For the Narcissist Lover in You…

The Accidental Racist

I am not going to start this out by saying I’m not racist.  After all, according to science and popular culture, we’re all so hopelessly, subconsciously racist that there’s no point in even pretending to like ourselves.

Image“You suck, self!”

But I try, dammit.  In a previous blog, I shared an incident where a bunch of my white, liberal co-workers were all in a snit about a group of people– all of whom happened to be black– leaning against my car in the parking lot, waiting for their ride.  I didn’t care in the least, but my coworkers wouldn’t rest until SOMEbody (it ended up being one of them) put a stop to it.  Whatever “it” was, I still don’t know.  My point is that it seemed, even to generally conservative, allegedly subconsciously racist me, that there was something wrong with assuming those people were up to no good just because of their skin color.

Amazingly, that very blog post led a liberal buffoon (I’ve referred to him before) to call me racist.  He insisted that there was no acceptable way to talk about race issues, at all, ever, especially if one was a conservative, since all conservatives everywhere are totally racist hatemongers.

Anyway, whatever.  The point is: I try.  And while I know it’s an impossibility to feel empathy for anyone in the majority (and I am about as majority as it gets) I find myself in an increasing Catch 22.  I ran into it just this morning.

I am working on a new mobile game.  It’s a harmless little bowling game, set in the 1970s, with four animated opponents.  As a good, responsible, socially conscious creative type, I knew I could not fashion my characters after the typical seventies era bowler (i.e. four chubby, balding white guys).  Thus, I created a diversity of characters, only one of which is a chubby, balding white guy.  The other three are (so far), a snarky teenage Asian girl, a geriatric beehive-haired, cig-smoking grandma, and a big secret-agent-type bald guy with sunglasses who happens to be black.

ImageThis guy.

Fair enough, right?  I’m representing three races, two (of the seven or so) genders, a variety of ages, and four distinct bowling shoe sizes.  All my bases are covered.

And then it came time to do the voices.

As a rule, since I am very much a one-man-studio, I do all the male voices for my male characters myself.  It came time to record the lines for my black character and, well, I started getting nervous.  Because doing his voice required me to think about what a black secret agent character would sound like, and our culture is very sensitive about acknowledging differences between races.

In short, if I tried to sound black, I’d be acknowledging that there is a distinct timbre to a black voice.  But if I just sounded like me, I would likely get criticized for having some suburban cracker voicing a black character.

And then I actually thought this: is a white man recording a voice as a black man the audio equivalent of performing in black face?  Aagh!

ImageAaugghh!  AAAUUGGGHHHHH!!!!!

Scoff away, but this is a legitimate concern.  A few days ago, Colin Powell (the Republican who twice endorsed Barack Obama) stated that a critique of the president’s first debate performance as “lazy” was closet racism:

Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African Americans, the second word is shiftless and then there’s a third word that goes along with that.”

In other words, thoughtless use of the wrong word in a critique equals racism.  This isn’t just in politics, either.  A sportscaster was fired for using the phrase “chink in the armor” in a discussion about basketball player (and Asian American) Jeremy Lin.  Of course, “chink in the armor” is not a racist phrase; it predates the use of the word “chink” as a racial slur, referring (do I really need to explain this?) to a fracture in a bit of metal armor, thus making it vulnerable.  Granted, in today’s uber-sensitive media climate, it’s a thoughtless phrase to use– not because it reveals any closet racism, but because we live in a culture of professional offense, where a certain kind of person lives only to pile onto those sorts of “gotcha” moments.

ImageI was searching for a pic of Piers Morgan decrying someone for their racism, but found this first, and come on, I’m only human.

So from the start, the use of a black character represented a bit of a problem, despite my best intentions.

But it gets worse.

From the beginning, my game characters were meant to be references and homages to pop culture entities.  My first character, Ernie, was secretly designed after the character named “Walter” from the film “The Big Lebowski”, a cult comedy about a pair of bowling buddies.  My Asian character, “Ming”, is marginally a reference to the icy/sexy characters most often portrayed by Lucy Liu.

When it came to my black secret agent character, he was meant to be a cross between Men in Black and a boilerplate CIA character.  Thus, I named him after the government agent characters that have regularly appeared in the classic and iconic (film and television) tale of “the A Team”.  If you recall, it’s a running joke that all government agents have the same name: Lynch.

ImageInexplicably played in the movie by an advertising guy from the sixties.

Just today, I was animating my secret agent character, working on the lip-synch (using my voice– nervous titter) for the bit where he says “My name is agent Lynch” and for the first time– probably because I am increasingly worried about my handling of this character– a pall of cold terror fell over me as the character on-screen spoke his lines.

“My name is agent Lynch…”

Had I really, very nearly, horrifyingly, released a video game with a black character whose name is (choke!)… Lynch?

For the first time, I asked myself this seemingly innocent, albeit somewhat desperate, question: how difficult would it be to alter the character’s texture to just make him white? 

bowler

Answer: not difficult at all.

I caught myself.

Had I really considered taking the black character out of my game, reducing it to an entirely pale cast, to make the game less potentially racist?

This is the Catch-22 of modern racism.  It used to mean actively hating or demeaning people based on their skin color.  Now, it means accidentally stepping on any of a thousand racially-charged bombs on the minefield of popular culture.

If I don’t include a black character, I am racist.  If I do, somehow, the handling of that character will make me an even worse racist.

Now seriously, I am not looking for sympathy here.  Or even empathy, really.  Honestly, I think I am writing this to apologize in advance, and to ask for a little grace.  Somehow, inevitably, I will handle this wrong.  After all, when I wrote about not judging a bunch of people leaning against my car based solely on their skin color, I still, somehow, inexplicably, ended up being called a racist.

I don’t want to give in to the pressure to just avoid any use of diverse characters.  Amazingly, I like diverse characters.  I like diverse people!  But the pressure is pretty strong.  One can get branded one of the worst things imaginable purely by accident– purely by not predicting how the most professionally offended and uber-sensitive people in the world might willfully misread an incautious word, or reference, or detail.

I almost released a game with a black character named after a heinous detail from American racial history, just because I wanted to reference an obscure joke from “The A Team”.  What else am I missing?  Surely something.

So I am begging your pardon, in advance, for the way I will surely offend somebody, somewhere, totally unintentionally.  But I refuse to not use diverse characters for that reason.  As a good friend of mine says, if I do that, they win– in this instance, “they” being the professionally offended, the willing misinterpreters, the people for whom racial “gotcha” moments are nearly a fetish.

But just to be safe, I will be extremely careful with any more A-Team references.

Anyone want to suggest a new secret agent name?

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9 responses

  1. Hester

    I’d go with Bond… OMG! I just realized that is almost as bad! Bond… bondage… slavery. Yikes! I will give it some more thought.

    Hester

    January 18, 2013 at 7:03 pm

  2. Mr. Bubbles. aka, the guy who looks exactly like your character from Lilo and Stitch.

    How bout Mr. Anderson? Mr. Jones? Mr. Lee? Mr. Chang? (Maybe he’s bi-cultural.)

    Then again, you can go with actual African surnames: Mr. Owusu, Mr. Yeboah, Mr. Ndiaye?

    But I know how you feel. I’ve seen the “There is absolutely NO right way here” path that I’m left with as an author being told that, being white, I am only authorized and capable of writing white characters because I can’t possibly understand how to write a non-white person, but if I write only white characters I’m clearly racist for not having any non-white characters in my book, but if I add one and somehow manage to not offend them in how I’ve written the character then I’m racist for having a ‘token’ non-white character and if I dare to put in a fair amount of non-white characters I’m sure to, at some point, write something that is going to be wildly misconstrued and decried as the most racist piece of garbage of the century.

    One would suppose that my only option is to give up writing entirely, but mostly I just say “I don’t care what you think; you being offended does not make me racist.”

    And that’s pretty much it. Just because someone got offended does not de facto mean I was racist. There will always be someone who decides to take offense to something, and we cannot possibly foresee every single possible way in which a person might take something that we said or did.

    if the only reason it’s racist is because I’m white, then isn’t *that* racist?

    Good luck with your game.

    January 18, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    • He does look a lot like the guy from Lilo and Stitch. Maybe I should embrace the potential race issues and give him a huge Afro? That would be pretty cool, since it would make him a cross between Lilo and Stitch and Jules from Pulp Fiction. “You know what they call a sixteen pound bowling ball in Amsterdam?”

      January 18, 2013 at 9:56 pm

  3. I once had a black co-worker named John B. White. I always wondered about his parents’ choice of names. There’s no way you’re going to win this, whatever choice you make. Why not just throw caution to the winds and name him Black. Or perhaps, Ebon Black. LOL

    January 19, 2013 at 6:21 am

  4. Geo,
    I like Mr. Anderson. Or Lilo and Stitch character.
    To your bigger question – my personal opinion is that your innocent intent that’s not meant to offend, and an actual fact that it may be offensive are two different things.
    I think your sensitivity to how others may perceive it develops from extended exposure – when you feel like you are in someone else’s shoes, or skin. For example, I am certain you would instinctively know that something would be offensive to women (binders full of women come to mind). You have to be around black people a lot to get it on a gut level what they would consider offensive. Generally it is stereotyping of what’s considered “Black”. This is where a lot of TV shows often go, and I end up turning them off in disgust.
    For example, Ebon Black would be highly offensive. Tyrone would be potentially offensive, but could (maybe) fly. But Will, for example, would be safe. Like Will Smith. Although may be too bland for an over-the-top character. Maybe it would better be Mr. Smith. A generic name for an agent under cover.
    I am white and Russian from Uzbekistan, but I spent seven years studying African dance, hanging out with Afrocentrists in my 20s, my husband is black, and I am raising mixed race children. I can tell you that over the years you develop a sense of what’s not OK. Like your sense of what’s not OK to tell to or about a strong woman. For example, you have no trouble writing about strong women and don’t struggle with portraying them as game characters. If you were not around women much (or strong and educated women like your wife), it would be easier to say ignorant things, inadvertently offending, while you want to just be yourself and even please.
    If I were you, I would run your character by a few highly educated black people you know – they should give you a sense of where you land on a stereotyping scale.
    I also wish Boondocks were still around…
    Olessia

    January 19, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    • Olessia, I always really appreciate your input. Your comments are always insightful, helpful, and (of course) well written.

      Thus it pains me a bit this time to say that you have illustrated perfectly the exact cultural idiosyncrasy that this blog post laments. You mentioned that it becomes much easier to understand (and therefore predict) potentially offensive, if inadvertent, phrases by being around people in minority groups. This, of course, I wholly appreciate. Then, however, you used the following example:

      “…I am certain you would instinctively know that something would be offensive to women (binders full of women come to mind).”

      And it completely derailed the conversation. Here’s why.

      I watched that debate, along with my wife (who is, as you say, definitely a strong woman). We did not predict, or even blink, at the phrase “binders full of women”. While it is a somewhat inelegant phrase, inelegant phrases are a dime a dozen in extemporaneous speech.

      But there’s a good reason why the phrase did not strike either of us as sexist: in context, it’s exactly the opposite. Here’s the phrase in context of the quote (which was about the predominance of men in the early cabinet positions):

      “Can’t we find some women that are also qualified? And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

      Neither Jael or I gasped in horror at the seeming sexism of the phrase “binders full of women”, simply because it came at the end of a discussion about proactively seeking out qualified female candidates for high cabinet positions. Calling Romney sexist because he used the phrase “binders full of women” in reference to a document full of female candidates that he specifically requested for cabinet positions is like calling the Emancipation Proclamation a racist document because it doesn’t include the phrase “African American”.

      My point is that sexism and racism have become something many people work hard to find in people they already dislike and wish to villify. It’s no longer objective, but ultimately subjective. Of the strong women I know, the ones who were offended by the phrase “binders full of women” are the ones who already disliked Romney and wanted one more nail for his coffin (and few of them were aware of the phrase’s actual context). Of the strong conservative women I know, they were– and continue to be– mystified as to why the phrase is sexist to begin with.

      I am among them. I just don’t understand it. He was referring to a document containing a list of female candidates that he requested for the purpose of ensuring there were women in his cabinet. Isn’t that, quite literally, the exact opposite of sexist?

      This isn’t important to me because it’s about Romney. That’s beside the point. It is important to me because, culturally, racism and sexism are no longer labels based on measurable negative attitudes about women or race. Racism and sexism are land-mines planted to trip people up– people who do not actually harbor any racist or sexist tendencies. A man makes a point about hiring women, and he is branded sexist. I make a point about not judging people based on the color of their skin, and I am publicly called racist by some buffoonish (white) liberal blogger.

      I just cannot disagree with this tendency strongly enough.

      January 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      • By the way, I went with “Agent Stone”. Generic enough, methinks, but strong and a little vague. His lines are:

        (these are mostly spoken off-screen, as the player bowls)

        Aim: Citizen, it’s a federal crime to point a bowling ball at me.
        Strike 1: Put that one in the X file.
        Strike 2: This is agent Stone, requesting backup.
        Gutter: Familiar with the gutter, are you?
        Spare 1: Did I mention I have friends in the IRS?
        Spare 2: Not bad for a civilian.
        Spare 3: I’ll need to inspect your ball for illegal enhancements.

        Challenge 1: “I’m agent Stone and my score is classified. A wager of twenty-five USD would be enough to grant you the required clearance.”

        Challenge 2: “It is standard operating procedure to allow civilians a first win. It will not happen again. Rematch protocol requires a thirty-five dollar wager.”

        Challenge 3: “You have the right to a rematch, but I would strongly recommend against it. Forty-five dollars is the requisite bet should you insist.”

        Loses: “I am legally required to pay my debts in the unlikely event of a loss. The effect on my ego, however, is beyond the scope of mere economics.”

        Wins: “Don’t allow yourself to feel inferior, civilian. I am a trained professional, accustomed to challenges of the unknown. You are… well, you.”

        January 19, 2013 at 4:13 pm

  5. P.S. Agent Smith instead of Mr. Smith is better.

    January 19, 2013 at 12:56 pm

  6. Geo,
    I have to admit that although I am not indifferent, I am notoriously bad at discussing politics – partly because I find it all tiresome, and don’t bother to remember facts to use in the debates. I also am skeptical about accuracy of some of the facts that both parties use, so I never know if I am repeating something that’s true or it isn’t. I don’t have time to research everything myself. Thus, I usually don’t have much to say on the topic.

    With that said, I agree that there is a distinct possibility that I took the comment more offensively than others may have – not because I like to remain offended or further vilify the candidate – but because I am trying to decide whether I can trust this person to run our country and be my President.

    Of course, when you like someone, you are much more willing to understand them the way their intended to say something, even with imperfect delivery. People are more tolerant towards those they like and trust, and less forgiving towards those they don’t trust. I don’t know if one can avoid it completely.

    To get back to Romney and put it in even broader context, what felt wrong about the statement was the fact that the question was about equal pay for equal work for women (something I can emotionally relate to because of personal experiences before I started my own company) – and Romney somehow answered it by talking about hiring women for his cabinet. He then continued with making equal pay issue about getting home early from work.

    As to the binders, there was also an ever-perceptible, dehumanizing tone to the comment. I know he had misspoken – should have said binders full of resumes of qualified women candidates – or something similar. So my question is – would someone have misspoken when they are deeply respectful of women or even if they did make a mistake (after all, it’s a huge pressure to be live in a presidential debate), would they have caught themselves and corrected themselves on the spot because their ear is attuned to how they should be referring to women?

    Is this a Freudian slip or an innocent gaffe? Is not noticing right away when something came out wrong reflective of certain level of insensitivity? Is the statement a symptom of a larger problem? Without the trust there, just like most people, I tend to arrive to my own conclusions to underpin an opinion that has been formed by previous events and information, so the picture is painted. Just the phenomenon you pinpoint in your blog, alas, although I think there is ultimately more shades and complexity to it, more about trust and mistrust than anything else. That is, when someone is not a professional victim or label-maker, and when they are faced with an important decision and genuinely feel that something is off and don’t want to ignore a warning sign. I am, however, willing to keep an open mind within my (human) abilities.

    I just noticed it is 1:30 am. I tend to ramble and write with errors at this hour – I am not nocturnal at all, and when I ramble about politics, it’s even worse. So I better hit the pillow before I make my own gaffes and offend someone (khe, khe).

    P. S. I like Agent Stone – and the lines seem just fine, IMHO. Get a black friend to do the voice.

    January 20, 2013 at 6:39 am

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