“It’s not racist because…”: How context doesn’t save racist media
Never underestimate the lengths to which we will go to make racism palatable. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel intentionally harmful, rather like we are subconsciously perpetuating the status quo while thinking that we have our hearts in the right place.
Consider a recent example of this pattern: the 2017 Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. We still have a long way to go with representation, but we are at least slowly heading toward a popular enough rejection of whitewashed casting that maybe a few casting directors will take note. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, though, it seems they heard the words but didn’t quite catch the meaning. Rather than see it as an issue of needing to cast a Japanese-American in the American adaptation of a Japanese media property, they saw it instead as an issue of needing a white actress to make sense within the narrative. Whitewashing Ghost’s protagonist, Major, by casting Scarlet Johansson was bad, but the way that the writers accommodated Johansson’s presence in the script is an even more insidious problem.
Ghost in the Shell is a narrative that deals with consciousness and body. The extent to which we need to understand that here is that Major has a synthetic body and a human mind. The film makes a white Major make sense by having it turn out that while she was a Japanese woman originally, she was placed into a white body. A clever idea, maybe, but one that misses the point of representation in lieu of a narrative trick. There’s no substance to this twist beyond justification for Johansson’s casting. We seem to want white bodies on screen so badly that we will alter the source material so that it makes sense. The focus then becomes about that rather than, you know, trifling little themes like the nature of existence and the ethics of robotic technology.
Or consider the original box art for the videogame Far Cry 4. It features a blonde-haired, light-skinned man dominating a dark-haired, dark-skinned man, treating him sort of as an arm rest. Understandably, many criticized this image at first glance as straight-up racist. An image steeped in Western imperialism, it shows the powerful, garishly dressed, presumably white man overshadowing and emasculating the scrawny little dark-skinned guy.
But wait, cry the Devil’s Advocates™! The dominating man is Pagan Min, native and dictator of Kyrat, a small country in the Himalayas, loosely based off of Nepal. Presumably the dark-skinned man stands in for the oppressed people of Kyrat. Pagan and the man are thus both South Asian. Supposedly this should eliminate any criticism of the box art as racist, seeing as how Pagan isn’t white. And besides, he’s the villain, right? But this context merely justifies and obfuscates the first impression. No amount of context will make that first impression go away.
They did end up changing the box art for Far Cry 4. But we can’t erase the fact that the creators originally found no problem with it, never considering the implications when taken at face value. Perhaps it wasn’t as conscious as Ghost in the Shell, where white supremacy was a sure factor in its casting (no, of course not the explicitly violent white supremacy of the KKK, but the more subtle white supremacy that has allowed white people to dominate in Hollywood for the past century), but perhaps this was a subconscious desire to see light-skinned people sublimate dark-skinned people. That’s certainly, again, the first impression.
Now let’s go back quite a ways and look at my favorite example of this phenomenon: the 1976 comedy-adventure film Silver Streak. In this movie, George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is on the run from the law with his friend Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor). They need to get on a train, but in order to do so they have to get through security. Trouble is, the security guards already have Caldwell’s picture and are on the look out for anyone fitting his description. How, then, are they to get around security?
Well. Turn George Caldwell black, of course.
The writers seemed to understand that blackface is not a socially acceptably form of comedy anymore. But instead of, I don’t know, not using blackface, they instead throw every justification they can at the viewer in order to make it just palatable enough. For one, it’s our black best friend Muldoon’s idea. Caldwell is in fact opposed to the plan at first. Soon however, due to Muldoon’s insistence, Caldwell is in the train station restroom rubbing shoe polish on his face and practicing “jive” in the mirror.
The comedy is supposed to derive here from a white guy acting “black”. In case there was any further concern over whether or not it’s racially insensitive, they have the black shoe shiner from whom they took the polish enter the room. Caldwell stands embarrassed, but the shoe shiner simply laughs and comments that Caldwell must be in a lot of trouble. This addition is actually kind of brilliant, if completely misguided: It establishes further that the white guy is the least comfortable person in this situation, that the black men are simply tickled by the idea of blackface rather than offended. It’s politically incorrect, sure, but there are so many reasons for why they got to this point that the argument is we’d better just role with it.
There are more examples, I’m sure, but these are just a few, I think, that show how much we want to accommodate racism. They aren’t as overt as others out there, but this kind of relatively subtle racism is exactly the kind we need to be better about watching out for. If there is doubt about its sensitivity to an entire racial minority, if we need endless amounts of context to make it palatable, if there needs to be an entire narrative arc’s worth of justification, then perhaps consider that your casting decision, your box art, or your comedy might not be as progressive, or even as good, as you think it is.