Blog By Barry

January 19, 2009

Comparing struggles

Renee writes:

Say it with me, gay is not the new black. African-Americans did not cause the passing of prop 8, and the gay community does not have the right to compare its struggles to the black civil rights movement.

I completely agree that gay is not the new black, and African-Americans did not cause prop 8 to pass.

But I’m not sure I can agree about “the right to compare.” I’m not sure what that means. Is Renee saying that gay people don’t have the right to bring up Loving vs Virginia in legal arguments about equal marriage rights, for instance?

Despite all the differences between different struggles for civil rights and justice, there are some experiences that different groups will have in common. To pick a famous example, MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail has an unbreakable connection to the black civil rights movement. But I don’t think it takes away from that to say that it also contains practical and moral advice for anyone engaged in a justice movement today:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

There are few, if any, oppressed peoples who wouldn’t find a reflection of their own experiences and struggles in what King wrote, about how “wait!” in practice always seems to mean “never.”

As Ta-Nehisi points out, the Black civil rights movement itself often compared the black experience and the Jewish experience.

As a Jew, I think that’s fine, because although the experiences and history aren’t identical, many of the comparisons made were useful and relevant. No justice movement is exactly the same, and no two oppressions are exactly the same; but there are similarities, and movements can draw lessons positively from other movements. The trouble comes when the comparisons made are facile, or disrespectful, or ignore history rather than comparing history.


January 3, 2009

Why White People Think Manga Characters are White

Filed under: Comics and cartooning, Race, racism, and related issues — Ampersand @ 7:44 pm

Image uploaded by Steve Keys

Excellent essay by Matt Thorn (with a curtsy to Shati):

A key concept in semiotics is that of “markedness” and “unmarkedness,” elaborated by linguist Roman Jakobson in the 1930s. ((See On Language, by Roman Jakobson (edited by Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston), Harvard University Press 1995.)) An “unmarked” category is one that is taken for granted, that is so obvious to both speaker and listener it needs no marking. A “marked” category, by contrast, is one that is seen as deviating from the norm, and therefore requires marking. Well-known examples in English are the words “man” and “woman.” “Man” has for a millennium meant both “human being” and “adult male human being.” The word “woman” comes from a compound meaning “wife-man,” and denotes the relationship of the signified to that “unmarked” category, “man.”

In the case of cartooning, of course, we are dealing with drawn representations rather than words, but the concept of “marked/unmarked” is every bit as salient. In the case of the U.S., and indeed the entire European-dominated world, the unmarked category in drawn representations would be the face of the European. The European face is, as it were, the default face. Draw a circle, add two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, and you have, in the European sphere, a European face. (More specifically, you would have a male European face. The addition of eyelashes would make it female.) Non-Europeans, however, must be marked in drawn or painted representations, just as they commonly are in daily conversation (e.g., “I have this Black friend who…”). […]

It should come as no surprise, then, that Japanese readers should have no trouble accepting the stylized characters in manga, with their small jaws, all but nonexistent noses, and famously enormous eyes as “Japanese.” Unless the characters are clearly identified as foreign, Japanese readers see them as Japanese, and it would never occur to most readers that they might be otherwise, regardless of whether non-Japanese observers think the characters look Japanese or not.

Read the whole.

This sentence stung me a little:

If an American of Asian descent wants to create a children’s book intended to build self-esteem among Asian American children and educate other children about Asian American experiences, she must first make sure the readers know that the characters represented are Asian, and so, consciously or not, she resorts to stereotyped signifiers that are easily recognizable, such as “slanted” eyes (an exaggerated representation of the epicanthic fold that is often, but not always, more pronounced in East Asians than in Europeans or Africans) or pitch black, straight hair (regardless of the fact that East Asian hair can range from near-black to reddish brown, and is often wavy or even frizzy).

I’m not of Asian decent, but I’ve hit this problem as well: because of the limits of my drawing ability, the only way I can draw recognizably Asian characters is by using slant-eyes and straight, shiny black hair (see this cartoon, for example). I’m a bit embarrassed by this, but I’d be more embarrassed if I were drawing a cartoon in which Asians never appear. (Or, more accurately, a cartoon in which characters my readers will identify as Asian never appear.)

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