My brother disappointed me by posting a photo that, to me, is racist
May 29, 2014 12:25 PM   Subscribe

I want to tell him about it without sounding like I'm on my high horse

Basically, I feel I should reprimand my brother for something but I want to do it without coming across as morally superiour. this has been our dynamic in the past and it never works, not to mention the fact that I'm probably not morally superiour to him (even if it feels that way cuz I'm his big sister!)

My brother (23) is on a long backpacking trip in the US with his girlfriend, posting photos on facebook intermittently. The other day he posted a photo of himself in Chinatown in a big US city. In the photo, he's wearing what looks like some sort of traditional Chinese hat with his hands in prayer position, and the caption is "Nei-ho". This seems pretty sleazy/ racist to me.

The photo has over 50 "likes", and 12 comments. I commented "What, pretending to be Chinese?" And he replied "haterrr". There are two other people (both women) who commented that the photo is "awkward". But he leaves the photo up.

I'm disappointed because normally my brother is very socially aware, sensitive and empathetic and before he left he promised me he'd try his best to be culturally sensitive throughout the trip.

I did send him a facebook message saying if I were him I'd take it down. Because a few weeks ago he posted about how sleazy is was for Macklemore to wear traditional Jewish clothing and dress up like Jewish person. That's why I'm so disappointed now, because I thought he knew better.

At the same time, I do find sometimes I overstep my role as big sister and wade into mother territory with my "suggestions" / judgments of him. I know I can't make him take it down, but it really bothers me that he would post that, and also I'm worried about what other people will think of him. But, I know I'm not perfect either (and so does he... . all too well) so how do I approach this without seeming judgmental

-Should I ask someone else to talk to him about it?

- Should I just try to forget about it?

-Is there any justification / reason why what he posted isn't racist/ extremely sleazy?
posted by winterportage to Human Relations (21 answers total)
Oh, funny how I forgot to mention -- We're both white.
posted by winterportage at 12:26 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another recent post that's very similar to your situation.
posted by monologish at 12:34 PM on May 29, 2014

I think you already did reprimand him, twice, even though you're not his mom. I think if he's a normally pretty with-it 23-year-old, a simple "Not cool bro" would have sufficed.
posted by bleep at 12:34 PM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know, this is pretty borderline to me. I mean, if he was doing the slant-eye thing in the photo, or if the caption was something racist and not Mandarin* for "hi!", it would definitely be super racist.

To me, it's only racist if it's by nature racist to take tourist photos in Chinatown. Which is a popular tourist destination in a lot of cities that have them. It gets a little bit close to "It's a culture, not a costume", but I don't know, is wearing a hat putting on a Chinese Person costume?

This isn't a hill I'd want to die on, as someone who has some actually problematically racist family members. At most, I'd just tease him about it. Which it sounds like is what you did. And he responded as is appropriate. So there you are.

*Well, badly spelled Mandarin, but I can't come up with a way that it's malicious, so whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 12:35 PM on May 29, 2014 [22 favorites]

I don't know, my brow-furrowing bar is set pretty high in the casual racism department, but this doesn't seem too horribly problematic to me.

He's not in yellowface, he's not squinting his eyes, he's not captioned the photo with something like "ching chong." He's wearing a souvenir hat, making prayer hands which could easily be in greeting, and he's using an actual Chinese phrase to say what's up. It just feels more like "here I am appreciating the cultural surroundings" rather than "lol china" to me. Of course, I say this having not seen the photo.

You voiced your concerns, and that's great. This isn't a completely tone-deaf and callous situation like the one desjardins links to, it just seems like your brother is young and kind of silly, and as long as he's got you as a sibling to point stuff out like this to him, he'll be fine. He'll probably come back to that photo in a few years and kind of inwardly groan, but it's not at the level of career-damaging or entire-continent-alienating.
posted by phunniemee at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2014 [41 favorites]

I don't know, this is pretty borderline to me. I mean, if he was doing the slant-eye thing in the photo, or if the caption was something racist and not Mandarin* for "hi!", it would definitely be super racist.

I agree; what's so offensive about Nei-ho? You've said your piece, now just let it go.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:39 PM on May 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think I agree with Sara C., at least without seeing the picture - this feels more like wearing wooden shoes in Amsterdam to me. For what it's worth, what Macklemore did wasn't "wear traditional Jewish clothing" - he wore a big hooked nose and scraggly hair and beard, playing up the anti-semitic stereortype of what a traditional Jew looks like. That's nothing like what you describe your brother doing.
posted by Mchelly at 12:40 PM on May 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm with Sara C. (and others, on preview) - was he doing the eye thing or otherwise engaging in "yellowface," or was it just the hat and the wai? Because the caption is an actual Chinese greeting, or at least an attempt at one; it's not made up Asian-language-mockery or anything like that.

I'm not saying the photo is unproblematic; I myself would not pose for a picture like the one you describe. But he could be meaning something more like "hey, look at me participate in the 'local' culture!" rather than any sort of deliberate ethnic stereotyping.

Given your existing dynamic, I don't think it will benefit anyone for you to take a hard line on this. It might be effective if you could express your concern to him that such photos might be "taken the wrong way" and he should be sensitive to others' feelings and experiences. This gives him the benefit of the doubt on any sort of "but I'm not racist!" argument but still gets to the important point that his actions could strike others as clumsy and insensitive, regardless of his intent.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:44 PM on May 29, 2014

I did send him a facebook message saying if I were him I'd take it down.

But you're not him, obviously. You've already spoken to him twice about it and he isn't listening. Let it go. Eventually he may learn, but constantly reminding him about it probably isn't going to do anything at this point. He's already placed you in "Ignore and ridicule" column, so let it go. Either he'll learn on he won't. Whatever. You have your own life, concentrate on that.

If you really feel as though you need to say something, just point out that his actions may not appear as innocent as he thinks to other people, so he should be careful, just from a practical point of view.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:45 PM on May 29, 2014

I'm with phunniemee, in that it's borderline, if it's at all racist. You've already told him it makes you uncomfortable, after that, drop it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:46 PM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not racism, not your concern, mind your business.
posted by bensherman at 12:48 PM on May 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Would you feel uncomfortable if he were saying "Bonjour" in a beret in Paris? Or "Howdy" in a cowboy hat in Dallas? Or "G'day" in a bush hat in Sydney? Seems like harmless tourist fun to me.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:54 PM on May 29, 2014 [18 favorites]

badly spelled Mandarin

Correctly spelled Cantonese, actually! Which may be beside the point, but speaking as an Asian person who sees a lot of racist shit this actually seems uncommonly aware. The photo sounds eh, but whatever.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:58 PM on May 29, 2014 [20 favorites]

Thanks guys. I realize now that I'm being anxious and paranoid. This whole Elliot Rodger / #YesAllWomen thing is really going to my head / making me overly suspicious of guys. I find it hard to tell the difference between what's racist and isn't when it comes to this kind of thing but have become overly sensitive/ paranoid about the issue. Partly this is because I know some of his friends come from a very sheltered and privileged background and I'm worried that they wouldn't know racism if they saw it.

I'll try to curb the "holier then thou" instinct in the future. In any case it looks like my brother hasn't done anything wrong and I can go back to feeling proud of him :)
posted by winterportage at 12:58 PM on May 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Chinese TV is full of white people in Chinese clothing speaking Chinese- it's one of the favorite things people like to view over there.
posted by bearette at 1:16 PM on May 29, 2014

Chinese TV is full of white people in Chinese clothing speaking Chinese- it's one of the favorite things people like to view over there.

Yeah. When I (a white American) was in Shenzhen, China, visiting the China Folk Culture Village, our tourist group was so strongly encouraged to take some pictures wearing traditional clothing that I would have felt a bit awkward refusing. That's probably just good sales tactics, but I see it as basically equivalent to wearing Old West costumes if you are visiting Tombstone, AZ. It's a bit of harmless fun for the tourists, and cheap profits for the people running the booth.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:41 PM on May 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

You already made your point to him. Doing more won't get him to take down the picture, and it won't make him more sensitive about racism. From my own experience, I can relate to your wanting to influence your younger brother. I now try to step in only when my siblings' mistake/thoughtlessness involves or affects me. It hasn't been an easy habit to make and keep.
posted by wryly at 1:42 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess it doesn't sound terrible in the grand scheme of terrible stuff on Facebook, but it would piss me off, too. I would mark it as spam (click the triangle to the right of the post, select "I don't want to see this" and choose a reason). It always makes me feel a little better to tattle to Facebook, and you don't have to look at it anymore.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 2:12 PM on May 29, 2014

Yeah, I don't agree with your racism concerns necessarily. But more to the point, you already commented on it. So, regardless, I think the answer in that scenario would be for you. To leave it alone after your comments.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:55 AM on May 30, 2014

Partly this is because I know some of his friends come from a very sheltered and privileged background and I'm worried that they wouldn't know racism if they saw it.

I think I know where you're coming from, and audience is a huge portion of this.

I recently had a conversation with someone close to me about a mutual friend's facebook thread where disparaging remarks against feminism were made. We knew the guy being a jerk on FB was "not with it" so to speak. They weren't truly empathetic to women, didn't truly understand that women are wholly individual people, and seemed to be unable to be brought to any greater understanding of the situation. So f that guy—not worth the effort right?

But theres a more borderline case, the guy who doesn't have strongly negative opinions about feminism or women in general, but says stupid shit anyways, and probably says the stupid shit to get a laugh out of more malicious intending friends. This is the kind of person it's probably worth having a conversation with.

So I can understand the impulse to want to have that kind of a dialogue with your brother, since he falls into the latter category. In both of these circumstances it will be pretty fruitless if you made ultimatums (take down this photo), or force him to defend himself ("you're racist" "no I'm not!").

You can just hope that he'll eventually come to that kind of an understanding on his own.
posted by fontophilic at 10:01 AM on May 30, 2014

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