When the Popchips Ashton Kutcher snafu burst on the Internet on May 3, 2012, I writhed in pain. I wanted to write something about racism without sounding like a lecturing minority or a sniveling child among my mainstream culture colleagues and peers. There is nothing like cries of racism to provoke attention: it is as eye-opening of a subject as getting smacked in the face with a wet trout [do not ask me how it feels to be hit with a trout, because sadly, I do know]. I’ve let a few days go by to allow this latest media incident to settle, not so much with the public, but with the “me” that was initially offended and exasperated. Now I’m ready to share a more personal and intimate look at my racist America.
Ed note: The following post contains disturbing content and adult language that is not appropriate for children and may offend some adults. Please read response-ably.
My Racist America
Song written in response to UCLA girl’s racist rant in 2011
During my first stint living in a college dormitory, I returned from classes to find a message scrawled on the white board of my dorm room door. The message said You should go back where you came from, you fucking [sic] cunt, and if we ever see you alone we’ll rape you you slanty eyed chink. I recall calmly wiping the message off my board, and then having Jell-O knees for the next few hours. Looking back at it, I wished I had simply left it up on my door, corrected the spelling and grammatical errors, and added my comments in the side margin on how to have been more effective, along with the letter, “F”.
The strange thing was that the message was not a new one to me, nor to my family. We had seen the faces of racism many times before. However, this was the first one containing overt sexual violence pointed specifically at me based on my appearance and race.
Needless to say, I had already understood from a young age that racism in America is real. Despite our technological advances, and in spite of all that we have done collectively in schools and corporations with diversity training, racism and prejudice based on appearance (including disabilities and birth defects, gender roles and expression, and our values on what is beautiful and acceptable in regards to height and weight) thrives in the media. It is so commonplace, one young girl’s campaign against young adult magazine use of Photoshop on models garners unusual public sympathy; the rest of us have likely been suffocated by these unrealistic images for longer than we’d like to admit. Racism and prejudice is woven into our culture; it is part of the fabric of life here that we don’t always notice it. However, it remains a painful part of my reality and my experience as an Asian American.
Responses to Racism
The cries of racism after the Popchips ad featuring Ashton Kutcher’s caricatures of five types of people -including Raj, a Bollywood producer in brownface — were somewhat cheering to me. At least, I’m not alone, I thought. But if you want a clearer picture of what people are saying about the ad, check out Anil Dash’s post “How To Fix PopChips’ Racist Ad” and the hundreds of comments following his call for Popchips to do more than apologize for a poor sense of taste in ads. I had to ask myself what I thought and felt about the challenge presented by a commenter that we should “lighten up” and “get over yourselves.” What exactly are WE [and I include myself in the “we”-ness of Indian culture, as I’ve studied Bollywood and Classical Indian Dance] supposed to get over? That someone senselessly used a culture and a people’s appearance and mannerisms for a cheap shot? That a group of advertisers thought it might be an entertaining way to poke fun and make money for the company? What exactly are comments like that one meant to defend or protect?
I do not feel that it is healthy for our society as a whole to just “get over” this by dismissing it, denying it, or reducing it to a simple prank. Behind every ad comes a long list of decisions, budget considerations, launch plans, billboards, and future ads. After the ad follows a response by the public, including a surge in attention, changes in sales, and positive or negative reactions. An apology by the company [which Popchips and Ashton Kutcher both gave] does not address the problem; it only suggests the reason why the ad was retracted. I’m still left wondering what anyone really learned from the whole incident, other than 1) racism is alive, and 2)we are supposed to get over it.
What I’m more concerned with as a mental health provider, an American citizen by birth, and a member of a minority group in America is that an ad like the Popchips ad had a process in place. Who was at the table when the decisions were made to write the script, act the parts, and plan the launch of the campaign? What went wrong — what was missing — when this “brilliant” idea was born? Who was there to say, “Uh guys, I think we need to rethink this ad”? If there was no one, WHY was there no one? There are plenty of people around who could have said something, if given the chance. When TV show directors open the doors for viewers to suggest plot changes and ideas to improve their show, why can’t advertisers do the same?
I’m saddened — yet not surprised — that 21st century American advertising is rife with ageism, racism, size-ism, and cheap jokes about sexual orientation. This is my — and your! — racist and prejudiced America. Only a year ago, a young caucasian American woman incited anger on the UCLA campus for her rant Asians in the Library. It was an embarrassment to every intelligent Caucasian female with blond hair. Another man posted a clever song response of her rant (see the video embeded in this post), ridiculing Ms. Wallace for her mannerisms and thoughtless comments on the tsunami that devastated Japan. When will we realize the type of racism and prejudice we see in America happens every day, whether unintentionally or accidentally, as some Internet commenters would like to suggest?
Intent vs. Incident
From a cursory view of comments towards the Popchips Kutcher ad incident, most commenters agreed that the intent of the ad was benign: there was no intent to harm. However, the harm many of us walk away with in light of subtle or overt prejudice and racism, regardless of intent, is that many of us feel pushed outside the circle of belonging and understanding, even if we have been positive contributors to change and collaboration within it. As much as I’d like to laugh something off, it may not change the reality of a more right-winged belief that America belongs to a American mainstream, and this is the population of which advertisers make their pitch. The sting of prejudice is that the people who embody difference in contrast to the mainstream are ridiculed and mistreated for the very things that make America the best place to live: freedom to be who you “be”, whether you are large or small, straight, gay, or bi, religious or atheist, or you worship at the temple of the P90X. When my racist and prejudiced America does something to squash this freedom, I recognize (as should you) the potential for harm in the only land I’ve known as my real home (I refer to Asia as “going overseas”). This harm only makes us more competitive with other nations, when we have the opportunity to be much more collaborative on everything from environmental issues to medicine to feeding our world’s poor.
Detecting Racism and Prejudice is Complicated.
Our society is evolving, our stereotypes for cultures are breaking down, and our neighborhoods are becoming slowly more similar in appearance with increasing globalization of goods and services. How do we know what is funny and what is distasteful and offensive? How will we respond when someone confronted with their bigotry cries in defense, “But I’m a good person!” Why is it that we laugh when two black actors dress up as women with blond wigs, but we cry racism when a white actor puts on brownface, or a former President and his wife dress up with rice picker hats? Why do we enjoy the satire of Medea as a large black woman in prison, but Pretty in Pink gets the big thumbs down from the Asian American community for tasteless humor? As you try to dissect the faces of prejudice, you will discover why it is complicated to define. My challenge to readers of Anil Dash’s article is to try to define prejudice and racism without Googling for the answer. If asked to go on record to define it, how would you do?
I question whether arguing about the intent of prejudice matters as much as what each of us does when our actions are found to be hurtful. Do we become defensive? Is there room to listen, to dialogue, to make amends, and create a new pathway? Are you open to redefining and expanding your own view of prejudice, as well as the times you’ve contributing to furthering unhelpful stereotypes of people different from yourself?
While we may never squash racism and prejudice out of our society, the antics of the last week caused me to reflect on my practice at Seattle Direct Counseling. Do I/you see where I/you can adjust to become more understanding of people who are different from myself/yourself? How do I/you embrace or resist difference? For bi-cultural couples, what have been the greatest challenges of reaching understanding in your relationship and the parenting of your children? For those of you working in a culturally diverse environment, how has racism and prejudice affected your work environment?
At SDC, we are committed to cultural understanding and compassion. We strive to see you “as you are”, and yet we know that change is necessary for you to become what you want to be without diminishing your distinctives. Even if the culture around us cannot change quickly, there is nothing stopping you from increasing your sensitivity to a positive and life-changing contribution to your family, community, and world. OK, I’m off my soap box; perhaps you’ll take over, and climb up on your soapbox about this topic.
P.S. My closest friends and colleagues will probably tell you that despite the tone of this post, I really do have a sense of humor, and I enjoy laughing. Making me laugh with some good comments is just fine; attacking my commentary without thought is not. All comments will be thrashed for grammar and spelling errors (hey, I just rethrashed my article and found mistakes!), and all responders writing in poor taste or judgment will be sent home without cookies and milk.