In another great example of challenging such stereotypes, Dolores sent us a video in which four young men highlight common portrayals of Africans — and specifically, African men — in movies. It’s really great:
I’m still trying to work my way through my discomfort and analyze exactly where my discomfort of this Sociological Images post is coming from, so if this critique seems a bit scattered, it’s because my thoughts about it, at the moment, are that way.
First: I agree with where the post is coming from, in that the disenfranchised rarely ever have a voice of their own in mainstream Western culture, are always portrayed as the Other, which is defined as everything that said mainstream Western culture isn’t (at best as something that props it up and provides an aesthetically pleasing contrast, at worst as something that must be exterminated). And this leads to remarkably similar cycles of dehumanization and disenfranchisement. As so many minority thinkers/activists have noted, manufactured binaries between the privileged West and everyone else, even seemingly positive ones, ultimately end up reinforcing destructive hierarchies.
Where I disagree with the poster is the framing, which I feel makes the post, in some ways, as reductive as what it’s critiquing. Because there are different contexts in which the above cycle/process of exotification occurs, and those contexts matter and shouldn’t be handwaved, even (and I would say especially) if you’re taking the pov of the white outsider and attempting to deconstruct it. Social justice discourse loses its meaning when it becomes divorced from one of power relations.
In this specific example, while making its comparison of India as a magical negro, the post fails to both note and appreciate the following bits of context:
That both the main white actress and the main desi actor in the film are British, with Dev Patel adopting an Indian accent and playing the part of a “native”. That all the featured Indian characters are coded as middle/upper class (the dress, able to speak fluent English, etc) and light skinned. That in many ways this is how India is actively marketed by its tourism sector (and also its government. Did a project once which involved collecting promo material from the Indian consul — I think in Chicago? — and it was quite hilariously illuminating), because they’ve judged that this type of pandering will bring in the tourist dollars.
And this exotification of India in the West has been happening since before the time of Columbus, and reducing said things to a “phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment…” seems rather glib. (Just because it appears in tvtropes does not mean TV created it!) And that’s not even getting into how most isms seem to inevitably become just like the racism that blacks (had) face(d) in the US.
I also thought it was telling how none of the links elaborating on the “magical negro” trope went to one of the many black writers who’ve done the major work of deconstructing and dissecting it, much less linking to desi writers talking about colonialism and othering.
So what my disagreement boils down to, I think, is this: that this is a discussion about the Othering/exotification of India in mainstream Western culture that succeeds in further marginalizing/disenfranchising desis and other minorities. It doesn’t consider that we might be among the audience for this post (much less making room in the conversation for us, much less acknowledging all the times we’ve already discussed this), and in the way it takes something that rose out of certain contexts, misidentifies said contexts while applying it to different ones with no mention of the consequences of the differences, makes it, again, similar to what it’s aiming to critique.
And it brings home the point that, for all its social justice aims, this is a blog for a specific group of white people, by a specific group of white people, with all the marginalizations that entails.
Another note: it is interesting to read the comments, to see all the places East/West binaries crop up. For example, this comment (which thankfully was critiqued):
So, this is probably why you’ll never find a movie about a Westerner in Latvia trying to find himself- “finding oneself” usually requires immersing oneself in a setting completely different from the everyday humdrum norm.
I do find India humdrum normy, actually. And infrastructure specifically designed to ape the west is increasingly common in cities, and you can always find people in the touristy parts who speak English and cater to Western tastes in a thousand and one ways. (Actually, you won’t need to find them, if you are white they will find you and you will not be able to escape them!) Latvia, I am assuming not so much?
I feel as if the manufactured differences that so many Westerners create for India, while completely missing the deeper and more significant ones, are part of the same binary that Fanon was talking about when he said: “The settler is all that is good and of value. The native is the negation of the settler’s value”. And a lot of the appeal of India, the reason for it not being “everyday humdrum normy”, is that it still gives middle class white Westerners who go there chances to personally experience the colonial British sahib lifestyle.
The phrase “Magical Negro” refers to the phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment through the wisdom of a Black character. It is widely considered an offensive trope in which Black people — imbued with special spiritual, religious, or primitive powers of insight, often ostensibly due to some disadvantage like poverty — serve only to support a white person’s transformation. The white person, and their ultimate redemption, remains the central story.
I couldn’t help but think of this when I watched the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, sent in by Katrin. In this trailer, the Magical Negro isn’t a Black person; it’s not even a person. It’s the entire country of India.
We’ve posted before about the use of non-White bodies, or non-Western cultures, as props in fashion photo shoots. These shoots generally show a White model in Westernized clothing juxtaposed with animals, landscapes, architecture, and undifferentiated groups of non-White residents, all of which mark the White model as modern and the locale as exotic and primitive. The residents of the nations where these shoots occur, then, are presented as one more tourist attraction, a backdrop for the White star of the fashion display.
Sonita M. sent in another example of this common fashion trope, posted at Oh No They Didn’t! A recent issue of Vogue Australia, themed “Fashion gone wild,” includes a feature on Isabel Lucas in “Africa,” though it appears the photographs were specifically taken in Botswana. A few images:
Similarly, Pearl S.D. and Liana R. pointed out that the November 2011 Anthropologie catalog uses Peru as a backdrop, with local residents and the landscape serving as background:
In this image, the Peruvians are literally marginalized, partially cut out of the photo of the two models they frame, one of whom holds a Cuzco Clutch, which sells for a mere $228:
Dolores R. sent us a link to a video posted at Racialicious about stereotypes of Native Americans in video games. Beth Aileen Lameman, the director and narrator, discusses a number of frequent tropes used when depicting Native Americans in games, such as the half-breed hero, the wise old Indian sage, and, of course, the hottie Indian princess, as well as the tendency to conflate many different tribes and cultures. It’s a great summary of common representations of Native Americans in pop culture more broadly:
Sadie M. sent in an example of the reproduction of the idea that “Africa” is an arid, desolate place where nature still dominates civilization. The snapshot Sadie sent in was of Nairobi. Nairobi is the 12th largest city on the continent of Africa with a population of over 3 million in the city and its surrounding suburbs. It is the capital of Kenya and an economic, political, and financial hub in the region.
Nairobi is also not a desert plain. The name, in Maasai, translates into “the place of cool waters” and it is popularly known as “Green City in the Sun” (wikipedia).
Despite all of this, Sadie’s snapshot shows that an in flight magazine depicted Nairobi as a savanna full of elephants and bereft of people. The other two destinations featured — New York and Sydney — are pictured as they are.
So there we have it: Another piece of advertising erasing the bustling, successful economies of Africa, and instead reproducing the idea that the entire continent is an uncivilized desert full of exotic animals.
UPDATE: Reader NS points out that it is important to recognize that the clothing shown here wasn’t made up by the photographers or stylists, but is a realistic representation of items worn by Danza Azteca participants. You can see images of dancers here and here.
Last week we featured a guest post by Stephen Bridenstine about the invisibility of Native American reservations on Google Maps, and how this affects our awareness of geographic and social realities. The flip side of ignoring some information about our country is what we do choose to draw attention to. Over a year ago, Charlotte C. sent in a photo of a sign she noticed in downtown Fall City, Washington, about 25 miles east of Seattle. The sign includes several milestones for the area. The first significant event worthy of note is the first time a White person laid eyes on nearby Snoqualmie Falls:
This reminded me of a photo I took of a monument near the Black Hills in South Dakota. The monument is for Anna (or Annie) Tallent, a woman who was a teacher and superintendent of schools for Pennington County. While the monument mentions she was a “teacher and author,” her major claim to fame appears to be that she was the “first White woman to enter the Black Hills”:
In Memory of Anna Donna Tallent
Teacher and Author
Born in New York State, April 12, 1827. Died in Sturgis, S. Dakota, February 13, 1901.
The first White woman to enter the Black Hills, arriving in Custer City in December 1874.
This monument is erected by the Society of Black Hills Pioneers and many admirers.
“The world is better because she lived and served in it.”
The monument to her achievements fails to note that in 1874, when she entered the Black Hills, the region was part of the Great Sioux Reservation and were not legally available to Whites for settlement. The U.S. Cavalry removed her entire party for setting up an illegal gold mining encampment on land that was clearly owned by the Sioux, according to an 1868 treaty with the U.S. government…a treaty the government quit honoring soon after Whites found out there was gold in the Black Hills, which the the federal government confiscated in 1877. Tallent discussed the illegal land invasions (including her expedition’s efforts to avoid detection by government officials) in her 1899 book The Black Hills, Or, The Last Hunting Ground of the Dakotahs, in which she laments the “mournful” state of the Sioux nation but rhetorically asks whether it’s appropriate to honor treaties that “arrest the advance of civilization” (p. 3) and, generally, presents a racist, condescending depiction of Native Americans as pathetic, sad “savages” whose displacement in the name of progress and civilization was inevitable.
So what story about our nation do these two monuments tell? The only information contained on the two-sided Fall City monument refers to the activities of Whites; the Native residents were important only when they lost land. For all intents and purposes, the history of the area started only once a White man had set eyes on it. Similarly, Tallent’s arrival in the Black Hills is memorable largely because she was a White woman, whose presence is by definition worthy of note and celebration — imagine, a vulnerable White woman braving the wildness of the Dakota territory! The fact that she was an illegal prospector camping on land she didn’t own while in the pursuit of quick wealth is neither worth mentioning nor a cause to question whether she’s a laudable figure deserving of a monument. Thus, the effect of both of these monuments is to normalize colonization and illegal settlement, and present the arrival of Whites as the beginning of meaningful history.
About Sociological Images
Sociological Images encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry. Read more…