“Invictus” : From a Different Perspective

For two hours, I forgave Clint Eastwood for making “Gran Torino.” As a serious race scholar, you may ask how I could possibly have given him a second chance. I forgave him because I am a rugby fanatic. I fell in love with the sport in 1995, the same year in which Eastwood’s newly released  “Invictus” is set.  For months leading up to this December’s release of Invictus, I had been inundated with trailer previews (opens video), articles and advertisements on my favorite rugby blogs and news sites, along with Facebook invitations to opening day of the film. I struggled with my racial understandings and my desire for my beloved sport to get some actual media attention.

“Invictus” is the screen adaptation of John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and The Game That Changed a Nation. The movie follows Nelson Mandela in his first term as the South African president. Mandela, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, has the difficult job of uniting a splintered apartheid-torn South Africa. Mandela recruits the captain of South Africa’s rugby team to help him use the 1995 rugby World Cup to bring the nation together. I knew better than to believe a Hollywood film. I know that the story was told through the eyes of someone white in South Africa. However, I could not resist a good fairy tale. I got teary on at least two occasions while watching the film, thinking that rugby could bring enemies together.  It’s not such a far-fetched idea;it happens all the time after grueling matches between bitter rivals.

However, Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” is just another work of fiction. Mandela as represented here is a man who remains ever hopeful to appeal to the better side of whites. In the film, Mandela is a de-radicalized figure who personifies the notion that non-white activists and leaders should rely exclusively on forgiveness, understanding, and nonviolence for any hope of racial progress. There are moments in the film where you see blatant white racism. To Eastwood’s credit, racism in South African is portrayed as institutionalized and systemic; yet after two hours South Africa’s problems are a thing of the past after the national team wins the Rugby World Cup.

Following the film, I did some looking around online to get a different perspective of “Invictus.” I stumbled upon this comment by someone named Batanai posting at the NYTimes’ review of “Invictus.” Batanai’s comment really shed a different light on the film for me:

I Remember ’95, Didn’t Like It!

I remember a very different sentiment when this rugby match took place; Mandela and the Blacks had been following the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe before him, offering the hand of reconciliation to the previously oppressive Whites. And, as had happened in Zimbabwe, the Whites in SA continued to spurn, even spit on this open embrace. That Mandela continued to seek acceptance from these people (instead of the other way round), grated a lot of us in the African community.

The Whites begrudgingly, but only temporarily, unclenched their fists after Mandela showed up at “their” rugby game, dressed in the full colors of the sport. It did not however, take long for them to go back to their angry and condescending ways as they sued and hauled Mandela to court over his push for more racial inclusion in the rugby sport!

Apparently, the Whites were (and many still are) more comfortable with the Blacks compromising themselves with absolutely no expectation of reciprocation from the former.

Which is why many Africans like me a very uncomfortable with the western halo over Mandela. He is hailed as an icon of forgiveness, an example for Blacks to follow in their dealings with races that have been abusive to them. People like me do not understand why forgiveness should be a virtue imposed on Africans and angrily discarded when going after “uncooperative” Africans….
The West is incapable of forgiveness, yet it demands the “weaker” peoples be forgiving of THEIR abuse!

The Mandela that fought for his people’s political liberation, I admire. The one that fought for the economic status quo while President, I am uncomfortable with. The post-political haloed Mandela, the one crafted in western media as an example for Africans and all previously oppressed people to follow, the one that values forgiveness over economic justice, the one that does not upset the current power structure and packing order, this Mandela I REJECT.

Batanai, Washington

Eastwood celebrates the de-radicalized Mandela by sinking millions of dollars into a film paying homage to a black man unflinchingly forgiving of whites. A friend asked if the timing of this movie was coincidental with Obama’s election. In both cases, there was so much “hope” that the nation would reach new heights of racial harmony by electing a non-white leader. However, we see that it’s not just that easy.

As for the magic of sport making the world a better place, we must also be very cautious in declaring victory over social inequality. Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs was a glorious moment in sports history, but that feat did not defeat sexism at the end of the day. We still have long way to go as we see barbaric “gender testing” measures being taken on South African Sprinter, Caster Semenya because no “woman” could have a physique like her.

South Africa’s triumph over New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup was an amazing feat by an underdog team. However, it did not create a nation of racial harmony as suggested by both Carlin and Eastwood. I truly appreciated the two hours of make-believe, but after leaving the theater I understood that there is still much more work for me and other scholars and activists to do.

Randy Newman Sings the Same White Racist Song

Singer Randy Newman released a new album yesterday, called “Harps and Angels.” I am not what you call an avid Randy Newman fan and this is not a plug urging you to go out and buy the album (image from Mike Bouchard). My musical tastes somewhat vary from the man perhaps most well known for his satirical song “Short People” (1977), and more recently known for his film scores on Disney films such as A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story. While many people interpreted Newman’s “Short People” song as a send-up of society’s superficial prejudices, the songwriter seems to have lost his way with this new release. Instead of skewering intolerance, he’s piling it on. Take for example a blurb at PopMatters about one of the tracks on the album entitled “Korean Parents.” The reviewer, Ron Hart, writes:

“Korean Parents”, however, might just be the biggest firecracker on this album, and perhaps the hottest potato of a song he’s tossed in our little hands since “Rednecks”. Using a “stereotypically Asian” melody, as he put it in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, he offers up a commentary on the competitive relationship between Asian and American students in the public school system. He suggests the Koreans sell their disciplinarian parents instead of their babies to possibly help get the American kids who “don’t have a clue” back on track before taking a crack at the WWII era by declaring that he’s “so sick of hearing ‘bout ‘The Greatest Generation’”, offering that such a generation could actually be the youth of today.

This review immediately set off some alarm bells for me. The melody used at the beginning of the song is actually a sample of the beginning of the 1970s hit “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974). This melodic little blip that is often accompanied with some racial teasing, taunting, or epithet to harass Asian Americans kids. Yet, Hart does not bother to differentiate between Asian and Asian American students, which reinforces this “forever foreigner” notion about Asian Americans who may even be fourth a fifth generation Americans.

I found the article in the Los Angeles Times that Hart references in his review, and it was seeking out answers for why Asian American students had higher scores than their Latino counterparts. Many of these Asian American students talked about the “model minority” expectations placed on them. However, the LA Times piece does not fully address the complexities and differences between these two racialized groups.

Lastly, as Newman attempts to explain the racial disparities among minority groups, he excludes whites from his commentary. Here are some of the lyrics:

Some Jewish kids still trying
Some white kids trying too
But millions of real American kids don’t have a clue
Right here on the lot
We got the answer
A product guaranteed to satisfy…

Korean parents for sale
You say you need a little discipline
Someone to whip you into shape
They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair

Look at the numbers
That’s all I ask
Who’s at the head of every class?
You really think they’re smarter than you are
They just work their asses off
Their parents make them do it…

Newman insists that Jewish and white kids are putting forth the same academic effort and not-so-subtly insinuates that these other American kids (who are not white, Asian, or Jewish) “don’t have a clue.” He is also insultingly typecasting Korean Americans. Evoking the stereotype of some cold, disciplinary household where the “culture” of academic excellence just occurs “naturally.” Rather than use his music to challenge and subvert these pervasive stereotypes of Asian Americans, Newman’s lyrics parrot the blatant, sweeping generalizations of Asian Americans as “model minorities.” This not only diminishes the subjectivity and diversity within and among Asian Americans, it also pits them against other people of color.
Interestingly, the way this has been framed Asian American kids are only at the head of the class because their parents “make them” and Newman suggests further militant control over these other children of color. However, white and Jewish students are working on their own accord, independently “trying.”

The song is troubling, but all too exemplary of the white racist framing in our society. Asian Americans did not coin the phrase “model minority,” whites did. Academic achievement is a survival strategy in the face of racial oppression.

The Asian students mentioned in the LA times article are in fact Americans too, as are the “Korean Parents” of Newman’s lyrics. Blacks, Latinos, and Native American kids do have a clue. I suggest it’s Randy Newman who needs to get a clue. And to help him, I intend to send him a copy of the book Joe and I wrote Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism.

Halloween Costuming: The White Racist Frame is Still Firmly in the Minds of Educated Whites

As Jessie noted in yesterday in her post, and Will mentioned in his response, educated whites are often portrayed more enlightened and less prejudiced than “poor uneducated” whites. However, the data from recent research indicate that a great many whites definitely have not abandoned their old racist views and actions. Most whites still engage in frequent racist conversations and actions, especially in the“backstage” (to use Goffman’s term), that is settings with friends and relatives. And they do not reserve blatantly racist performances for the backstage either. I learned this in a new way in my first semester teaching undergraduates here at Texas A&M.

I wanted to create a “fun” experiment for Halloween. I assigned the article by Jennifer Mueller, Danielle Dirks, and Leslie Houts-Picca, “Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and Engagement of the Racial Other,” (Qualitative Sociology, 2007, 3 (3):315-335) and asked students to do a field observation of Halloween. Then, I asked students to describe their experience with costumes and what they saw both in the stores and at social functions (i.e. gatherings, parties, trick or treating) and how this experience relates to the article by Mueller, et al.

In the article, the authors address how Halloween is a holiday for people to “let it all hang out” pushing boundaries, but at the same time serves as a platform to give permission to display racist stereotypes and notions as acceptable just for one day. These racist thoughts and opinions are often kept in the “backstage” throughout the year, as research by Leslie Houts-Picca and Joe Feagin demonstrates in Two- Faced Racism (Routledge 2007), but Halloween is a day of freedom to allow for these generalizations to be “just a joke.” However, Mueller, et al. take a critical look at the holiday practice and skillfully argue that the costuming is, in fact, the same white racism seen throughout the rest of the year.

My students were skeptical that they would see very much at their sacred university and honestly, I was too. I thought that out of the 33 students, there might be one incident of blackface and a handful of other costuming that would negatively stereotype people of color.

I was shocked at the results.

A few students hypothesized that given our geographic location in the southwestern United States, we would see a much greater abundance of anti-Mexican costuming. Some guessed that the current political tensions with the Middle East would create more of an anti-Arab abundance. Yet, these regional and geopolitical issues seem to have had much less of an impact than the white racist frame. I calculated total number of costumes seen based on the 33 papers, and this is what I found based on the students’ reports:

  • Native Americans/ Indians: 5
  • “White Trash”: 5
  • Middle Eastern/ Asian Indian/ “Terrorists”: 6
  • Mexicans/Latinos (which included pregnant women, Mexican Mafioso, migrant workers, lawn workers, border crossers): 8
  • Blackface Incidents: 10
  • Essentialist/Generic Portrayals of African Americans (which included, but is not limited to, “ghetto fabulous,” gangsters, pimps, prostitutes, “crack babies,” “crack mothers,” rappers, athletes, large-bottomed women, jungle tribesmen, and welfare mothers): 22

All but one of the racialized costumes described by the students were donned by whites; one Mexican American costumed as Mexican Mafioso. Some of the blackface portrayals involved no other costuming besides using make-up to change the color of the skin. The individual would wear their everyday clothing, but darken the skin and change their behavior. Their portrayal of blackness involved many of the “typical” black stereotypes: acting “like a thug,” being hypersexualized (both men and women), as an athlete, as an entertainer, on welfare, or using their own made up version ebonics. Similarly, the anti-Mexican portrayals only included negative stereotyping of this population in American discourse. The most alarming part of the results was the sheer vastness of the very negative African American portrayals. When adding the blackface (20) and the generic portrayals (60) that is a total of 80 portrayals which is more than double and almost triple that of all the other race portrayals (31).

My students asked some great questions, such as:

“Could this be whites attempting to pay homage and pay respect to blacks? Maybe whites just want to know what it feels like to be black?”

However, this notion of “homage” was quickly challenged as it was identified that the black portrayals were all done in a manner to ridicule blackness. The costuming and performance for blacks were all done in a manner that equated blackness with immorality, danger, lack of intelligence, and promiscuity. From my perspective, these portrayals are far from giving homage and paying respect, but rather denigrate individual people of color and contribute to a racist culture.

As my students engaged in class discussion, they began to connect their experiences back to the article and previous information from the course. Key to these portrayals is in the manner in which it is being done. The portrayal of people of color in these costumes was performed through age-old elite white racist stereotyping from the white racial frame. Even the stereotyping of “white trash” comes from the elite white stance. These costumes were at parties, restaurants, bars, clubs, neighborhoods, and even Christian church functions. My students discussed their initial skepticism and how it had transformed into disappointment and disbelief that such extreme racist sentiment and performances were so present, pervasive, and prevalent. Even as a scholar who studies race, I was shocked and surprised. It was a blatant and ugly reminder that blacks are the center of the white racial frame regardless of the circumstance. Blacks have been at the core of white racial framing since the 1600s and this is still the case today.

~ Rosalind Chou
PhD Candidate, Sociology
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX.