Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

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guenther
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Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Thu Oct 15, 2009 6:00 pm UTC

Do you think we should culturally oppose all performances of blackface? Would you lend your voice to the opposition of an artist that persisted?

Do you think we should culturally oppose all publications of Muhammad cartoons? Would you lend your voice to the opposition of a paper that persisted?

I want this discussion to be about the principals, not about the specifics of the linked examples (though of course we can reference them as examples). If you see the intent behind those artistic portrayals as the distinguishing features, then let's discuss hypothetical examples where the intent is identical.

The Muhammad cartoons were made because the Muslim community wanted special consideration for their feelings. Isn't blackface culturally rejected because the black community wants special consideration for their feelings? Some people are saying that blackface performances are never OK. Are inflammatory cartoons of Muhammad OK? Is this a double standard? If so, how do we justify it?

P.S. I'm looking for clarity over agreement. I'm not trying to trap someone into being a hypocrite. And I'm not waiting to pounce on someone with condemnation. :)
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Mokele » Thu Oct 15, 2009 6:37 pm UTC

One way to look at it is intention. A blackface performance is attempting to get cheap laughs out racism. The Mohammed cartoons were explicitly and specifically created as a backlash and commentary against what the cartoonists perceived as a tendency of some elements within the Muslim community to respond to negative portrayals of their faith with violence and even murder.

But is "a good reason" enough? Both are undeniably offensive to a particular group. Can that offensiveness be justified in making a point? Could that point be made *without* offense, especially if the commentary is about the reaction of offensive material?

Personally, I'm more positively inclined towards the Mohammed cartoons (though not a 100% supporter, as I can see the other side, as well as subtle undercurrent of racism in them) because a) they were a commentary on violence against those who offend which resulted in riots, proving their point and b) I'm generally hostile to faith in any form, and take particular umbrage to being told I cannot criticize a collective delusion (hey, at least I'm admitting it).

Good or bad, at least the cartoons had a purpose beyond "just for shits and giggles".
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Thu Oct 15, 2009 8:35 pm UTC

Mokele wrote:Good or bad, at least the cartoons had a purpose beyond "just for shits and giggles".

So if someone's blackface routine had a purpose beyond shits and giggles, you'd be more likely to support it?
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby simdude » Thu Oct 15, 2009 8:54 pm UTC

Not to represent Mokele, since that question was directed at him. But can blackface even have a purpose beyond "shit and giggles?"

Yes, I immagine there could be some meta-performance art kinda thing where the whole point that by doing blackface they are making the point that blackface is bad. But even something as contrived as that situation would have the message blackface is bad.

Can you think of a situation where it is done beyond "shits and giggles?"

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Thu Oct 15, 2009 9:07 pm UTC

How about as commentary about double standards? Or reverse racism? I think it's dodgy territory to judge this on intent. Who gets to decide? Should we reject Buddy Jesus because it's just for "shits and giggles"?
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby mister k » Fri Oct 16, 2009 2:15 am UTC

Mokele wrote:One way to look at it is intention. A blackface performance is attempting to get cheap laughs out racism. The Mohammed cartoons were explicitly and specifically created as a backlash and commentary against what the cartoonists perceived as a tendency of some elements within the Muslim community to respond to negative portrayals of their faith with violence and even murder.

But is "a good reason" enough? Both are undeniably offensive to a particular group. Can that offensiveness be justified in making a point? Could that point be made *without* offense, especially if the commentary is about the reaction of offensive material?

Personally, I'm more positively inclined towards the Mohammed cartoons (though not a 100% supporter, as I can see the other side, as well as subtle undercurrent of racism in them) because a) they were a commentary on violence against those who offend which resulted in riots, proving their point and b) I'm generally hostile to faith in any form, and take particular umbrage to being told I cannot criticize a collective delusion (hey, at least I'm admitting it).

Good or bad, at least the cartoons had a purpose beyond "just for shits and giggles".



The Mohammed cartoons were reactionary claptrap drawn for a fairly reactionary newspaper. They were not making a great statement, and were intended to offend. I found them unpleasant. That said, the reaction to them was far more unpleasant, and they certainly had the right to make such cartoons. People, however, have the right to do blackface, but must deal with the consequences of such actions.

If someone is going to do something offensive to someone else, as art, then there should ideally be some deep thought gone into it, but even if there isn't, they should absolutely have the right to do so.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Dangermouse » Fri Oct 16, 2009 3:48 am UTC

Racism is about power. Blackface is used to subjugate, humiliate, and strip the voice from a group of individuals based upon racial bias. It does violence to the ambiguity of the black subject.

The cartoons depicting Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, were not published with the intent of subjecting a group of people. As far as I know, they were a protest of restrictive free speech laws that are typical of many European countries.

Getting back to the OP, there is very little that is clear regarding free speech rights, especially in the US. The American position, as articulated by the SCOTUS (in a case I can't recall, unfortunately) is that the solution generally rests in providing more free speech, not less.

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby TheSkyMovesSideways » Fri Oct 16, 2009 4:03 am UTC

Mokele wrote:A blackface performance is attempting to get cheap laughs out racism.

Not necessarily. What about Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder? That was supposedly pre-screened to and approved by the NAACP.

Actually, come to think of it, Dr McNinja had a fairly tasteful use of blackface for a joke.

So perhaps, blackface = uncool, meta-blackface = possibly cool?
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Fri Oct 16, 2009 4:25 am UTC

I think the rights issue is pretty straightforward. That's why I focused more on the cultural response. There certainly was a difference. There was a good amount of support for defending the artist, but I didn't hear anyone defend the blackface routine. I can think of two reasons why that might be without invoking double standards:

  1. The cartoons had a free speech victim, so people rushed to support him. The blackface performers apologized and did not fight for their right (cultural right, not legal right).
  2. The reaction against the cartoons was pretty harsh, so it makes sense that there might be a counter response that was equally firm (though certainly less violent).
However, given that, I still suspect there's a double standard. I think we're more sensitive to the feelings of black people that we are to Muslim feelings. I can certainly understand why that is, I'm not sure it's justified.

Another way someone might want to respond: Do you personally get more bothered by one compared to the other? If so, why? Is it purely emotive, or can you justify the difference?

Dangermouse wrote:Racism is about power. Blackface is used to subjugate, humiliate, and strip the voice from a group of individuals based upon racial bias. It does violence to the ambiguity of the black subject.

Did the Jackson Jive attempt to subjugate, humiliate, or strip the voice of black people? If they didn't then who uses it for that purpose nowadays?

Couldn't we construe the cartoons to be hateful to a group of people? Do we only get up in arms when it's about subjugation, not hate? If we take the artist's word that it's not about hate, but rather social commentary, couldn't we take a hypothetical blackface artist's word that his work is also for social commentary?
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Fri Oct 16, 2009 8:08 am UTC

I'm going to comment on the Jackson Jive incident because there are elements of it that are not very obvious to Australian audiences, for whom the skit was intended. For clarity, we'll refer to Blackface as the exaggerated look with origins in the minstrel tradition, and refer to black-face as the more general concept such as what Robert Downey Jnr. employed for Tropic Thunder.

Blackface has a historical context it can never be separated from. It was intended to mock and demean African Americans by exaggerating their physical features and casting them as butt monkeys. Even when it served as a vehicle for black performers to become celebrities, it still held all the same negative cultural connotations. It can be done legitimately, but only if one is terribly careful about being sensitive to the context.

Black-face, meanwhile, has no such connotations. It is just a White actor playing a Black character. Not ideal, but it's not entirely unlike using a Chinese actor to play a Japanese role, or an English actor to play a German. It can be done tastefully, such as in Tropic Thunder, and it can be done out of necessity.

The Jackson Jive incident was inappropriate because the performers could have appeared in black-face, but instead chose Blackface. That is, they could have looked like African Americans, but instead chose to portray themselves as caricatures of African Americans. It was likely to have been done innocently--Blackface has a long theatre tradition that one may want to mimic without meaning any of its implications--and Australians are largely ignorant of its historical context, but it is still racist if it is performed without any due care. The "Whiteface" element at the end of the skit hardly did anything to diminish the racist connotations.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Fri Oct 16, 2009 1:59 pm UTC

Thanks Pez for the Australian context.

Pez Dispens3r wrote:... but [Blackface] is still racist if it is performed without any due care.

How do you define a racist action? To me that sounds like it reflects on the actor, but if the Jackson Jive were innocent of racist intent (something I don't question), then shouldn't we use phrasing that reflects on the action, not the individual? Like "Blackface still has racist connotations" rather than "is still racist".

And do you think drawing Muhammad with a bomb for his hat was done with any due care?
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Sharlos » Sat Oct 17, 2009 2:34 pm UTC

Something also worth pointing out is the Jackson Jive did their performance 20 years ago and won the contest on the show.

Personal I think the act was done in poor taste. I'm also having trouble seeing how that and the cartoons are connected in any significant way.

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Sat Oct 17, 2009 3:38 pm UTC

Sharlos wrote:I'm also having trouble seeing how that and the cartoons are connected in any significant way.

I think most people feel the same. I find that curious.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby nitePhyyre » Mon Oct 19, 2009 4:35 pm UTC

Renently French Vouge painted a white model black, causing some outrage. I think that it can be done without causing strife. I don't see how having a white person play a black role is any different than a Chinese person playing Japanese, or 30 year olds playing high school students. That being I feel there is a difference between the innocent 'black-face' and the 'blackface' used to make people laugh using racism.

Let's not forget that the cartoons were about the violent tenancies of Islam, a religion founded by a warrior, whose religious texts support violence, a religion that is often the reason for violence (recently, let's not go back to the crusades here people!), whose population resorted to extreme violence in objection to being called violent.

Blackface is about making fun of how a race of people look.

Now on to the fair-ish comparison of racist blackface, with the religionist cartoons. Both are discriminatory. I think that much is simple. OP, as I read it, your question may as well be: "Why is racism unacceptable when compared to other forms of discrimination that are acceptable?" (Excuse me if I am putting words in your mouth) I think the answer is simply that it is fair to discriminate against the choices people make, but not against things that are out of their control. If you choose to hang around with known criminals, don't be surprised if you are accused of guilt by proxy. I make fun of a smoker when they run out of breath, not someone with asthma.

So yeah, making fun of how people are, not cool. Making fun of the choices people make, meh.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby oxoiron » Mon Oct 19, 2009 9:11 pm UTC

guenther wrote:However, given that, I still suspect there's a double standard. I think we're more sensitive to the feelings of black people that we are to Muslim feelings. I can certainly understand why that is, I'm not sure it's justified.

Another way someone might want to respond: Do you personally get more bothered by one compared to the other? If so, why? Is it purely emotive, or can you justify the difference?
Being black doesn't imply one holds a certain set of beliefs; being a Muslim does.

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Religion and skin color are two very, very different things and I feel the degree to which they are open to mockery is also very different. If you dislike someone because of his skin color, you are an idiot. If you dislike someone because of his religious beliefs, you may very well be justified.

EDIT: Upon posting this, I realized it sounds suspiciously similar to the post above.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Mon Oct 19, 2009 10:25 pm UTC

nitePhyyre wrote:That being I feel there is a difference between the innocent 'black-face' and the 'blackface' used to make people laugh using racism.

Which was done by the Jackson Jive? Were they innocent, or were they trying to use racism to get laughs? Whatever it was, the general sentiment was that it was never acceptable and deserving of an apology.

nitePhyyre wrote:OP, as I read it, your question may as well be: "Why is racism unacceptable when compared to other forms of discrimination that are acceptable?"

This presumes that the blackface was done with racist intent. In fact this implicit assumption is the heart of the double standard. Why don't we presume the cartoons were drawn with hate and intolerance based on religion?

Here's another restatement of what I think: In both cases the artist's intent was in opposition to the viewer's offense. For blackface we declare that intent doesn't matter to determine acceptability, the viewer's offense trumps. But for the cartoons, the intent is key and outweighs the viewer's offense.

nitePhyyre wrote:So yeah, making fun of how people are, not cool. Making fun of the choices people make, meh.

oxoiron wrote:Religion and skin color are two very, very different things and I feel the degree to which they are open to mockery is also very different.

I couldn't disagree more. I believe we should be respectful of other people and in particular in regards to areas that are so linked to identity. And when we tolerate the fact that some people are less concerned about how others feel, we shouldn't pick favorites on who to defend.

EDIT: Your statements seem to admit to a double standard. I am not trying to use that in a demeaning way. I can respect your decision to offer different levels of respect for race and religion even if I don't agree with them.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby SecondTalon » Mon Oct 19, 2009 10:58 pm UTC

It.. looks like racism to get laughs. Or even "zomg blackface is sooooooo risky let's do it!" that I'd expect out of fratboy meatheads. So.. yeah, in this case I'd say it's unacceptable.

I believe these are the Mohammed cartoons. If so... eh, it's what I'd expect out of the New Yorker.

Can I say that all depictions of blackface are bad? Or all cartoons poking fun at Islam? Nope. As a matter of respect for religion, I'd say it's probably a good idea to make sure of what you're making fun of before you make a cartoon... that is, is Mohammed the target, or are terrorists who hide their violence under the guise of religion the target? Why exactly are the actors in Blackface? What are you doing with it, where are you going, what's your point?

In the case of Robert Downey, the end result was arguably that the actor (that is, Robert Downey's character) looked buffoonish, not an entire group of people. It's hard for Americans to look at a depiction of Blackface and not see something that wouldn't seem out of place in public 80 years ago.

Now, maybe that's acceptable in Australia. Maybe it's all in good fun down there, and as a whole the Australian society is semi-okay with it. But not so much in American society. Due to the history of it, you have to be very careful with how you do it, and you'd better be sure you aren't making fun of an entire group of people with it too.

Which is probably the point I'm trying to get at - making fun of a person is okay. Making fun of a group - not so much.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Mon Oct 19, 2009 11:18 pm UTC

SecondTalon wrote:It's hard for Americans to look at a depiction of Blackface and not see something that wouldn't seem out of place in public 80 years ago.

I think it really comes to this point. We're steeped in a history of treating blacks like crap, so we have a special place in our cultural hearts for their concerns. It's a double standard and it's based on emotions. We can try to boil it down to rules like "Making fun of X is OK, but Y is not", but I bet they're reactionary explanations and don't really hold up under scrutiny.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby TheAmazingRando » Tue Oct 20, 2009 1:56 am UTC

I'd say the only similarity is that the two things cause offense to a group of people. Both can be seen as bad along these lines.
But with blackface, there's the whole other element of perpetuating and thriving on racial stereotypes. It's sending the racist message that people with dark skin are clowns. It derives nearly all its humor from racist identification on the part of the viewer.
With the Mohammed cartoons, it seems like the only way most of them can even be understood is as commentary on free-speech issues. There's not necessarily any racist message being sent.

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Vaniver » Tue Oct 20, 2009 6:16 pm UTC

Dangermouse wrote:Racism is about power. Blackface is used to subjugate, humiliate, and strip the voice from a group of individuals based upon racial bias. It does violence to the ambiguity of the black subject.

The cartoons depicting Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, were not published with the intent of subjecting a group of people. As far as I know, they were a protest of restrictive free speech laws that are typical of many European countries.
Um, no.

The cartoons were a protest of the fact that if you drew and published them, Muslims would threaten to kill you. That is subjugation, humiliation, and stripping the voice of non-Muslims. If racism were about power, then there would be far less reason to care. Racism that is worth caring about is about violence. When someone is attacked, damaged, insulted, or threatened because of their race, that is a problem. When someone is attacked, damaged, insulted, or threatened because of what they say, that is a problem.

Is blackface doing violence to individuals? Well, it might humiliate or insult them, and that certainly suggests it's mean to do it. But when the law protects against psychic harm, there is no end to what it prevents. So it seems that both should be legal, but neither should be a part of polite society.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Tue Oct 20, 2009 10:33 pm UTC

guenther wrote:Like "Blackface still has racist connotations" rather than "is still racist".

I think these two terms mean the same thing. But, no, I don't think we really need a word to describe something where an action is racist but the perpetrator is somewhat innocent.
And do you think drawing Muhammad with a bomb for his hat was done with any due care?
Yes, it was. Looking at the drawings, they are very self aware. One is a cartoonist's self-portrait where he is holding a stick drawing of Muhammad, and making fun of himself for something so simple being a "P-R stunt". Another has a cartoonist looking secretively over his shoulder as he composes the drawing. Like Monty Python's Life of Brian they flirt with blasphemy, yet these cartoons also present the danger of flirting with such blasphemy. In fact the cartoons are that benign they had much more provocative material mixed in with them when they were showed around to promote Muslim outrage.
Vaniver wrote:Is blackface doing violence to individuals? Well, it might humiliate or insult them, and that certainly suggests it's mean to do it. But when the law protects against psychic harm, there is no end to what it prevents. So it seems that both should be legal, but neither should be a part of polite society.
But might you agree there is some correlation, here? Like that Irish jokes generally come from an era when it was shit to be Irish (that is, when you "need not apply"), or that Blackface originated from a time where African Americans were lucky to have 2/3 of the rights of other citizens. Do gay jokes exist in places where gay bashings don't occur? If it were just that we were being mean, I'd agree with you it's not worth getting so upset over Blackface. Offending people is hilarious. But words don't exist in a vacuum, and if it's acceptable to humiliate a group of people then it's implicit that it's acceptable to be violent towards them, too.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Wed Oct 21, 2009 12:01 am UTC

TheAmazingRando wrote:I'd say the only similarity is that the two things cause offense to a group of people. Both can be seen as bad along these lines.
But with blackface, there's the whole other element of perpetuating and thriving on racial stereotypes. It's sending the racist message that people with dark skin are clowns. It derives nearly all its humor from racist identification on the part of the viewer.

Who is sending the racist message? The general sentiment seems to be that the Jackson Jive wasn't. And if anyone enjoyed the routine, are they identifying with racism?

TheAmazingRando wrote:With the Mohammed cartoons, it seems like the only way most of them can even be understood is as commentary on free-speech issues. There's not necessarily any racist message being sent.

So are you saying that the people that rioted were upset about the freedom of speech commentary? Or perhaps they interpreted the cartoons in a way that doesn't seem likely to you.


Vaniver wrote:So it seems that both should be legal, but neither should be a part of polite society.

Hey someone agrees with me! (At least on that point.) I know I shouldn't get excited about silly stuff, but I thought I'd be alone on this one. :)


Pez Dispens3r wrote:
guenther wrote:Like "Blackface still has racist connotations" rather than "is still racist".
I think these two terms mean the same thing. But, no, I don't think we really need a word to describe something where an action is racist but the perpetrator is somewhat innocent.

Everywhere I look up "racist", I get something like "feeling of racial superiority", "hate or intolerance on the basis of race", or "racial prejudice or discrimination". If no one involved means any of those things, how can it be racist? Does blurring distinctions help communication especially with a topic as sensitive as racism?

To me it's like having "He speaks the truth" mean that he sounds like he's speaking the truth regardless of if he actually speaks the truth. Stephen Colbert thought we needed a different word for that.

Pez Dispens3r wrote:Like Monty Python's Life of Brian they flirt with blasphemy, yet these cartoons also present the danger of flirting with such blasphemy.

Perhaps instead of "with any due care" I should have said "with enough due care". But along the lines of what you said, if the Jackson Jive had incorporated into their routine a part where they acknowledged the dangers of flirting with racist art forms, would it have been better? To me it seemed like they were cut some slack because they didn't forsee the controversy and apologized right away. I bet they would have taken more hell if it was clear they knew it would piss off so many people.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Vaniver » Wed Oct 21, 2009 1:55 am UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:But might you agree there is some correlation, here? Like that Irish jokes generally come from an era when it was shit to be Irish (that is, when you "need not apply"), or that Blackface originated from a time where African Americans were lucky to have 2/3 of the rights of other citizens. Do gay jokes exist in places where gay bashings don't occur? If it were just that we were being mean, I'd agree with you it's not worth getting so upset over Blackface. Offending people is hilarious. But words don't exist in a vacuum, and if it's acceptable to humiliate a group of people then it's implicit that it's acceptable to be violent towards them, too.
Why is that implicit? I argue there's a strong, readily visible line between being mean to someone and being violent to someone, and that the law should punish crossing that line. If you move the line over, where do you move it to? Who decides what are 'fighting words,' or their legal equivalent, or do we just say there are no fighting words?
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby TheAmazingRando » Wed Oct 21, 2009 2:21 am UTC

guenther wrote:Who is sending the racist message? The general sentiment seems to be that the Jackson Jive wasn't. And if anyone enjoyed the routine, are they identifying with racism?
I'm really not at all familiar with the routine or about racial attitudes in Australia so I can't really say. But you can still communicate racist messages without intending to. As for the people enjoying it, it depends why they enjoyed it. They may have enjoyed it because they identified with the racism it communicated, maybe not.

guenther wrote:So are you saying that the people that rioted were upset about the freedom of speech commentary? Or perhaps they interpreted the cartoons in a way that doesn't seem likely to you.
I imagine people rioted because they find images of Mohammad offensive. That doesn't mean the cartoons were racist, or sent racist messages. Some may have been, but I doubt that was the source of the uproar. And the offense isn't the problem, anyway, it's the racism.

I'm defining an action as racist if it communicates racist ideas to a significant percentage of its audience (where the line of "significance" is up to debate). The point being, if it communicates those messages, and audience members agree with them, it's just worked to perpetuate racism, regardless of its intent. An action being racist isn't necessarily related to its perpetrator being a racist. It might mean they have racist ideas or intentions. I don't really like the use of racist as a noun. We're steeped in racist culture and consequently almost everyone does racist things or holds racist views or motivations, making a racist a class of thing that you are or are not discourages people from examining their own racism. Racism is bad not because of what it says about the perpetrator, but because of the harm that racist narratives in society cause.

Blackface sends the message, intentionally or otherwise, that black people are goofy and uneducated, though probably more in the US than in other countries thanks to its unavoidable racist history here. It may be possible to have a performance of it that doesn't send a racist message to its audience, but I can't think of many. So I put it in the category of most likely racist and deserving of public ire.

Muhammad cartoons send the message that free speech will not be compromised by threats of violence. They do no harm to the Islamic community except offense (unless they are intended to draw ire and, therefore, violence towards Muslims, or also include racism as a part of their humor, in which case I would put them in the same category as blackface). They're impolite, and so is blackface, and opposing either on these grounds is acceptable. However, blackface has the additional aspect of racism, therefore harm. You can oppose blackface on these grounds and still be in favor of Muhammad cartoons without being hypocritical, because despite the similarities in offense, there are differences elsewhere.

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Wed Oct 21, 2009 2:27 am UTC

Vaniver wrote:
Pez Dispens3r wrote:But might you agree there is some correlation, here? Like that Irish jokes generally come from an era when it was shit to be Irish (that is, when you "need not apply"), or that Blackface originated from a time where African Americans were lucky to have 2/3 of the rights of other citizens. Do gay jokes exist in places where gay bashings don't occur? If it were just that we were being mean, I'd agree with you it's not worth getting so upset over Blackface. Offending people is hilarious. But words don't exist in a vacuum, and if it's acceptable to humiliate a group of people then it's implicit that it's acceptable to be violent towards them, too.
Why is that implicit? I argue there's a strong, readily visible line between being mean to someone and being violent to someone, and that the law should punish crossing that line. If you move the line over, where do you move it to? Who decides what are 'fighting words,' or their legal equivalent, or do we just say there are no fighting words?

Legally? Jackson Jive aren't being prosecuted. I'm only justifying the popular reaction to it.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Wed Oct 21, 2009 4:32 am UTC

TheAmazingRando wrote:I'm really not at all familiar with the routine or about racial attitudes in Australia so I can't really say. But you can still communicate racist messages without intending to. As for the people enjoying it, it depends why they enjoyed it. They may have enjoyed it because they identified with the racism it communicated, maybe not.

I work in wireless communication, and we use lingo that the intended message is the message. If the receiving end gets something wrong, it's called an error (and is due to noise, distortion, fading, bias, etc.). Anyway, I overlooked that colloquially we might say that someone is sending the wrong message to mean that receivers decode the message consistently wrong. (We'd call that a bias in my field.) I'll concede the "sending an unintended message" point, but I'll discuss "racist" below.

TheAmazingRando wrote:I'm defining an action as racist if it communicates racist ideas to a significant percentage of its audience (where the line of "significance" is up to debate).

I have a theory about people redefining racist. They don't do it to aid clarity, they don't do it to be more accurate. Rather they do it to have the full power and might of such a word on their side, or to make sure it's not used by the other side.

Anyway, I don't know why you choose your definition; it's not in the dictionary that way.

Regardless, even if I don't like your terminology, I can agree that you are discussing a potential problem. But I don't think you're applying assumption evenly between the two examples.

First regarding blackface, how do we know that it sends the message that black people are goofy and uneducated? Who is watching and thinks, "Wow, I thought blacks were goofy, and this just confirms it for me! Look how silly they are!"? I think there's a big assumption that this happens without any evidence. (I also completely disagree that we're steeped in a racist culture, but I suppose that's a different debate.)

Second regarding the cartoons, by your same arguments why don't the cartoons send the message that Muslims are dangerous regardless of artist's intent? I mean evening mentioning that the terrorists are almost entirely Muslim ilicits accusations of hatred and intolerance. If the Republicans had issued these comics as political commentary, would you respond with "They are sending a free-speech message, they're certainly not racist or Islamophobic"? I imagine most people on the Left would be less forgiving in their assessment.

You start with completely different assumptions for each case, and that's the double standard.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby slacks » Wed Oct 21, 2009 4:44 am UTC

Point 1
Censoring any given topic has a potential problem with censoring future topics.

It doesn't matter terribly much if the censorship comes from government or private individuals or special interest groups. If you say a person should be punished to any degree for the views they present then there is the possibility of that expanding to other topics and opinions. That said, some ideas should definitely be discouraged (ie factually wrong ideas, among others).

Point 2
There is somewhat of a cognitive leap when connecting a character (or characature) to a stereotype of an entire race. More likely the character is reinforcing a stereotype that is already there or creating a stereotype if the person has no previous knowledge.

For instance, there were a decent number of people calling Michael Bay a racist because of the Transformers movies, despite the "black" characters in question being robots (and not being literally black). The robots were not explicitely linked to African-American culture either. In fact the only way that the characters could be viewed as supporting a stereotype is if you applied the stereotype to the characters and then used that as support for the stereotype. The stereotype is only supported because it already existed.

Now suppose the characters were actually human and had dark skin. You sill have to make the leap that the characters in front of you represent some group as a whole. For instance, people who watch Rain Man don't usually associate Rayman's autism with him being the older brother but many people do associate autism with being savant (or vice versa). The former would be stereotyping if the stereotype was already present, but there is no stereotype that older brothers are more prone to autism.

Using the example given in the origional post, suppose that instead of Muhammad being pictured it had been Buddha. Instead of provoking an uproar, I'm pretty sure most people would simply have been confused by the image. This is because Buddhists are not stereotyped as being bombers/terrorists.

Any one portrayal of a group does not consitute a stereotype, it is that portrayal in the context of the audience's already held stereotypes that really matters. Interestingly, those stereotypes change over time.

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Wed Oct 21, 2009 5:13 am UTC

slacks wrote:For instance, there were a decent number of people calling Michael Bay a racist because of the Transformers movies, despite the "black" characters in question being robots (and not being literally black). The robots were not explicitely linked to African-American culture either. In fact the only way that the characters could be viewed as supporting a stereotype is if you applied the stereotype to the characters and then used that as support for the stereotype. The stereotype is only supported because it already existed.

The character named Jazz (a musical genre once exclusively the domain of black artists) moves around like a break dancer (a dancing style pioneered by black people) says "this looks like a good place to kick back" and then DIES. No, it's not explicit, but it's fairly fucking implicit. Besides, did you not see Anthony Anderson's performance? You don't have to read very far into it to see someone's playing it very dangerously with stereotype.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Thriftweed » Wed Oct 21, 2009 6:05 am UTC

One of the main difference between the two is that being a Muslim is a choice. Black skin is a superficial and mostly irrelevant characteristic, and it is something that is beyond a person's control. Conversely, if someone is a Muslim fundamentalist then they have chosen to accept and support a specific set of beliefs, beliefs which will likely impact their attitudes and behavior.

Additionally, blackface tends to be derisive and often implies (or explicitly states) that there is something wrong with being black. The cartoons, on the other hand, are mainly offensive because Muslims don't like pictures of Muhammad. If the same cartoons had featured Jesus, Yahweh, Vishnu, Buddha, etc, they wouldn't have been an issue. It is unreasonable to allow a group to label anything it wants offensive and to then to ban that thing in defense of that group, unless the group can provide reasons for a ban that are significantly more substantial than "we don't like it".

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby slacks » Wed Oct 21, 2009 6:43 am UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:
slacks wrote:For instance, there were a decent number of people calling Michael Bay a racist because of the Transformers movies, despite the "black" characters in question being robots (and not being literally black). The robots were not explicitely linked to African-American culture either. In fact the only way that the characters could be viewed as supporting a stereotype is if you applied the stereotype to the characters and then used that as support for the stereotype. The stereotype is only supported because it already existed.

The character named Jazz (a musical genre once exclusively the domain of black artists) moves around like a break dancer (a dancing style pioneered by black people) says "this looks like a good place to kick back" and then DIES. No, it's not explicit, but it's fairly fucking implicit. Besides, did you not see Anthony Anderson's performance? You don't have to read very far into it to see someone's playing it very dangerously with stereotype.

IMO, it wouldn't matter if they were actually black characters or not. The point is that stereotyping in a given character only matters when there is already a strong stereotype in place (or if it causes a strong stereotype). In the context of the discussion, the Muhammad cartoons would not have caused an uproar if there wasn't a strong stereotype of Islamic extremism already.

It just so happens that some people responded to the Transformers movies in a way that illustrates the point pretty well.

Mainly I was thinking of Skids and Mudflap from the second movie, who are alleged to be black because:
1. How they talk
2. Skids has a gold tooth
3. They are illiterate
These things are not inherently connected to black people. However, many people have made that connection and I'm pretty sure it was intended that way as well.

I think you have a fair point with Jazz, although in that case I'm not sure what the negative stereotype is supposed to be... black people die?

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby setzer777 » Wed Oct 21, 2009 3:09 pm UTC

guenther wrote:
TheAmazingRando wrote:I'm defining an action as racist if it communicates racist ideas to a significant percentage of its audience (where the line of "significance" is up to debate).

I have a theory about people redefining racist. They don't do it to aid clarity, they don't do it to be more accurate. Rather they do it to have the full power and might of such a word on their side, or to make sure it's not used by the other side.

Anyway, I don't know why you choose your definition; it's not in the dictionary that way.


I'd say the reason "racist", "sexist", etc. are redefined in such a way is that if you make intention part of them, anyone can easily deny accusations. You can't read someone's mind, so if they say their intentions were innocent, you usually have no real response except to call them a liar, which doesn't usually lead anywhere useful. Redefining the words to refer to the consequences of an action makes it something that can be more easily supported or opposed by real world evidence.

You might have a point about clarity though - it could be that when the general population attaches severe negative connotations to "racist", the bad intentions are a big part of what's "bad" about racism. It could be that while anyone can define "racist" to refer more to objective consequences than subjective intentions, that kind of racism isn't as "bad" (by society's standards) as the intention-focused usage, and only carries the same force by people confusing it with the intention-focused definition.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby TheAmazingRando » Wed Oct 21, 2009 5:22 pm UTC

Guenther, you said in the OP that you wanted this to be about principles, not about the specifics of the linked examples. As I said, it's possible that some of the Muhammad cartoons are also racist. If they are, they're just as bad as blackface. I start with different assumptions about each case because they're different. I don't see how this is a double standard? Of course if I assume they're the same, then I'll agree that they deserve the same response. I'm just saying, offense alone isn't a reason to compare the two.

Also, I think it's reasonable to define racism as existing regardless of intent. Racism is bad because it hurts people, and racism hurts people regardless of whether or not it's intended, so why should the intent matter? Focusing on intent focuses on the person rather than the action. When you assume that it's the action, not the person, that is racist, the focus shifts to the action unless the person (as they often do) dismisses all racist interpretations as invalid and irrelevant. And liberals are hardly exempt from these accusations.

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Hazel » Wed Oct 21, 2009 6:53 pm UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:Like Monty Python's Life of Brian they flirt with blasphemy, yet these cartoons also present the danger of flirting with such blasphemy.

Going to have to nitpick this comparison. The Pythons were very careful to avoid actual blasphemy. Going by their own words, they'd done their research and decided Jesus was a decent guy and there wasn't any point in making fun of him. He only appears one or two times and is presented very canonically. A more suitable word is heresy — Terry Jones insists on explicitly calling it that. The ridicule is aimed entirely at the way people interpret things.

As to the cartoons themselves, I just keep thinking that they could've been done better, in a cleverer way. The entire thought process that went into it seems to be "Ooh, I'm playing on Muslim stereotypes, isn't this controversial".

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Wed Oct 21, 2009 7:26 pm UTC

Thriftweed wrote:One of the main difference between the two is that being a Muslim is a choice. Black skin is a superficial and mostly irrelevant characteristic, and it is something that is beyond a person's control. Conversely, if someone is a Muslim fundamentalist then they have chosen to accept and support a specific set of beliefs, beliefs which will likely impact their attitudes and behavior.

How much choice does someone have being a Muslim if they were born to a Muslim family surrounded by Muslim culture in a Muslim country? Why can't we interpret the cartoons to be labeling this person as a potential terrorist because he worships a prophet who wears a bomb for a hat (or to be less tongue-in-cheek, has such links to terrorism)?

setzer777 wrote:I'd say the reason "racist", "sexist", etc. are redefined in such a way is that if you make intention part of them, anyone can easily deny accusations. You can't read someone's mind, so if they say their intentions were innocent, you usually have no real response except to call them a liar, which doesn't usually lead anywhere useful. Redefining the words to refer to the consequences of an action makes it something that can be more easily supported or opposed by real world evidence.

You might have a point about clarity though - it could be that when the general population attaches severe negative connotations to "racist", the bad intentions are a big part of what's "bad" about racism. It could be that while anyone can define "racist" to refer more to objective consequences than subjective intentions, that kind of racism isn't as "bad" (by society's standards) as the intention-focused usage, and only carries the same force by people confusing it with the intention-focused definition.

Well let's define "Islamaphobia" the same way. Poof! Now the cartoons are never acceptable. (Except for people that think Islamaphobia is OK because it picks on a religion, not race.)

If we want to make the action, not the intent, the issue, let's pick a different word. If someone wants to have us collectively frown on actions with racist connotations, be honest and just say that.

And clarity is my whole point on this. As an example, let's suppose someone did something questionable. We can't call him a racist because we can't prove his intent, but we can label his action racist regardless of intent. Ah, but now he's done something racist, and why would he do that if he weren't a racist? Case closed!

TheAmazingRando wrote:Guenther, you said in the OP that you wanted this to be about principles, not about the specifics of the linked examples. As I said, it's possible that some of the Muhammad cartoons are also racist. If they are, they're just as bad as blackface. I start with different assumptions about each case because they're different. I don't see how this is a double standard? Of course if I assume they're the same, then I'll agree that they deserve the same response. I'm just saying, offense alone isn't a reason to compare the two.

Here's how I read you're argument:
- If the cartoons are racist they're bad.
- The blackface routine is racist and is bad.

Why is there an "if" for the cartoons? Can't we define them as racists using your same definition for blackface? Then it doesn't matter what the artist intended, it's just as bad as blackface.

TheAmazingRando wrote:Also, I think it's reasonable to define racism as existing regardless of intent. Racism is bad because it hurts people, and racism hurts people regardless of whether or not it's intended, so why should the intent matter? Focusing on intent focuses on the person rather than the action. When you assume that it's the action, not the person, that is racist, the focus shifts to the action unless the person (as they often do) dismisses all racist interpretations as invalid and irrelevant. And liberals are hardly exempt from these accusations.

Should we redefine "attempted murder" to include all traffic accidents regardless of intent? We certainly want there to be less traffic accidents. We certainly want to focus on the harm to others, not just intent. Does this sounds like a good idea? If someone rear-ends me, I can accuse him of trying to kill me.

Or maybe we can just call traffic accidents bad on their own with muddying the waters with very emotionally powerful words.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby oxoiron » Wed Oct 21, 2009 7:36 pm UTC

guenther wrote:
Thriftweed wrote:One of the main difference between the two is that being a Muslim is a choice. Black skin is a superficial and mostly irrelevant characteristic, and it is something that is beyond a person's control. Conversely, if someone is a Muslim fundamentalist then they have chosen to accept and support a specific set of beliefs, beliefs which will likely impact their attitudes and behavior.

How much choice does someone have being a Muslim if they were born to a Muslim family surrounded by Muslim culture in a Muslim country? Why can't we interpret the cartoons to be labeling this person as a potential terrorist because he worships a prophet who wears a bomb for a hat (or to be less tongue-in-cheek, has such links to terrorism)?
I was born to a Christian family surrounded by Christian culture in what amounts to a Christian country, yet I am not a Christian.

On the other hand, I was born with pale skin and I'll die with pale skin, no matter how hard I try to change my color.

Is it that hard to see how those are different things?
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby guenther » Wed Oct 21, 2009 8:25 pm UTC

I don't know what country you're in, but I'm guessing it's not the same cultural nor governmental permeation of religion as some of these Muslim countries. And I'm not saying it's impossible to change, just unlikely.

I just don't buy the argument that "religion is OK because it's a choice, race is not because it's not". There's lots of jokes that pick on men, and I didn't have a choice on that. But I don't care. It's about the offense, not about the choice. And I think the offense is based on a perceived intolerance of something we use for our identity. If a blond tells a blond joke or a Jew tells a Jewish joke, it's OK because we know they're not being intolerant of themselves. By the "no choice rule" those jokes should be not OK.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby oxoiron » Wed Oct 21, 2009 8:44 pm UTC

guenther wrote:I don't know what country you're in, but I'm guessing it's not the same cultural nor governmental permeation of religion as some of these Muslim countries. And I'm not saying it's impossible to change, just unlikely.
I'm in the U.S., and over the last thirty years I've watched fundamentalist Christians worming their way into my government in an attempt to dictate morality on the rest of the country. By no means is religious involvement as entrenched as it is in some Muslim nations, but it's something that worries/bothers/annoys me.

I agree, if you grow up in a country where renouncing the state religion can bring down the long, brutal arm of the law on yourself and your family, it's pretty hard to change. That said, while you may have to keep your mouh shut and publicly follow customs, you still don't have to believe.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Vaniver » Wed Oct 21, 2009 10:55 pm UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:Legally? Jackson Jive aren't being prosecuted. I'm only justifying the popular reaction to it.
My point is that you make a logical jump in saying that humiliating a group implies violence towards them is acceptable. To me, it is abundantly clear why it's ok (from a rights perspective) to call someone I don't like something mean, and not ok to punch them in the face. Gay jokes do exist in places where gay bashings don't occur.

TheAmazingRando wrote:Racism is bad because it hurts people
Are you including 'humiliation' in hurt? Because if so, then the Muhammed cartoons are bad, and if not, blackface isn't.
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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby TheAmazingRando » Thu Oct 22, 2009 12:02 am UTC

guenther wrote:Here's how I read you're argument:
- If the cartoons are racist they're bad.
- The blackface routine is racist and is bad.

Why is there an "if" for the cartoons? Can't we define them as racists using your same definition for blackface? Then it doesn't matter what the artist intended, it's just as bad as blackface.
Painting up actors as goofy caricatures of black people is racist. Depicting Mohammad in a cartoon is not racist. I think some of the cartoons are probably racist due to additional factors. How does the depiction of Mohammad alone make it racist, by my definition?

guenther wrote:Should we redefine "attempted murder" to include all traffic accidents regardless of intent? We certainly want there to be less traffic accidents. We certainly want to focus on the harm to others, not just intent. Does this sounds like a good idea? If someone rear-ends me, I can accuse him of trying to kill me.

Or maybe we can just call traffic accidents bad on their own with muddying the waters with very emotionally powerful words.
Your example doesn't actually remove intent from the equation. The statement "I can accuse him of trying to kill me" means we're still worrying about intent (the other person trying to kill you), whereas my definition of racism (which didn't originate with me and is pretty widely accepted) says that intent doesn't matter. I don't look at a racist action and, regardless of intent, say "the perpetrator was trying to be racist." We just say "the action was racist." The action is separate from the actor. Doing racist things doesn't necessarily make you "a racist." Legally intent matters, and should matter, but it doesn't solely matter. Even if you don't intend to hurt someone, you're still liable for the damages.

I don't think applying the word "racist" to things that were not intended to be racist muddies the waters. I think it's important to realize that actions can be racist even if they weren't meant to be, that it's possible to perpetuate racism without having racist thoughts.

Vaniver wrote:Are you including 'humiliation' in hurt? Because if so, then the Muhammed cartoons are bad, and if not, blackface isn't.
Humiliation is not the only harm caused by blackface.

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Re: Blackface and Muhammad cartoons

Postby Vaniver » Thu Oct 22, 2009 1:32 am UTC

TheAmazingRando wrote:Humiliation is not the only harm caused by blackface.
The only injury you've listed is that it depicts black people as goofy and uneducated, which is 'humiliation' in my book. How does blackening ones face or performing in the minstrel fashion injure people other than through humiliation?
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