Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Young and the Mindless

The case of Alexandra Wallace -- the UCLA student who originally posted that tasteless rant on YouTube -- fuels a debate that has been fought on multiple levels for more than six decades across much of America.

Political correctness, that most usual of suspects, has surprisingly little to do with all of this. It is easy to recognize that Ms. Wallace crossed a line and is going to pay dearly in many ways for her indiscretion, although this young woman's thoughtless words could yet polarize the matter between resistance and change and pave the path for a career in politics.

The media for its part, having arrived at some quick and wholly reasonable conclusions, is patting itself on the back so hard that this is threatening to turn into another of Barack Obama's teachable moments -- from which, let's face it, few (and certainly not Ms. Wallace) have ever taken away anything worthwhile.

Since that last episode featuring Henry Louis Gates Jr. and one of Boston's finest, many mainstream American media outlets remain happy to employ "racism" as a trigger word, especially to define black-white relations, and continue to frame the issue as a challenge this country can somehow overcome merely by keeping that word in constant and mindless circulation. These bastions of fine journalism have not so far proved willing or intellectually capable of complicating the argument on a consistent basis.

For instance, during the coverage of the 2008 election cycle I was shocked to see Democrat spin doctors desperately seeking to dispel the questionable assertion that Obama was a Muslim man as if being Muslim implied that Obama was working to destroy America from the inside. Over the past decade, in the aftermath of the events of September 2001 and other political developments, Muslim and Chinese folk have been increasingly constructed -- not only by conservative radio talk-shows and TV channels but also, curiously, by liberal and centrist media such as MSNBC and CNN -- as the new USSR, the new bogeymen. And here's another example of oversimplification at play: American hegemonic cultural discourse deems "Asian" to be representative of a diverse set of South-East Asian civilizations. If we agree that racism is borne out of an imbalance in power relations between cultures, you could posit that it is in fact racist for anyone to willfully deny Indians from South Asia, who constitute a significant minority community in America, the right to self-identify as 'Asian'.

As someone who was raised outside of this country and has lived here for less than three years, my knowledge of its history is doubtless unsophisticated but on the other hand my position as a privileged outsider affords me insights that may escape (and I use this word cautiously) "natives". All of this suggests to me that a significant percentage of this country's citizens may have learnt from mainstream media to read the very serious and complex issue of racism in limited ways. Indeed there are many blind spots to remove before this society is able to evolve into something truly post-racial.