Listen, My Children...

Every Little Helps

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Interracialness, part II

Never explained what set that all off. Part of it was from watching Bend it Like Beckham -- an excellent movie, by the way. Perfect ending. Reminded me also how different the racial situation is in England -- whereas here, South Asian immigrants are doctors and engineers and CNN medical advisors, along with running the quickiemart with Apu, in England they pretty much just run the quickiemart. "Model minority" by no means; and "Paki" is pretty much the worst possible insult (here, depending on your circle, "Paki" can be quite benign). Irish too have not made it like they have in Boston, so the male lead, while white, could quite justifiably consider himself part of an often-hated minority group. While I loved the movie, it did remind me of the racial issues I usually try to forget.

Another bit was a spot on TV last night with a woman insisting that it's cruel to have mixed-race children and to adopt children (especially those of another race), because they have to do soul-searching and find out who they are and what their place in society and life is. I see newspaper and magazine articles and TV spots about that quite a bit. If I stay with Bob, and we have kids, I am a terrible person for condemning them to the hell of developing a self-image... wait, everyone has to do that. Oh, well.

Yet another impetus was a brief conversation with a fellow Sanskrit & Indian Studies major about movies involving actors of several different races. I indirectly mentioned a best-to-be-forgotten Tamil movie involving a white guy (largely dubbed) and a south Indian girl; I didn't make it clear that it was an Indian-made movie at first, and my friend spat at its "exotification" of Indian females. (Nevermind that Tamil girls aren't the drop-dead-gorgeous type nearly as often as, say, Keralan, or north Indian ones, as my Tamilian guy friends often sadly point out.) I pointed out that it was not exactly made for a western audience, as it was in Tamil and followed a masala plot and was released almost exclusively in TamilNadu, and, maybe, the intended appeal of it was the exotic factor not of Jyothika but rather of the white actor. White tourists are often put in Indian films as extras for just that reason -- they're strange and novel -- and nobody seems to mind, especially not the plug-ugly tourists who would never have a change in western cinema. Nope, it's not the exotic white person, she replied; it's still white exotification of the east, somehow. (Perhaps I should have pointed out the Indian people asking to have their photos taken with me... nah, I was clearly at fault there. Especially as I occasionally gave them my camera too.)

She went on into a bit about a symposium she led last year on presentation of Asian women in American films. Lucy Liu, apparently, plays exactly the same role in everything (I haven't seen much with her -- just two episodes of Ally McBeal and the last Charlie's Angels). It's degrading and racist and an insult to all Asians that she plays an oversexed, very sexually liberated woman, apparently; my timid insertion that, at least of the two shows I've seen, the other women in them are rather oversexed as well, got a scoff of "well, that's different." How? I don't know. Treat people of different races exactly the same, that's racist, apparently. The friend then went on to complain about Indian movies that get released over here (Earth, Lagaan, etc.) and films made by Indians for largely diaspora viewing (Kama Sutra, Monsoon Wedding, ABCD, etc.). Apparently, the non-Indians who watch and like them watch and like them purely because of fetishes concerning South Asian women -- there's no way around it. I'll admit to watching Hindi movies with gorgeous actresses and noticing that they're gorgeous (and with non-gorgeous actresses and noticing that as well); I also love the colors and the escapism; and I've got a few favorite actors too; I watch them for just the same reasons I watch American and British movies and for just the same reasons Indians watch Hindi movies, but apparently that's wrong. Also, she continued, no Indians can act in non-Indian movies without being exotified and playing desis; she pointed out as examples "Gandhi" and "Mississippi Masala." (Movies about race-relations can't have actors of the same race they're portraying without being racist, apparently.) (That's also like the woman I met last summer opposed to the stereotyping involved in CNN having an Indian medical correspondent.) A counter-example by me of the regrettably multiracial Peter Brooks' "Mahabharata" (one character in fifty is actually Indian, I think) got us off topic and onto the topic of how terrible we both thought that movie was, so the conversation was over. I had a few more points I could have brought up, given time, though: Ben Kingsley, for example, is in all sorts of movies, playing both Indians and non-Indians, but I suppose he's half-white so that's ok (although his very existence is bad). Increasing numbers of movies are using non-white actors the way they appear at least in my life -- not as a stereotyped ethnic figure, but rather as just another person in the film, with race not emphasized. That's probably bad for some reason too, though. It goes on and on.

Some people, as they mature, get over all this; in a booklet on "Harvard experiences" I got as a prefrosh was an article exemplifying that maturation: a girl wrote that she, as an Asian-American, was sickened and offended by a Monet painting of his wife in a kimono and blonde wig; over her time at Harvard, she grew up and realized it was ok -- for one thing, Mme. Monet wasn't hurting anyone, and she could wear whatever she wanted; for another, Japan-fever could inspire people to learn about Japan and it's culture, which is a good thing. The piece said it much better, but that was the gist of it.

I just hope more people grow out of their insecurity in their self-image. My thesis advisor does not give me much hope, however -- apparently, nearly every year, at the American Academy of Religion conferences, there's a panel of people all eager to discuss how terrible it is for people who aren't part of a culture or religion to study that culture or religion (unless, of course, it's a non-Christian or non-westerner studying Christianity or the West, in which case they add perspective). She says she often gets in shouting matches with people, where she points out that she's better at Sanskrit and Tamil than they are, her pale skin be dashed, and they'd better be far better than her before they can tell her she doesn't belong.

That's partly what my thesis was about, actually; second generation Indian Christians, at least within the church in Houston, see themselves as American, not Indian (they're not made overly welcome as Christians in Hindu and Muslim- dominated cultural groups, anyhow), and want their church to become multiracial. Their parents are not so sure, wanting to be, in the words of one interviewee, "their own country club." The children see that their parents are racist, and know the reasons for it, but think the reasons for it are nearly gone, and acting like they're entirely gone will help the reasons to disappear. I hope they may be, as they think they are, the way of the future of race relations in America.


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