Thursday, June 4, 2009

think that doing something racist is okay if you somehow distance yourself from the racism

So many forms of racism are emerging these days in response to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor that I'm finding it difficult to keep up. Much of it is blatant, such as the bilious eruptions of Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan, and some of it is more covert.

Here's a cartoon about Sotomayor that's making the blog-rounds this week. This image strikes me as clearly sexist, and its racism seems obvious as well. But then, does the latter actually depend on how you read it?

"fiesta time at the confirmation hearing"
Chip Bok @ The Oklahoman

It seems to me that the first problem with this cartoon is that it's ambiguous. A quick interpretation for many would be That's racist!, because it depicts a Latina as a piñata (and also depicts her hanging from what looks like a noose) and it plunks a Mexican stereotype on the head of Obama.

Who is not Mexican, but rather . . . African American.

Okaaaaaaay. . .

As I said, whatever this cartoon means can quickly become ambiguous. Here's one possible reading, given the presence of the rather confused elephants/Republicans:

Obama's selection of a Hispanic/Latin American woman was at least in part racially motivated, but that's because he knew that Republicans would reflexively attack her in terms of race, by dredging up all sorts of stereotypes about her (as represented by the piñata and sombrero). Thus, the cartoon represents Obama cleverly tricking Republicans into beating up on Sotomayor, making themselves look bad in the process.

That the cartoonist depicts the Republicans as hesitant, rather than rabidly ready to take the bait, suggests that he gives them some credit for being able to at least check their racist impulses. Or maybe, given the multiple cameras pointed at the scene, for knowing that they'll be seen as racist if they "beat up" Sotomayor in interviews, newspaper columns, and then the confirmation hearings.

That's one way to interpret this depiction of a racially charged political moment, the relative calm before Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. By this reading, the cartoon doesn't seem to land squarely on either side of the political spectrum (such as it is in the American corporate press, which almost always equates "Right" and "Left" merely with "Republican" and "Democratic").

This reading would also seem to absolve the cartoon, and the cartoonist, from charges of racism, because his depiction of blatantly racist stereotypes is distanced in a way. The stereotypes are supposed to be in Republicans' heads, and maybe in Obama's (because he knows they're in Republicans' heads), and not in the head of the cartoonist. He's depicting them, that is, ironically. Which would mean it's okay that the piñata and the sombrero are there, and that they're stereotypically attached to Mexico, instead of to Sotomayor's actual background place, Puerto Rico.

However, as anyone who's been paying attention to the new ways that racism works these days knows, ironic racism is still, basically, racism. "Hipster racism" is a good example, as exemplified by such purveyors as Asher Roth, Amy Sedaris, John Oliver, or a has-been trying to make a comeback with "I'm not REALLY a racist" humor, Paulie Shore.

Is this a hipster cartoon?

Maybe. But even if you read it that way, the imagery it contains does not escape the charge of "racism" just because its racist imagery is portrayed ironically. It still circulates, and thus perpetuates, racist imagery.

You could also read the cartoon as more "conservative," which actually makes sense, given the particular cartoonist, Chris Bok. A look at other cartoons on his site, Bokbluster, demonstrates that Bok has a conservative bent. For instance, here's his take on the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, who was killed because he performed late-term abortions:

Get it? Sure, Tiller's murder was heinous, but what's really important is that late-term abortions are heinous too. (Bok adds below this image on his blog, "When Obama started talking about heinous acts of violence I didn’t know if he was talking about Dr. Tiller’s murder or his job description.")

Here's what Bok wrote on his blog about his "Sotomayor-as-piñata" effort:

The president is all about minority life experience -- except in the case of Clarence Thomas, as WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel rudely points out by quoting him. As for Judge Sotomayor’s non-Latina qualifications, Jeffery Rosen in TNR says he’s been told she’s, “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench”. Gallup, however, shows that the public likes her and David Broder thinks the president once again has republicans right where he wants them.

Like the cartoon, not exactly straightforward, but I think Bok is still distancing himself here from the cartoon's blatantly racism imagery. Instead of putting the racism in the Republican's heads, he's putting it solely in Obama's head -- Obama is supposedly deploying racist stereotypes, merely by choosing a Latina nominee.

Bok seems to be saying, "Republicans wouldn't say anything racist; it's Obama who's the racist, because his affirmative-action Latina pick is a cynical attempt to bait Republicans into doing something racist."

Which still doesn't make the cartoon's racism okay (and probably makes it worse). Ironic racism from Conservatives is no less fundamentally racist than it is from hipsters.


  1. Shorter Bok:

    "Obama is playing the "race card", and the 'liberal media' is ganging up on the GOP, who just wants to have an honest discussion on Sotomayor's record."

    IOW, Bok isn't a racist - it's those Blacks and Mexicans who are looking for people to call racist.

    White Privilege at work once again.

  2. It's crazy to me how completely frightened white men are right now. Yes, even the "non-racist" hipsters. This cartoon is the perfect representation of the grasping at straws racism and sexism that's pouring out right now and big ups to Macon D for publicly shaming these cowards back to the woods.

  3. Macon D.,

    You seem unable to acknowledge that one can critique modern liberalism and all its incoherent messages without actually embracing something else.

    As liberalism becomes more absurd in its depends and motivations, this desire to critique will become both necessary and reflexive and those that do it will have been so immersed in liberalism that they simply have nothing else to embrace.

    That's where traditionalists must step in and teach them something that Macon D never could.

  4. Yeah, I gotta agree Thordaddy, liberalism does look pretty absurd when it gets caught wearing its Depends.

  5. What really gets me about this do I put this: The pinata and sombrero are Mexican symbols. She is Puerto Rican. So not only is it perpetuating stupid stereotypes but the cartoonist can't even get the stupid stereotypes straight!

  6. isn't thordaddy's academic speak just "stuff white people do?"

    While its about freakin time that a Latina is being considered for our Joke of a Supreme Court, while the world is watching this, Obama is slowly dismantling our schools in the exact same way Bush did.

    This is all about racism; what group of white people in serious positions of power has not challenged the race of anyone not white (or gender of anyone not male)? This is the US - this is what we "do" (just as its what white people do)...

  7. You need to separate "stuff white people do" from "stuff Americans do".

    But i guess it's common for those loathing their own race to write as you need the brownie points for your fragile mentality of guilt.

    Good luck with that. Because everyone loves a racially self-deprecating individual. It'll win you so many racially diverse friends! You're clearly one of these "white people" you write about. Then again, maybe that's you're point. Most white people don't fit into your definitions of them through your writings.

  8. Dear Jon,

    How did you get so white?

    Seriously, I'd really like to know -- what can you actually tell me about how that happened to you?

  9. These are my tempered "post on any blog" views:

    Regardless of the intent of the cartoonist and the easing effect of the images that make it, contextually, slightly more palatable by suggesting its intent, at least in part, is to poke fun of Republicans in addition to Sotomayor (e.g. scared elephants), the cartoon still contains very offensive imagery. Certainly, the intent of the artist, along with his overall body of work should be considered when consdering HIM, but not when viewing the CARTOON.

    Try thinking about it another way. Imagine if, in 2008, I made a cartoon showing Barrack Obama on a cross wearing a hijab, John McCain standing below him with a whiskey bottle, stakes, and mallet in hand, and right-wing reporters standing around with scared looks on their faces. Now, just because, ultimately, I was trying to make fun of right-wing journalists, does that mean the cartoon is a-okay? Hell no. African-Ameicans, Jews, Muslims, Irish-Americans, and Christians would, understandably, be offended.

    Also, little or no attention was paid to national origin when Roberts, Breyer, or O’Connor were nominated. Some attention was paid to Scalia, but he is a darker-skinned Italian with black hair and brown eyes. A wee bit of attention was paid to Alito in this regard, but only to highlight the advancement of his immigrant family. In any case, the VOLUME and OUTRAGEOUSNESS of coverage concerning the Sotomayor family's nation of origin is wholly unique and, indeed, racist.

  10. "Republicans wouldn't say anything racist; it's Obama who's the racist, because his affirmative-action Latina pick is a cynical attempt to bait Republicans into doing something racist."

    Well said--better than I articulated it elsewhere. I think the key is where the cameras and microphones are pointed. It is the concerned-looking elephants who are the victims. Perhaps it is Obama, even, who has handed them the bats...

  11. Well the first cartoon is clearly racist and very disturbing to me.

  12. Jon, I understand the initial reaction of getting defensive when you perceive that you're (or white people) are being accused or racism. Nobody wants to be associated with those stigmas. As we (white people) begin peeling the complex layers of race relations it is normal to get defensive and blame the minority group instead of taking responsibility of wrong doing. One of your comments was that you wanted to change "Stuff white people do" to "Stuff Americans do". What you (and most white people) think of what it means to be American is WHITE, since WHITE people are the people who set the standard of what is or is not "American".

    On another note, I am a sucker for "Hipster ism" I've been a big fan of Amy Sedaris for years and I never recognized her humor as offensive. Instead I took her (and similar) humor as a way of pointing out racism by making fun of people who actually think and behave that way. I do get the idea that racism is racism no matter what. Thanks for the insight Macon!

  13. I agree cdwriteme, the only reason people(white people) are talking about her racial makeup is because she doesn't look normal(white) and therefor we (white people) feel the need to talk about her race (justify her position of power) because she doesn't look right (white).

    The joke is so ignorant I don't even know where to I'll just leave it at that.

  14. To pr scribe and jon well god freaking forbid you 2 snots would EVER be made uncomfortabel or to lok like the 'bad guy' because we all know who REALLY desreves that moniker! And it's not you god-fearing,holier than,'decent' white folk and for your info pr last time I checked the Repugnicans didn't NEED any 'help' doing something racsit they just show up!

  15. Anon @ 6/7 12:26--

    I'll leave it to my church-going mother to offer an opinion about whether or not I am "God-fearing" but I can assure you I am not White.

    At any rate, I think I did not make my point clear enough. *I* do not think that the GOP elephants are the victims: I do think that is what the editorial cartoon is getting at. I think such a notion is in error or at the least an exaggeration. Plenty of folks have not hesitated one bit in metaphorically taking hits at the judge.

  16. macon d, I think that this piece (linked below) fits well with this post of yours...or perhaps it fits with your other Sotomayor post.

    The Universe-Shattering Controversy about Wise Latinas

    ...Well, I do understand the depths of the outrage that has been expressed, very often by white, privileged (straight) men....ate can never be more cruel than when it turns on white (straight) men enjoying lives of immense comfort. After all, they earned their privilege and comfort. Being white and male (and straight) had absolutely nothing to do with it. Betcha you can't find any historical or cultural evidence to suggest otherwise, not even the teensiest eensiest bit! The fact that white, privileged (almost always straight) men have run every damned thing since, like, forever is due solely to the fact that they're better than everyone else. You know that, you just don't want to admit it....

    As to the shocking and unacceptable remarks from Ms. Sotomayor ... huh. Again. As is typical in such instances of Profound Outrage! issuing from the fount of Detached, Objective and Impartial Privilege (usually, although certainly not always, White, Straight Male Division), what Sotomayor said was primarily remarkable for not being in the least remarkable....

    As a matter of historical record, the ruling class in the United States has been made up of white (straight) men almost exclusively. In the last decade or two, that has slowly begun to change, but it remains true for the most part even today. As others have noted, one of the primary mechanisms by which the ruling class (those same white, privileged, usually straight men, if your attention momentarily wandered) seeks to perpetuate its privilege is by maintaining that its own views, methods and goals are Objective, True and Good -- and, by inevitable implication, that the views, methods, and goals of everyone else (all those who are not white, privileged, male and straight) are inherently inferior. In other words, and as I noted above, you should docilely accept the rule of your betters because they are, in fact, better.

    [click on the above link to read the entire piece]

  17. However racist this cartoon is (and it maybe is, I can't really tell), the real reason that this cartoon is awful and fails as a CARTOON is because its joke is incoherent.

    The fact that intelligent people are meticulously deconstructing it to figure out whether or not its message is racist makes it pretty obvious that it failed at whatever originally coherent joke idea it was going for.

  18. Rob,

    This will probably sound like a personal attack but I mean it as a learning opportunity for other blog members who may be interested in what I have to sayo. So, here goes.

    "However racist this cartoon is (and it maybe is, I can't really tell)"

    My Response: Yeah, that's kinda the point Rob. Whether racism is evident in this cartoon is not a "tough call". It's not subtle, it's not ambiguous. A noose, a brown woman hanging, sterotypical attire that is not even ethnically accurate, it's all there.

    "the real reason that this cartoon is awful and fails as a CARTOON is because its joke is incoherent"

    My response: This statement not only re-affirms clulessness, but now introduces callousness. You acknowledge in your first statement that this cartoon may indeed be racist. So, even though you acknowledge it might be racist, you proclaim with great confidence that, regardless, the REAL reason this cartoon is "awful" is because it is incoherent. If that doesn't scream white privilege I don't know what does. I'd like to reserve my own judgement as to whether it is "racism" or "inchoherence" that makes this cartoon awful, thank you very much.

    Then, your final paragraph: "The fact that intelligent people are meticulously deconstructing it to figure out whether or not its message is racist makes it pretty obvious that it failed at whatever originally coherent joke idea it was going for."

    I don't know your intentions with this. But, this is a completely fallacious argument. Think for two seconds about what blog you're on.

    MOST people here, especially the white people, are "deconstructing" this cartoon to examine the racist imagery. They are here to better themselves and develop greater cognizance of racism and privilege. This endeavor is COMPLETELY independent of whether they feel that they "get the joke", as intended by the cartoonist.

  19. Nah, it doesn't seem like a personal attack.

    What I'm trying to say is that the reason it's so difficult to figure out whether or not it's a basically racist cartoon (and your argument isn't valid--there are plenty of not-racist jokes that use racially charged or stereotypical imagery in them) is because it's almost impossible to tell exactly what the joke is. Or at least I can't figure it out.

    Hence, it possibly fails as "statement without racism," but it definitely fails as a cartoon.

  20. redcatbiker - "The fact that white, privileged (almost always straight) men have run every damned thing since, like, forever is due solely to the fact that they're better than everyone else."

    1) You shouldn't attempt to ascribe the acheivement of individuals to a certain group. You seem to have a double-standard when it comes to individualism - you obviously posted in defense of racist accusations towards an occidental, implying that ambiguous actions/statements of a caucasian individual shouldn't automatically be assumed to be racist despite the racism that is known to exist in the "white community"; yet, you're eager to ascribe superior characteristics to straight, white males because of the acheivement of some (which might be the majority) although all don't fit into this category
    2) Ever since Western Europe aquired a dominant military force and became imperialistic, laws have been made to ensure that wherever a white man goes he cannot be treated by a slave, receives superior treatment, etc. Not to mention actions taken against other ethnic groups: preventing the industrialization of their countries (which is essential to economic growth), preventing their people from becoming adequately educated if educated at all(with exceptions that I won't bother to list),etc. Non-whites have been at a disadvantage to their white counterparts and thus you can't simply attribute white accomplishment to superior genetics (strange, i thought that these genetic theories had already refuted -_-)
    3) Western civilization experienced a decline following the fall of the Roman Empire during which they lost all previously acquired knowledge. Hpwever, the Muslims kept ancient Greek and Roman texts in their libraries. Which in, Europeans later re-encountered these texts during the Crusades. Therefore, you owe the Renaissance and your socio-economic status to Muslims and should be thanking them instead of accusing them of and punishing them(often unjustly) for terrorism. Otherwise we'd probably be speaking, let's say one of the Chinese dialects. *le gasp* yellow fever!

  21. This is at Anonymous on June 15 at 4:25pm:

    You should learn to read, dumbass!!! The comment that I posted are excerpts from a piece written by someone other than me. See the link that I included for your (meaning the readers of this blog) convenience.

    Also, you have totally misread what the author wrote. Here is what I suggest you do Anonymous Dumbass: Click on the link and read the piece, for your comment clearly shows that you are talking out of your ass, and that you do not understand a word that the author has written. Again, the author of the piece is NOT me.

    If you have a beef with the author's ideas, then contact him through his blog. Do not address your disagreements with him towards me on this (someone else's) blog.

    And this shall be the first and last time that I shall deal with addressing you directly, Anonymous Dumbass!


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