ugh

Greetings from Vancouver!*  It’s that time again: racism! Always a fun topic on scatterplot. Anyway, here’s the deal: I read bwog — a student blog at Columbia every now and then. Given that I’m stuck in a hotel room, this is one of the “now” times. They have a recent post, part of a series I gather, wherein they’re trying to give a nickname to a new dean. Fun idea. It’s college. Whatever. Here’s the thing though: one of the four “finalists” for the unofficial nickname is Jar Jar Hinks. The dean is a Black woman, Avis Hinkson. It’s a play off Jar Jar Binks, from Star Wars. And I have a problem with this because the character is seriously racist.

As Jessica Brown noted when we first say the new Star Wars movies when they came out, Lucas seemed to have given up on having languages make characters distinct (and thereby using subtitles) and instead decided to rely upon often grotesque racial stereotypes to convey characters. So we have the hook-nosed, slimy merchant (a jew!), the greedy and not to be trusted trade federation (Asians, replete with with asian accents and slitted eyes), and, of course, Jar Jar Binks, of the Gungans.

The Gungans speak in a Caribbean patois. Jar Jar is a bumbling fool. His walk is all jive. As Patricia Williams noted in the Nation,

The fat-faced, toadlike ruler of the Gungan race, who is called Boss Nass and who seems to be wearing the distinctive West African robe known as aboubou, expresses his resentment of his grammatically coherent planetary neighbors, the Naboo, in the following terms: “Dey tink dey so smartee, dey tink dey brains so big.”

This invocation of minstrel characters is a grotesque form of racism. And while Lucas defended a lack of intent, the imagery is fairly clear. I’m going to email some of the folks at BWOG about this. Unless, of course, our fair readers think I’m crazy again. 

* It’s lovely here. But I probably won’t have too much time to find out just how lovely. I managed to schedule myself into a bit of a whirlwind tour of the Pacific Northwest — Oregon. UW, UBC, WSU, Reed, and WSU-Vancouver. So far it’s been super-fun. The folks at Eugene and Seattle were great. I caught up with some old friends, old students, and found that presenting work is oh-s0-much-more fun when you’re not on the job market (please don’t tell me that you’re always on the market, I know, but I also think that’s silly, but that’s for another post).

4 thoughts on “ugh”

  1. You’re just jealous that Lucas didn’t unleash his Stereotype-With-A-Thousand-Faces magic on any obviously Irish or Pakistani aliens. Who could fail to delight in Midi O’Chlorian and his troupe of cheerful but periodically belligerent/maudlin ewok-sized dancers? Or be thrilled by the Imranis from the planet Osama who fly a squadron of X-Wing fighters into the Mk III Death Star’s exhaust vents, taking care to strap themselves to the photon torpedos first?

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  2. Shamus, here’s the real tragedy with Jar-Jar Binks. In 1997, Coca Cola had 1 billion cans of soda made with Binks’ face on it. That means one out every six humans on this planet was subjected to Lucas’ sublime meld of minstrelsy and bad taste. Truly, a weapon of mass destruction.

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  3. Just went back and scanned that old thread. Good times! Anyhoo, nope, you’re not crazy. I just happened to watch those movies again recently. Jar Jar and the others are seriously racist, because of the inevitable overlapping of historical negative imagery. And using him as a nickname strips him out of the only originating context in which he has some plausible deniability, Lucas’ dopey broadstroke reconfiguration of the tropes of old B movies.

    As to reception context it’s entirely possible the students are not aware of any of this, so they may well have an account of what they’re up to that has nothing to do with historical associations they’re blissfully ignorant of. As I’ve said before, the question then is a tactical one of whether to first teach those racist associations in order to then teach how to reject them. And given that the younguns are likely to run across that crap at some point in their lives, most likely in the poostorm that awaits if they choose and publish that nickname, I’d say an inoculation is prudent.

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