Minorities pummeled by ethnic stereotypes at Halloween and election time
My neighbor was cleaning out her college-aged daughter’s room and gave me a large sombrero for the kids. Maybe for Halloween, she suggested, if they do not already have a costume.
Six-year-old Little Brother already had a costume, but he was thrilled to discover his new sombrero when he came home from school, so stately and grand, with its sweeping green brim, pink accents, and fancy blue stitching, that he immediately put it on and ran outside to “show the guys.”
The older neighbor boys good-naturedly teased him: “Where’s your horse? Where’s your guitar?”
He came home puzzled and embarrassed that he had thought it was a cool sombrero when, by their comments, it must have been some sort of cowboy hat. But it did not look like what he thought a cowboy hat looked like. So what did they mean exactly?
How to explain this? How to protect him? Little Brother knows some (real) Hispanic Americans, but none who wear that kind of garb. (Hey NPR’s Juan Williams! Check out Muslims Wearing Things at Tumblr.com.)
I suppose this is how we learn stereotypes, by hearing jokes or comments from other people, seeing recurring images, learning to put together certain characteristics (including value judgments) with certain groups of people.
Sometimes even when we know a stereotype is not real, we still have to be careful because the stereotype is still in the room with us. A Polish American friend (back in the heyday of the Polish joke) always used to enter the room stereotype first, revealing his real self in contrast to stereotypical expectations of what Polish people were supposed to be like.
As the child of immigrants, however, there were a lot of stereotypes I did not know growing up, because my parents did not reinforce the same ethnic jokes or slurs that I heard outside the home. Nor were they able to fully prepare me for how others might see and treat me as they themselves did not know what to expect.
I was shocked and hurt by the racist revelations caught by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in his fake documentary film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan". I had no idea people really thought those things; I could not have imagined such specific detail. A Caucasian friend chided: “How could you not know?” He heard those sentiments every day in casual conversation.
Clearly, people were not saying those things to me.
Halloween is a time when ethnic stereotypes come out of the closet in very public and physical form. Last week I saw a teenager dressed as a sexy Chinese woman in such a bizarre way that it took me two hours to figure out her storebought outfit was someone's idea of Chinese garb.
However, with Election Day coming so close to Halloween this year, the bad taste that goes with tacky ethnic costuming and alarmist political campaigns are blending together. In Ohio, candidate Bob Gibbs is accused of sending jobs to China, but the image shown in the commercial is Asian Americans celebrating Lunar New Year on Sutter Street in San Francisco (which is not in China). In a CAGW commercial, a Virginia auditorium of Asian American students who wanted to be extras in "Transformers 3" is transformed into the evil China of the future that has taken over America. Add on Nevada’s Sharron Angle telling Hispanic American students that they look a little Asian to her and that she has been called Nevada’s first Asian legislator.
I am bruising from these attacks.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.