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Racism veiled as praise

“You’re not that black!’ was the greeting i got when i was first Introduced to a boyfriend’s mother, blond and blue eyed. Having just arrived in the land of free speech and democracy and not knowing even the meaning of racism, I thought that there must be degrees of blackness and I must be on the lighter side or on the lesser of the black side. Okay.

Later, when my MA 18th century professor recommended and commended me as a ‘Jamaican’ scholar I brushed it off telling myself that they mix up all colored people. Okay, and left it like that. The otherwise glowing letter of recommendation was what’s important, not the error of origin.

But when the CEO of a photography studio where I worked in glen cove, NY told my manager in my presence “oh! I didn’t know you liked your coffee Black!” That was it! Not okay! I quit the same day, and left them hanging with no one else to do the job I had been doing for 5 people for one lowly paycheck. and about two years after that incident, I’d also had it after spending 8 years in a family who didn’t even know where I was from; not even my last name. My photo was colorfully missing from the all white weddings i’d attended in the immediate family. Perhaps the lens was set for white folks at the wedding and missed me. Okay, too.

Or when someone white argues that he’s not racist because he has an Arab in his family, and then the next day you hear him saying that the same person who was Arab yesterday is Black when it’s convenient for the argument. Black or Arab, all the same to some people.

These memories disguised as praise came back to me because of a video I stumbled upon recently by Cho Chang, a character in Harry potter.

Cho is a ravenclaw student one year above Potter, a Quidditch seeker, member of Dumbledore’s army and Harry Potter’s love interest. The Cho character cries a lot in the Potter films. According to Cho, Rowling said she created Cho to make the Jinny character stronger. Or as Cho said she created Asian lovers to make white better lovers and create trust. Characters like Cho fulfill the diversity quota and are not agents of/on their own. Or, Cho Chang, a Korean name, not Chinese, is like me, interchangeable. Korean or Chinese, Jamaican or Trinidadian, it’s all the same to some. Take away our specificity and pretend it is no biggie! We don’t need heritage! We don’t need to be from where we were born, or who or what we identity with.

In fact, there’re only 5 colorful characters in the Harry Potter films:
1. Kingsley Shacklebolt: of african descent, a pure blood wizard, high ranking auror in the ministry of magic, who weeds out corruption, and who the prime minster refused to get rid of because of his efficiency and capacity to do twice the work of the rest. Kind of like me in that photo studio where I was black coffee. He was named acting minister of magic after battling against Voldemort.
2. Padma Patil: of indian descent, Padma is a ravenclaw and student in Harry’s year, identical twin of Gryffindor, member of Dumbledore’s army who fought in the battle of Hogwarts and who attends the Yule ball with Ron Weasley
3. Parvati Patil: twin of Padma, also a Gryffindor student in Harry’s year, also member of Dumbledore’s army, who also fights in the battle of Hogwarts against Voldemort and his death eaters and attends the Yule with Harry Potter because he didn’t get the one he wanted to take to the ball.
4. Blaise Zabini: of african descent, pure blood, chaser, student in Harry Potter’s year of wizardry, sorted into Slytherin House and seemed to have been friendly with fellow Slytherins, Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson. His reserved nature made him not really make friends with other Slytherins, but he sat with Draco and Pansy on the train journey to Hogwarts although he wasn’t hanging around the group. He’s ‘talented at posing’ as Ginny said clichedly [he’s tall, dark and handsome and dresses dashingly].
5. and of course, Cho Chang [Chinese? Korean?] who cries a lot, is demure, submissive and left behind. This is an extremely cliched POV of Asians.

Rowling’s racist implication or decision to only have 5 colored characters in books that sold over 400 million copies may not have been intentional or deliberate, but the fetishisation of Asian culture should be called out and that’s what Cho is doing. She’s calling out the minoritizing of minorities; “pointing out leads to growth and change when you hold people accountable for their actions”, as Cho says well.

Some highlights of Cho Chang’s slam poem which support slighting and racism:
-She has 2 last names: no first name. She’s marginalized and entirely interchangeable.
– Best selling caricature of Asian women
– Asians read along, and are just following the plot

Racism is not only present in small number niches or in ferguson or Staten Island, but in hugely famous ideologies like great books and film, like Harry Potter. Cho’s video is good in that it contributes to the subtle silence of race conversation. No amount of poly juice can change that if some feel marginalized. Marginalization is legitimate if it is felt. Cho’s intention was to get America talking about race which doesn’t take away from the brilliant writing or directing and addictive elements of the books or films. I am a big Potter fan, but we could use a better representation of race in cinema and books in this 21st century.


5 Comments

  1. meninagrauna says:

    This is extremely true, even when one isn’t commenting on my color, they’re constantly affirming my otherness under the guise of “praise”. I cannot count how many times I’ve been asked where I’m from originally (I’ve replied “my mother’s uterus” depending on who’s bold enough to ask), followed by “Wow, you speak english so well!” As if my ability to speak English with an American accent suddenly increases my value, and sets me apart from those other undesirable immigrants. Or my mother, who’s been dismissed, devalued, and dehumanized because she “looks Mexican” and her accent is thick. My mother is one of the most articulate people I know, but when most White people look at her, they see just the red tone and black hair of her indigenous heritage, hear her thick accent and categorize her as other. Benevolent or malicious, racism is rampant in America still, whether we people of color are token characters to add “diversity” or the others to be avoided, condemned, dismissed.

    • Yep. Spot on! Some of my students’ friends tell me “you dont look like a french prof!” Bc i am not french. But That’s eurocentric & francocentric and i dont want to explain blah blah blah but it is a kind of reverse praise

  2. Surekha Rao says:

    People of color have to make their own movies, and write their own books. White people don’t think much about race, they can pretty much ignore it ,or worse.

  3. Surekha Rao says:

    Yes, for sure, and on a bigger scale. And these outlets need to push for economic justice and decent schools, and safe and affordable housing, and less militarism. As well as entertain!!!

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