Tag Archives: Ethnocentrism

The Most Racist Place On Earth

26 May

world map 3D(Image used under CC license via)


Where in the world are people most likely to say that they would not want “people of another race” as neighbors?  The results, from the Swedish World Values Survey, were published this week in The Washington Post in the form of a map by Max Fisher, who drew some conclusions here.   The Swedish research team, meanwhile, found that racism does not necessarily decrease when economic freedom increases.   (But homophobia does.)     

The results are fascinating, but they should not be seen as inerrant proof of how things stand.  Nor should the map be used as a travel guide.  In the case of Sweden, which has seen on-going riots in the poor suburban neighborhoods of Stockholm all week, qualifying as less racist than other countries hardly proves you are racism-free.  And as Fisher points out, there is no guarantee that the respondents answered honestly. 

When both Americans and Germans hear the word “race,” only the most socially inept among them do not know to respond very, very carefully.  In Germany, even seemingly objective words like “home” and “deport” make most people immediately think of the Holocaust.  But if you said to a white German, “How would you feel about having gypsies live next door?”, or if you said to a WASP American, “How would you feel about having neighbors who are illegal immigrants?”, you might get a more cynical answer.  (I use the offensive terms “illegal immigrants” and “gypsies” for hypothetical purposes.  Readers outside the U.S. and Europe should note that “undocumented immigrants” and “Roma” are more objective, less derogatory terms.)  Almost everyone in the U.S. and Germany knows racism is a bad thing, which is why most racists will not admit to it.  As Desmond Tutu said, five minutes after apartheid ended in South Africa, you couldn’t find anyone who had ever supported apartheid.    

Indeed, while readers in India have been reacting angrily to their nation’s standing in the survey, there is a tremendous risk that people from the countries that appear less racist are, or will become, dangerously complacent about their supposed open-mindedness.  The U.S. and U.K. appear slightly more tolerant than Germany, but a friend from India has openly said she feels much more respected and protected here in Berlin than in New York, where she has been harassed by Homeland Security officials, or in London, where her brother was beaten up for being a “Paki.”  Anecdotal evidence is less empirical than statistical evidence, but statistical evidence is far from infallible. 

Take for example the fact that France ranks as one of the most racist nations in the West.  The strongest evidence to support this finding is probably the popularity of the right-wing, anti-immigration party National Front, which won 17.9% of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election.  But racism cannot always be measured so plainly.  In the United States, hate groups are on the rise, but most segregationists and white supremacists vote either Republican or Democrat because they must operate in a two-party system if they want to get anything done.  Many members of Congress have been members of the nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens (also known as the CCC, which sounds a lot like another white supremacist organization), which in 1997 presented the former head of the National Front with a Confederate flag.  The U.S. ranks as more tolerant than France in the survey, yet a great deal of its racism survives covertly.    

And on the flipside, America’s history reveals more overt racism than France’s.  All anti-miscegenation laws were lifted in France 175 years earlier than in the United States.  French literary giant Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was the son of France’s first black general, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the highest ranking black general in any Western country until Colin Powell rose to the rank in 1989.  Racial segregation laws did not exist in modern France until the Nazi Occupation, which is why many black American celebrities like Josephine Baker expatriated there.  Anecdotal evidence suggests people of sub-Saharan background have been better integrated into French society than people of Arab and/or Muslim background, but this is difficult to examine because, unlike in the United States, it has been illegal in France since 1958 to collect data on race or ethnicity.

Indeed, what do we mean by people of a “different race”?  What do you imagine?  In the United States, we tend to think of ethnicity as something we can’t quite put our finger on, while race is widely thought to be based on indisputable biological facts.  Having pale skin, brownish wavy hair, and no epicanthic fold makes people think of me in the U.S. and Europe as white, affording me all the privileges that implies.  The precise details of my ethnicity and heritage—growing up in a WASP family with ancestors who were English, Irish, German, Polish, Scottish, and also possibly Jewish—are rarely an issue.  Nowadays.  But marriage to my Irish Catholic grandfather in 1943 led my grandmother to be disowned by her own grandmother. 

And today the ethnicity of a white person of Middle Eastern background is a major issue for many right-wing Westerners.  Some will argue that the dark hair and olive skin tone common among Middle Easterners renders them a separate, biologically identifiable race, but then what about Greek or Spanish people?  What about Austrians and Southern Germans?  What about that Harry Potteresque raven-hair/pale skin combination so common in the U.K. and Ireland?  Is this starting to sound silly?  Jokes about redheads suddenly become less innocuous in light of violent gingerism.  For better or for worse, predominantly white societies recognize tremendous physical diversity across Europe, but usually fail to differentiate between Chinese and Japanese, or West Africans and East Africans.  Race is in the eye—or mind—of the beholder.  

Years ago, my German-Swedish boyfriend almost went through the roof when a teenage friend of the family said she felt a bit nervous in Berlin “because of all the immigrants around.”  How could she say such a thing in front of his American girlfriend?! he seethed.  But she didn’t think of me as an “immigrant” because I’m middle class, I have the same hair color and complexion as the majority of German citizens, I celebrate Christmas, and I immigrated to Berlin simply because I loved the city, not out of economic necessity or a fear of persecution at home.  Around the world, some people are intolerant of any race that they perceive as different from their own, while others are intolerant of only certain races.  Which kind of racism is preferable? 

No matter the answer, the existence of the second kind proves that both kinds of racism are unnatural.


It’s So Easy To Take Peace for Granted

14 Oct



The European Union has won the Nobel Peace Prize amidst the hardest year it has faced since its inception.  The E.U. founders certainly had no idea what they were building when they did—the goal was simply to control German coal and steel so that Germany could never rebuild its war machine—and the ensuing peace among member nations that is now over 60 years old was not something anyone would have bet on at the time.  Nor would anyone have imagined that E.U. membership would later mean abolition of the death penalty, but it has. 

I detest the austerity policy in place now during the economic crisis, but the E.U. is more than that, just as the U.S. is more than Wall Street.  The Euro Generation that emerged 15 years ago doesn’t identify with austerity but with European peace, universal healthcare, the welfare state, religion out of politics, and the determination to simultaneously open borders and promote multi-lingualism while protecting minority languages and cultures.  To them, nationalism is pointless at best and cataclysmic at worst.

Of course, bureaucracies are never as pretty as the ideals behind them.  And some of the criticism this week has been fair.  (Der Spiegel claims that awarding former E.U. leaders such as Jacques Delors would have more effectively spotlighted the ideals of the European peace project.)  A lot of the criticism has been ridiculous, if not offensive.  (Many on the far left are echoing the sentiments of critics on the far right, comparing police brutality in Greece and Spain to World War II.  Not helpful.)  The debate should keep going, but I’m personally taking the moment to remember how I felt 13 years ago when I read Eddie Izzard campaigning against Europhobia in the UK:

“I believe that we are on to something really good here, if it means that we stop rolling tanks across one another’s borders and stop killing each other. There are 800 million of us Europeans and we’ve been killing each other for centuries.”







In Comedy, It’s All About Deciding Who’s Us & Who’s Them

28 Apr

Krampus twins(Via)


The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:

political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”

Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall.  Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome.  Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way.  Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.” 

I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences.  This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original.  Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right?  Wrong.  We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t.  We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique.  And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?   

Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others.  Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear.  There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at.  So Republicans laugh at Democrats.  Hippies laugh at yuppies.  Academics laugh at hippies.  Progressives laugh at bigots.  It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs.  However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original.  Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies? 

Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny.  As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of.  However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:



Hermaphrodite?  Really?  An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy?  C’mon, Conchords.  You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture.  (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori…  Please be the Maori!  If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”)  Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away.  Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:



Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities.  But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others.  Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them.  The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated.  Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects.  As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.   

Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define.  The definers want the power to name.  And the defined are taking that power away from them.”  Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset.  But this redistribution of power can be productive.  Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries.  Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech. 

Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor.  For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television.  I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others?  But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians.  Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity.  Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism. 

Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians.  Because really.  Who’s asking to be made fun of here?



* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc.  Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.