May 06, 2003
Question of the Day: Is Shizzolatin' Racist?

[The following is from Steve Perry's concerning something he posted a few days ago, and to which I linked. I think it's very pertinent as I've linked to other sites on my site -- "humor" sites -- that were criticized as being racist. My own response to Steve is below.]

I admit I had some misgivings over posting the Snoop Dogg translation of Bush's victory speech yesterday. And an old friend of mine--a person who tends to be both hypersensitive and wise in matters of crypto-racism--wrote me as follows: "This isn't such a good idea. It reeks of coon show."

I know what he means, and the question comes down to this (I think): Is it prima facie racist to employ racially tinged stereotypes to make a point?

The point I wished to make between the lines was this: Gangsta culture is gangsta culture, and if you credit the reasoning of Bush's foreign policy, you have to respect the most hardcore gangsta rappers as well--and, needless to say, vice versa. Why? Because either it's all right to value getting paid over all else--sooner rather than later, and by any means available--or else it's not. Any which way, I see the Bush administration and the most grandiose of the hiphop gangstas in the same light.

But maybe this is all just so much rationalization, irrelevant even if it's correct in its own obscure way; maybe, for practical purposes, the most salient point is that employing racial stereotypes to any end is pernicious. Myself, I think we're past that point. But I'm not entirely sure. Tell me what you think:

Dear Steve,

I run the website Circulars, and reposted the Shizzolatin piece, though with some reservations:

I didn’t foreground the metaphor that you were making between gangsta culture and the Bush regime – I don’t think too many people would have gotten that, certainly not in the formulation that you made on your blog today.

(“The point I wished to make between the lines was this: Gangsta culture is gangsta culture, and if you credit the reasoning of Bush's foreign policy, you have to respect the most hardcore gangsta rappers as well--and, needless to say, vice versa. Why? Because either it's all right to value getting paid over all else--sooner rather than later, and by any means available--or else it's not. Any which way, I see the Bush administration and the most grandiose of the hiphop gangstas in the same light.”)

I put it up, though, because I see my site as a sort of clearing house for different ways of making political art, even if slightly tasteless. At times – like when I make links to the site – racist stereotypes and language are involved. (Actually, it’s only that site that moves into racism – other more or less “tasteless” political art seems to have no problem stereotyping gays and women, not to mention those with mental health issues.)

Here are the two times that I linked to and/or took some of their art: (I actually agree with “Buford,” that the piece, which I hadn’t read entirely before posting, is pretty bad, though I think “he” is more full of “hatred” than I could ever be – I would never fantasize about doing harm to someone the way he does.)

Here’s the other one -- which seems to take shots at everybody, though the commenter didn’t obviously think so.

This is because I’m interested in the creative, non-discursive, “surprise attack” aspects of political art – excess, even if it moves beyond positive formulations of “what we should do,” since I feel pretty desperate to fill in the void of wilder forms of protest art that seem to have been more prevalent in the last century. Here is something rather extreme, again having to do mostly with celebrities:

In addition, I write about “digital poetics” and cover topics concerning how a text can move from an ethically neutral zone to one that is ethically charged based on the work of a simple algorithm – the site is the example I use, but it seems the most recent crop tends to have to do with Black American English (there are tons of “Ebonics” translators out there).

I suppose, if this didn’t come from a site actually created by Snoop Dogg – I’m assuming it was, or by his company – then I wouldn’t have posted it, as there is a pretty tedious new streak of web art these days (I assume by whites) that tries to make a good point – that the internet, or at least most of the discourse around it, seems to be the domain mostly of whites and Asians – by “getting dirty,” trying to be on the good cop by pretending to be the bad cop, and doing obnoxious things like this site -- -- whose URL speaks for itself.

I myself am Korean American (“half” Korean), and was not raised in a Korean neighborhood, so I’ve had my share of racial epithets tossed my way. I know that when I was in high school – I attended an urban high school in Jersey City rather than my mostly white high school in the suburbs – it was somewhat liberating for me and my friends there, who were mostly non-white, to play with racially-charged language – we took it over, in a sense, though not to pathological extremes – it still hurt when we heard it elsewhere.

I’ve never mentioned that I was Korean American on the site, though, as I didn’t think it mattered, in a way, and my hope was that the sensibility expressed on the site – to which there are over 15 contributors – would be general enough, beyond any need to psychoanalyze motives. But I confess that I was a bit afraid, also – would it be acceptable to people “out there” that a site that is so obviously critical of the Bush administration was created by a Korean American? I don’t want to know.

I guess I always hope that “we” can share a joke – that racist stereotypes are bad – by putting on the masks, switching identities, playing with the language, etc., but I’m not sure how that plays out in the long run, in either reaffirming what we would like to destroy, etc. I may have lost some readers by posting the links to, or even your site – well, my readership has gone down anyway, since the “war” “ended” – which is unfortunate, but I’ve learned a lot by reading the comments section on my site in reaction to these pieces, even when they were flames.

There are certainly enough stereotypes about white people flying around in the political art of today, perhaps particularly Texans – is the fact that it white Americans create this art important? Are the perspectives translating well across a broad spectrum of culture?

Anyway, I have no answers to any of this. One can’t expect everyone to share one’s sense of the range of permissible forms of expression – something will always confuse or anger someone else – negativity, whether in the form of punk rock, gangsta rap, Dada, even these language algorithms, can have its liberating aspects, but to many it might just seem vicious noise.


[A second email soon after...]

Hi Steve,

One last point I wanted to make was this – that the ethnic make-up of the Bush cabinet seems to suggest that he is responding to a need for racial diversity in the government, and is in some ways “progressive.” Fine, but I think the issue is not just “diversity” but “difference” – that the various races that live in America also play by different rules when they are existing in their own neighborhoods, cultures, etc. – speak differently, also. Sometimes they don’t even hear each other, though the Bush cabinet, working in exquisite concord, apparently does.

I suppose, though I am not sure, that creating obnoxious cartoons about “difference” at least suggest the contradictions and potential conflicts in American culture that the Bush cabinet seems to want to gloss over, as they have glossed over differences with their peers around the world. I prefer this harsh highlighting of recalcitrant social detail over the evangelical “vision” that guides our foreign and domestic policy at the moment. Perhaps I am the wrong person to foreground this – I’m pretty middle class – but nonetheless it seems necessary.

Does this make sense?


Posted by Brian Stefans at May 06, 2003 10:52 AM | TrackBack

Maybe I am missing something crucial but I guess I am less interested in whether something is intentionally or unintentionally racist than I am in what kind of response a work asks of its readers. If something or someone is a racist then that is clearly horrendous, but pointing it out rarely does much good or changes anything. None of us has a clean place from which to speak, which is different that saying none of us can judge another—I really hate that idea. What it does mean is that is that the only way we can judge anything or anyone is examine the consequences of the words employed. A work of art is useful if it implicates itself and its users in their own failures, their own missteps and misperceptions. The burden must remain on both the work and the readers. I think this has to do in part with Brian's "[interest] in the creative, non-discursive, 'surprise attack' aspects of political art" as well as the "hope that 'we' can share a joke." People that accuse Mark Twain of being a racist because of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, seem to miss the point. The book, fairly clearly, uses racist language to critique racism. Is "Shizzolatin' Racist"? I'm not exactly sure, but I do know that I am not interested in work that alleviates readers of any kind of attentive responsibility--that seems too much like propaganda.

Posted by: Joel Bettridge on May 7, 2003 02:23 AM

I thought that it was funny at first—but now I am of the opinion that it’s pretty racist—kind of gross.

Posted by: Sandra Simonds on May 20, 2003 07:15 PM

Very nice blog

Posted by: David on November 29, 2003 07:23 AM


Posted by: engagement rings on January 3, 2004 09:08 AM

Earlier I mentioned that variables can live in two different places. We're going to examine these two places one at a time, and we're going to start on the more familiar ground, which is called the Stack. Understanding the stack helps us understand the way programs run, and also helps us understand scope a little better.

Posted by: Rebecca on January 19, 2004 12:58 AM

To address this issue, we turn to the second place to put variables, which is called the Heap. If you think of the Stack as a high-rise apartment building somewhere, variables as tenets and each level building atop the one before it, then the Heap is the suburban sprawl, every citizen finding a space for herself, each lot a different size and locations that can't be readily predictable. For all the simplicity offered by the Stack, the Heap seems positively chaotic, but the reality is that each just obeys its own rules.

Posted by: Alexander on January 19, 2004 12:59 AM

Seth Roby graduated in May of 2003 with a double major in English and Computer Science, the Macintosh part of a three-person Macintosh, Linux, and Windows graduating triumvirate.

Posted by: Joos on January 19, 2004 12:59 AM

We can see an example of this in our code we've written so far. In each function's block, we declare variables that hold our data. When each function ends, the variables within are disposed of, and the space they were using is given back to the computer to use. The variables live in the blocks of conditionals and loops we write, but they don't cascade into functions we call, because those aren't sub-blocks, but different sections of code entirely. Every variable we've written has a well-defined lifetime of one function.

Posted by: Henry on January 19, 2004 12:59 AM

Let's take a moment to reexamine that. What we've done here is create two variables. The first variable is in the Heap, and we're storing data in it. That's the obvious one. But the second variable is a pointer to the first one, and it exists on the Stack. This variable is the one that's really called favoriteNumber, and it's the one we're working with. It is important to remember that there are now two parts to our simple variable, one of which exists in each world. This kind of division is common is C, but omnipresent in Cocoa. When you start making objects, Cocoa makes them all in the Heap because the Stack isn't big enough to hold them. In Cocoa, you deal with objects through pointers everywhere and are actually forbidden from dealing with them directly.

Posted by: Gwenhoivar on January 19, 2004 01:00 AM