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.
Marissa, seemingly innocent or humorous stereotypes promote false perceptions
I don't think that comedy promotes "false" perceptions inasmuch as it reinforced stereotypes. To my knowledge, most comedies employ parody (deliberate exaggeration of a known work or stereotype) to entertain an audience. New Yorkers are known for their dark humor so something like the above mentioned comedy would probably elicit much laughter.
At least America is a culture known for its political correctness, so we aren't as bad as other countries in our portrayal of racial stereotypes. You haven't seen Asian comedies... They'd probably make you cringe. I commend your efforts in trying to promote tolerance and racial understanding, but my gut instinct is that you are being a wee bit too sensitive about stereotypes. As a member of the minority group, I rather deal with stereotypes out in the open than a politically correct overtures...just my opinion.
Hi Marissa, Interesting article. You make some valid points. I am glad to see such discussions initiated.
Now to the critical stuff. First; I looked at your profile and there isn't much information about your background. Are you over 40? I must say, "you don't look like you are". The reason I ask is, I would need to know something about your life experience before I can judge why you think something might be offensive to others. How do you know that Cranbourne's depictions of others would offend the others? Often, people who try to correct things that offend other groups have no idea how the groups feel about the things percieved to be offensive. Since I was not there to witness the offense and am neither Chinese or Indian I really have no idea. When dancing in the minefield of race, gender, or religion, it is always wise to consult with the race, gender, or religion before trying to protect their sensibilities. You are obiviously very intelligent and well educated, but I have no idea about what experience you have in this area.
I will list some of mine.
1. I was born and lived the first part of my life in a very rural area that is to this day one of the most prejudiced areas in the US. And to this day, in the entire county there is not one black family. I went to all white schools until I graduated from High School. In 1955 I entered a Land Grant State Negro College. Negro was an accepted word at that time. It was the second semester any whites had attended that college. I was one of about 250 whites in a student body of around 3000. All the professors were Black. I quickly learned that most everything I thought I knew about black people was wrong.
I entered the military in 1959. During the next 23 years the military made great strides in assimilating people of different races, creeds, religions, and gender. I had many experiences with each during that period. I attended many classes designed to teach me how to productively interface with those others. At one point I was in charge of two branchs of a military school . In 1975 the first two females were assigned as students. I had to make sure that they were treated the same as any of the other 200 students. The other 200 were male. The male students were not the main problem. The instructor staff was not overjoyed with having to deal with female students. Many day to day ways of doing business had to be changed.
After retiring from the military, I worked for a defense contractor. I ran the Personnel Management department for a 1000 employee company for over three years. I then became a Program Manager and Director of Programs for multimillion dollar contracts providing engineering services in many countries.
I only enumerate the above in order to establish credibility. I have seen many situaions made worse by people with inadequate experience and knowledge trying to do the right thing. One of my rules for living is; before defending someone, make sure they want you to defend them.
Oh, and I might add, listen to Vernon. I always listen to Vernon. He can cut through the bullshit and give you the most articulate answers of anyone on tbd.
Robbie, you made a good point as Marissa did when she replied to me that: (paraphrasing), the government shapes opinions of communities, the workplace and the Military. Just as in your example that there were 2 female and 200 male students. The instructor staff thought, or were directed to change their method of teaching. Bullshit. I'm guessing those 2 females would have rather the staff kept teaching the same way. I think I can safely assume that nobody asked the females.
That girl is sharp. I wouldn’t mind having a discussion with her on any subject.
She does not come across as poor me or I hate you because of things that happened hundreds of years ago..
How anybody can call this a racist story is beyond me.
The black leaders in this country need to get someone of her caliber to run these civil rights groups.
All or most of their leaders think they got screwed before they even bend over. I for one do not like a leader going to Toyota and telling them If you don’t give us a large cash contribution, bad things will happen to your company, this does not make friends..
I for one can read stories about poor underdeveloped countries and do not draw any conclusions until I meet one of these people, chips on ones shoulder are easy to spot. People exploit unhappy people and they keep them stirred up all the time. This is also a huge vote getter.
Darroll, a very heartfelt thank you for that link. It will be a very powerful resource to share with my students, especially since I have a huge core of Africans in my classes. I watched the whole presentation.
I have a German last name, and when I was a kid my little buddies and I would play combat. This was because of the TV show and our war hero dads. Any ways when we were picking sides my pal Steve would say Ok Jack you'll be the Kraut. I'd say ok and pull a blitzkrieg on them. I guess I was too uninformed to be offended ... Also when the first "Der Wienrschnitzel" opened up I was the first one in line for a kraut dog with mustard, Plus my mom would love me with German Chocolate cake on my birthdays. But then I also love cheese burgers, tri tip steaks and Mexican food, so go figure....... Most stereotypes have a bit of truth to them, though I suppose self deprecating humor is easier to take then when someone else pokes fun at you. I've discovered that in a personal sense, that is among friends we can discern between fun and true insults. However on a macro level we should apply wisdom to our speech, because it is difficult for the hearers to differentiate laughing at our humanity and bigotry (and it may truly be bigotry) ..... I've found that sensitively confronting a friend or an acquaintances about ill conceived cultural and ethnic remarks, they usually reconsider, and even apologize. If they don't, then I know where they stand. I guess that if people don't speak up Like Marissa has here, then we will continue to hurt each other.........