic lead presence in ABC Family’s “Lincoln Heights,” playing a Los Angeles cop who chose to move back to his crime-riddled boyhood neighborhood. “2 Broke Girls’ ” Garrett Morris was a member of the classic original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
Many BBFs exist in a vacuum. You don’t see their relatives, spouses, kids or other friends of color.
In fact, many of these characters could be any ethnicity. Their skin color seems a bit like window dressing, employed to make shows that still reflect an entirely Caucasian worldview look diverse.
* * *
There is hope. Witness the rise of Maya Rudolph’s character Ava on NBC’s “Up All Night.”
Developed as a boss BBF in the original version of the show’s pilot, as a high-powered publicist who employed new mom Christina Applegate as a valued underling, Rudolph got an upgrade after producers revamped the pilot for this fall.
Now Ava’s the star of an Oprah-style daytime show, with Applegate as her executive producer, given more screen time and a status as a near-co-star. (Rudolph, the daughter of the late R&B singer Minnie Riperton and songwriter Richard Rudolph, is biracial.)
So cheer up. There’s an outside chance that an actor of color who works hard and does well can move up the pecking order to nearly become a co-star if they’re just funny and mainstream-looking enough.
And who knows? By treating characters like people rather than plot devices, network TV just might just wind up with better shows in the first place.

Deggans is the St. Petersburg Times TV/media critic.

Florence + the machine using white supremacy in music videos

link to video

link to article

Florence + the Machine released the latest video this past Friday, for “No Light No Light,” the third single from their new album Ceremonials. Since frontwoman Florence Welch is known for her theatrical music video productions, the clip was eagerly awaited by her fans.
The video, directed by Iceland-based duo Arni & Kinski, has already garnered over 800,000 views on Youtube, in addition to generating countless responses over the images in the video. It’s actually slightly astounding how much racist imagery they managed to pack into just four minutes and 15 seconds.
You can watch the video for yourself to get your own interpretation, but if you can’t watch it for whatever reason here’s a brief summary: Welch, a thin white red-haired British woman, is the focal point, but at various points, we see what seems to be an Asian man in blackface, misreprentations of the voodoo religion (which of course inflicts harm on the poor white woman). The overall plot of the video seems to be of a white woman pursued by “darkness,” represented by the aforementioned man in blackface, who ends up falling into “whiteness,” represented by a choir of young white boys in a church. Oh yes, that old trope. Black = evil, white = good. Echoes of British religious imperialism and its violent history of colonization abound. You get the picture.
The video has already attracted criticism from around the blogosphere, and Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart mapped out why the representaion of the Voodoo religion in the music video is not only negative, but factually incorrect:
Haitian Vodou is a religion that is very misunderstood. Slaves were brought to the Caribbean against their will and forbidden to practice their traditional African religions as well as forced to convert to the religion of their masters. The Bond movie/Eurocentric/Americanized viewpoint presents Vodou as an evil, primitive version of witchcraft. But it’s a religion like any other, with a moral code, gods and goddesses. Many ceremonies deal with protection from evil spirits.
In addition, the “voodoo doll” itself has been misconstrued. In Haiti, it was traditional to nail small handmade puppets or dolls to trees near graveyards; these small figures were meant to act as messengers to the spirit world, and contact dead loved ones. It’s safe to imagine that European folks didn’t understand this — and assumed an evil intent behind a doll with nails in its body.”
On the other hand, all sorts of defenses and excuses are being pulled out of the hat to try and label this music video as anything other than what it is: racist. Glorifying the white female central character as representing goodness, all while vilifying the evil dark skinned heathen Other. The number of times this has been done in film date back to one of the very first blockbusters, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and continue on until today with this latest incarnation. But in this age of “colour-blindness” and “post-racial” talk, we confront a fairly new beast: vehement denial.
That’s where a large part of the problem with the discussions around this music video lie – the desire to talk about anything other than race. Fans of Welch’s have offered their own denials, including:
Even fans who will readily agree that this music video is “symbolic” and uses darkness (in the shape of a, lest we forget, a human being, an Asian man in blackface who practices voodoo and chases Welch) to represent “evil” and whiteness to represent “good” will still find ways to vehemently deny it is racist. “Maybe it looks like it could be racist, but it didn’t mean to be!” they say. When it comes to confronting the argument of whether or not the video was “intentionally” racist, I’ll point to  response for Threadbared to Crystal Renn’s yellowface photoshoot, where she explains:
Racism is so deeply entrenched and pervasive in many societies that everyday racism is often unintentional. On the other hand, what is always intentional is anti-racism. The struggle against racism resists the pervasive ideologies and practices that explicitly and invisibly structure our daily lives (albeit in very different ways that are stratified by race, gender, class, and sexuality). Anti-racism requires intentionality because it’s an act of conscience.
What Pham hits on there is the need to first acknowledge we live in a world where racism and white privilege exist. In the end, the excuses over why “No Light, No Light” is not racist are pointless to entertain if you can’t even begin to acknowledge that. You’d have to live in a very sheltered world to believe that this video is anything other than a giant platter of rehashed racist imagery.
Now, one thing I’m surprised others have not raised in their criticisms of the “No Light, No Light” music video is that this isn’t the first time Welch has been criticized for being “culturally insensitive,” to put it mildly. Her other music videos could hardly be excused as perfect, either.
A quick look at “Dog Days Are Over” (which has over 20 million views on Youtube) features a mishmash of unidentified Othered cultures in the background, such as women in head scarves banging on drums, an all-black gospel choir with silver foreheads, and two blue women (yes, blue). The already very light-skinned Welch is painted an even whiter white, and is featured prominently in the foreground leading the masses of ambiguously ethnic backup dancers in a frenetic crescendo:

At the end of the video, they all explode into bursts of bright colours, leaving the “wild” Welch draped in a furry tattered garment, waving a flag.
What these music videos show is the amount of misrepresentations around race that many (white) artists are able to use, all under the guise of “art.” It happens in fashion photoshoots, music videos, films, books, etc on more occasions than one could possibly count. While it happens all the time, that does not make it any more defensible. And being a fan of an artist who makes a misstep and ends up creating something racist, intentionally or not, does not oblige you to running to their defense. Being a card-carrying fan of an artist or musician does not make them infallible.
Discussions about whether or not Welch is personally responsible for this racist music video have cropped up. When you break it down and imagine the number of people who were behind the storyboarding, choreographing, casting and creative direction around this video, it is slightly astounding that not one person raised concerns about how problematic this video is. Many petitions have cropped up, asking that “be pulled, edited, or reshot and she and her label should issue a sincere apology.” In putting forth this music video attached to her album and her persona, Welch has given it her unspoken seal of approval. In this case, she has also simultaneously alienated any number of people of colour and critical folks in her fanbase.
We’ll probably be waiting with bated breath, as Welch nor her label have responded to the public outcry so far.
In the end, the most important and all too often ignored factor in the case of this racist music video is just that: calling it racist. The fact that in 2011, a top-selling young creative artist has released a music video like this one means we still need to have conversations about racism, stereotypes, blackface, and impact that images in music videos like these ones have. Let’s take this opportunity to talk about how to hold artists, including pop stars, accountable for propagating racist imagery. Let’s talk about why blackface is always wrong, about why reductive stereotypical misrepresentations of people of colour are harmful and need to be confronted, and why we still have to unlearn colonial histories and legacies.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Music Video: Hitomi Shimatani - Smiles

Hollywood Racism: Frank Miller's "300"


When Frank Miller’s “300″ film was released, I was absolutely outraged by the racist content of the film and more so at the insensitivity of movie-goers who simply argued “it’s just a movie.” Later on, I would hear these same individuals say, “The movie makes you want to slice up some Persians.” I wrote an article about the film almost immediately after it was released, and now that I’m still noticing people quoting the movie or listing it as their “favorite movies,” I’ve decided to update my original post and discuss some points that will hopefully shed some new light.
“300” not only represents the ever-growing trend of accepted racism towards Middle-Easterners in mainstream media and society, but also the reinforcement of Samuel P. Huntington’s overly clichéd, yet persisting, theory of “The Clash of Civilizations,” which proposes that cultural and religious differences are the primary sources for war and conflict rather than political, ideological, and/or economic differences. The fact that “300” grossed nearly $500 million worldwide in the box office may not be enough to suggest that movie-goers share the film’s racist and jingoistic views, but it is enough to indicate how successful such a film can be without many people noticing its relentless racist content. As Osagie K. Obasogie wrote in a brilliant critique of the film, “300” is “arguably the most racially charged film since D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’” – the latter being a 1915 silent film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan’s rise to defend the South against liberated African-Americans. Oddly enough, both films were immensely successful despite protests and charges of racism.
Media imagery is very important to study. Without analyzing and critiquing images in pop culture, especially controversial and reoccurring images, we are ignoring the most powerful medium in which people receive their information from. A novel, for example, may appeal to a large demographic, but a film appeals to a much wider audience not only because of recent video-sharing websites and other internet advancements, but also because the information is so much easier to process and absorb.
According to the Cultivation Theory, a social theory developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross, television is the most powerful storyteller in culture – it repeats the myths, ideologies, and facts and patterns of standardized roles and behaviors that define social order. Music videos, for example, cultivate a pattern of images that establish socialized norms about gender. In a typical western music video, you may see female singers like Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Beyonce wearing the scantiest of clothing and dancing in erotic and provocative ways that merely cater to their heterosexual male audiences. These images of women appear so frequently and repetitively that they develop an expectation for women in the music industry, i.e. in order to be successful, a woman needs to have a certain body type, fit society’s ideal for beauty, and dance half-nakedly. Stereotypical images of men in music videos, on the other hand, include violent-related imagery, “pimping” with multiple women, and showing off luxury. Such images make violence and promiscuous sexual behavior “cool” and more acceptable for males. As we can see from two studies by Greeson & Williams (1986) and Kalof (1999), exposure to stereotypical images of gender and sexual content in music videos increase older adolescents’ acceptance of non-marital sexual behavior and interpersonal violence.
Cognitive Social Learning Theory is another social theory which posits, in respect to media, that television presents us with attractive and relatable models for us to shape our experiences from. In other words, a person may learn particular behaviors and knowledge through observing the images displayed on television. A person may also emulate the behavior of a particular character in a film or television show, especially if a close-identification is established between the viewer and the character. Both theories – Cultivation Theory and Cognitive Social Learning Theory – apply in my following analysis of “300.”
In order to deconstruct “300,” I will start by (1) discussing its distortion of history, then (2) contrast the film’s representation of Persians and Spartans, (3) correlate Frank Miller’s Islamophobic remarks on NPR with the messages conveyed in “300,” and (4) conclude with the importance of confronting stereotypical images in mainstream media and acknowledging the contributions of all societies and civilizations.
Distortion of History
Initially a graphic novel written and drawn by Frank Miller, who is best known in the comic book industry for reinventing Batman in his critically acclaimed “The Dark Knight Returns,” the inspiration for “300” stems from true historic events, although Mr. Miller states that it was never intended to be a historically accurate account of the Battle for Thermopylae. In any case, the information we have about the Battle for Thermopylae comes from the classical Greek author, Herodotus, who lived in the Persian city of Halicarnassus. His book, “The Histories,” became part of Western folklore in 1850, when America embraced it as the leading authority on Persian history. Interesting enough, and many people may not know this, is that prior to 1850, the West had a very favorable impression of the Persian Empire, particularly because its main source for Persian history was rooted in the Bible and the “Cyropaedia,” which was written by another Greek author named Xenophon. The “Cyropaedia” glorifies the rule of Cyrus the Great, a benevolent Persian king who will be discussed later. In respect to the Battle of Thermopylae, the events may have occurred, but it was far different than the famous myth explains: 300 Spartans held Thermopylae for three days against over a million Persian soldiers.
This version of history is portrayed in the Hollywood adaptation of “300” in heavily stylized fashion that remains faithful to the comic book. The film’s director, Zack Snyder, said during an MTV interview, “[t]he events are 90 percent accurate. It’s just in the visualization that it’s crazy.” And yet, the film hardly mentions that the 300 Spartans were allied with over 4,000 Greeks on the first two days of the battle, and over 1,500 on the final day (other sources mention that there were 7,000 to 10,000 Greek allies). The battle was fought in a narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae where not even two chariots could pass through side by side; the choice of using this terrain benefited the Spartans and their Greek allies immensely against the Persians. Many historians agree that the massive Persian army would have obliterated the Spartan/Greek forces without much difficulty if the battle were fought on an open battlefield. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the Spartans were heavily armored and wore armor that weighed 30-40 kg, while the Persians were lightly armored.
Ephraim Lytle, assistant professor of Hellenistic History at the University of Toronto, states that “300” selectively idealizes Spartan society in a “problematic and disturbing” fashion, which would have seemed “as bizarre to ancient Greeks as it does to modern historians.” Touraj Daryaee, Baskerville Professor of Iranian History at the University of California, Irvine, criticizes the film’s use of classic sources:
Some passages from the Classical authors Aeschylus, Diodorus, Herodotus and Plutarch are spilt over the movie to give it an authentic flavor. Aeschylus becomes a major source when the battle with the “monstrous human herd” of the Persians is narrated in the film. Diodorus’ statement about Greek valor to preserve their liberty is inserted in the film, but his mention of Persian valor is omitted. Herodotus’ fanciful numbers are used to populate the Persian army, and Plutarch’s discussion of Greek women, specifically Spartan women, is inserted wrongly in the dialogue between the “misogynist” Persian ambassador and the Spartan king. Classical sources are certainly used, but exactly in all the wrong places, or quite naively.
As I wrote in my post on “The Truth About Thanksgiving: Brainwashing of the American History Textbook,” omitting and ignoring an entire race of people in historical accounts is a form of racism because it negates the achievements and stories of the “Other.” In the film, Persians constantly threaten Spartans with slavery, and yet, any honest historian knows that the Persian Empire, particularly the Achaemenid Empire, was built on a model of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions. According to the documentary, “Persepolis Recreated,” the Persian Empire is the first known civilization in the history of humankind to practice international religious freedom. Images carved on the walls of Persepolis testify how Persians interacted and conversed with nobleman of other nations respectfully and without enmity. Denying another civilization its own accomplishments and contributions to the world is like blotting them out from history altogether and rewriting one’s own prejudice version. As we will learn later, any mentioning of Persian valor, compassion, and sophistication, would have resulted in a potential backfiring to the film’s agenda.
At one point in the film, the Spartan protagonist, King Leonidas, describes the Athenians as “boy lovers,” which, according to Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, is ironic, since “the Spartans themselves incorporated institutional pederasty [erotic relationships between adolescents and adult men] into their educational system.”
The fact that Frank Miller and Zack Snyder stripped the Spartans of homosexual relations and, instead, made them accuse the Athenians of being “boy lovers” in order to reinforce their masculinity, shows us a distortion of history that favors a heavily masculinized and homophobic take on the Spartans. In modern society, homosexual males are frowned upon the most because society discourages men to behave in ways that are contrary to their expected gender traits, i.e. a man must be strong, emotionless, and courageous – and of course, these play into stereotypes about homosexuals since it suggests they cannot possess any of those traits. Therefore, if a man is a “boy lover,” he can never be as great of a fighter as a heterosexual Spartan. It’s obvious that mentioning the facts about Sparta’s institutional pederasty would not have made a connection with the film’s directed heterosexual male audience. This is evident from Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” film, where many expressed their outrage of Alexander engaging in homosexual relations, therefore never developing a close-identification with the character.
Distorting the history in “300” merely fulfills one component in glorifying the Spartans and vilifying the Persians. In the next section, we will see how the film’s visual representation of Spartans and Persians accompany its biased history for the sake of reinforcing the divide between West and East.

Spartans and Persians: Glorification, Demonization, and Tokenism
Perhaps the most noticeable offense in the film is how the Persians are horrifically depicted as monsters. It is not hard to notice the punctuated differences in skin color: the white-skinned Spartans versus the dark-skinned Persians. The Persian King, Xerxes, is shown as an abnormally tall, dark-skinned, and half-naked madman with facial piercings, kohl-enhanced eyes and, as Dana Stevens from Slate writes, “[has] a disturbing predilection for making people kneel before him.” The rest of the Persians are faceless savages and demonically deformed. This demonization of the Persian race extends to malformed characters, including Persian women, who are depicted as Lesbians and concubines. Even the elephants and rhinoceroses look like hell spawns. Stevens also adds:
Here are just a few of the categories that are not-so-vaguely conflated with the “bad” (i.e., Persian) side in the movie: black people. Brown people. Disfigured people. Gay men… Lesbians. Disfigured lesbians. Ten-foot-tall giants with filed teeth and lobster claws…
Also noticeable is how the Spartans wear no body armor; instead they are bare-chested and wear only a helmet, cape, and underwear. This is common in comic books where physical attributes of male characters such as muscles are magnified and exaggerated to symbolize strength, power, and heroism. In sheer contrast, the Persians are dressed in typical Middle-Eastern attire in pure Orientalist fashion, which only degrade them into invisible and insignificant characters without stories. We have seen these contrasting images of West and East cultivated before, and we still see them today. Whenever a crisis in the Middle-East is covered by the mainstream Western media, we tend to see the images of garbed Middle-Eastern men burning flags and shouting like barbarians, but rarely ever see scholarly and intellectual Middle-Easterners who are treated with respect and credibility. As Jack G. Shaheen discusses in his book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” Hollywood is guilty of vilifying Arabs and Muslims; repeating images of light-skinned and attractive Western (mostly American) counter-terrorist heroes blowing away dark-skinned, unattractive, and “rag-headed” Middle-Easterners. These images have been repeated so much in the mainstream media that they become the socialized norm: Arab/Muslim = Evil, oppressive, terrorist, and uncivilized, etc. Although the ancient Persians in “300” are neither Arab nor Muslim, they are confined into the same group through modern-day Orientalism.
Throughout the film, for instance, the constant emphasis on “The Clash of Civilizations” is not just limited to the manner of visual representations, but rather extends to what the Spartans and Persians stand for. Early in the film, we see the Spartan King, Leonidas, resist against the Persian call for “submission” by bellowing about freedom and liberty. Just like the visual depictions of Persians in “300” are no different than Hollywood’s stereotypical and insulting representation of Arabs and Muslims, neither are the themes. As adolescents and fans alike eccentrically shout the film’s most memorable quote, “This is Sparta!” – a line that Leonidas says right before kicking an African man down a well – they knowingly or unknowingly establish a close-identification with the Spartan characters and, subsequently, the heroism they are meant to epitomize. As a result, Persians get perceived, in modern terms, as “terrorists” – monstrous beings that are mysteriously driven by an innate desire to conquer, slaughter, and oppress.
These differences between Spartans and Persians ring eerily similar to modern-day tensions between the West and the Middle-East. As Obasagie writes, “this racialized depiction of freedom, nation, and democracy becomes central to “300’s” take home message,” but what remains even more unnoticed is the film’s “unapologetic glorification of eugenics.” In the very beginning of the film, for example, we see the newborn Spartans being inspected for “health, strength, and vigor,” while the weak and disabled are hurled off a cliff onto a large pile of dead babies. Obasogie further elaborates:
The film suggests that this rather crude form of eugenics is put in place for military reasons: every Spartan child should either be able to become a soldier or give birth to one… Initially shocked, audiences are quickly reassured that this is all for the greater good: nation, freedom, and the Spartan family. How else can Sparta defend itself – and inspire modern democracies – unless it reserves scarce resources for the strongest?

Strongest men, that is, which brings me to my next point: the exploitation of female characters. A blog post written at explains “Why Women Should Go See ‘300.’” The list, which is not even written by a woman, reads: 1. Gerard Butler, 2. Gerard Butler Naked, 3. Empowered Women, 4. Strong Relationships, and 5. 300 Nearly Naked Men with 8-Pack Abs. The author apparently thinks that male eye-candy, romantic relationships, and a dash of “feminism” constitute a “good film” for all women.
At first glance, the Spartan Queen Gorgo may look like an empowered woman, but she is a token character, at best. In a predominately White male film, she serves as the only central female character and assumes a pseudo-feminist role of flaunting her femininity for the sake of reinforcing the film’s racism and singular image of masculinity. For instance, early in the film, the Persian messenger angrily responds to her, “What makes this woman think she can speak among men?” She responds proudly, “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Yes, real men, i.e. the one-sided view of masculinity: aggressive, violent, dominating, muscular, etc. It seems that any man who doesn’t meet these characteristics is not a “real man.” It also seems that Spartan women are treated as merely “manufacturers” of these “real men.”

The mentioning of women occurs enough times in the film to establish that Spartans treat their women “better” than the Persians. The only Persian women we see are sex slaves and disfigured lesbians. In actuality, there were Persian Empresses such as Azarmidokht, who ruled Persia under the Sassanid Empire. Ancient Persian women not only engaged in political matters, but also served as military commanders and warriors. One of the great commanders of The Immortals was a Persian woman named Pantea (pictured left), and during the Achaemenid dynasty, the grand admiral and commander-in-chief for the Persian navy was a woman named Artemisia. Persian women also owned property and ran businesses. Unfortunately, we do not see any such representation in “300.”

A counter-argument may state that Queen Gorgo actually plays a pivotal role in the film since she convinces the council to send more soldiers to aid the Spartans. But her success could never have been accomplished if she did not do what stereotypical female characters usually do: use her body to get what she wants. Queen Gorgo initially tries to convince a corrupt Spartan politician, Theron, but then realizes that she has no choice but to submit herself sexually to him.
As we have seen in this section, the glorified violence, racism, and erotic imagery of the Spartans, as well as the use of women, accentuates their superiority over the Persians, but perhaps nothing can drive the point home more than Frank Miller in his own words.
Frank Miller and Islamophobia
It should be in the interest of those who may disagree with my analysis of “300” to listen to Frank Miller’s interview on National Public Radio (NPR) on January 24th, 2007 (or read the transcript). The interview followed former President Bush’s State of the Union address and is pasted below (emphases added):
NPR: […] Frank, what’s the state of the union?
Frank Miller: Well, I don’t really find myself worrying about the state of the union as I do the state of the home-front. It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants … and we’re behaving like a collapsing empire. Mighty cultures are almost never conquered, they crumble from within. And frankly, I think that a lot of Americans are acting like spoiled brats because of everything that isn’t working out perfectly every time.
NPR: Um, and when you say we don’t know what we want, what’s the cause of that do you think?
FM: Well, I think part of that is how we’re educated. We’re constantly told all cultures are equal, and every belief system is as good as the next. And generally that America was to be known for its flaws rather than its virtues. When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good its done in the world, it’s kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally.
NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.
FM: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.
NPR: As you look at people around you, though, why do you think they’re so, as you would put it, self-absorbed, even whiny?
FM: Well, I’d say it’s for the same reason the Athenians and Romans were. We’ve got it a little good right now. Where I would fault President Bush the most, was that in the wake of 9/11, he motivated our military, but he didn’t call the nation into a state of war. He didn’t explain that this would take a communal effort against a common foe. So we’ve been kind of fighting a war on the side, and sitting off like a bunch of Romans complaining about it. Also, I think that George Bush has an uncanny knack of being someone people hate. I thought Clinton inspired more hatred than any President I had ever seen, but I’ve never seen anything like Bush-hatred. It’s completely mad.
NPR: And as you talk to people in the streets, the people you meet at work, socially, how do you explain this to them?
FM: Mainly in historical terms, mainly saying that the country that fought Okinawa and Iwo Jima is now spilling precious blood, but so little by comparison, it’s almost ridiculous. And the stakes are as high as they were then. Mostly I hear people say, ‘Why did we attack Iraq?’ for instance. Well, we’re taking on an idea. Nobody questions why after Pearl Harbor we attacked Nazi Germany. It was because we were taking on a form of global fascism, we’re doing the same thing now.
NPR: Well, they did declare war on us, but…
FM: Well, so did Iraq.
Iraq declared war on the United States? Not only are Frank Miller’s words filled with incredible absurdity and ignorance, they’re also plagued by disgusting prejudice that should raise questions about his underlying messages in “300” and other recent works of his. One of the things I found really disturbing in Miller’s interview was how he suggested that “teaching all cultures are equal” and “every belief system is as good as the next” is a bad thing! What is he implicating here? Are we to teach that certain cultures and belief systems are better than others?
In his next response, he essentially calls Islam “sixth century barbarism,” and then lumps the entire Muslim world into one stereotype. Then he says “I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.” Perhaps someone should educate Mr. Miller that the Islamic empires preserved the beloved Greek philosophical texts by Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and many others. He should also be informed that algebra was invented by a Persian Muslim, Mohammad Al-Khwarizmi. The word English word for “algorithm” actually comes from “Al-Khwarizmi” and the significance of algorithms in computers, programming, engineering, and software design is immensely critical. As stated by Michael H. Morgan, author of “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists,” Al-Khwarizmi’s new ways of calculating “enable the building of a 100 story towers and mile-long buildings, calculating the point at which a space probe will intersect with the orbits of one of Jupiter’s moons, the reactions of nuclear physics… intelligence of software, and the confidentiality of a mobile phone conversation.” Ironically, the Western achievements that Frank Miller boasts about could not have been possible without the collaboration of civilizations.
As I have written many times in my previous essays, racism is most dangerous when it has been made more acceptable in society. When the Nazis dehumanized the Jews, they did so in cartoons and propaganda films so that the rest of the country didn’t feel sorry about killing them. When early American cartoons and cinema depicted African-Americans, they drew them with ugly features and had White actors wear blackface makeup, respectively. At the time, these obviously racist acts were acceptable. In modern times, when the insulting Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, were released, many non-Muslims were too shocked at the Muslim world’s reaction than actually taking the time to realize that the cartoons were drawn out of hate and sheer Islamophobia. Rather than seeing the cartoons as racist or prejudice, many defended it as “freedom of expression.” The manner in which certain people in the Muslim world reacted to the Danish cartoons is another subject altogether, but it’s worth mentioning that their response represents a sensitivity that the West has made very little efforts to understand. For Islamophobes, demonizing the Prophet of Islam wouldn’t be such a bad idea since dehumanizing the enemy is an essential process of war. Vilifying the “Other” makes racial slurs acceptable – slurs like “rag heads,” “camel jockeys,” “towel heads,” “dune coons” among much worse things.
Although the Persians in “300” are not Muslim (the movie takes place in the Pre-Islamic and Pre-Christian era), the visualization of Persians are identical to the stereotypical images we see of Muslims in other media representations. Demonizing the Persians during a time when Middle-Easterners and Muslims are already being vilified simply makes dehumanization of the “Other” acceptable and more recognizable. I remember having one odd conversation with a young man who started his argument by saying, “Xerxes and his Muslim army were a bunch of tyrants.” I stopped him immediately and told him that his ignorant comments are precisely the reason why I raise awareness and accuse “300” of being a propaganda film. Xerxes and his Persian army were not Muslim, yet I saw many people correlating the film with present-day tensions between the United States and Iran. Joseph Shahadi recently informed me, the right-wing party of Italy even uses images of “300” in their campaign posters! It’s sad how many don’t seem to realize that dehumanization of certain groups has dangerous consequences; after all, before the Holocaust, Jews were dehumanized.
“300” may look like a visual breakthrough in cinema “art”, but that doesn’t make up for its blood-spattering jingoism or its racist content. Counter-arguments in the film’s defense are often weak with excuses like, “it’s just a movie,” or “it’s based on a comic book” or “it’s simply meant to entertain.” The counter-arguments are short and weak because the film is unapologetic and doesn’t contain anything sympathetic or appreciative about Persians, their culture, and their history. It would benefit Frank Miller and Zack Snyder if they saw Ridley Scott’s brilliant film, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which explores the complexity of war and celebrates dialogue between great civilizations. Such films are beneficiary to society because they convey much-needed messages of coexistence, respect, and understanding that reach wide audiences.
On a personal note, it is discouraging that so many people, including academics, doctors, and scholars, are either not bothered or don’t see the racism in “300.” And every once in a while, another one of my friends will do the Spartan “Ha-oooh!” chant around me and not realize how offensive it is. The fact that so many people cite the movie and enjoy watching it provides enough support for the cognitive social learning theory, where people find the Spartan characters likable and admirable. It is likely that this may be the reason why so many are defensive of the film – simply because they like the movie so much. But we, as a progressive society, need to be bold enough to stamp our foot down and say we will not tolerate racism, just like we would never tolerate watching or promoting films that glorify the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. As Dana Stevens writes, “If “300” had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside “The Eternal Jew” as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.”
My personal hope is that people will appreciate this analysis and realize the immense impact media has on shaping our thoughts, perspectives, and views of each other. I would also hope that people are inspired to study ancient Persian history and learn about the countless contributions of the Persians, who were among the greatest philosophers, thinkers, poets, artists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers, and innovators in the history of the world – before and after the Islamic era. I must point out that almost 90% of the paintings I post on my blog are Persian paintings (compare them with Frank Miller’s horrific depiction of Persians in “300″ and you will understand how upset and offended one can be).
The Arab, Iranian, and/or Muslim communities need to make their mark in the film industry and I cannot stress that enough. The release of “300” angered, but also frustrated me because I felt like I could not respond with a film about Persians due to my low-budget. It is a personal dream of mine to make a “Cyrus the Great” film someday, and I’m sure many of us have dreams of certain films we’d like to see about our communities, but they cannot remain dreams. They must be manifested and brought to life, and only through perseverance, sheer dedication, and passion can we achieve our dreams. As evident in “300,” there are people making a living out of vilifying our cultures, histories, and religions while many of us stand by and watch the propaganda machine do its dirty work. I understand that not all of us are aspiring filmmakers, but to those of you who are: the longer we remain the silent, the less people will know about our beautiful stories.
I believe very firmly that Truth prevails in the end and I have faith that the new generation of progressive-thinkers, Middle-Easterners, South Asians, and Muslims alike are on their way in making a profound difference in our world. Someday, the Middle-East and Muslim world will no longer be demonized and feared, but appreciated and respected. The media has the power to turn tables around in such a way.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Investigation at SUNY New Paltz after ‘Colored Only,’ other racist signs posted on campus

is it me or is there a racist problem in Anglo-American universities?


Campus police and administrators at SUNY New Paltz have launched an investigation after several racists signs - including one on a water fountain that said "Colored Only" - were posted around campus this month.
On Nov. 8, a small "Colored Only" sticker was posted on a water fountain on the first floor of the university's Humanities Building, the school president said in a memo after the incident.
Hours later, another sign in the shape of a hand giving the middle finger was found in Lefevre Hall, a dorm, that said "Lynching n---ers program at 7:30 main lounge," according to a student Facebook page.
That sign originally advertised a dorm event before it was torn into the shape of a hand and scrawled with the racist message, a student said.
The signs were torn down and given to campus police, and SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian sent an email to students condemning the incidents.
But two days later, another sign calling for "lynching" was spotted in an elevator, the school and students said.
The sign on the left referenced lynching and was posted in a dorm. The 'Colored Only' sign was posted on a water fountain. (Courtesy of a SUNY New Paltz student via Facebook)

Campus police told the Times Herald-Record that they had a few leads, but no arrests have been made.
In statements to students this week, Christian called for a campus-wide forum to address the incidents on Nov. 30.
"We condemn such acts as contrary to our community values, hopes, and aspirations," Christian said in an email on Wednesday.
"While we cannot know the motivations of the person(s) responsible for these acts, having them splinter our community may well feed into [their\] goals. We must not allow that to happen."
Junior Jonathan Espinosa, 20, said he was one of the first to see the water fountain sticker and called it a "hate crime."
The Bronx native told the Daily News that some suspected the signs were posted in reaction to Black Solidarity Day, a Nov. 8 event when many black students were given the day off to gather off campus and celebrate their heritage.
"We came together peacefully among each other as family and friends. And for this to happen the day after was very shocking," he said.
The university's student association and black student union called for students to attend a talk dubbed “Racism at SUNY New Paltz” on Thursday night.
“Some students have said to ignore it, but it think if we continue ignore it, we enable to people to continue to do stuff like this,” Espinosa said.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Other Penn State Cover-Up: Death Threats Against Black Students


Hate mail to black students and a death, all swept away by PSU

As news unravels around the grand jury report revealing charges against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for raping and sexually molesting underage boys, some former black Penn State students are now painfully reliving a scandal that occurred at their university ten years ago. In 2000, the year a janitor witnessed a boy younger than 13 (“Victim 8” in a grand jury report) “pinned against a wall” while Sandusky performed oral sex on him, black students and football players on Penn State’s campus began receiving hate mail.
The hate mail sent to black students had nothing to do with Sandusky’s proclivities, but the two incidences shared something in common: both were ultimately covered up by the university, even as both chain of events grew worse. Sandusky went on to molest and possibly rape more boys, according to a grand jury report (Sandusky denies foul play), and hate mail against black students became death threats.
Ultimately, a black man’s dead body was found by police near Penn State as one of the death threats said it would. And some black students had to attend their graduation the following May with bulletproof vests on in fear of their life.
But few know about the death threats because Penn State and Joe Paterno were not willing to allow bad publicity to ruin the university’s image, say some of the black students at the center of the tragic events.
LaKeisha Wolf was president of Penn State’s Black Caucus ten years ago, and she received the lion’s share of life-threatening letters. Today, she watches the news about Sandusky’s rape charges, the firing of Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier, and the student riots that ensued, and it takes her right back to her days dealing with the university.
In fact, Wolf and other concerned black students met with Paterno back in 2001 because of information circulating that black football players, like then-quarterback Rashard Casey, had been receiving death threats. Wolf recalls Paterno as almost emotionless.
“He didn’t necessarily blatantly show concern,” says Wolf. “He was just really composed -- kinda non-emotional I would say. It was like he would have had the same amount of energy and response whether we were talking about death threats or what was for lunch. It was just a non-descript kind of demeanor.”

Paterno is known for his deadpan deliveries during press conferences after Penn State games, win or lose. But this wasn’t a game. Students were fearful for their lives. That year, Penn State was experiencing an unusual losing season – a big deal in the college franchise that spawned multiple national championships and undefeated seasons under Paterno’s 45-year reign. Much vitriol was aimed at Penn State’s black quarterback  – also unusual in Penn State’s mostly white quarterbacked history – Casey, who along with losing games was arrested in the off-season for fighting a white cop, allegedly over the cop’s African American date. Casey was cleared of those charges, but even Paterno admitted that the quarterback remained the target of hate mail.
But Paterno wasn’t so moved to have Penn State confront the hostile climate.
Assata Richards, who was a leader of the Village student movement to increase diversity initiatives at Penn State, was at the 2001 meeting with Wolf and Paterno and today still remembers the cold response he gave them about the death threats.
“We asked him to talk to the players because we were concerned about their safety,” says Richards, “and he said in that meeting that he would never do anything to put the university in a bad light. So we said, ‘Then you are choosing the university over students lives.’”
Wolf was chilled by Paterno’s response also. She says Paterno told them, “I’m only a football coach.”
Says Wolf, “To me that said that even if he had specific knowledge of football players’ or students’ lives in danger that he wouldn’t allow that to risk Penn State’s image being tainted and that is something that has stuck in my mind for the last ten years.”
Today, in the Sandusky case, too many details have been revealed that show Penn State officials acted more to cover up crimes than to report them. Whether that was to protect the university’s image or not will eventually come out in court. But the grand jury report shows that when a grad assistant, who we now know is assistant football coach Mike McQueary, reported in 2002 seeing Sandusky raping a ten-year-old boy (“Victim 2”) in a locker room shower, that officials never reported anything to the police.
McQueary, who’s now on leave from the team, reported the rape to Joe Paterno who then reported it to senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz and now resigned president Graham Spanier. But no one reported to law authorities. Schultz testified that the allegations as heard from McQueary were “not that serious” and that he “had no indication that a crime had occurred.”
These same people – Paterno, Spanier and Schultz – were the same officials involved in the case ten years ago when Wolf was the target of death threats. But Wolf said none of them nor the police ever questioned her about the letters she was receiving.  Then one week in April, Daryl Lang, a reporter for Penn State’s Daily Collegian, received a death threat letter aimed at Wolf. It read:
“daryl nigger lover lang, since you love niggers so much, … maybe you can do president wolf, a favor by delivering the enclosed letter to her.”
Not long before that, Wolf received a letter from an anonymous source that said “we are determined to rid this place of this black blight on our community. Those like you have been run off or killed.” The letter told Wolf to “have the authorities search mt nittany near the summit, north slope” for the body of a dead “young black buck.”
A few days later, a the body of a black man was in fact found in the area.
Because Penn State officials wouldn’t do anything to alert the student body, and Paterno seemed careless about threats to his players, Wolf, Richards and other black students took matters into their own hands. On April 21, the day of Penn State’s famous “Blue-White” game, Wolf and 40 other students stormed onto Penn State’s football field just before kickoff to draw attention to the racial hate problems – call it an early "Occupy Penn State" move.
Cops apprehended 14 of them, but 26 made it to the center of the field, locked arms and sat down until police broke them up and carted them away. They were all arrested.
Compare that to last week, where hundreds of students occupied downtown State College (where Penn State is located) and held a riot after Paterno was fired, taking down lamp posts, setting cars on fire and overturning a local news van. When Loop 21 contacted State College police to ask how many were arrested in that melee we were told that they “couldn’t tell us because an investigation was ongoing.”
When Assata Richards looks at the Sandusky news, the university’s cover ups, and the students’ rioting protests she says she’s “not surprised at all.”
News outlets, says Richards, “are reporting and saying things today that they said back then: ‘This sounds like a cover up,’ ‘Why weren’t more people notified?’ ‘Why weren’t parents notified?’ It’s scary for me because all of these institutional leaders are the same ones we remember so well and interacted with.”
As for the riots, says Richards: “It’s so interesting because when I heard about Paterno being fired and how students responded, I’m thinking about when we were rallying around our issues and how we were arrested. We were not slapped on the wrist, but we were in no way doing anything harmful. We never destroyed property, but we were arrested for saying, ‘Hey something is happening, people are being harassed and threatened, and a person was killed.’ For that, we were treated as criminals.”

If you protest racism during Black Face season in The Netherlands, you will be beaten up and arrested


If you protest racism during Black Face season in The Netherlands, you will be beaten up and arrested

[Content warning for very racist images, links to videos of police brutality and depictions of State endorsed racism]
Ah, my home, The Netherlands. Tourists from all over the world wax lyrical about the tulips, the windmills and the widely available weed. What these tourists hardly ever get to see is how institutionalized racism works in this country and the lengths the State will go to in order to protect it. Or how, if you are personally affected by this racism and you summon the strength to protest it, you will be brutally beaten up and arrested.
Now, here is the thing: this is a small country. All matters of racism happen here but they go unreported in international mainstream media because the Dutch language is mostly inaccessible to the world at large. So, these matters remain untold, underreported, downplayed or just ignored. However, international media loves to talk about our most famous homegrown xenophobe: Geert Wilders. His influence is far reaching and international. His words repeated all over the international press; he gets invitations for public engagements and speeches; fellow populist and xenophobe politicians from all over Europe and places as dissimilar as the US, Canada or Australia cite him as a source of “inspiration”. Meanwhile, the general public abroad struggles to come up with an explanation of why, a country that is present in popular imaginations as “tolerant”, “multicultural” and “modern” could be represented by such a divisive and racist force. That is, because systematically, mainstream media misses the context. And I believe that the events that transpired on Saturday, during the official opening of what I like to call “Black Face season”, can provide some of that context.

“Black Face season” is not exactly the official name for what, in reality, is a children’s holiday known as Sinterklass. This is the time of the year when Dutch people carelessly don black face and speak in a faux Surinamese accents. This is the time of the year when, if you venture the streets, you are likely to encounter sights like these:

[Image description: a group of eight White adults wearing multi-color satin and velvet costumes that imitate those of Colonial times. All people in the photo wear Afro wigs and make-up commonly known as “Black Face”]
Photo via
Or like this:

[Image description: two White women walk down a street while wearing a satin costume in orange and purple colors, Afro wigs and make-up commonly known as “Black face”]
Photo via

The above, for those not familiar with our local “traditions”, are popularly known as “Black Pete”, or “Zwarte Piet” in Dutch. These “colorful” characters are the helpers of Sinterklaas, or more formally Sint Nicolaas/ Sint Nikolaas or Saint Nicolas in French. Sinterklaas is a children’s Winter holiday celebrated every year in The Netherlands, Belgium and some cities in the North of France. According to tradition, the Saint arrives to The Netherlands a few weeks prior to the celebration, in a boat, carrying the gifts he will deliver to children. The “Black Petes” are his helpers and they carry candy and control children’s behavior (children who misbehave supposedly get no presents from the Saint). Again, according to “tradition”, these helpers are Moors, or North African slaves. This “tradition” has evolved throughout the years, partially due to increasing protests from groups that find these depictions offensive. Nowadays, it is claimed that the Black face is due to the fact that the helpers have gone through chimneys and as a result, their faces are covered in soot. What again, nobody can clearly explain, is what kind of soot leaves such a uniform and evenly spread residue. Or worse, why these “chimney dwellers” speak in a fake accent that parodies the Black population of the Dutch former colony of Suriname.
Over the years, a small but growing group of people have been protesting this celebration of Black face costumes and ridiculing of minorities. Systematically, these protests have been met with a very strong and stubborn resistance from a majority of White Dutch who refuse to even consider the racist implications of this “tradition”. Those who are against the Black Pete depictions are consistently told that there is nothing offensive in it, that the tradition is not up for debate, that they are being oversensitive and that, and here comes the usual xenophobic retort, “if they don’t like it, they should go and live some place else”. Additionally, people who speak against this are also told that they are importing North American models of “political correctness” that have no place in Dutch society. Moreover, the supporters of these Black face depictions are adamant that there is nothing, absolutely nothing racist in Black Pete’s representations and that claiming otherwise is the result of a cultural imperialism brought upon by North American influences. According to supporters, Dutch culture is so different from that of the US and the context so incomparable that such discussion should not even take place. Any attempt at contextualizing the role of the Dutch in slavery in the Americas and how the continuation of these racist practices owes everything to the mindset that made such trade possible is met with protestations and the statement that “only Americans see offense in Black face, we, the Dutch, are obviously different and not racist in our traditions”. In sum, what they claim is that the rights of White people to don Black face are more or less sacrosanct and native Dutch children have a right to the continuation of this “tradition” undisputed.
And because I promised context, here’s what the Black face apologists will never tell you or admit, not even to themselves: the real, harmful consequences of the perpetuation of this racist stereotypes. In The Netherlands, where a significant portion of the White native population demands the freedom to be racist, under 25 years old Moroccan youth (not faux Moors like the Black Pete “legend” claims) face an unemployment rate of 28%; and under 25 year old Surinamese youth (the ones who do not speak with a faux Suriname accent during a children holiday, but the all too real citizens of the former Dutch colony), face an unemployment rate of 27%. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for White, Dutch, under 25 years old natives is at a meager 6.9%, the lowest in the European Union. And I would love for anyone to tell me that there is no correlation between racist media depictions and people’s real lives.
Earlier this year, a group of Dutch people from the former and present Dutch colonies (Curacao, Suriname, Aruba, etc.), started a campaign under the banner “Zwarte Piet is racism”. They invited people to submit a photograph of themselves wearing a stenciled t-shirt, making a statement against this racist practice. Some local celebrities like Greg Shapiro (from the legendary comedy group Boom Chicago) have lend their support to the campaign. Moreover, in June this year I was at one of the final performances of the Broadway musical Fela! (one of the main guests at the prestigious Holland Festival) and some of the members of the cast, at the end of the show, held a sign that read “Zwarte Piet is racism”. Unsurprisingly, local media remained moot and this went unreported.
All of the above is just a mere introduction for the events that transpired this Saturday, 12th November. This weekend marked the arrival of the Sinterklaas boat with the little “slave helpers” wearing the usual Black face. The event is a yearly spectacle that attracts significant crowds. Parents bring children to the port and they watch actors disembark with horses and parcels carrying the gifts that will be handed over to children later on in December. This is an event that more or less kick starts the pre-Christmas holiday season and to say that it is massive would be an understatement. Not only is the event broadcasted in national TV, but it is also reported in news channels, newspapers, magazines and major websites. Every year, the “official” arrival takes place at a different Dutch city. This year was the turn of Dordrecht, a city in the province of South Holland . The usual pomp and circumstance surrounded the event, which would have been as inane as it usually is, had it not been for a small group of people who decided to take a stand against the practice of Black face. This group of activists, mostly Black local youth, (Dutch media cannot agree on the exact number, some say five or six, others say a dozen or so), wore the stenciled T-Shirt with the words “Zwarte Piet is racism” and stood by the side of the road while the parade passed by. According to reports, they also yelled “Zwarte Piet is racism” when the Black Petes were walking in their vicinity. This was met with disgust by the Dutch in attendance who complained that they were “ruining” the celebration. Police were summoned. The State called upon to protect the right of the Dutch to continue being racist.
What happened afterwards will turn your stomach. Police demanded the activists to disband and stop protesting. They were told this was a children’s event and that children had the right to celebrate the holiday without disturbances. Two men and two women were arrested (link goes to news report in Dutch) when they stated that they also had the right to protest practices that actively harm them. They were told, in no uncertain terms, that they had no right to be there. One of the men resisted. He yelled that it was his right to protest. This video here, caught by a bystander, shows what happened to this protester. He was dragged outside the Parade, brutally beaten, thrown into the ground, dragged some more. In the video, you can see this young Black man, wearing a t-shirt that states “Zwarte Piet is racism”, subject to State violence in order to protect a Dutch tradition that is clearly not open for debate. The right of the White majority to wear Black face every year should be protected through whatever means necessary, even at the expense of those who are harmed by it.
Earlier this year, in a highly publicized trial, Geert Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred through Hate Speech. Dutch courts stated that his speech is denigrating but not hateful. Prosecutors were asking for a sentence that contemplated the possibility of jail time. Wilders has used coarse and xenophobic language against immigrants and minorities in this country. His party is funded on the premise that those of us who hail from nations classified as Non Western have no place in this society. He actively promotes laws and initiatives to further alienate and isolate immigrants. And yet, his words were deemed non hateful and, as such, not deserving of a sentence or even one day in jail, protected by free speech laws. A young Black man protests racist stereotypes that actively hurt him, he protests a tradition that further promotes his isolation and his status as “Other” and he is brutally beaten and dragged through the ground, arrested. He is told he has no right to protest, no right to raise his voice. Obviously, the protections afforded by free speech are only available to those that the State deems to be free to begin with. The largely unacknowledged responsibility of the Dutch State in the transatlantic slave trade, practically absent from school history books, means that some people, still to this day, continue to be bound by chains that prevent them from exercising the same rights freely afforded to Gert Wilders. Because above all, the Dutch State has made it clear that it will protect the right of White Dutch people to be racist without consequences.
Edited to add: Yesterday, Sunday 13th November, the Sinterklaas Parade also took place in Amsterdam. Five people carrying flyers stating “Zwarte Piet is racism” stood by the Parade route, in the Leidseplein attempting to distribute the flyers. In order to avoid direct confrontation, they didn’t wear the stenciled T-shirts. All five were also arrested for “provocation” and told they had no right to disturb an event aimed at Dutch children. (Link goes to report in Dutch)