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.
I can comment on two levels that I hope will help you. As a writer/journalist, I suggest you open such a piece "in the middle of the action." What is "hot" here is the moment when you literally or figuratively squirm in your theater seat as you realize someone wants to "entertain" you with racist stereotypes of foreigners and minorities. Another hot aspect is the choices you face of how to respond, given the social/professional pressures you feel.
As a writer, this kind of non-chronological presentation may be a stretch for you, but is definitely worth the effort to learn. Why? There's little new to say, and the writer must trick the reader into thinking he or she has never read this before. Also, opening with a straight recitation of the facts and background does not engage readers the way something with a bit more zip will. Is there a part of you inside saying, "Fine, but I am not a zippy person. I am a level-headed, thoughtful person with a serious social problem to discuss." True, perhaps, but if you want to hold readers, you must aim for what engages them rather than what feels comfortable for you.
As to your subject: What result do you hope to produce via discussion? Would you urge people not to create and stage such low entertainment? Do you want to help keep people from attending such things by showing that racist stereotypes appeal to the ignoble part of ourselves? Once you establish the negatives of it, then what?
I'm not really asking for feedback on word choice for the article I wrote. I completely realize that racism is a controversial topic and that many close their ears to the conversation when the word comes up. That is part of the problem, but not a reason to avoid calling something what it is. Some may have felt more comfortable if I avoided the use of the terms "racism" or "racist" all together, but this article is not about making people feel comfortable. We do that all the time and avoid getting to the heart of issues that continue to plague our society and hurt individuals and groups. Why is it that we feel okay about making individuals of a certain race feel uncomfortable in the name of humor, but we are not willing to deal with the discomfort that a contentious issue raises?
For those of you who feel uncomfortable with the word "racist", my intention is not to disregard your feelings associated with the term. On the topic of conversation that makes us uncomfortable -- I think THAT discomfort is a good thing -- it pushes us to investigate why we feel resistance to conversation that includes perspectives that may challenge ours.
It is when we use discomfort as an excuse not to engage in thoughtful, open-minded conversation, with a genuine interest in learning from others' perspectives that it becomes a problem.
You're obviously more educated than I since I had to look up the definitions of many of the words you used. So, feel free to dismiss any or all of what I have to say.
"Comedy minimizes our understanding of how sterertypes impact oppressed groups." Are you serious? On the contrary, racial comedy is what has minimized racism over the last 30 plus years. It may affect government policy because our legislators feel they need to be PC in order to get reelected. If it affects judicial rulings, then we need new judges.
I don't consider myself a role model, but I'm a white male who stands up against racisism and hatred ( both these words belong together)
As far as anybody getting offended, I've said it many times in here. People get offended only due to their own prejudice against other cultures.
Nobody influences my beliefs, not government, not the news media nor anything else I see on TV. My beliefs are based on what Ive experienced in my everyday life. My beliefs come soley from my experience in the Army, the workplace, raising a family and being involved in my community.
Marissa, if you're offended by someone making fun of your culture or religion, it would be because you're prejudiced against their culture or religion.
I see that you're trying to make a positive difference and I admire you for that.
I'm confused about how people getting offended is related to their own prejudice against other cultures. Can you explain further for me?
I would say that your community and your workplace are shaped by media and the government. The army is certainly shaped by the government. So if your beliefs are based on these aspects of your life, you are influenced by the media, the government, etc. No matter how hard we try, we can't isolate our experiences from these things because the permeate our day to day existence.
I don't often find that I'm offended by someone making fun of my culture or religion because I'm part of the dominant racial and religious groups in the US (white and pseudo-Christian). Even if someone makes fun of white people, it doesn't trigger the same thing for me as it probably would for a person of a race that has been historically oppressed. Not to say that demeaning comments or acts about whites are okay. I'm noticing a disturbing trend of making fun of "white trash" and the perception that this is okay because it's about white people. I don't think it's particularly funny to talk about people in adverse living conditions or about lack of access to medical or dental care.
Check out this short video of an excellent speech by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adiche. I'm posting it because I think it makes some important points about how stereotypes reinforce "a single story" of a people and the negative effects of this.
Click on the #1 video on that page. You may have to install their plugin. I wish it were easier.
Larry is really a very nice person, and I am sure that he would do whatever he can to help any person of any ethnic background or skin color. That said, I disagree with him on this one. Media literacy used to be a daily part of my workday, and I have seen how media interpretations of people miss the mark and cause hurt. Consider, for example, how very big, left handed white guys with beards and glasses are portrayed on television. There aren't any, so I must be the only person like me out there. Comforting as that may be to many, let's get a little more realistic for a moment. We have a moderately large population of hispanic migrant workers in the area to work the vineyards and orchards in season. What do they see of their ethnicity in the media? What do their children see to be role models and give hope as they grow up? They see their kind robbing the liquor stores on tv, especially now that everyone agrees that we can't stereotype blacks in that way anymore. For that matter, what do my kids see? Even though they are white, (and even though I don't have a tv for them to watch) they know that every white family in America lives in a very nice, clean house with all the latest in gizmos and cars, and they may even have maids or servants of some sort. Needless to say, this is bullshit. But think about what anyone learns when looking at American mass media. Now, take that same mass media and export it to the rest of the world, where everyone can learn that all white Americans are rich and living an unconsidered, arrogant life style. Furthermore, we know that all white fathers are bumbling but well intentioned, and that mom has to help out. For that matter, we know that everyone comes from a two parent household.
Well, I could continue to ramble, but it won't help my argument, and most of you are asleep already.
I love humor, i just prefer that it be intellectually based instead of going for the easy (and thoughtless) stereotypical jokes at the expense of other people. By the way, for your consideration: a pun does not require that someone get hurt, be stupid, or mean to be funny. I hereby admit that I love puns.
I wasn't able to link to the video but I was able to type it in and get it. She's an intelligent woman to be admired. I watched 8 minutes of it which I thought was enough to get your point. There are plenty of misconceptions and lots of ignorance in the world. I'm sure that none of us will ever see the day when every culture, race or religion will be able to empathise with any other culture, race or religion. You may think this strange, but it doesn't sadden me. It obviously was meant to be somehow.
"Being offended due to one's own prejudice". That's a tough one to explain even though I came to believe this on my own, nobody influenced me Marissa, this comes from my own observations. I'll try to give an example. My grandmother was the most religious Christian I've ever known. No makeup, no dancing, she only wore long dresses. She didn't believe in TV as it took her away from her bible studies. She would become offended every time she left the house. She would see a woman wearing slacks and give a tsk tsk, it offended her. Why? She was prejudiced against this kind of behavior (behaviour if you're Canadian). It wasn't her belief that a woman would wear slacks. Nudity offends some but not others. Swearing offends some but not others. I'm not talking about actions that are MEANT to hurt others, that's different. I hope I got my point across, I don't know how else to explain it.
The military, workplaces and communities are made up of people like you and me. Their policies may be influenced by what is in the media, but it doesn't mean I have to be influenced as an individual.
As far as history goes, we need to learn from it and never repeat past mistakes and travesties. But we can't change history.
Keep up the good work Marissa, any time we speak out against racism and hatred, it helps.
just cut and paste the part between the quotes into your browser and it should go directly there. For Marissa's post. My post should just go on the click. With mine, however, you are looking for Slip of the Tongue.
I’m not looking for a slip of the tongue, I do plenty of that all by myself. I just want to see what the article is about. I copied/pasted it to no avail. I’m getting very tired of the word racist being used all over the net. Two people are fighting and the one that is losing the argument, calls the other person a racist.
We can use the word discrimination, I know all about that. I’m middle class and have been paying more that my fair share on taxes, all my life. I can’t go to ivy league schools, I can’t go to balls that our elite politicians throw. One small thing is I don’t care.