3 weeks ago
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Hiding Racism behind the Banner of Political Correctness
The photo above of the Spanish Olympic men's basketball team, taken for Spanish courier company Seur, shows the entire team stretching their eyes in an attempt to look more Asian. The ad is running only in Spain. The action was the idea of the photographer. Another photo shows Spain's women's team doing the same thing; last week, a photo appeared of four members Argentina's women's football team doing the same.
Of course, the action was done in jest and was not intended to offend. The Spanish team has apologized; the sponsor has not, and does not intend to withdraw the ad. The IOC is satisfied with this.
Not surprisingly, response has been quick: international media have condemned the photos as racist; the defense of the photo claims that critics are only being "Politically Correct".
A quick history: when I was a child, and someone made a remark that offended someone else, it was appropriate to apologize, and hopefully learn from the mistake. We took other people's feelings into account. If something was likely to offend someone else - especially on the basis of race, sex, etc. - you simply avoided making the offending remark. As an example, we used the term "eskimo", but later replaced it with "Inuit" when the people who the term refers to pointed out that "eskimo" is inappropriate. (There are some issues with the use of "Inuit", but the point is that we opened a dialogue and addressed the issue.) Somewhere along the way, however, the concept of Political Correctness was invented. And the problem was that the issue became one of language, policed by self-appointed "experts" - never Linguists - who had no business making decisions about language, let alone imposing them on the general public. Today, everyone who cries "racism" gets slapped with the "PC" label. At best, incidents of racism get muddied; at worst, true racists hide behind PC as an excuse to use slurs with impunity.
What is important here is not what the photographer, team, or sponsor intended, but rather whether anyone is hurt or victimized by the action. Do Asians feel slighted by it? Not all will, of course (which means that the anti-PC crowd will find a non-offended Asian to hold up as a champion of their cause). But if some are, then there is a problem.
I remember when Rosie O'Donnell got in trouble for her "ching chong" remark. I remember first reading about the incident. It took my breath away. I was instantly transported back to childhood, to re-live every racist slur I've ever had directed at me. This basketball photo is no different. It represents the behaviour of 5 year-olds, who don't know any better. But 5 year-olds don't come up with this shit on their own; someone teaches it to them - someone who is ignorant of the damage such actions do, or worse, intends to do the damage. It is the ignorant who pass on racism by teaching it to the next generation. If this ad is allowed to pass without criticism, apology, or - most importantly - the realization that this is a mistake to be learned from, then we risk passing on racism to the next generation.