I wrote this article, published in the local newspaper a few months ago and I'm interested in hearing people's responses. I'm in the process of developing a discussion forum (non-web based) and I think there's no better place than to start here.
40 Women Over 40: Humor at whose expense?
By Marissa Hallo
Posted: 11/22/2009 01:00:00 AM MST
Last weekend, I attended "Feels Like Falling," a performance by Boulder-based dance company, 40 Women Over 40, at the Dairy Center for the Arts. I was eager to attend the performance because I have enjoyed the previous work of company director and choreographer, Nancy Cranbourne.
Although I enjoyed the majority of the performance, I feel compelled to address certain sections of the production that reinforced racist stereotypes. My response is not intended to criticize an individual, but to initiate a dialogue about how seemingly innocent or humorous stereotypes promote false perceptions and prevent us from achieving a more accurate understanding of other races. As citizens of Boulder, we must acknowledge that despite efforts to be an informed, culturally sensitive and inclusive community, we must continue to engage in discussion about understanding and confronting racism.
In "Feels Like Falling," Cranbourne incorporated acting and comedy through video interludes, obviously intended to be humorous. Cranbourne, a white woman, played the role of an acupuncturist. Her depiction included a physical caricature of a Chinese man with yellowish skin and painted-on, slanted eyes, an artificial Chinese accent and broken English. In addition to her portrayal of a Chinese man, Cranbourne played the part of an Indian "guru" of sorts, reinforcing similarly degrading stereotypes. In an effort to address a patient`s psychological problems, the guru seems to suggest that she must be re-birthed and "leave the womb." The guru proceeds to correct the patient`s response and says that she must leave the "womb" not the "woom."
Comedy minimizes our understanding of how stereotypesimpact oppressed groups. Stereotypes are subtle and pervasive -- they affect daily interactions, interpretations of current events, government policy, judicial rulings, employment, housing and educational opportunities, and promote xenophobia.
It is important to recognize that responsibility and awareness does not fall solely on producers, writers, actors, or artists who powerfully and subliminally influence our beliefs about races. The audience`s laughter in response to racist portrayals in "Feels Like Falling" demonstrates that many Americans are desensitized to stereotypes. As recipients of information, it is critical that we examine our reactions to media, literature and art that use negative and generalized depictions to denigrate the intellect and humanity of groups based on their race (or nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability or class).
As a white person, my education on racism was virtually non-existent until my mid-20s. I recall moments when African American students attempted to bring racism to the forefront, but I dismissed their comments and labeled the students as over-sensitive. My disregard for their perspective and experiences reflected my subconscious sense of race-based superiority; I assumed that others shared my social reality and anything that deviated from this must be a misconception or exaggeration. The experiences of people of color are undoubtedly an essential component of white people`s understanding of racism, but we must also have white anti-racist role models -- white people standing up against racism, advocating for racial equity, and serving as allies to people of color.
Following the performance, I initiated a discussion with a friend who had attended the concert. I was frustrated by her hesitant admittance that certain material was somewhat offensive. Although she didn`t think the portrayals were funny, she seemed resistant to acknowledge the seriousness of such representations. The next day, she told me that after reflecting on our discussion and initiating a conversation about the topic with her husband, she more fully realized the negative implications of racist stereotypes. The dialogue with her husband illuminated deeper issues related to racism, heightened awareness, helped identify examples they`ve encountered, and motivated them to continue conversation with their children and friends. The process of educating ourselves, engaging others in conversation and opposing racist stereotypes may feel overwhelming and perhaps insignificant, but a single conversation about racism, as illustrated here, may be a powerful catalyst for change.
While I felt the need to address this topic, I must admit that I hesitated, for fear that I would embarrass the choreographer, jeopardize my relationship with faculty and friends in the performance, and that I may fall short of adequately and sensitively addressing these complex issues. After weighing these risks, I chose to use the power of my voice -- my white, educated, middle-class voice -- to speak up and to reach out to others to do the same.
Brine? I'm glad you didn't put into quotation marks what you thought I said. Nowhere did I say people who get offended by racism ARE racist against others.
To paraphrase what I said so I don't have to go back and read it. Keep in mind, I say this in regards to Marissa's feelings toward the play she saw. Again, this is totally in regards to Marissa's feelings toward the play. Marissa's being offended by the play is due to her OWN prejudice. The definition of prejudice: An adverse judgement or opinion formed without knowledge or examination of the facts. Maybe Marissa is a prude for judging the work of company director and choreographer Nancy Cranbourne. I'm sure the play wasn't intended to hurt anybody. It was obviously an attempt at humor. Humor comes in many varieties, had I seen the play, I may have laughed or not.
I credit Richard Pryor for being the single most important person to soften racism in the U.S. during the past 30 years. He used humor to poke fun at Whitey, Blacks, Asians, Latinos and anybody else he thought could get him a laugh.
Maybe there's just too many thin-skinned, overly sensitive people around. Maybe Marissa slammed the play to gain admiration of her readers, coming across as a wonderful and caring human being. I don't think she would say that though. But there are some people like that.
Brine, maybe you had Glenn Beck at the back of your mind when you were reading my replies. I'm not Glenn Beck.
I think we are talking about sensitivity here. Why would anyone (I said anyone) cause hurt or discomfort if they don't have to.
What these old folks are telling you young Marrisa is that as you get older and as you get more experience and as you go through the military, you will be desensitized to the feelings of others. It will be ok to be unkind because you won't really notice anymore.
Well, I hope that people of your generation will be the ones to prove them wrong. Always keep that sensitivity and awareness of how your actions may hurt or embarrass others. To the extent that you are able to do that, the world will be a better place. To the extent that your generation can do that, the world will be an even better place!
Good to see this has all generated a lot of conversation. Not sure where to even start with a reply, but I noticed that questions about my background and my age seemed to play into a lot of the comments. I'll add more info to my profile when I get a chance. FYI - Yes, I'm young, but older than my profile pic probably makes me look. I'm a 29 year old white female. I teach a class in cultural studies at a large, predominantly white university. I have my grad degree in dance. I grew up in a suburb of Boston, also mostly white. I have spent about 2 1/2 years studying/working/living in West Africa and have traveled on the continent a bit. For anyone wondering, I'm not basing my thoughts off of some scholarly book. I'm sharing my thoughts on a topic that I continually discuss with friends of many different races, classes, genders, and national origins. And I'm not a proponent of PC. I think being PC prevents us from really getting to the heart of issues like racism.
I just don't think we really need to degrade people based on race, religion, gender, etc. There are other things to laugh about. With issues we are facing with immigration, occupation in the Middle East, etc., do we really think humor that reinforces stereotypes is going to help the way we are perceived globally? And to someone who suggested that I consult people from the races that were depicted, I think that those voices are an important part of the conversation, but it's also important to remember that a few people cannot speak for an entire race. I'm not trying to speak for those races. I'm speaking for myself and trying to consider other perspectives on the issue. I think some of the reactions are testament to how numbed out we are to stereotypes. Someone made an important point about what images latino kids see on the TV about their race. What message does it send when they see their race pretty consistently and almost exclusively depicted as gang members, "illegal" immigrants, etc? There's that single story that Adiche talks about.
Animak, You and I usually are in agreement, but this time I have to question your interpretation of what those of us with experience are saying. Your explanation of what we are trying to say is so far off the mark that I can not understand how you could possibly think that is what we meant to impart.
Let me see if I can clarify.
It has been my experience that many, if not most, times when people do or say things that are offensive to other races (an outmoded concept) gender or class of people it is out of ignorance about the other party. For example; I am from West Virginia, Many people make fun of West Virginians. I made a career out of the military, many people think that everyone in the military think the same way. I am a senior citizen, but do not fit most young or old peoples profile of old people. However, I do not need you or anyone else to protect my feelings. If for some reason I need the law to protect me I will ask for that protection. Your interpretation of what I was trying to impart is a perfect example of someone trying to explain how others feel without consulting those others. I still think that experience is the best teacher.
I posted this audio clip on another discussion on political correctness. The 'lowest common denominator' folks seem to have a deep rooted fear liberals or intellectuals want to take away their right to make racist or homophobic statements. No problem...Git 'er Done.
This David Cross flick could push a button with me if I let it.
It's called freedom of speech.
I'm not going to lower myself by calling him names, what name could you call a person like that anyway?
To each his own.
I doubt many military moms laughed at that. Of course the term "friendly fire" is a politicaly correct attempt to lessen the emotional impact of a horrific mistake. I disagree with calling it friendly fire myself, there's nothing funny about it though.
This whole crap about not hurting anyone’s feelings is a bunch of crap coming out of our public schools.
They play games and have no winner as this might hurt someone’s feelings.
If your feelings get hurt, practice more.
If you get beat up by a bully, learn how to fight.
If you don’t like having a bad stereotype, quit running in bad groups.
You can’t stop people from judging you. It is up to you to set your image.
What the hell are we trying to do in this country, turn into a wimp culture.
it is pretty rare that I am offended. Sterotypes, even ones about hillbillies or West Virginians usually do not offend me. So far the only thing I have read or seen on this thread that offended me was Aimak's comment about what I was trying to tell Marissa. I am still waiting for his reply.