Tuesday, 27 October 2009

"G" words and "N" Words

Remember in the last post I mentioned the “blacking up” scandal with Vogue? Well I have decided to dust off my notes and talk about it. Premise of the story is quite simply; Dutch model wears black make-up in October’s Vogue Magazine - a lot of people get angry.

A quite similar but at the same time all together different story is that of
the contestants on an Australian TV s
how, Hey Hey It’s Saturday.
Premise being; Jackson 5 tribute act appear on stage with all members apart from Michael Jackson wearing black face makeup and afro wigs – a guest judge (an American) throws a hissy-fit, a lot of people get angry.

I was talking about this with a couple of Australian friends about a week ago. We talked about the fact that there is often a (jovial) stereotype of Australians having a tendency of being a little bit more racist than other nationalities; not in an offensive manner, but similar to the way the British moan about the French.
They mentioned how there just isn’t the same turbulent history in Australia when it comes to race if compared to places like Europe and especially the U.S. They boasted that, with innocent light-heartedness, they could happily bring up someone’s race as a point of humour without anyone being offended. They used words like, “gollywog” as a point of reference.

When I heard gollywog said aloud, I genuinely recoiled back into my chair out of shock. For anyone outside the Commonwealth and is confused as to why this word made me react like this, here is a short explanation courtesy of Wikipedia. Basically, I would never even think out using that word, and would always associate it with the offensive manner with which it was used for such a long time. Thinking about it, I could probably count the number of times I have heard it said aloud on one hand.
The same goes for the “N” word. A word I am apparently so uncomfortable with I can’t bring myself to type it.

All that said, and even considering the strength with which I believe that using terminology like this should be avoided at all costs, part of me greatly envies my Australian friends. Why am I scared of a couple of words? Why can I not just accept difference of race as a fact and be comfortable talking and even making jokes about it? Neither I nor even my parents are directly connected to the history that has tainted those words. The fact I have a problem with them almost seems to insinuate that I myself could still not be over the fact that, yes, some of us are paler than others.
Is Australian society just that much further down the road of recovery than the rest of the word when it comes to getting over that gaping hole in history where your place in the world was determined by the amount of melanin in your skin?

Would the Vogue incident have been as controversial if it were a black model being portrayed as white? I don’t think so. But then the modelling industry has a long history of discrimination of black models, and there was never a “whiting up” equivalent of minstrel shows.

But how long will we, as a global society, let history force us to tip toe around the colour of people’s skin?

If reading this blog made you feel a little bit uncomfortable, then ask yourself why. I have felt prodigiously awkward writing it, and I am finding it very hard to pinpoint the reason.


Wyatthaplo said...

I find it somewhat strange that nigger is very often used by black people when they talk about each other. That is considered fine but as soon as a white person says it. All hell breaks loose.

The big brother incident for example. They said they didnt care in what context the white girl said it because she said it. But if they don't care about the context then surely the black girl who also said it should have been in trouble to. Forgive me i dont remember there names lol

I think every situation in life is different and should be seen as different. Murder isn't always murder. It could be self defence or euthinasiasm. Sometimes people us insulting words as a sign of affection for there close friends. Which if i remember is why the white girl was comfortable using the term nigger.

Cat said...

i'm australian and i think a lot of people here are extremely racist.
but on the other hand, we are such a multicultral country, that nearly everyone here has parents or grandparents that immigrated from somewhere else. but there is a huge amount of racisim, particularly against asians (from what i've noticed anyway) and it isn't really frowned upon at all. i don't know if it's because we're more laid back as a nation or because everyone is from somewhere different that our society thinks it's okay to be so racist, even to broadcast it nationally on tv.

alanasays said...

As an Australian, I feel there is still a lot of racism here, in recent years there has been the cronulla riots, and discontent about asylum seekers, and in the past we had the stolen generation, the repercussions of which are still causing big issues today.

We are still quite a young country and being so far removed from Africa and Europe, a lot of the racism has been more directed at the indigenous people in the past, I'd like to think that's getting better.

In that Hey, Hey it's Saturday show, I think what it showed was an example of the Australian pisstake humour and a bit of pure naivety. It wasn't even that much a scandal over here, people were more like "what's the big deal/it's just a bit of fun"

I don't know, that was my two cents anyway.

Nicholas said...

We had a similar discussion about a year ago where I work and a collegue of mine used the German word for nigger... well at least in a way. Everyone was so shocked and outraged, yet when someone uses the word gay when describing something stupid and negative, noone is shocked. Well... I am annoyed, but noone cries out. We have been sensitized for racism, but that's as far as it goes.
I have always said that I think words have power and we should be careful when using them. Others (like for example Tom Milsom) think words are just words and we have to accept their changing meanings and we give them power by being offended, so people will continue to use them exactly TO offend.

I have found that the Avenue Q song "everyone's a little bit racist" sums up the whole situation quite well ;)

That being said, I have heard the word nigger probably 100s of times more spoken by black people than white people. They use it all. the. time. It's annoying me a bit. I don't go around calling my (few) gay friends faggots, why should I.

breakingprufrockian said...

So I'm currently taking an intro to soc/anth course at my university, and one of the books we read, Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie by Tukufu Zuberi, reminded me of your post. The book focuses not just on statistics, but on the history of racialization in general.The basic summation is that racialization is a man made concept (to justify oppression and maintain economic stability), and using race as a cause for any particular occurence or relationship is wrong. I think, therefore, that your apprehension for using racial words is understandable. You can't deny the history of the words you use, and although we may be heading toward a deracialization in society, using words that (at some point) attributed certain traits specifically to race still perpetuates those ideas, or at least keeps them in existence. Our society is a work in progress; although we denounce racialization, institutions like affirmative action still exist (and in many cases, rightly so) to "correct" the segregation caused by years of discrimination.

Words mean something. What they mean to you and what they mean to me might differ, and I think being cautious of these discrepancies is what keeps us from using historically, racially-charged words.

Anyway. This whole rant stemmed from me just wanting to tell you that Zuberi's book is definitely one I would recommend, if you have the time. Sorry I got so long-winded :-)


Ashley said...

Hm... the MJ sketch was taken in the wrong way by the american judge. I am a bit resentful of this, because any criticism directed at my country's laid back, if not slightly antagonistic demeanor generally comes from a refusal to understand the motivation behind it.

I think americans in particular find it offensive because they have a code of overdone courtesy to hide behind in their day to day lives. I don't hate America, but I think that a majority the people are underexposed to other ways of living/acting. So they don't understand the 'Hey hey it's saturday' controversy and won't let it go.

Its particularly irritating because I bet you couldn't count the number of MJ parodies that American comedy shows have aired both pre and post MJ's death. It's hypocrisy.

I think we're just not as touchy about racially-specific comments as other countries are. When said between friends it is generally meant teasingly, or affectionately. When its said in a hostile way it isn't on, of course. But why make the whole realm of mockery taboo just because sometimes its meant viciously?

It makes me want to say "don't be so precious" to our good american judge and his like-minded friends. Get over it. Especially when it involves our comedy, which does not exist at all unless someone is the butt of a joke. Our comedy is schadenfreudian, and no one is exempt from it. Everyone is mocked, regardless of race. And everyone will mock others in return.

A lot of people really don't understand this, but its definitely a bit rich coming from a man who's country doesn't even understand why they originally had the rights to bear arms, and why the reason doesn't apply so much anymore. Or doesn't even sign UN declarations concerning human rights, not even the rights of children. He should look in the mirror.