"Spanish Lice"?
August 20, 2008 9:46 PM   Subscribe

What exactly is wrong with this Spanish advertisement in which the Spanish basketball teams are slanting their eyes so as to appear stereotypically Asian?

My friend, who is Spanish and just spent five weeks in Spain, and I were discussing this picture earlier this evening. We had just seen Tropic Thunder, where Robert Downey Jr.'s blackface performance and the derogatory nature with which mentally disabled people are depicted has drawn some criticism.

I asked my friend, N, what he thought about the teams' photograph. I was joking of course, but he seemed to take it seriously. He told me that there was hardly a reaction in Spain and that it's the rest of the world that is up in arms about the situation. He failed to see what exactly was wrong with the picture.

My other (American) friends in the car thought, like me, that the picture was racist. N said it would be the same thing if Spanish teams put on flat caps and held cups of tea at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Everyone else argued that it would only be on the same level as "slant eyes" if they put in nasty fake teeth. Then more examples came up:

What if the Spanish football team put on dark makeup at the World Cup in 2012?
What if a future set of Olympic Games were held in Munich, and they put on small dark mustaches?
What if the women's basketball team put on full burkas if the Games were held in Baku?

N realized that we thought the picture of the basketball teams was offensive, and asked why it was OK for Downey Jr. to get away with Tropic Thunder, and we responded that Downey Jr. is not representing his country in a worldwide sporting event.

The argument ended in a stalemate, with N calling bullshit on me when I told him that, regardless of the intended meaning of the picture (which he claims is innocuous), it's the perceived sentiment that matters.

When I got inside and sat down, I couldn't really think of a good reason as to why that picture is inappropriate. It's insensitive, sure, but what are the actual complaints being lodged against Spanish athletics? Does it have something to do with Aragonés and Spain's recent bouts of perceived racism in sport? Where is the line drawn between humorous cultural ribbing and outright racism? Would it be OK if, at the fictional Munich games mentioned above, they had mugs of beer and were eating sausages?

Sorry for such a long-winded explanation to a hard-to-answer question, but I happened to start seeing N's side of the story and I wanted to hear what the hive mind thinks.
posted by Third to Society & Culture (53 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
What if the Spanish football team put on dark makeup at the World Cup in 2012?
What if a future set of Olympic Games were held in Munich, and they put on small dark mustaches?
What if the women's basketball team put on full burkas if the Games were held in Baku?


i think all of those teams would be called out for racism and insensitivity.

robert downey jr has received flack for his black face and the movie has faced protests for the portrayal of the mentally challenged.

i think the prevailing wisdom is - if you stereotype and entire ethnicity by one physical trait, you're demeaning the entire culture for being different than you. i think this thought goes too far sometimes, but it seems pretty spot on for the spanish photo.

i haven't seen the movie yet, but it appears that downey's performance isn't one dimensional, the point isn't to make fun of black people. the photograph seems to only have the point of making fun of the chinese.
posted by nadawi at 9:57 PM on August 20, 2008


The Tropic Thunder PR line is that Downey Jr.'s playing a guy who is just that narcissistically obsessed with his own stardom-- the character doesn't see why blackface is unacceptable, as long as he gets the part.

I'm not really sure what the Spanish team is up to there, but it certainly doesn't seem like some attempt at ironic cultural critique.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:00 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


He told me that there was hardly a reaction in Spain

Well, that's hardly the test, innit.
posted by dhartung at 10:00 PM on August 20, 2008


I thought the term blackface referred to the black shoe-polish-like makeup used in minstrel shows back in the day, like Ted Danson put on. Robert Downey Jr isnt wearing blackface in Tropic Thunder, he's got makeup on to make him look like a black guy. I think theres a HUGE difference. The former being a derogatory, antiquated, racist caricature of a black person and the latter being a special effect to make a white guy look like an actual black person (which could either be totally racist or totally innocent like one guy dressing up as another guy. Depending on the intent). No?
posted by ElmerFishpaw at 10:28 PM on August 20, 2008


The Spanish basketballers' eye-pulling is racist because it refers to the very well-known racial stereotype of Asians having "slanted" eyes. If you want to know why it's racist, ask an Asian.
The test you're looking for is whether a "joke" refers to race as the primary determinant of social—or sporting—characteristics. The other test is whether you'd do it "over there", recalling the old joke: what's black, blue and floats down the Liffey? (People who tell Irish jokes in Ireland).
Ethnic and racial humour can be extremely funny, free at the same time from racism, and lots of very good comedians make good livings out of it all over the world. The question of the humour of Tropic Thunder, which I have not yet seen, would depend on whether the jokes are self-aware of the racist history of blackface and minstrelsy. Are they?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:35 PM on August 20, 2008


I can't think of any point of this photograph except to advance a hackneyed stereotype. Like you said, the perceived intention is key, and it's not all obvious what the intention was except to say, "Hey, Chinese people have these kind of eyes!" which falls flat like a fifth-grade joke told at the grown-up's table. Overt racism or not, it's lame. Just someone pooping in the Olympic pool.
posted by dosterm at 10:37 PM on August 20, 2008


The Tropic Thunder PR line is that Downey Jr.'s playing a guy who is just that narcissistically obsessed with his own stardom-- the character doesn't see why blackface is unacceptable, as long as he gets the part.

This isn't really an accurate depiction.

The Downey Jr. character isn't at all a narcissist. He's an exaggeration of a hardcore method actor; he inhabits his role to the point that he won't ever break character until, as he says, the DVD commentary is over. To the point that at one point he has an existential breakdown and says something like "I'm not anyone". All played for laughs, obviously.

ElmerFishpaw is correct: He isn't in blackface. He actually looks like a black guy. And it's a comedy. The fine line between a guy playing a guy of another race and racism is part of the point. The "real" black character comments on this a lot.

It's not that hard: The Producers = funny. Nazis putting on a play in which Hitler is a misunderstood hero = offensive garbage. Similarly, Robert Downey Jr playing an actor playing a black guy in a comedy = funny. A bunch of Spaniards pulling their faces to mimic the slanty-eyes = offensive garbage.
posted by Justinian at 10:41 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


As "things to be worried about", I don't think this is a big deal. (I'm Asian, btw).

From now on however, I'm gonna make slanty eyes, and when someone asks me who I'm imitating, I'm going to say:

"a Spaniard!"
posted by uxo at 10:42 PM on August 20, 2008 [5 favorites]


The distinction between old fashioned minstrelsy and other more realistic forms of blackface (when used non-ironically) is not as relevant as you may think. Pretending to be another race by dressing up to imitate their racial characteristics in any way qualifies as _____face, and can be used in offensive ignorance, or in irony, or in ways that reflect more resolved social/racial power dynamics. It's a minefield of demeaning potentialities, as many of the films that use the technique propose, as in Watermelon Man and Bamboozled.

I don't really think imitating a differnt eye shape is such a sin, but it is just stupid racial japing, and that's not exactly a good impression to make in a photo.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:49 PM on August 20, 2008


It's racist.

Isn't that obvious?
posted by Mephisto at 11:00 PM on August 20, 2008


BTW, I should clarify while it's not something that deeply offends me, it is elementary-school level behavior.

Somewhere out there, some Asian kid living in Spain is going, "thanks a lot, assholes." Cause the national Olympic team just managed to validate mocking Asians this way.

Not cool!
posted by uxo at 11:01 PM on August 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


You want, specifically, why this ad is offensive?

I've been discussing it with people elsewhere, though without calling it "racist", because I personally think that term requires conscious harmful intent, and I doubt even the Spanish team would be so idiotic as to deliberately insult the Olympics host (especially when they are bidding for 2016, or so I hear). However, what the Spanish don't seem to have realized is that the slanty-eyes gesture is something that almost every member of Asian minority populations in non-Asian countries has experienced - it says "hey, you look different from all the rest of us, so we're gonna make fun of that." And of course not all Asians have small slanty eyes, but that's the stereotype and so that's what we get taunted with. It's a juvenile playground bullying act that kids do, and nearly everyone grows up and gets over it, but it's not something anyone looks back on with affection or cares to be reminded of.

The Spanish press have been saying that they don't see what the big deal is, that Chinese people don't seem to be offended. And yes, it probably won't be seen as offensive within China itself - but that's because China is pretty homogenous (despite the 56 or however many ethnic minorities the government likes to conveniently trot out for things like the opening ceremonies). So people living in China are very unlikely to have experienced taunting with the slanty-eyes gesture themselves. But to millions of Asian immigrants around the world, this ad is pretty bloody offensive, juvenile, and ignorant.
posted by casarkos at 11:35 PM on August 20, 2008 [10 favorites]


Americans find it deeply offensive because the United States is a multicultural society historically dominated by European-americans, and so they see the entire world like that.

Power differentials are what make the difference between fairly innocuous (if juvenile) inter-ethnic and inter-national stereotyping and racism. As casarkos noted in her comment, this is obviously not seen as racist within China itself because there is no history of oppression there.
posted by atrazine at 11:56 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't say it's racist, which is a term that gets thrown around way too loosely. Everyone involved said no offense was meant, and I tend to believe them (I'm Asian myself). But when I first heard about it, I laughed because it did seem so unbelievably naive and juvenile. Maybe a bow would've been a better idea...

Even if it's not a malicious gesture in Spain, the fact that some of them seemed kind of defensive about it seems to indicate they do inherently see why it could be found to be in bad taste. If you inadvertently made a rude gesture in another country, and were genuinely unaware, you're not going to say, "Oh, you're just looking for controversy" or "Well, some people didn't find it offensive."

The question was asked as to why Spain nevertheless seemed to get a pass from the world media on this, whereas if the US basketball team did it, they'd get totally lambasted (which I agree with, as did the US team itself). While I can't quite put my finger on it, I feel like any English-speaking nation would be seen as equally guilty. Sort of like why minority Americans can make jokes about white Americans, but not vice versa. And apparently the Spanish media seems to be singling out the US and England for being most vocal about it (I guess England does have their own reasons for this being a sore spot).

This is reminiscent of the Abercrombie & Fitch controversy from a few years ago, with Asian caricature shirts that got Asian-American activist organizations up in arms (which while understandable, came across like a knee-jerk reaction). Or heck, even the tiresome "Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays" argument we get every year. I say it all boils down to some people needing to be just a little more sensitive and open-minded, and other people needing to be a little less sensitive and thin-skinned.

And here's an amusing, pithy anecdote from ESPN.com: New York Times columnist Harvey Araton showed the photo to two Chinese staffers in the newspaper's Beijing office. "Neither viewed it with surprise or disgust, but more with bewilderment," Araton wrote.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:59 AM on August 21, 2008


There is a fair amount of disagreement about what exactly racism is so you might want to clarify between you and your friend that you are using the same definition of the word and also, for the sake of this question, let us know what your definition of racism is.
posted by andoatnp at 1:29 AM on August 21, 2008


I had a discussion with my wife about this. I'm American. She's European (Portuguese). I thought it was a bit horrid. She couldn't understand what the fuss was about. But she talked me into her way of looking at things, much like the OP I suppose.

We (Americans) see this as offensive because its how we stereotyped and ridiculed our own Asian minorities. In the US, Asians are by and large, an underclass. Either recent immigrants or descendants of the Chinese immigrants who came over to work on the railroad. We have an unsavory history of racism and discrimination in the US and we dont like to be reminded of it.

For their part, she assures me that firstly, there aren't really any Chinese immigrants in Spain or Portugal. Or, if there are, they tend to be of an equal social class or even Chinese tycoons. So, even as a friendly caricature this gets a free pass in the same way that black comedians can make fun of white people or female comedians lambast men . The Chinese are viewed as a social over-class.

So, there's one thing. Americans see Chinese as an underclass. Spaniards see them as a wealthy and powerful country.

To her/them the eye thing is on the same level as if they had gone out to get conical straw hats, or wore lederhosen in Germany or...maybe...in the US, put on socks with sandals.

I wont defend it as great parody or anything like that, but I'm convinced its far from racist - except to those countries (US, UK) who can only see this in a racist context. But thats their particular problem. Not the Spaniards. And not the Chinese.
posted by vacapinta at 2:26 AM on August 21, 2008 [8 favorites]


Vacapinta has it. I think the comparisons that are made are interesting. I would think the Spanish team thought that the eyes-thing was totally innocent, just like the cup-of-tea comparison. By making the ugly-teeth comparison, you lay a much more negative interpretation on this than the Spanish team did. Do you really think that Asian eyes are comparable to ugly teeth?

If the Olympics ever come to the Netherlands and the Chinese team would make a picture with all the athletes on stilts (because we are all so long...) I would think it would be funny.
posted by davar at 3:12 AM on August 21, 2008


As European living in the US I can see both sides of this. I think that it's juvenile and unfunny but it's not racist per se. I also find this interesting as I'm half English and half Spanish and I live in the US.

I happened to catch the reaction to this on the ESPN Rome's Burning show, and it was exactly what I expected. The main point was if the US team had done this then the world would be up-in-arms so there's a double standard here (and notable members of the Spanish team play in the States so there's more of a vested interest in the story.) I think that vacapinta has a very good point. For many Europeans, China (and many Asian countries) are seen as rich powerhouses whereas in the States, as in all things, this is seen in American terms. I often feel that in the States there's a feeling that one shouldn't be seen as outwardly racist and prejudiced, yet the fact is that there are huge racist issues in America. I've met plenty of people (thankfully no one that I'm close to) that I'm sure would decry this image and then in the same breath talk about Mexicans coming over to the States and getting pregnant to get welfare and/or the old 'taking our jobs' canard and not seeing any cognitive dissonance with these statements.

That is not to say that there isn't racism in Spain, but that in the US (and I suppose in the UK although it's really hard to look at your own culture) appearances are all important. Anglo-Saxon culture is really rather adept at sweeping things under the carpet.
posted by ob at 3:39 AM on August 21, 2008


On the same lines as Vacapinta, things are only racist if we allow them to be racist. Yea, in the context of living in America this would at the least be considered offensive, I think anyone who had a childhood around asian people would know this. But than to assume that the Spanish basketball team is completely naive is taking it kinda far. Shit, Pau plays in the US, I'm sure a few of the other guys might (I really have no idea) but at the least I'm sure they're pretty well traveled. If they genuinely thought their picture was innocent than this whole thing is moot, but I'm guessing they knew what they were doing and yea than it's kinda offensive, not really crazy racist but offensive still.
posted by BrnP84 at 4:35 AM on August 21, 2008


i hate to generalise but as a european i think americans are hypersensitive and tend enjoy getting offended. i'm not sure enjoy is the right word but from what i see in the american media and this site for instance there certainly seems to be some sort of competition to see who can get the most outraged/offended.

if a US team had done something like this i'm not sure that the world would be up-in-arms but the american media certainly would be so it would definitely feel like it to americans.

different cultures have different norms for what's offensive so it's not at all surprising that behaviour deemed offensive would be different in the US, spain, japan, russia... etc. I would say that expecting the entire world so have the same sensibilities as the US is a bit odd. I doubt the spaniards wanted to intentionally piss off china.
posted by canned polar bear at 4:44 AM on August 21, 2008


I haven't seen TROPIC THUNDER, but from what I understand, the Robert Downey Jr. bit is a CHARACTER. As in, he is playing a CHARACTER who believes he must wear dark makeup 24/7 in order to inhabit his role. It is HIS CHARACTER that is made to look as over-the-top as possible.

In other words -- the black makeup in TROPIC THUNDER is being used to make fun of pretentious actors, not black people. So it's not a racial issue, it is a "wow, some actors are nuts" issue.

In the Spanish ad, the point was plain and simple that "wow, Asian people have slanty eyes like THIS! TEE-HEE!" They weren't actors playing obnoxious sports stars. They WERE obnoxious sports stars.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:54 AM on August 21, 2008


if a US team had done something like this i'm not sure that the world would be up-in-arms but the american media certainly would be so it would definitely feel like it to americans.

Well duh, what's your point Euro Snob?
You know why the world wouldn't be up in arms? Because you guys have no fucking idea what it's like to live in America, but you sure have no problem judging our actions. Did you go to school with black people, white people, asian people, indian people, mexican people, middle eastern people, etc? Well I did and so did most Americans (except for the rich ones). When you are in a melting pot of a country you gotta watch what you do and say or else someone might get offended. No one is saying that the rest of the world needs to be offended by this picture but in the context of living in America that picture is overwhelming offensive. Nearly everyone who has gone to school with asian Americans knows that doing that gesture is an offensive thing, it's an American thing homey. What I'm offended by is your snobby European attitude that thinks because you're from Europe you have some kind of moral upperhand on Americans. If you grew up in America you'd know what I"m talking about.
posted by BrnP84 at 5:39 AM on August 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


BrnP84, the the original poster framed his question as a discussion with a spaniard hence putting it in an international context.

and to answer your question yes, i have gone to school with a whole bunch of different people and lived/visted in quite a few different countries. you're not as special as you think you are. what i see is people being taught that certain terms and gestures are offensive as cultural baggage, not that they're innately offensive.

i don't understand the point of your post.
posted by canned polar bear at 6:08 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Spain has been a very insulated society for a long time. Chinos and and negros are looked on with outright hatred and even south americans are viewed as less than human. It is a racist society and they see nothing wrong with displaying fascist symbols or visibly insulting foreigners of different races. If you have spent time there, then the overt racism should be pretty obvious especially in big cities like Madrid.
posted by JJ86 at 6:09 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the original Guardian article which "broke" the story to the English-language press:

"In the past the Spanish have been left in no doubt as to the sensitivity of racial issues internationally, especially since Spain's football manager, Luis Aragonés, made his infamous remark about Thierry Henry, monkey chants greeted England's football players in a friendly game in Madrid and the formula one driver Lewis Hamilton was subjected to abuse in Barcelona."

It's definitely racist, in the sense that it makes jokes aimed at a particular race.

Why have the Spanish gotten off relatively scot-free about it? The Chinese-Chinese (as it were) just think it's stupidly bizarre behaviour. Chinese people who grew up in the West (like me) associate the slanty-eyed gesture with racist behaviour that usually precedes a kicking in the playground or hurling of verbal racist abuse.
posted by electriccynic at 6:28 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think those who are implying an action has to be a deliberate insult in order to be racist don't actually understand what racism is and how it works. You're a racist if you think a person's race should affect your value judgment of them as a person.

A large proportion of people with racists views don't "intend any harm," but yet do harm anyhow because their reactions and opinions about a person are being determined by preconceptions and stereotypes, rather than the other person's own actions. The mock slanted-eye idiocy of the Spanish athletes is a trivial and childish example of physical stereotyping but this sort of thing usually goes hand-in-hand (in many Americans' experience) with more serious prejudicial and insulting behavior.
posted by aught at 6:38 AM on August 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


And here's an amusing, pithy anecdote from ESPN.com: New York Times columnist Harvey Araton showed the photo to two Chinese staffers in the newspaper's Beijing office. "Neither viewed it with surprise or disgust, but more with bewilderment," Araton wrote.

Exactly. I think that in China, where the population is predominately Chinese, it would be viewed as bewildering, not a taken as personal because the the insult is largely "hypothetical". Also in Spain, the intended audience, where the population of Asians is also relatively low compared to the majority, it may also be an intangible caricature.

However, in more ethically diverse countries (with a lot of Asians) such as Canada, England, or the States, the insult is much more direct, more concrete, and personal.

Somewhere out there, some Asian kid living in Spain is going, "thanks a lot, assholes." Cause the national Olympic team just managed to validate mocking Asians this way.

Yes, that's the point. The racism is much more "real" when members of the majority are making light of the minority. I learned this lesson well when I was a nervous tween in a mostly white middle school, and one kid decided to sing to me "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!" while everyone was watching.
posted by spoons at 6:44 AM on August 21, 2008


I think those who are implying an action has to be a deliberate insult in order to be racist don't actually understand what racism is and how it works. You're a racist if you think a person's race should affect your value judgment of them as a person.

Thats it exactly. Its not a value judgement.

It's definitely racist, in the sense that it makes jokes aimed at a particular race.

If thats the definition then I'm racist. I make tall jokes about my Dutch friends all the time. In their face too. I think thats an apt comparison.
posted by vacapinta at 6:53 AM on August 21, 2008


Because society has different standards for dumb comedies and advertisements.

Youre question is like asking "Cinemax plays porno all the time, but how come I never see penetration in outdoor advertising?"
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:55 AM on August 21, 2008


Okay, I am Portuguese and I share the same view as VacaPinta's wife, except I know there are a lot of Chinese immigrants here, and most of them aren't "high-class immigrants", they are regarded as very hard-working people who keep mostly to themselves. That said, my best friend is Asian (she's Portuguese, but both her parents are Chinese), so I've asked her to "compare notes", since to me the photo didn't seem offensive at all.

She says that in her experience, no one ever makes that gesture in a playful, well-intended way, and that it strikes her as infantile and offensive. Not like she's infuriated by it, though, but yeah, it's not comfortable. She also said she can see why I personally wouldn't see it that way because she knows me (I'm kinda clueless about such things), but that yes, it is racist. She also sees why Chinese people in China wouldn't see it as offensive, since obviously they aren't a minority in their own country.

So this made me see my best friend's life experience in a totally diferent light... I feel weird, perhaps a bit like the Spanish basketball team should... It just didn't come to mind it could be offensive, and I was wrong.
posted by neblina_matinal at 7:07 AM on August 21, 2008 [5 favorites]


Thanks for your post, neblina_matinal.

If your friend was offended, then it was offensive, pretty much by definition. And I do believe that its possible that the Spanish team can both apologise for this (because people were offended) and yet also maintain that it was not their intent to offend anyone.

I dont see those as contradictory which is what makes this, for me, an interesting topic.
posted by vacapinta at 7:22 AM on August 21, 2008


If you have spent time there, then the overt racism should be pretty obvious especially in big cities like Madrid.

Seconded. Been in Madrid for well over a year and I still get shit for being foreign even though my grasp of the language no longer pegs me as a tourist. I'm white and it's much worse and overtly hostile for my friends who are black or asian.

The local shops are quite often run by Chinese people and they are often referred to in the same way as 'Paki shops' in the UK. Casual racism is alive and well over here which is pretty much how I would define this advert.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:51 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, as an American living in Taiwan, none of my Taiwanese friends even seem to notice that westerners have larger eyes. To them, the big physiological difference between westerners and Asians is that us westerners have much larger noses. So if you're wondering what the typical Chinese or Taiwanese person's reaction is to this photo, just imagine your reaction if you were to see a picture of a Chinese basketball team with the players pulling on their noses.
posted by alidarbac at 7:57 AM on August 21, 2008


Just to add an additional perspective to the fray, I found the photo slightly offensive but mostly quite juvenile and somewhat bizarre. I'm ethnic Chinese, living in Singapore and thus belonging to the Chinese majority here. However I can definitely see that this would be offensive, even if I've not had the experience of racist bullying other posters have mentioned... it might be a cultural thing, since over here we are heavily exposed to American media. So I've definitely seen depictions of Chinese/Asian people in ways that I felt a bit uncomfortable about (this Looney Tunes short involving two Chinese kids with slanty eyes and Qing dynasty costume comes to mind).

It might really be the case that living in a less homogeneous society just makes you more sensitive to such stuff, even if the alleged racism is against the majority of your society in which you belong to.
posted by destrius at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2008


It's using a perceived physical racial difference to classify someone (the Chinese) as an "other", or as "not us". It's saying that anyone with that physical characteristic is not a part of Spain. In a way that is discrimination, even if not mean to be, and that is racism.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:48 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's using a perceived physical racial difference to classify someone (the Chinese) as an "other", or as "not us". It's saying that anyone with that physical characteristic is not a part of Spain. In a way that is discrimination, even if not mean to be, and that is racism.

How would you feel if the Olympics were in Sweden and all the Spanish basketball players had put on blonde wigs? Would you still be saying "racism" and "discrimination"?
posted by vacapinta at 10:01 AM on August 21, 2008


At worst, it brings to mind propaganda during sundry world wars, the aim of which was to dehumanize "the enemy" by, as blue beetle points out, classifying them as other. At best, it's the same principle as any other "all ___ are like this" joke, which aims to ridicule and reduce a group to a couple of broad physical stereotypes.

As with any such joke, the really important factor is whether or not it's actually funny. This? Meh.
posted by desuetude at 10:02 AM on August 21, 2008


How would you feel if the Olympics were in Sweden and all the Spanish basketball players had put on blonde wigs? Would you still be saying "racism" and "discrimination"?

Racism? Probably not. Essentialization? Absolutely.
posted by numinous at 10:31 AM on August 21, 2008


I saw Tropic Thunder. If you remember, Robert Downey Jr.'s character gets called-out multiple times for his idiotic racist method actor ideas. You can argue about how effective/funny it was, but the movie certainly doesn't condone his behavior - it's clearly a parody and criticism. Which I think a lot of people miss because it's also a comedy.

The movie isn't making fun of black people, it's making fun of the stereotypical "black tough sergeant" movie trope and clueless method actors.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:35 AM on August 21, 2008


This whole thing reminds me of the controversy around Mexico's plans to commemorate Memín Pinguín, a popular Mexican cartoon character, with an official postage stamp. To most 21st century Americans, the character simply screams racism. To many Mexicans, there's nothing wrong with it all, and to call it racist is an insult to Mexican culture. To whit:

Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Ernesto Derbez declared to the press that "it is a total lack of knowledge of our culture; it looks to me that it is a total lack of respect to our culture that some people are making an issue out of this which does not resemble the reality."

So, one culture's racism is another culture's funny. Us silly Americans should take out the beam in our own eyes before hollering about the speck in someone's else's eye.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:56 AM on August 21, 2008


In the US, Asians are by and large, an underclass.

What? No, this is not true. Asians in the USA tend to be highly educated and of above average income, and are seen that way. Are you American?
posted by Justinian at 10:59 AM on August 21, 2008


In the US, Asians are by and large, an underclass.

Yeah, no way. A minority, for sure. But represented at all levels of society, if not skewing higher than most others.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:08 AM on August 21, 2008


vacapinta asked: How would you feel if the Olympics were in Sweden and all the Spanish basketball players had put on blonde wigs? Would you still be saying "racism" and "discrimination"?

That's a very poor comparison which is often used in these types of arguments. I mean seriously, you vacillate between saying the team photo is racism and then seem to argue that it is not. Is there a population of economically disadvantaged Swedes in Spain that are constantly made fun of and sometimes attacked in racist rage? No but Chinos are. The real issue is with the Chinos in Spain who this will affect, not the ones in China.

Racism isn't just a device to insult people of another race. It is a way of disillusioning a disadvantaged group to "keep them in their place". Chinos that live in Spain are disenfranchised as a group and acts like this enforce the polarity.
posted by JJ86 at 11:11 AM on August 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Some great answers here, folks. I tried to mark the ones that I thought brought up good points.

I have yet to show my friend this post, but I'm sure that he will enjoy reading through these answers.

The topic of whether or not a US team who did this would be lambasted came up, and we all totally agreed that, in the US at least, they would. Interesting, huh?

I was in Spain back in March, right before the elections, and I immediately noticed the sort of overt racism that some mentioned in this thread. My family is from England; I was there in July and noticed the exact same kind of racism, only pointed towards southern Asians.

"Racist" is a tricky word. One could point out a difference between two ethnic groups, but if there is no malicious intent, is it wrong? I agree that the Spanish team was not trying to insult their Olympic hosts, but not everyone may see it that way. I suppose that the question should not be "Is this photograph racist?" (because it clearly is pointing out a difference between the Spanish and the Chinese people), but rather, "Who does this photograph offend, and why?".
posted by Third at 11:14 AM on August 21, 2008


I mean seriously, you vacillate between saying the team photo is racism and then seem to argue that it is not.

I have not once said that it is racist.

You're making a lot of generalizations about Spain though. Did you grow up there?
posted by vacapinta at 11:16 AM on August 21, 2008


I know you're not talking specifically to me, but I grew up in the USA. That's how I know that your assertion that Asians are an underclass is way out to lunch. I see you did say you're an American even if you're living in London, which makes me a little surprised that you can assert that Asians in the USA are seen as an underclass. That flies in the face of everything I've ever experienced from living in New England, the Midwest, and California. Asians in the USA are seen as highly educated, upwardly mobile, hard working folk. Yeah, that's still a stereotype but it sure isn't a stereotype of an underclass.

The reason this would be seen as offensive in the USA is not because Asians are an underclass. IT would also be seen as offensive if, in London, a team took pictures of themselves mocking bad British dental hygiene. And I assure you that white English people aren't a standard target of racists in the USA. It would be seen as offensive if the games were in Moscow and they took photos posing as Vodka-swilling red-faced drunkards. It would be seen as offensive if the games were in Africa somewhere and they showed up covered in black paint. It would be seen as offensive if the games were in the United States and they all wore fat suits.

And so on.
posted by Justinian at 11:25 AM on August 21, 2008


vacapinta, I have lived there and am pretty familiar with the situation. You can't make accurate statements about what a country is like without having some first-hand knowledge. slimepuppy echoed the same familiarity with the situation.
posted by JJ86 at 11:33 AM on August 21, 2008


Regarding Asians as being an underclass in the US. It depends a lot on a) how old you are and b) which "Asians" you mean.

To the first point, WWII and Japanese internment was not so long ago that it is not still part of our collective memory. Immigrants from many Asian countries are upwardly mobile now, but they were considered an underclass (and dangerous one!) for quite a long time, especially on the West Coast. And the Cambodians clustered in poor neighborhoods in South Philly near to where I live now have ongoing problems with poverty, victimization, crime, education and are absolutely considered an underclass. The usually-Asian couples who run beer takeout stores doing brisk business in beer and smokes in the absolute worst neighborhoods in the city? Well, they're making money, but they're not exactly the most respected group, as they're generally suspected of turning a blind eye to drug dealing (often out of very legit fear that they'll be targeted.)

While many Asian immigrants are high achievers and settle in upper-middle-class neighborhoods, they're still branded as FOREIGN -- often socially segregated, their kids are resented for winning all the science fairs and spelling bees and valedictorian spots. Doesn't the private rant go something like: damn Chinese or whatever with their single-minded overachieving ways sure my kid could've won if I'd forced him to never sleep and literally memorized the dictionary but somehow that's just not playing fair don't these people have a life?

I absolutely agree that stereotypes can come off as particularly cruel if they are a majority mocking an underclass, but that this is not a required condition for a joke to be in poor taste.
posted by desuetude at 12:11 PM on August 21, 2008


This whole incident reminds me of the time I was in Chinatown and saw two Spanish tourists taking a picture on that big spiral staircase inside one of the shops. One made slanty eyes while his friend took the photo. They seemed to think it was funny and had no problem doing it in front of all the Chinese shopkeepers and tourists.

I was a bit shocked - not because of the slanty eyes gesture, but more about how casual it seemed to them. I'm Chinese and was more annoyed than offended by this incident and the basketball ad, but I can see how other Asians can be affected more deeply due to their personal experiences with racism. To me, what the Spanish players did was just dumb and tactless.

Here's a hypothetical situation: sometimes Chinese people will make fun of black people for their "thick lips." If an asian person went to a country with a predominately black population and pulled their lip down to make it look bigger while taking a picture, would you deem this offensive or just being funny?
posted by extramundane at 12:16 PM on August 21, 2008


How would you feel if the Olympics were in Sweden and all the Spanish basketball players had put on blonde wigs? Would you still be saying "racism" and "discrimination"?

If it was Finnish basketball team doing it while pretending to be gay (which is the stereotype thrown around in Finland against Swedish people), yeah, it would be. The point, as Third says, is "Who does this photograph offend, and why?". It is a majority deriding a minority based on their perceived racial traits.

As people mention, it is not necessarily offensive to Chinese people living in China. But they're not the ones that get to see it on news stands and advertising boards in their home town and see it being accepted and mimiced by the locals. Racial stereotypes and a sensitivity towards them is not a universal constant. It took me quite a while to figure out that in the UK the word 'Jap' is not (generally) considered offensive. But it is in America, because of the unique history between the two nations. Another anecdote: A friend of mine had to tell a Danish girl who grew up in the countryside that 'nigger' is not a term to be used in English speaking nations. She was honestly mortified and had not realised the weight that word carries.

It's an interesting conversation and no matter how much insight I can have, I'm not a Chinese person living here so I can't comment on their behalf. I think everyone is entitled to be outraged or non-plussed by this, but neither side should be waved aside as being wrong.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:19 PM on August 21, 2008


IMO it's completely disrespectful to the residents of the host country of the Olympics. What's the point and what message were/are they trying to send?

If the Olympics were held in Africa, for instance, would they take a picture of them all with their lips pursed out to imitate large lips like many black people have?

It's completely childish, inappropriate and above all disrespectful. They should be ashamed.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 2:42 PM on August 21, 2008


I lived in Spain in the 90s, and I remember being shocked by seeing an ad for airline tickets to Asia illustrated with little men making "slanty eyes" with their fingers. I would chalk it up to ignorance, since despite the Chinese populations in the big cities there just aren't that many Asian immigrants...but Spain is definitely an overtly racist place.
posted by footnote at 6:01 PM on August 21, 2008


just imagine your reaction if you were to see a picture of a Chinese basketball team with the players pulling on their noses.

I think most Americans would think "er, what?" not understanding the stereotype. Even once it was explained, it still just seems mostly odd and faintly rude. However, if this were something Americans were taunted with regularly, they'd definitely be more likely to be offended.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:25 PM on August 21, 2008


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