The summer release of The Lone Ranger prompts a very old (and very tired) question : what is racism, exactly? In a week when Paula Deen lost her career over an ill-advised comment about having black southern waiters at her brother’s wedding, it seems that the lines have become very blurry indeed. Although Paula Deen is not a particularly admirable person (or cook, for that matter) I can’t help but feel sorry for her. Or for anyone accused of racism these days.
Paula’s story is sad and tragic in the sense that a witless comment ending a long-term career is sad. The full story is this: at a three-hour deposition as part of the defense of her brother “Bubba” Hiers, Paula Deen said about certain comments made,
“It’s just what they are — they’re jokes … most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks … I can’t determine what offends another person.”
And, much as I’d like to disagree with someone who considers processed cheese an essential ingredient in one’s kitchen, I really can’t. Because, you see, I don’t know what’s racist either.
Let me make something emphatically clear: I’m figuratively colour-blind. I don’t care for the notion of race, because race is an unscientific and divisive way to look at the human species. I don’t judge people by their skin tone or provenance. I judge them by their ideals, ideas and moral fibre. I’m kooky that way. I regard racist comments, and the furore they create, with equal contempt.
Here in Britain, a cultural melting pot made up of the rejected peoples of many nations, a country steeped in the histories of distant continents and filtered through the sands of time, we don’t have as much of a problem with racism as we used to. Don’t get me wrong – terrible things happened here, and continue to do so, but casual racism isn’t a systemic problem. The attitude of British people is (more or less) “live and let live”. This is a terrible sweeping statement to make, and lacking essential truths, but it’s a fact that people are not as overtly racist here as they are in other nations. I have relatives who from time to time grumble about “immigrants” and “Muslims” and whatnot, but they are friends with people of different backgrounds and treat them with due respect. The feeling, if I can sum it up in a sentence, is that being British is not a racial identity: it’s a thing you buy into. If, when you come here from foreign climes, you can learn how to queue and when a cup of tea is called for, you’ll fit right in. Britishness is a cultural thing, not a racial thing. And that’s a system that works, by and large.
In America things are apparently a little different. There still exists a very distinct sense of racial secularism: Afro-Americans hang out with other Afro-Americans, White Americans hang out with other White Americans, and Puerto Ricans are unfairly lumped in with Cubans, Columbians, Mexicans, Jamaicans and Dominicans (at least, in any serious demographic survey I’ve seen). America is a very secular place, with people commingling less than they probably should. As a consequence, misunderstandings between demographic groups is rife and, as we know, misunderstandings lead to racism. But with so little cross-communication between groups, it’s more or less impossible to know what’s racist in America.
Paula Deen’s crime was to say things that shouldn’t be said – not that she’d love to have a wedding with black table staff, but that she couldn’t determine what was offensive. She voiced the unspoken. We are supposed, as a culture, to have a clear idea of what’s racist. Yet, if we’re honest, we haven’t a clue. I certainly don’t know. And neither, if you’re honest, do you.
A case in point: The Lone Ranger, Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbuster follow-up to the Pirates of The Caribbean quadrilogy. Intended as a film to plug the Fourth of July gap and get people into hot, cramped cinemas when they should be outside throwing footballs and tantrums, The Lone Ranger is exactly the sort of film to sink without a trace, leaving barely a ripple in the history of film. So it may prove – advanced screenings and reviews bear this narrative up – but for me The Lone Ranger will live on in infamy as being the last time I understood the race argument.
Let me make it clear: here are two scenarios. Both of them are possible, but only one of them is considered racist.
a) A white actor famous for playing vaguely suspect parody characters puts on black makeup and acts like an Afro-American character developed in the thirties, who speaks in broken English.
b) A white actor famous for playing vaguely suspect parody characters puts on white makeup and acts like an Native American character developed in the thirties, who speaks in broken English.
I think I see a problem here.
What’s interesting about countries like America and Australia, both countries settled by a largely white, British expatriot mass, is the attitude they display towards the native peoples they displaced. Australia is famous for its racism: its attitude towards the Aboriginals (or “Abos” as they are widely called) has historically been close to genocidal, and even in our modern, enlightened times has hardly eased up. When we think of racism in America we think of slavery, Southern plantations and lynchings. This isn’t entirely fair. It is, of course, impossible to compare the sufferings of two demographic groups, but it’s worth noting that the actions of the American Government towards Africans never included genocide. Comedian Chris Rock puts it best:
“Black people yelling “racism!” White people yelling “reverse racism!” Chinese people yelling “sideways racism!” And the Indians ain’t yelling, ’cause they’re dead. So everybody’s bitching about how bad their people got it: nobody got it worse than the American Indian. Everyone else needs to calm down.”
In the three centuries of modern American history, the Native American population was reduced from as many as 18 million (figures are sketchy) to 2.9 million. That’s, at its worst, a reduction of 84% of the total population of an entire demographic of people. Assimilation was forced, land was seized, women and children were raped and murdered. It’s worth making the case that Native Americans were neither the warring people of old Westerns or the peace-loving, tree-hugging hippy people of modern New Age myth. They were a group of people who were genetically and culturally distinct from the invading Europeans. They weren’t aggressors or the naive peaceful people. They were a group who owned the land. And they were steamrollered by a culture more technologically sophisticated and more experienced in mass murder. The sufferings of most other peoples under the American government are comparatively light*.
My point is that we wouldn’t tolerate a blackface portrayal by a white actor because it would be offensive to audiences and would demean, ridicule and parody the heritage and historical suffering of a large group of people. In 1961, Mickey Rooney portrayed a “bucktoothed, myopic” Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a role now widely reviled for its racist overtones. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), featured Boris Karloff’s role as the stereotypical evil Chinese mastermind, a similar role now similarly abhorrent to modern tastes. Both of these would be unthinkable in modern cinema, and yet this year Johnny Depp is pretending to be a Native American.
This kind of “acceptable” racism is endemic in Hollywood, and clashes horribly with what isn’t racist but is thought of as so. When I was young I loved the Disney film Song of the South (1946), a film based on the Uncle Remus series of books. It portrays a cheery old black man who willingly relates the stories of Bre’r Rabbit to a young white boy and generally has a gay old time despite suffering under the torment of southern slavery. If there was ever any hint of this in the film I must have been a dumb brick of a kid, because I never cottoned on to it. The fact remains that you’ll never see Song of the South in any Disney DVD collection, so completely has it been expunged from history, except for the song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.
By contrast, the most recent offensive portrayal I can recall is Nullah from 2008’s nauseating Baz Luhrmann schlock-fest Australia, a three hour epic built on ten minutes of creative thought. Nullah was played by Brandon Walters, a young Australian of Aboriginal descent, but his role offered no particular insight into Aboriginal life, instead treating them with suspicious, wary reverence: exactly the way Australia itself has been treating them when it hasn’t been detaining them without charge or forcing them to carry identification papers. Nullah has no specific purpose in Australia other than to act as comic relief and, more importantly, as a McGuffin that brings together the two white characters. This is offensive by dint of omission: if you treat Aborigines as mystical, mysterious folks you make them seem less real and, therefore, not worth considering. For a more savage and realistic depiction of Australian history, be sure to check out The Proposition, one of this century’s truly epic films.
It’s no wonder Paula Deen is so hurt and confused by her public downfall. The poor old goat hasn’t the faintest idea what’s racist and what’s not. What’s worth noting is that if a slight is directed at the African American community you can be sure that a hue and cry will be raised. There will be, in short, a hell of a hullabaloo**. That’s because the African American demographic is large and well-represented. This is in stark contrast to the Native American demographic, which is small, ignored, and rent by internal problems and alcoholism. Native Americans, like Aboriginals, have little voice in Western culture. Paula Deen made a comment that, if we’re going to be honest, was incidentally racist and one that many Southern folks would share. It was more in the line of, as the Channel 4 program Peep Show would have it, “racist horseplay”. The Lone Ranger, on the other hand, is an example of systemic racism in American culture. Paula Deen made picked the wrong demographic to be unpleasant about. As a consequence, she lost her career. Maybe if she’d made the waiting staff Native Americans she’d still be on television.
* This, rather than the man thrust of my argument, is the single comment most likely to invite recrimination. I don’t mean that slavery isn’t a huge deal. It is.
**Say it out loud. That’s really good writing, right there.