Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Prejudice and Racism

By Jimmy McCarty

During the Olympic Games this past summer these pictures of the Spanish men's Olympic basketball team, and Spanish Olympic women's tennis team, became public:

In recent weeks this picture of Miley Cyrus

and this picture of one of the Jonas Brothers

also became public. Apparently, the "hot" new thing to do when taking group pictures is to slant one's eyes to "look" Asian. As someone who as a child dealt with being called a "gook" by overzealous white children looking for a way to elevate their social status I find the gestures offensive. Now, I'm not here to necessarily bash Miley or the Jonas boy, they're kids and do stupid things, but I am a little troubled by the use of such gestures to make a "funny" photo.
There has been an outcry of sorts among Asian-Americans concerning these photos. Eugene Cho, a somewhat well-known Korean evangelical pastor in Seattle, has been one of the main voices speaking out against them. He has done so here and here and here. He has even posted a picture of himself widening his eyes to demonstrate how ridiculous and offensive the gestures are:

One word that has been used a lot to describe these pictures is "racist." While I am offended by the pictures, and think they are demeaning to a large percentage of the earth's population (including my mother and myself), I do not think they are, nor do I think it helpful to call them, racist. Do they display prejudice? Yes. Are they offensive? Yes. Are they racist? No.

Asian-Americans, like myself and Cho, do face certain forms of discrimination and racism in this nation. I do not, however, think this is one of them. And I am sure that calling them such diminishes the impact of the word when it is appropriately applied to racist structures and institutions.

For someone, or something, to be racist they must have power. Not only must they have power, they must have enough power to keep a person or people group subjugated and in an inferior position because of racial or ethnic identity. Finally, they must not only possess this degree of power, but must actually use it to oppress a people group. Peoples of Asian descent have faced racism in this country. (The treatment of the Japanese in internment camps in WWII is just one example of this.) However, with Asians attending college at a higher percentage, and several groups of Asians (like Indians and Japanese) earning a higher average wage than whites, I think we must be careful when thinking about how racism affects our lives. (I do not mean to diminish the experience of the Hmong and other Asian ethnic groups that are facing certain racist societal structures.) Asians, and I am speaking as a 1.5 generation bi-racial Asian-American, face plenty of prejudice, discrimination and even racism, but spoiled athletes and pop singers posing in pictures with slanted eyes does not qualify as a state of oppression. This is especially true when I look at what many poor Mexican-Americans, people of Arab descent and African-Americans face in our country today. There are societal structures that literally keep them in a state of oppression.

While I agree that we should decry racial prejudice, discrimination and insensitivity I think we should call it what it is. Racism implies a particular use of power, and I think it pragmatically important that we only use the term when it is referring to such an immoral use of political, economic and social power. (For example, a white slave owner is racist, but a poor white man who thinks black people are inferior to him is prejudiced. Both are sinful, but they are different sins.) Otherwise, when we truly do face racism we will encounter what I call the "Sharpton Effect" and we will be dismissed as simply angry minorities who have a complex that we need to get over.

So, please decry the pictures. Let people know that it is offensive to use such gestures, but please don't going around saying it is proof of racism against Asians in America. There is much more we could point to to prove that point. (I would argue that the fact that this hasn't gotten the mainstream news coverage the "Barack the Magic Negro" song, or Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" comment, received is a form of racism, but the pictures themselves aren't.) This is simply ignorant and insensitive people being caught in a compromising position.


  1. Thank you Jimmy for this post. You have brought a nuance to the definition of racism that is new to me. I don't have much in the way of insightful comments but I do have some clarification questions to help me understand your nuances. In the example you gave of the poor white man who is prejudiced, what precludes racism? It seems from the definition you gave that it would be the lack of power. If this is so could it be argued that because he is white he possesses that power even if to a lesser extent.

    Again Jimmy thank you for this post. I found it particularly insightful and would greatly appreciate some feedback on my misunderstandings.

  2. Jimmy, I think this is a really good post and brings an important issue to light. I think the term "racist" and "racism" are used too frequently and do lead to the "Sharpton Effect." While I agree that racial stereotyping is also wrong, I almost think that by throwing a "racist" label on behavior like that of the above, it is almost giving those that are stereotyping a false power that, as you point out, they simply do not have.

  3. The "Sharpton Effect." That's funny. But seriously, you're right, we do have a tendency to label any racially prejudicial thing as racism in this country, and that doesn't always fit the best sociological definitions of racism.

  4. Thank you for your interesting post Jimmy. However, I find that I must respectfully disagree with your conclusion that the pictures are not racist. Using the oft-cited definition of racism=prejudice+power, it seems that the pictures above do indeed rise to the level of that definition.

    In our society, we accord status to athletes, movie stars and pop stars. For better or worse, these are people who influence (power) public opinion and mores. As Traci West points out in our reading this week: "Our thinking about conceptualizing ethics is strongly influenced by a steady flow of cultural messages reiterating racial distinctions and racism." These pictures to me are part of this steady, negative flow of racist messages that we perhaps have become somewhat numb to.

    Granted there are different levels of severity of racism but if we turn a blind eye and excuse the actions above by saying that these people are "kids and do stupid things," we miss the opportunity to lift up such actions as racist and unacceptable.

    You also state: "I am sure that calling them such[racist] diminishes the impact of the word when it is appropriately applied to racist structures and institutions." I would argue that modern culture and society is in fact one of those racist structures that we should be seeking to change which includes denouncing such incidents and using them as teachable moments.

    Again, thank you for bringing this issue up for discussion and I look forward to "hearing" your response.

  5. Very Interesting post Jimmy. As person of minority community in this country and being subjected to prejudice many times in my life I am well aware of the existence of racism.
    I have to disagree with your statement "For someone, or something, to be racist they must have power." I do not think power dynamics is essential for racism to take place. It can emerge out of ones own understanding or twisted understanding of being superior over another human race. Or else only the rich and the powerful will be racist and nobody else. That is certainly not true.
    The pictures are certainly offensive, but if you notice there are some Asians in the picture part taking in the insult hurled at them. As a person from a minority group, I must say we sometimes allow ourselves to be subjected to racism. Why is it ok as an African American for a person to use the 'N' word but it becomes highly offensive from a person of Caucasian decent to do so. I say it is not ok in any case. The dignity of a human being should be respected regardless.

  6. This is a very insightful post, as are the comments up to this point. I think that perhaps, after taking all commentary into consideration, that I must agree with Tamara regarding the power issue. In this country, our sports, film and television starts do hold an element of power. While it may not be political power, it is still power that holds sway on the opinions of many people. Children are influenced strongly by their sports and pop culture "heroes." The emulate the behavior they see in the media. We may not like this, or think it's right (I certainly do not), however, it is a reality that this is the way it is.

  7. Seth, Tamara, and Suzanne,

    Thanks for "complexifying" the understanding of power a little bit.

    Tamara, I think you raise a good point about the power that celebrities have in our culture. I think your point may be correct in the case of the Spanish men's basketball team, clearly that was an official photo of the team, but disagree with you about the others. These other pictures were never intended for public release. They were, unfortunately and stupidly, taken with the belief that they wouldn't be released to the public. Now if Miley or the Jonas boys were to release a song where they had a new dance slanting their eyes in the music video I think that would be an example of them using their power in such a way as to be racist. In this case I don't think it is the case. That would be like saying Michael Phelps is using his celebrity power to promote drugs. I don't think it's the same.


    In the situation of the poor white man discussed above I agree that in certain situations his "whiteness" would give him enough power to exhibit true racism, but not necessarily all the time. I guess I was speaking more generally as a state of being. I don't know if that helps or not.

  8. This is indeed a very interesting post. Jimmy thanks for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue.

    I have to agree with those who have surmised that the photos are indeed racist. The idea that such behavior can be dismissed as "... simply ignorant and insensitive or as "people being caught in a compromising position" is disturbing to me.

    Jimmy you note that "...spoiled athletes and pop singers posing in pictures with slanted eyes does not qualify as a state of oppression", but it certainly qualifies as disregard and disrespect for human dignity.

    I think Tamara is right about the influence of athletes, movie stars and pop stars and the "flow of negative messages" and "the opportunity to lift up such actions as racist and unacceptable".

    Seth, your raise the question about the difference between "racially prejudicial" and racism. Racism is a learned response and I don't think it can be nuanced. In the USA, racism is most often thought to have its roots in slavery and is seen as a black/white issue. The example of the "poor white" person who thinks black people are inferior to him and portraying him as being "prejudiced" is part of the problem. The poor white person believes in his "whiteness" and "white is right" as the old saying goes. His power lies in the fact that he is white. As Chaplain said, " It [racism] can emerge out of one's own understanding or twisted understanding of being superior over another human race".

    Jimmy, when you state "However, with Asians attending college at a higher percentage, and several groups of Asians (like Indians and Japanese) earning a higher average wage than whites, I think we must be careful when thinking about how racism affects our lives". I'm not sure I understand where you stand. Who is "we"? Do you mean to say that because you [Asian/Asian-Americans] are doing "better than whites" socially and economically that, you as a "bi-racial Asian" are willing to excuse racist discrimination or prejudicial treatment until it reaches the level of oppression for Asian-Americans? Who decides when it reaches that point?

    Tamara wrote: "As Traci West points out in our reading this week: "Our thinking about conceptualizing ethics is strongly influenced by a steady flow of cultural messages reiterating racial distinctions and racism". West also says "A commitment to white superiority as a norm and standard for behavior within our culture can become indistinguishable from a commitment to universal moral principles that are unhampered by particularity."

    Continuing to "turn a blind eye" to racist behavior is I believe (at least in part) why racist societal structures and institutions continue to survive. Generally speaking, as a nation we have been too willing to excuse or rationalize such behavior. Though West is writing about how racism affects sexual violence, I think these pictures and countless other insensitive, stupid, thoughtless actions are precisely what she is talking about when she writes "...examples of sympathetic approaches...draw attention to the enculturated norm of denying the presence of racism and how it deters us from maintaining a connection between universal and particular concerns. These processes of denial hamper the capacity to perceive how universal moral concerns are changed by particular ones."

    Janis Brown

  9. I applaud you, Jimmy, for your decision to not allow these (to me) revolting photos move you into a victim role; I see your decision as self-empowering. However, I am also confused as to how the standard/definition of racism is derived. In my mind, any undermining of the dignity of a people is racist. I’m glad it was pointed out that the people in these photos are being young and foolish, and I don’t advocate any consequences on the scale of a lawsuit, etc. However, I would advocate that since the photos are now public, that those pictured offer an apology and explain to their loyal fans that they were wrong to show disrespect, even “in fun”, of another group, and that this is not “cool”. For better or worse, in today’s ultra-electronic world, celebrities need to be mindful that what they do can wind up seen and heard on screens around the world.

  10. I'm a little late to this particular party, but felt compelled to write a response anyway! I remember when I first saw the picture of the Spanish Basketball team, and how outraged I was that this kind of behavior would even be tolerated. I remember as a child making similar gestures in fun, but as Paul so aptly put it in I Corinthians 13: "When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways." (CEV) While children do stupid things out of ignorance, adults, even young adults should know better. I would also argue that as celebrities, even children should be taught that this kind of behavior, whether considered racist or not, is inappropriate and unacceptable because of the message it sends to others. Many years ago, Charles Barkley (you remember him?) made the comment "I am not a role model." He said these words when he was one of the most celebrated members of the Phoenix Suns Basketball team. How he could think that he was not a role model is beyond me, even today. Anyone in the spotlight is a role model, even those who are still children. It's unfortunate if indeed the photos of Miley and the Jonas boy were not meant for the public eye, but the reality is they ended up there, and I would hope they would eventually learn that this kind of behavior will be imitated by other children once it is made public. Consider the ways many of our children dress, trying to imitate their favorite rock stars, or TV personalities. It's tragic, but true: role models are everywhere, and those who are in the spotlight really need to realize that their actions have consequences of worldly proportions. But back to the topic of racism...are these pictures racist? Obviously from the responses from our classmates, the answer to that question is in the eye of the beholder. As a white female who has been the victim of discrimination in the past, I have to say that if I were of Asian descent, not only would I be offended, but I would likely label these photos as racist. Even as a European American, I am still offended and disappointed with these photos because of the message they send...that it's OK to make fun of a person because of a physical characteristic that is part of their heritage. And isn't making fun of someone a way of exerting power over them?

  11. Dar Jimmy.
    Thank you for the comment. I believe what you said in your article is true. For some reason people like to make social distinctions by embarrassing or making fun of others.
    People are different. They are born that way. Whose fault is it? We are making an issue on something that we have no control over it. What I mean is that for example, most of the Armenians are known for their big noses… so what? I don’t think the entire universe has to embarrass them. On the other hand they should appreciate the good artists, singers, scientists, mathematicians, and doctors we have. People should not be judged by
    their appearances. I agree with you such actions do no good but creating complexities and anger towards one another. And that will not have a beautiful ending.

  12. To me, the pictures of the basketball team slanting their eyes is racist by virtue of the reference to a physical feature indicative of a race of people. In international football [read: soccer], people threw bananas and flattened out their noses as means to taunt African players. Slanting the eyes, flattening out your nose or throwing bananas are references meant to mock someone’s ethnic features. But these pictures do not bother me. My concerns are drawn toward the movement to elevate racism to a position I don’t think it deserves. It seems that it is human nature to categorize the things we come into contact with in order to better understand them. And often we place degrees of value on the things we have assembled. Racism is then a label given to represent certain value judgments, albeit degrading judgments. In this regard, then, Jimmy and I might disagree on the definition of racism but agree that regardless it is always done in poor taste and should not be condoned, just as FIFA (international governing body of football) has the “No To Racism” and “Fight Racism” banners hung up during football matches.

  13. There's an interesting approach to many things arround us, which is seeing the positive side of everything. As when we look at a half full glass of water, some people say that its half empty others say its half full. Lets be positive, and try to see the full part of it. And what concerns to different races, let's discover what an asian or hispanic or european person can bring something positive for our society.

    Another point. A newely immigrated individual hardly can be involved in the new society life. Therefore that immigrant will be mostly struggling to survive or let me say, he will be more profitor of social aides than supporter for the wellfare of he society. So we should not say that africans or asians are all emptying the budget of the government, or they are taking our jobs with less wages and we are unemployed.

    We all are leaving our motherlands and immigrating to other countires for better lives. Therefore who we are to judge people for their different cappearance??? We are all creatures of God, with flesh and soul.

    When we look at the next generation of an immigrant, we can obviously see that they are as competent as local citizens.
    Therefore lets take the differnece of races as cutural and language richness. Even we can consider that the new race person as a new gen holder, can make our next generations genetically richer; clever and more beautiful but most of all more open for other races ;)