Wednesday, 30 March 2011

So, casual racism is ok now?

Shocking in 1967, commonplace today, right? Er... no.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with Rastamouse (who is actually pretty awesome, although I can see the potential problem with a lot of white 5-years-olds imitating Jamaican patois at kindergarten) we have a new scandal; Brian True-May, executive producer of Midsomer Murders (I think you need to be over 50) has ignited a race row. Mr True-May proclaimed “We just don't have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn't be the English village with them. It just wouldn't work. We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.”

I can’t really be bothered to examine this nasty little piece of bigotry; let’s just say, if he wasn’t racist, he might have said something like “We’ve researched this and found there just aren’t many ethnic minorities living in small English villages (strange but true) so we were trying to keep the proportions realistic.” Instead, he made it sound like English villages must have be segregated in order to be respectable.

A lot of people seem ready to leap to his defence, although most letters of support seems to run along the lines of “I’m definitely not racist, some of my best friends are black... and even I don’t think darkies should be allowed in a nice ITV drama.”

How is it that in 2011, we are still having these debates? And how is it that the number of black Hollywood stars has barely increased since the fifties? And that Asian nationalities are represented by... well, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu? And that Indians are rarely allowed on the silver screen unless they are part of a comedy / drama about a stereotypical “Indian family”, or in a slum?

What makes it worse is that when anyone “of colour” does make it into the flicks, changes are made in the script to allow for this. I recently watched Sorority Row (don’t judge me, I have a weakness for rubbishy horror films) and one of the first lines was that of the “snobby bitch” character to the token Asian girl; “I like being your friend, because it makes me multi-cultural, without having to do anything.” Is inter-racial friendship really so unusual that it needs to be commented on? Um... maybe it is.

Dexter and his pal Mazuka:  
"How do you remember that? It wasn't even a homicide."
"Cheung is Asian, bro. He makes us all look bad."
Will Smith is one of those gifted actors who can carry a movie single-handedly, and his universal popularity has resulted in a string of varied roles. But I find it frustrating that screenwriters seem unable to resist the temptation to make some reference to his colour. Of course, this may be totally down to him – he knows that calling himself a “brother” and making racial jokes gets laughs. His first line in Men in Black came as he jumped off a bridge onto an open-top bus, telling surprised passengers "It just be rainin' black people in New York!" Now, Chris O’Donnell was originally in line for this role. Perhaps we should count it as a bonus that a non-white actor got the role at all, but... what are the chances that Chris O’Donnell’s first line would have been “It just be rainin' white people in New York!"?

Likewise, JLo may well have signed a contract saying she will not make any films unless she at least mentions being a “Latina”. It’s almost as if the film makers feel some need to “explain” or apologise for the presence of a non-white character.

Sidney Poitier was the go-to guy for racial dramas in the 50s and 60s, Richard Pryor was the butt of the black jokes (even if he was the one making them) in the 60s and 70s, and Eddie Murphy basically owned the 80s with a string of classics. (Not to mention the timeless genius of Bill Cosby.) Considering that the Civil Rights Act was only signed in 1964, and Martin Luther King jr was assassinated in 1968, maybe it’s amazing that we’ve come so far.

But we still have a long way to go. I’ve noticed that a lot of people will make “racist” jokes in a sniggering, Ricky Gervais “You know I’m not really racist, so it’s ok for me to say this,” kind of way. I was recently chatting to some colleagues about dodgy areas of London, rife with drug dealers, and one said to the other “You know about that sort of thing, don’t you? You’re black!”

Of course, it’s 2011, and he was “joking” so it couldn’t possibly be racist, right? Well, it irritated me, and I’m white, so I don’t have to listen to stuff like that every day. But I imagine if you are a member of any ethnic minority*, and people make “jokes” like this all the time, every day, and each of them thinks it’s ok, and you’re not allowed to be offended because that would mean you didn’t have a sense of humour – well, I imagine that must be pretty flipping tedious. (It's also useful to bear in mind that "I was only joking!" is the hallmark of an abuser, in life generally.)

(*I know. "Ethnic minority" sounds kind of patronising, as whether you're a minority or not kind of depends on your geographical location.)

It’s said that Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of David Palmer in 24 opened up the way for Obama by getting people used to the idea of a black president. Casting agents – you can change the world! Maybe one day we'll see a black guy cast in a Shakespeare play other than Othello, or feature in a horror film without making any jokes about being the first to go. Maybe an Asian girl will play a character who isn't a kung-foo expert or dominatrix. 

Here’s hoping Hollywood will catch up with reality.

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