Tuesday, January 27, 2009

think that racism is okay if you're being ironic about it

[cross-posted, with a fascinating comments thread, at Racialicious]

Do you remember Pauly Shore? I don't find him especially worth remembering, but I think his new project, a movie called Adopted, deserves attention. Critical attention.

It seems to me that in the trailer below, Shore enacts a common white tendency: acting racist in a way that's supposed to signal that you know you're acting racist. And thinking as you do so that because you're being ironic, you don't really mean to be racist, so the racism you're enacting is okay. And kinda cool and funny too.

The film's official site describes it the following way, with, presumably, a heavy dose of irony. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, as people used to say:

For hundreds of years, Africa has existed in a state of despair. Famine, civil wars and rampant disease have left the continent without hope, but for the efforts of Western do-gooders. At first, they arrived with food, bibles and the magic of penicillin; more recently they have hosted rock concerts and sent plane loads of grain. And in the last decade of the 20th century they arrived and took babies home with them. First there was Angelina, then Madonna, and now...Pauly Shore!

The film builds its comedy foundation on the international interest in Celebrity Adoptions, and the debate that surrounds these transactions on both sides of the Atlantic. Sometimes politically incorrect and never scared to tread on manicured toes.

So only those with manicured pedicured toes would feel tread upon by this approach? Really?

It might be fairly easy for some white folks to see where Shore goes wrong here, but I wonder if that would stop many of them from doing similar things. I see this same kind of ironic racism in, for instance, some of those college parties where people put on blackface and tape forties to their hands, or gorge themselves with tacos and tequila while wearing sombreros and fake mustaches.

When these party-goers get called out on their racism, they sometimes respond that of course they know that a lot of what they did could seem racist, but they didn't really mean for it to be racist, and that makes it all okay. A further defense they often add (one which the producers of Shore's film also trot out) is that the people who object to their ironic racism are being too sensitive, and too "politically correct."

Here's one such partier, Jeremy Pelz, defending his actions in these terms, after being called out for such a gathering at Tarleton University. This was a Martin Luther King Jr. Day party, and it "featured attendees wearing gang apparel and Afro wigs, carrying malt liquor, handguns, and fried chicken, and even one woman dressed as Aunt Jemima":

Pelz noted that the [annual] party was started a few years earlier "because one of [his] best friends is black or African American, whichever you deem politically correct, to be his day not to dishonor him." He added, "So I do apologize if you felt any disrespect because none was intended."

How's that for a sincere apology? Come to think of it, it might even be an ironic apology.

Have you encountered other instances of this phenomenon, that is, clearly racist actions that are supposed to be okay because the person committing them didn't mean to be racist? And where it's all your fault if you think their actions are wrong, because you're supposedly overlooking what really, really matters more than anything else, which is the supposedly non-racist intentions behind their actions, rather than the racist effects?

[h/t for the video: Angry Black-White Girl]


  1. More times than you could imagine.

    I forgot my password so I am showing as anon until I retrieve it.


  2. ironic racism often isn't ironic and is just plain racist. and if no one one knows it's a joke, it just perpetuates the thing it's trying to mock. there's flirting with the inapropriate like colbert often does, and then there's moving in with the inappropriate and opening a joint bank account. it's irrelevant that the pauly shore video was ever intended to be tongue-in-cheek because it goes way too fucking far, and isn't funny even from the onset. i practically had a panic attack at the thought that someone actually allowed him custody of an African orphan.

  3. Y'know, it's always some bullshit from people who want to pull that racist crap and get away with it. I was through with Steve Martin when he was in whatever movie that was with the tagline "I was born a poor black child". That shit wasn't funny then, and it isn't funny now.
    It always amazes me when people use the excuse that they "didn't mean to" cause harm. That's what drunk drivers say when they kill innocent people.

  4. this isn't a personal experience, but i did think of stephen colbert's latest thing on his show, asking people if he could be considered black because it's cool. i don't remember how he justifies it or makes this leap, but that's just what i thought of. we all know it's a joke. but it's still racist.

  5. you make a great point. non-racist actions with a racist effect.

    This is the most common kind of racism of today, I think, because almost everyone does it. More often than not we are trying to get a laugh out of it. Even I make jokes about being Asian. The stereotypes and racism is definitely still out there and it shows when my ethnicity becomes an excuse. I think maybe this reflects our transitional period. Whether we are conscious or not, I think most of us are racist. I don't believe it is a frame of mind you can easily change. Because of this, in order to face the racism in our country on an individual level... kind of like trying to prove you are not one of those racist folk, one makes a blatant racist joke assuming others will not take them seriously. I believe this way of handling racism in reality shows (as you said) a person's discomfort with their own racism.

    I see it when I do it and I feel bad when I make fun of other races. At the same time, it can be seen as a form of assimilation if one is making fun of their own 'race.' For example, if I use my ethnicity as an excuse and this becomes a joke or irony, then this shows I am able to see 'myself' (as Asian) from the others' point of view. like I have some sort of awareness others' have and this awareness allows me to be included.

    This is what I see often:
    A guy speaking "Ebonics." He is doing this because he thinks it is funny. It is not his usual way of speaking. This person is usually a middle-class white male. He speaks it in a robotic way or a 'white-boy' way. It is obvious he is not comfortable.

    I really do not understand the purpose. What really bugs me is when they talk this way so often that it is subconsciously incorporated into their daily speech. Now I've also seen this in a similar situation. The surface-level difference is the person's obvious contempt for the style of speech. It is done in a mocking manner. For example, when people make fun of valley-girls or when people make fun of bros. This is not a race or ethnic group of people, but I believe the mocking part of the act is present in both situations.

  6. I am posting this on Honky Talk. Great Post!

  7. yah, filthy. colbert definitely goes beyond flirting with the inappropriate sometimes.

  8. As an antidote to Pauly Shore's perspective, I really like this "Pop Quiz on Transracial & International Adoption" by Emi Koyama.

    I just wrote and deleted a lot of incoherent reactions to arrive at this basic kernel:

    I feel very frustrated when someone claims to oppose political correctness, conformity, and restrictions on free speech, and then uses a label like "politically correct" to try to silence their detractors. Pauly Shore, you are doing it right now! You are trying to shut people up because you are offended by what they have to say!

    This comes up a lot with a comedy actor friend of mine. I'm used to being called, simultaneously, politically correct and inappropriately radical when I challenge him on things like dressing in blackface or promoting movies involving fat suits.

    I think "politically correct" might have drifted into meaning "anyone who thinks I'm not funny" the way that "PMS" has drifted into meaning "any time a woman is angry or sad."

  9. I'd also like to call Shore out on cynically using this gambit to garner himself some attention. I distinctly got a vibe of that sort form this. What, all his connections and no one can write him a role in a comedy?

    If that's the case, and he has to exploit black children "ironically" to get work, then he needs to look into getting a job in another industry.

  10. Pauly Shore, racist?? Come on! I watched the trailer and I must say that I did not find it very amusing. Did he miss the mark though? I'm not convinced that he did. This, to me, seems to be poking more criticizm toward the "hollywood trend" of third world adoptions than at the cultures or children themselves. He seems to be ridiculing the cavalier way in which these "hollywood adoptions" are playing out to the media and the general population. I don't recall people getting all fired up over him when he ridiculed the midwest country "inbreeders" in his movie Son in Law. But then again, in that movie he was ridiculing white people...but that's ok, isn't it? As long as it's not a group of color, then it's racist.
    Once again, I personally think( now this is just from the trailer and not in depth research) that his main focus is more the triviality of these hollywood adoptions and the real plight of these orphans rather than trying to poke fun at the orphans themselves.

  11. This critical article may interest the readers here:

    The Greatest Cliché: The Unexamined Propaganda of "Political Correctness"

  12. Thanks drjon, I've been a fan of Kai's site for awhile now, but hadn't seen that one. It's a wonderful breakdown of complaints about "political correctness." Kai is a great writer who should write more often. Because then the world would be a better place.

  13. The Office, I think, is a good example of a smartly subversive show:


  14. Brother from another what peoyote are you smoking?!! First off no DUH it's ok for him to mock his own because I'm pretty damn sure he wouldn't find it the LEAST bit 'funny' if that were Will Smith or Cuba Gooding in the role. Second part of the genuis of 'satire' is that the person doing it has actual talent and a valid point to make none of which can be said about Pauly Shore. Third it's one thing to be 'ironic' about race it's a WHOLE nother thing when you try to use that to 'disguise' how you REALLY feel like that a-hole Sarah Silverman. I'm getting verrrrrry sick and tired of no-talent-ugly,unfunny,lame,stupid,assinine,childish pissbags with no brains or wit between them stooping to the lowest common demoniator of racist humor and calling it 'ironic'. I call it dumb shits who aren't funny or attractive but desperately crave attention.

  15. I want to add just one thing to this movie’s already-considerable pile of fail: “manicured toes”? Don’t you mean “pedicured toes”?

    (This is not, of course, the movie’s biggest problem!)

  16. Good point, Tina, I adjusted the post accordingly.

  17. As a white male I find this movie (preview)to be pretty appalling. Yes, for some reason America has a strange obsession with "celebrities" adopting children from other countries. But to make a movie about it...and do it to the tune of a comedy?? Uncalled for.

    But, being an argumentative person I must also say this.

    Alot of these comments mention that even though you are trying to be funny..and it is commonly agreed upon as a joke..it is still racism.

    I disagree. Alot of stand up comedians do the exact same thing. White comedians, Black comedians, Hispanic comedians, Asian comedians...they all make fun of race, and very blatantly so.

    Now, my only arguement is...Pauly Shore ISNT FUNNY!!! So hence, this movie is not funny. If its not funny, then it cant be commonly refered to as a joke. If it isnt a joke...then its just plain old racism.

    Just my 2 cents.



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