I was cleaning out my desk today when I stumbled upon a coaster I had saved from a trip to a bar this past winter. Admittedly, I have a tendency to become even more outraged by injustice when I have alcohol in my system (and interject the “f-word” more than usual…so, a slurred speech about “the fucking capitalist fucking machine” might be par for the course), but I don’t think I was overreacting when I saw this gem of a picture and alternating text (forgive me for not knowing how to flip the text image):
Let’s review. A picture of a scantily clad Asian woman massaging a muscular light-skinned man (could be white, but we don’t necessarily know), looking suggestively into the eyes of the viewer, accompanied by Asian characters (if any of you readers know what these words are, I’d love to find out!) and the slogan “Discover The Tiger.”
I scoffed so loud I think the ice in my vodka tonic shook. “Do you fucking see this?” I held it up to my friend, who happened to be South Asian. “Fucking ridiculous!” And as I held it up for him to behold, I was met with the back of the coaster which, as you can see above suggested we: “Discover the mystique, intrigue and exotic sensuality of the Far East.” Wow!
I kept the coaster planning to write about it someday, but wasn’t particularly motivated until I saw that this racist exotification of the other was not an isolated event (which I of course already knew, but sometimes you have to be reminded with blatantly ignorant pieces of media, I guess):
If your computer isn’t letting you watch, or you’re at work or whatever, the commercial basically goes like this:
A pale white dude hangs up the phone, down-trodden after some bad news. He reports to three white male friends in the kitchen that he just found out he was adopted, that he’s not actually a “Kapoor,” which he says as he holds up a family portrait of himself with a traditionally-dressed Indian family. To console his sadness, one of his white buddies hands him an New Castle Brown Ale, which seems to solve all his woes. The third friend looks at him almost incredulously and asks, “Is that why your curry is so bad?” Finally the Indian voice-over guy comes on and reports: “Newcastle Brown Ale-The Lighter Side of Dark.”
Some might say both of these (but maybe more the latter) are innocent and not worthy to bring to a discussion about racism. But I think that the clever or ironic plays with racial stereotypes can have an insidious impact on broader goals for racial equality. The coaster, I think, is indefensible; the commercial, however, is potentially funny, and I’m a girl that has given the time of day to Sara Silverman, so I’m not totally anti ironic-humor-as-a-clever-way-to-address-race. Except….kind of I am. Because I’m just not sure how many viewers actually perceive any irony in what is being presented (which, I’ve read, is why Dave Chappelle stopped doing his show-his audience got so big that he couldn’t tell what they were laughing at exactly). So although I believe in the ability for humor to provide a liminal transgressive space for potentiality, I think these attempts at what some would call “enlightened racism” fail more often than they succeed.
Let’s examine our drink-holder first. There is a very clear depiction of “exotifying the other,” which Edward Said wrote about in Orientalism. The hyper-sexualization of the Asian woman is a blatant stereotype of the submissive—(but only until she gets naughty in the bedroom)—geisha-girl. The text makes no attempt to be subtle in echoing that exact sentiment when they urge us to “discover” (re: colonize?) the Far East, which is apparently a hot-bed of oozing sexual-ness. The corresponding logo “Discover the Tiger,” again unapologetically asserts a sort of animalizing, reverse-anthropomorphism that has been projected onto people of color for centuries. Although both men and women (and certainly those in between) of color have been targets of animalization, there are sometimes differences in how this discourse plays out. For example, the Asian woman (and Asia, then, as a body of land, a female that becomes property for the white man to discover/exploit) as a tiger provides an animal that acts as a metaphor for sex in which the colonizer (er, I’m sorry, the drinker) is still given the upper-hand–(it is our job to “discover,” even if the Asian woman is a “top,” the man is still in control (he has the cash and the beer, right?)). For black women, animal-metaphors have been used to describe bodies as hyper-sexualized and desireable as well as hyper-sexualized bodies that are repugnant; and the black man has been made hegemonically intelligable as an animal of prey, one to be feared (but this is also coupled with stereotypes of “black man/big cock”). In all of these cases, once a human has been reduced to animal characteristics, grounds are given to treat that person as less-than human. So, no, I don’t think there is a such thing as a “positive stereotype” or that “Asians should be happy because they are the ‘model minority‘.”
Although I find the commercial almost equally problematic, my grounds of critique are a bit more nuanced. I think this commercial acts as a means of perpetuating a culture of “tolerance” that promotes being “color-blind,” and concludes ultimately that race can be forgotten, ignored and/or transcended. Certainly most of you know why being “tolerant” shouldn’t be our end goal, but for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of problematizing this liberal code for “mantaining the status-quo,” I’m happy to indulge you. Basically promoting a “color-blind” world in which we ignore race and pretend it “doesn’t matter” is not only a god-damned lie, but also completely removes any discussion of systemic oppression endured by people of color. As Thomas Nakyama once wrote, that although race isn’t something that can be “proven,” that there are not biological differences in us that make it possible to discuss races on a heirarchy, that it is still “A very real fiction.” By that he means that we can say that “we’re all the same!” all we want, but that doesn’t improve the lived, embodied reality of a person-of-color who experiences material forms of racism on a daily basis.
So, when the punchline is that this white boy had the luxury of not noticing race his whole life, what they’re not saying is that the only reason he could potentially live that life is because he has white privilege. Can you even imagine if the commercial was reversed? If an Indian boy held up a picture of a white family and said “Guys, I’m not a Johnson!”? No one would laugh, because white folks are still trying to negotiate their guilt/self-congratulations for adopting “poor little babies of color.”
To make matters worse, the commercial then concludes with (what marketers probably thought was a brilliantly clever connection) that this boy, like the beer, is a “lighter side of dark.” I was particularly struck by this as I’ve been reading a lot about the notion of “colorism,” which I read about it in this issue of Bitch magazine, (but you have to buy the issue, the article’s not online! support them!). (It was also a salient theme in the film “Precious,” which is reviewed brilliantly in this Racialicious blog). In the article, Courtney Carliss Young (2010) writes about how a study was conducted in which participants were asked to identify Barack Obama’s “true essence”; those who voted for him “overwhelmingly picked the photos that had been lightened.” She highlights several other examples (e.g. Eva Longoria saying she was the “ugly ducking” in her family because she was the “darkest,” and the trouble a dark-skinned contestant on America’s Next Top Model had on the show). Carliss Young concludes:
“In the liberal and progressive critiques that tackle issues of gender, race, and class within popular culture and beyond, it seems not only necessary but vital that particular attention should be given to the myriad ways that color complicates these discussions.” (p.22)
So when I saw this commercial, I knew I had to respond to her call to action. The solution to this boy’s “problem” is to embrace that he is “light,” and the beer is celebrated for being “lighter” (albeit still dark). Joke or no joke, this commercial reifies that light-skin belongs higher up on the (very real fictitious) hierarchy of race.
Oh, and the curry comment? Awesome. Way to essentialize that ethnicity=a particular set of culinary skills.
Fortunately, I’m not a beer drinker (but, of course I know hard liquor is full o’ problems!). But next time you pop open a cold one, maybe take a minute to consider what kind of racial politics you’re swallowing.