Racist? How about now?

7 May

Continuing on Friday’s topic of what’s racist, here’s a still from the latest Pop Chips ad:

Here’s the story:

An advertising campaign for potato chips that featured the actor Ashton Kutcher playing an “Indian” character named “Raj” in brown makeup with a sing-song accent appears to have been pulled after drawing heavy criticism from Indian-Americans the day it started (http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/ad-with-ashton-kutcher-as-raj-yanked-after-outcry/).

What do you think: racist, or not?

I found myself agreeing with Indian-American tech entrepreneur Anil Dash, who blogged:

I can’t imagine I have to explain this to anyone in 2012, but if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 so they can do a bad “funny” accent in order to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course. Make some different decisions (http://dashes.com/anil/2012/05/fixing-popchips.html).

Now, what if, instead of putting on brown makeup and a sterotypical Indian accent, Kutcher had been sporting tattoos, a biker jacket, bandanna and a light Southern accent? What do you think: racist?

Because he did. Here’s a link to the full ad, which you’ll hopefully be able to view (all or part of it has been pulled off the air and blocked from various websites): http://www.nydailynews.com/gossip/ashton-kutcher-brownface-ad-popchips-yanked-offline-accusations-racism-article-1.1071718. In it, the Pop Chips creative team has Kutcher lampooning three stereotypes of whiteness, in addition to the “Raj” character: “a white, dreadlocked Brit named Nigel, a Karl Lagerfeld look alike, [and] a tattooed, flannel-shirt-wearing guy with a beard named Swordfish.”

While the furor has centered around the Indian stereotype, the ad raises the question: what’s racist, and what’s funny? Are the white stereotypes funny (and not racist) because the actor is white? Are stereotypes only funny when you mock “your” people? Is a stereotype of a poor white person less funny (and maybe more racist) than a stereotype of a rich white person?

Well, it depends first on how you define racism. Let me borrow and adapt a phrase from Ashley Judd and say, “Racism is not white people.” Racism is not a person, a specific word or action, or even a hateful attitude. Those are perpetuations of racism, which I define in my work as a social bias, whether by default or conscious choice, that privileges one racial group over others through individual and systemic actions and permission.

Racism is to racial discrimination what squares are to rectangles. Any individual or group can experience discrimination in a situation because of race (or the perception of it). But racism is discrimination that is systemically and institutionally endorsed and permitted. It’s got the weight of tradition, cultural norms and the modus operandi behind it. Racism isn’t white people, but it is the upholding of white privilege.

This distinction has, I believe, something to do with why there hasn’t been a white outcry about white stereotypes in the Pop Chips ad. There’s an air of privilege to at least 2 of the 3 white stereotypes: Darl lets us know he’s rich, and Nigel is a Brit (the stereotype of the stereotype of white privilege) who has the luxury to spend his days getting and staying high. As for Swordfish, that touch of southern to his accent conjures the faintest whiff of racism (because the southern bigot is an enduring white stereotype) and may cause some of us to feel good about mocking him (he’s racist, not Pop Chips, right?)

Which brings me to another speculation: the array of white stereotypes in the commercial ironically presents a diverse-of-sorts picture of whiteness, in which white folks have more choice about what they think is funny. Indian and Indian-American people? Just the same old tired stereotype. And this is Dash’s point, when he writes to the makers of Pop Chips:

Right now you’re making the world worse. Not just for me, or a billion other Indian people, but for my son, who I am hoping never has to grow up with people putting on fake Indian accents in order to mock him. Maybe people won’t be familiar with that stereotype if you, yes you personally, can refrain from spending millions of dollars and countless hours of your time on perpetuating that stereotype in order to sell potato chips.

When I read this, I went back and inserted “white” and “southern” for “Indian.” The message still resonates when you think about white kids from Alabama not having to grow up with people putting on fake Southern accents and pro-USA patches to mock them.

This is not to say that the white stereotypes are the same as the Indian stereotype, although at the end, when Kutcher is playing himself, he lumps all the stereotyped characters he has played together as “freaks.” (Nice final insult to stereotype there.) In the larger social context of the US and the globe, the white stereotypes are not equal to the Indian stereotype, or even equal to each other in impact. But unequal doesn’t mean insignificant. So what do you think: what’s racist? and what’s funny?

For one, I just didn’t find the commercial funny. Not because I’m a diversity educator who doesn’t laugh at identity humor. Give me some Chris Rock or Margaret Cho anyday. Something self-aware, socially savvy… and actually funny because it’s about people, rather than stock types.

** Note: Dash’s whole blog post is worth reading, if you liked the excerpts you read here.

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