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What Makes The White Man Racist?


I was never much of a Disney person growing up. Now it occurs to me that perhaps my uptight, liberal parents shielded me from it precisely because of things like Peter Pan’s What Makes  The Red Man Red?; which I recently stumbled across. Like the seduction of Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun, it’s so sublimely awful you can’t look away. But at the same time it’s kind of fun; I mean, it’s a really catchy song.

Whatever you want “racist” to mean, it’s hard to argue that the above isn’t racist on some level. But where do we draw the line, and how do we respond to ambiguous racism? If you take a look at the comment thread under the video, a lot of people weigh in, surprisingly civil (though it’s not saying much) for a YouTube discussion about racism. My favorite comment involves a thesis as to why white people are white that I can’t repeat in mixed company.

I think it’s safe to say that short of cancer and bankruptcy, liberalish, middle and upper-middle class white people fear nothing more than being accused of racism. Racism has become the ultimate intellectual sin; convict your opponent of it and presto, you’ve won the argument. This neurosis is drilled into us from a young age: my first memory involving racism was drawing a robot and telling my mother that it fought “black robots.” This was the first, and only time my mother slapped me.

In this she wasn’t entirely unjustified. Of course I wasn’t thinking of black people when I said black robots, but I was responding, unconsciously, to a cultural ethic that associated the color black with the grim reaperNazguls and Darth Vader.

To return to Peter Pan, the song isn’t so much racist in negatively stereotyping Native Americans. It does represent them as defined by a simplistic, inaccurate version of their pre-industrial “culture;” and also that being white is normative, hence they must explain why they aren’t white. But they’re red, supposedly, because of a perfectly normative trait: sexual excitement in the context of lawful marriage. They aren’t depicted as alcoholic welfare cheats. There’s other stuff going on too; issues of intercultural romance and sexism. Sure, it’s pretty racist; but can you compare it to something like Nazi propaganda films? And what about the junk dealer from Episode One? That was pretty racist; but people disagree on which ethnic group it’s stereotyping. “Greedy and oily with poor language skills” has been applied to a lot of unpopular groups over the years.

I won’t take the easy way out, say that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and leave it at that; but I will say this. Our response to racism has to be more than identifying things that could be construed as racist and eliminating them from our discourse. So many cultural theorists simply hunt for stereotypes, then cruelly ridicule the people responsible for them. But bridging the gulf between cultures is arguably our most pressing task as a species; and various shadings of stereotype are a part of that discourse. Crudely speaking–shouldn’t the makers of Dances With Wolves receive a bit for more credit than Peter Pan? Look, the Japanese are sports; some Japanese critics actually praised The Last Samurai, and what a piece of chop-socky nonsense that was. But it was better than the Yellow Peril of Rising Sun.

I’m envisioning a “one-to-ten scale” as a serious analytical tool. A ten would represent Nazi propaganda films; anything that explicitly advocates the destruction of “inferior” races, cultures of religions. Something like What Makes the Red Man Red? might weigh in at a six or so; well-intentioned, but so offensively stereotyped it can’t be fully enjoyed in good conscience. Something still more ambiguous, like The Monkey Song from the Jungle Book, might merit a four. A two or a three for films or books that try to confront the issue of race head-on, honestly, but trip up on a few unfortunate points; perhaps Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where the black protagonist is constructed negatively against black stereotypes. A one would be reserved for things like, I don’t know, South Park, that use broad stereotypes to create a satiric point. They’re not in essence racist at all–but in an ideal world, we should be able to wash off the stereotypes altogether.

In closing, I must present what I find a delightful take on my own Wapanese ethnicity. I have to tell you, that’s nothing like what Japanese with an American accent sounds like; but I greatly admire Yuko Goto’s effort.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 08/05/2010 10:04 pm

    Great points! I will be checking back here often!

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