Okay, this is just getting ridiculous now. Those of you that know me best from my work decrying racist attitudes and unraveling the code of “politely” racist statements know that I have a fairly well-developed radar for bigotry. I am not one to shrink from making the call, even in those circumstances where the room is against me and I am forced to explain myself in excruciating detail. Racism is a serious problem, and I think we should be devoting more time and attention to it, not less.
If you’ve been involved in discussions of race-based (or really, any other kind of) bigotry, it’s a good chance that you’ve been accused at some point of being “the real racist”. The argument goes something like this: if everyone just acted like race wasn’t important, it would all of a sudden cease to be a factor. I will not bother detailing the number of reasons why this position is stupid - it’s the Wile E. Coyote school of debate:
However, the ubiquity and regularity of this completely facetious line of “reasoning” has left folks like me, who deal in racism on a regular basis, with a particular sensitivity about bogus “racism” calls. There’s nothing that undermines your completely legitimate argument faster than someone saying “yeah but soandso said the same thing, and ze was full of crap!” Then you have to waste time and precious consonants explaining the many ways in which your situation is not the same as theirs.
Which is why stories like this make me mad:
A lawsuit has been filed in California suing US comedian Jay Leno for what it calls “racist” comments on the Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Indian-American Randeep Dhillon says Leno “hurt the sentiments of all Sikh people in addition to the plaintiff”.
Sikhs have, of late, been facing ridiculous and utterly misplaced discrimination as anti-Arab sentiment has become mainstream. This is not to say that Sikhs were living on Cloud 9 before 2001, but the climate of hatred and suspicious of anyone who looks like they might be from one of those loser sand countries has made their marginalization even more extreme. It would, in fact, be incredibly racist to make a joke that plays into that ignorance. Despite the temptation to go for the easy laugh, it’s never a good idea to pander to the likes of those who cannot tell the difference between an Indian and an Arab (which isn’t to say that anti-Arab jokes are any less racist, I’m just saying be fucking accurate, Jay!).
Except that’s not at all what happened:
A recent Leno skit showed the shrine as the summer home of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
Seriously. That’s it. He showed a picture of the Golden Temple, and made a joke about Mitt Romney being really super rich. Apparently, to Sikhs everywhere (at least, if you believe the claim), that is unbelievably racist! Mr. Depp, what do you think?
Yeah, pretty much my reaction too.
Now there have been a few others who have pointed out, correctly, that making jokes of this nature is protected by the First Amendment. Others have also made the case that “not being offended” is not a right. There are those who view any criticism or any unflattering reference to religion as inherently offensive and deserving of condemnation. Sometimes with sticks. A free society simply cannot knuckle under every time someone claims that they are offended by something – even legitimate criticism would be sacrificed on the altar of this kind of faux “tolerance”. That being said, I don’t think that either of these is the kind of “knockout” argument that sways me. Just because someone has the right to be racist doesn’t mean that they should, and when racist attitudes have negative impacts on already-marginalized groups, there must be some kind of response. Similarly, there is often no need to offend people when making jokes, particularly if the the joke props up existing prejudices and bigotry. Racism is destructive and deserves our strongest criticism.
Here’s the thing: this joke isn’t racist*!
The target of the joke is Mitt Romney. The thing that drives the punchline is the fact that Mitt Romney is a really rich guy. We can caricature the bucketloads of money that Mitt Romney has by portraying him as a guy who lives in a climate of extreme opulence. Maybe by showing him wearing a diamond-studded codpiece or playing polo on the back of an endangered species… or maybe living in a golden house:
The Sikh faith is not part of the joke, nor are Sikh people being tarred with the same brush as Mr. Romney. This is a golden palace. The fact that it is a house of worship is completely coincidental. He could have just as easily used St. Peter’s basilica to make the joke (except then it would be racist against Catholics, I guess). There is no marginalization of Sikh people – I’ll be willing to wager that 90+% of Jay’s audience doesn’t know the Golden Palace from the Taj Mahal. There is no derrogation of Sikh beliefs or invocations of any stereotype, positive or negative, about the Sikh religion. The joke is completely unrelated to Sikhs. Claiming that this is “racist” or “offensive” is completely off base. Racism is inherently tied to events that exploit or otherwise exacerbate existing power imbalances between groups – this one is about a gold-plated house.
There is an abundance of racist content pumped out of the airwaves every day. We should be vigilant in examining it, not only in our media, but in our own personal lives. It is only by unearthing the subconscious prejudices that lie beneath the veneer of our professions of tolerance that we can move towards a world in which racism, both overt and otherwise, is rendered neuter. However, leaping wildly into the fray of “that’s racist” every time someone makes a comment that is not only unrelated to your group but carries with it absolutely no force or effect only serves to introduce turbulence into the already-challenging task of navigating the waters of racism.
*To forestall the fight that crops up in discussions like these, yes I am aware that Sikh people aren’t “a race”, but in this particular case their religion, culture and origin overlap in such a way as to make them “a race” for all practical purposes.