A Clarification


If you think this...

...is what Chinese people actually look like, then guess what:



An explanation is probably in order.  This post is in response to an assertion made on the aforementioned 'Talons' thread, an assertion agreed with more-or-less by several other posters, that one might mistake John Bennett in his yellowface prosthetic make-up (see above) for an actual Chinese person.  Yes, human beings - people with brains and opposable thumbs and everything - actually felt comfortable making that assertion in public... though, they do use pseudonyms on Gallifrey Base forum, so maybe that anonymity helped.  

Some of the people in question have been engaged in inventive games of circumlocution and tactical point-missing around the subject of the racism in 'Talons of Weng-Chiang'.  The usual disingenuous special pleading, most of it.  'There's a stupid white policeman - does that mean it's racist against white people?' and 'I've shown it to Asian friends and they weren't offended!'.  Y'know, the sort of cretinous, spurious, trivial, entitled, privileged, desperate, dishonest bollocks always trotted out when these waaaah-waaaaahing manchildren feel that their untroubled viewing pleasure may be even slightly complicated by being implicated in the injustice visited upon people other than them.

However, the idea that it might be possible to mistake the above image - in all its Fu Manchu-y and rubbery and yellowy inglory - with an actual human being of Chinese descent... well, it's simply breathtaking.  How is one to respond to people who evidently

a) base their notion of what Chinese people look like not upon the actual appearance of, y'know, actual chinese people, but rather upon racist stereotypes conjured into life by immobile, expressionless yellowface prosthetics, and

b) think that their own comfort with this racist elision is itself an alibi against charges of racism?

There's something often said by fans about 'Talons of Weng Chiang': "ignore the rat".  It means, decide to see past the extremely unconvincing giant rat monster in the story (which looks like exactly what it is: a combination of a real rat in a bad model set and a fluffy puppet) so that you can see the quality of the story beneath.  Well, 'Talons' is a good story in many ways... and no guilt need be felt by anyone who watches and enjoys it (another straw man set up by the point-missers club).  But it's devastatingly revealing that any fan should be more worried by the unconvincing rat than by the unconvincing yellowface.  It reveals priorities that are so insular and narrow-minded as to be... and I don't think this is too strong a word... inhuman.  

However, it's yet another quantum leap to the point where you find the rat unconvincing but not the yellowface.  And you're prepared to say so in public.  This reveals a shameless thoughtlessness, a terrifying absence of self-examination, an arrogance born of privilege.  And it also seems to reveal a willingness not simply to be unconcerned by the monstering of a whole race of people, not simply to delude yourself that its not happening in the text (because you've never bothered to avail yourself of the myriad opportunities now freely available to anyone with internet access to educate yourself about how representations of people work in the texts you consume) but to actually think that the representations (of, say, Chinese people as expressionless, rubberfaced bogeymen) are accurate and true to life.  I know that isn't literally what is being said - and the people I'm talking about would doubtless clutch their handbags in offended and petulant injustice (they notice and care about injustice when they think they're the victims of it, natch) at what I'm implying about them.  But it is what their attitude amounts to: that they care more about the travestying of a rat than the travestying of human beings of a different ethnic background.

I'm sick of being nice about this.  Racism is not some abstract concept that people unaffected by it get to define so that they are always absolved of it.  Furthermore, racism is what racists do and racists are those who do racism.  So, if the above image fails to trouble you, especially if it fails to even strain your credulity, then, as I say, you're a fucking racist and, as far as I'm concerned, you can fuck the fucking fuck off you fucking fuck.

It's a whole other order of problem, but a guy was just acquitted of murdering a kid because a jury seemed unable to notice racial profiling when it lead to bullets being fired.  We should be long past the point where we're prepared to tolerate this shit politely.  It doesn't warrant politeness.  Or quiet reasoning.  Or patient explanation.  It warrants anger and contempt.  Even down at this low level.  Even at the level of an old episode of Doctor Who... precisely because, as Dr Sandifer says, that old episode doesn't exist in 1976 anymore; it exists now.  And it is now long past time that we all grew the fuck up.


Gavin Burrows 7 years, 7 months ago

I'm probably guilty of a double social failing here. Having just come across your blog via Andrew Hickey's link, I've merely skimmed through one or two posts so far, so should probably be keeping my mouth shut till I'm up to speed. And I don't have much to say about the specific context of this post, apart from the fairly obvious point that you're right.

(Such folk are, in my view, conflating being privileged with being enlightened. They're assuming that something they like, decent educated middle class people such as themselves, cannot possibly be something so ill-mannered as racist.)

My question is, when we do get past that elementary (if apparently endless) argument, what then? What comes next?

By “we” I do of course mean the Royal we. In other words, I mean me. A while ago I wrote a little something about the Forties Superman cartoons. In which I mentioned their racism, but only ended up alluding to it in passing. Which feels kind of tokenistic. It feels like those stickers Tipper Gore got record labels to stick on their covers - “Warning! Some of the content here seems to get a bit racist.” I feel like we should be doing something more than that, but I'm not sure I really know what.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 7 months ago

Firstly, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Secondly, please don't worry about etiquette. I know nothing of this.

Thirdly, the above post is probably less a considered political statement than a howl of annoyance at some reprehensible dongers. I wasn't able to call them reprehensible dongers at Gallifrey Base because there's this 'Code of Conduct' thing which means you're not allowed to be rude to people. You can say that the above picture looks like a genuine Chinese person, but you're not allowed to call someone who says something like that a reprehensible donger. It's a funny old world.

So, the above post doesn't even try to address the question of what should actually be done... except that people really should be at the point where they're able to notice racism going on in their favourite media, and should then be able to admit that it's there, and should then be able to say that they don't like it. That's surely a baseline minimum these days? You'd hope, wouldn't you?

As you say, the assumption is something along the lines of 'nice people like me aren't racists, ergo stuff I like/think/say can't be racist - hurrah!'. Well, that's below zero on the progressometer... and it doesn't even begin to grasp what a complex and multi-dimensional cultural phenomenon racism is. Whitey doesn't usually have to bother grasping this, of course. The consequence of not bothering to grasp it, for Whitey, generally amount to diddlysquat... at least in the immediate.

Sadly, these preliminary arguments still have to be made... though it's like trying to teach a kumquat synchronised swimming sometimes.

But then, as you say, 'what next?' As you see more of this blog (if you decide to persevere with it) you'll probably guess that my answer to that would involve the class struggle.

I'm going to take a proper look at your blog, BTW.

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Gavin Burrows 7 years, 7 months ago

You'll get little argument from me on the subject of class struggle. As the communist writer Gilles Dauve (aka Jean Barrot) wrote “the proletariat is not weak because it's divided: its weaknesses breed division. Anything that makes it stronger strikes a blow at racism.”

In other words, far-right headcases like the British National Party are able to make inroads after groups like the Labour party have lost even any semblance of standing up for working people's interests. They would find it much harder to make those inroads into a strong, united workers' movement.

But I was really asking a narrower question – how should such questions influence my blogging habits? I feel like, in the piece I linked to, I kind of say “those old Superman cartoons were hugely important in developing the character. Shame they portrayed the Japanese as buck-toothed imperialists, but never mind.” Which seems a bit... you know, inadequate. Of course, in something I doubt you were suggesting, just ending each blogpost some abstract call for workers' unity would be kneejerk and meaningless. (“Doctor Who fans of all colours and classes unite! You have nothing to lose except the episodes which the BBC have already wiped!”) But I'm not really sure what to do with the information...

PS If you do get a chance to look at my blog, I'd be interested to know what you think. I would like to read more stuff here, but it will most likely take me a while...

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Jack Graham 7 years, 7 months ago

Ah, I see. No I wasn't meaning that every blog post should end with a call for worker's solidarity. But a socially-connected critique of the output of culture industries is one 'way in' to a more radical critique of society. Culture hits people where they live, sometimes even more directly than anything else. But this is to talk myself up disgracefully. Generally I just whinge.

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Jacob Nanfito 7 years, 7 months ago

I think you're on the right track. I think exposing and examining racism in its many forms is important work. It may seem pretty insignificant to look at it within pop culture (or old Doctor Who serials) ... but I think it's a great starting point. It's a holy-shit, slap-across-the-face moment for people when they see that something they love and enjoy contains racist stereotypes. I recently wrote a paper on racism in video games for school, and it blew my mind. That kind of stuff is a perfect "gateway" for privileged people to begin understanding that racism is complex, socially constructed, and alive and well all around them --- especially in a time when a lot of people really feel like racism happened in the past and we are past it.

I like this quote from Derrick Jensen's massive treatise on racism and imperialism, "The Culture of Make-Believe" (it's referring to reevaluating history, but I still think it applies here):

"I leave it to black people to interpret their experience of living in our culture, and to Indians their experience, and women theirs. Instead it falls to me -- and others of my race and gender -- to explore and articulate -- and thus, I hope, help to halt -- the white male experience of hatred: How did we come to enslave our continent, significantly depopulate another, and work our will on all of the others? How, in short, have we come to conquer the world? Why have we wanted to do it in the first place? And can we stop wanting it?

Although the . . . movements of history can be interesting, in and of themselves they are meaningless. Any exploration of them must return to the personal, to the particular, because that's all we've got.

If we wish to stop the atrocities, we will need to understand and change the social and economic conditions that cause them." (preface, xi-xii).

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Jack Graham 7 years, 7 months ago

Jacob, thank you for allowing me to believe that this blog has some kind of purpose (beyond being a platform for me to vent my little obsessions). :-)

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Gavin Burrows 7 years, 7 months ago

”How did we come to enslave our continent, significantly depopulate another, and work our will on all of the others?”

I think we should be a little careful over when we say “we”. All too often, when we use the Royal “we”, we end up talking about Royalty rather than ourselves.

The classic imperial era was of course formally about nations. Hong Kong became a possession of Britain, and so on. But, just like the current economic era being formally about business, that can mask a lot of other things. It is of course entirely possible that ancestors of mine had a hand in enslaving and depopulating other Continents. But if they did so, they did so not because they chose to but because they were told to. When one nation enslaves another, it does not flatten out questions of class – in either the invading or invaded nation.

On the other hand, it would be absurdly reductive to suggest working in a factory in Manchester is interchangeable with working in a factory in Bangladesh. (If that was true capitalists would have no reason to close factories in Manchester and open them in Bangladesh, which clearly they are doing.) I can remember the time when Leftist groups commonly talked about “the worker”, like everyone reduced to one of those cloth-capped info-graphics. Usually, hand-in-glove with that went a downplaying over any questions of race, sexual preference or... well, pretty much everything else, come to think of it. If I'm questioning of identity politics, it's not because I want to see those days back.

Life would be simpler if we could focus on just one thing or the other – on class or on imperial subjugation. But of course it's not simple at all.

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Jacob Nanfito 7 years, 7 months ago

I think I get what you are saying. In the quote, the "we" Jensen is referring to is white males .. and, at least in the last several centuries, it has been white males propagating imperialism and racism. I didn't read all of Jensen's book in which the quote comes from (it's massive!) but he didn't really touch on class struggles in the sections I read. Maybe that's a fault in his argument/analysis.

I came to the quote while doing research for History/English project I was working on about my hometown. I live in the Pacific Northwest of the USA (about 10 miles north of Seattle, WA) and there is a cherished belief held here that our area has always been enlightened or progressive and not a part of the racist/imperial horrors the rest of the US has been engaged in.

My project was about showing how false that is. In my sleepy little town, there is a massive history of racism and imperialism enacted by the working and the poor classes -- it was the miners, farmers, homesteaders, fur trappers, traders, missionaries, etc. that "settled" the area ... forcibly displacing the 10,000 native people that lived and thrived here for a millennia. It was a very personal, conscious removal and suppression of entire cultures. I don't know that they were told to do that by the upper classes -- it's just what they did. White males came here and saw rich natural resources and they wanted them ... so they stole them and then vilified the people who had occupied the land before.

My hometown certainly has had it's share of class struggles (the Everett Massacre took place about 2 miles from my doorstep) ... but that was long after imperialism had taken root here.

Or am I understanding you wrong? Maybe I'm using "imperialism" in too broadly a way....

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Gavin Burrows 7 years, 7 months ago

Maybe "imperialism" in too broad a way. But of course I wouldn't disagree overall. There's not a shortage of examples of the working class dividing itself across racial or other grounds. Belonging to a class just pins you to a position in an economic relationship, no more. It's kind of mythical that us lot assume being working class is some kind of virtue, and that working class people never make bad or wrong decisions.

I was just making the point that the rhetoric of nationalism is pernicious, the idea that I am British and so is Richard Branson or Boris Johnson therefore we're kind of interchangeable.

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Jacob Nanfito 7 years, 7 months ago

Oh, Ok. I see. Thanks for the discussion/clarification. I'm still learning and discovering a lot about these topics.

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Mark R 7 years, 7 months ago

Oh my god, I've found a Doctor Who blog where people quote Gilles Dauve and talk about class struggle. I had to pinch myself to make sure this wasn't a dream. I suspect from the links I'm coming from a slightly more anarchist/libertarian marxist angle, but as long as we keep off the topic of Kronstadt we should be ok...

I guess I'm not embedded enough in fandom to have realised people don't find the yellowface an appalling stain on an otherwise great story. Pointing out your favourite show has fucked up shouldn't be taken as an attack on the whole thing. If you take the show seriously you should be prepared to look at it honestly and discuss the low points as well as the high points. Excusing or ignoring racism is not a neutral stance, it's validating it. It's not like I'd call for the episode to be cut, but I think an acknowledgement of gross stereotyping should be a kind of shared bottom line when considering or discussing 'Talons...'

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Sex and Violins 5 years, 4 months ago

But the yellowface IS only the tip of the iceberg. I find the racist attitudes of the whole story infinitely more troubling. Its simply not the case that the whole thing would be fine if no one was wearing yellowface because there is still so much racist yellow peril imagery.

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Jacob Nanfito 7 years, 7 months ago

You'd think, but you'd be sadly surprised.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 7 months ago

Also, pointing out that the Bolsheviks fucked up shouldn't be taken as an attack on the whole thing. ;-)

Welcome to Shabgraff.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 7 months ago

This blog has a 'no platform' policy towards racism and apologetics for racism. I'm putting comment moderation back on.

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John 7 years, 7 months ago

What do we do with these cultural artifacts that are tainted, by contemporary standards, with sexism and racism? 60's and 70's Doctor Who is certainly guilty, but they're not alone. How do we embrace what we love from that era and address the gender and racial stereotyping, blackface, yellowface, etc? Monty Python's Flying Circus had every actor appear at least once in blackface, and Connie Booth and Carol Cleveland were pretty much only there to be leered at. Fawlty Towers had the Old Major droning about the differences between N****rs and W*gs played for comedy (albeit in an episode that was attempting to make a statement about racism). One of Peter Sellers' best comic performances unfortunately was in "The Party," where he wore brown makeup to play an Indian actor. Every couple of years some school district bans "Huck Finn" from its library. How do we reconcile the Shakespeare who wrote "Hamlet" with the Shakespeare who wrote "Othello" and "Merchant of Venice?"

If we have to repudiate Talons, then we also have to dismiss every story in which a white actor ever played a non-white role: Marco Polo, Aztecs, Crusades, Daleks' Masterplan, Toymaker, Evil of the Daleks (unless we permit dispensation for non-whites playing a different non-white race), Tomb of the Cybermen, Abominable Snowmen, Enemy of the World, War Games, Planet of the Spiders, Pyramids of Mars, Power of Kroll (technically), and Black Orchid (see "Evil")... quite a lot of classic stories there.

I have to ask, Jack, for a Doctor Who fan, you seem to have written off the entire history of the show. Are there any episodes left that you still like? :-)

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Jack Graham 7 years, 7 months ago

John, what we do is precisely what you said: we embrace *and* address. To do the former without the latter is inexcusable... but to abandon what we love because it has political problems is dogmatic, insincere and kind of robotic.

There is no crime or sin or political transgression in loving reactionary stuff. I love all manner of deeply reactionary garbage. Indeed, the vast majority of capitalist cultural production is so studiedly offensive, when you burrow into it, that if I only 'liked' things I agreed with... well, I'd have a pretty dry DVD collection. I'd have to chuck out about nine tenths of Doctor Who for a start, which obviously isn't going to fly.

So, I repudiate the racism in 'Talons' but I still watch and enjoy the story (as I say above, and elsewhere, it's got lots of good points). There's no crime in loving things that one wants to criticise. The crime would be in keeping silent about the problems, or just not noticing them. That's the glib, flabby and dishonest comfort of unexamined privilege.

Moreover, as a historical materialist, it's my duty to brush history and culture against the grain... but to do that, one must be *in* both history and culture. Indeed, one is fooling oneself if one imagines for a moment that one has any choice.

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