When was the last time you had a productive conversation with someone that you called a racist, or a misogynist, or an -ist of any kind?
I'm not saying there aren't misogynists and racists and other bigoted people out there, or that we shouldn't call them out on it. You can't force people to change their minds, though - you can only open their eyes to what's going on in front of them. That requires civility and openness and a willingness to have a real dialog, and you don't get that when the first thing that comes out of your mouth is "you are such a racist!"
It's funny, but Avril Lavigne is kind of what got me thinking about this whole thing. She's got a new video out, and it's bad. The song is terrible in a bland, soulless, but still sort of earworm-y kind of way, and the video is her bouncing around in a pink wonderland like a spazzy eight year old hopped up on candy, blank-faced Japanese women dancing behind her.
While it might offend my ears, it doesn't really offend my sense of cultural sensitivity. I think it takes a serious love and understanding of Japanese culture to make a J-pop video, and that's basically what she's done. Would it have been preferable if, for example, her backup dancers has looked like they were having a little bit of fun? For sure. You really shouldn't use people as props, and I understand the criticism that Asians seem to be perpetually regarded as someone's sidekick. But is it racist? Not really.
I think that we need to have another word for things like that. When you think about the history of racism and racial subjugation, you think of things like mass murder, enslavement, and widespread oppression of the native culture. That's racist! That's really, awfully, totally, terribly fucking racist. And obviously there are still racist things going on today. The suppression of the black and minority vote. The ongoing issue of white flight that is dragging down city schools across the country. The way the penal system is rigged against black men. That's also racism at work, and it's something that we, as a country, still have to do a lot of work to address.
Avril Lavigne bopping around talking about Hello Kitty is something else entirely.
I get the desire to use the strongest possible terms to call out racial insensitivity, but I don't think it's productive. If we call Avril Lavigne racist, it minimizes what that term means when we need to apply to the really significant forms of racism, like the ones that I mentioned.
It's so hard to define the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. For me, cultural appropriation tends to be rooted in ignorance, someone seeing something and going "ooh, pretty!" and taking it for themselves, with no regard for what it means in the context of the culture. The bindi craze back in the 90s is a great example of this. Teenage girls everywhere were gluing them to their foreheads because Gwen Stefani did it, with no knowledge of or interest in what it meant to Indian women. War bonnets in fashion shows are the same kind of thing. But what about wearing a kimono, doing yoga, or wearing dreadlocks?
We definitely need to have a dialog about that kind of thing, and I think it's fair to tell the person that they're being culturally insensitive, and why. However, they're unlikely to take on the message if they feel attacked, and isn't the point of all this to help people realize what needs to be done to make the world a better place?
I am as guilty of overstating my case as anyone. I've realized recently, though, that I still value the goodwill of people that I might disagree with about some things. There are people out there that I might consider lost causes, or even enemies, but there are also people with whom I diverge politically, but still love and respect. In those cases, conversations can get very heated, but we still manage to stay civil with each other.
It would be a little Pollyanna-ish of me to say that if you're nice to everyone, eventually they will come around. Nope. Never in a million years. But it's important to maintain a degree of respect and civility in our discourse if we ever intend to accomplish anything, and we can start by not throwing around the word "racist" quite so often.