Looking for a tasteless Halloween costume? A company that I prefer not to name will happily sell you a “Sexy Women’s 4 Piece Indian Chief” costume for $69.95 plus shipping. And yes, it’s as tacky, demeaning and stereotypical as you might imagine. And it’s just the tip of the commercial bigotry iceberg. Plenty of companies will happily sell you Halloween costumes based on sexist and racist stereotypes.
You look at some of this stuff and think, “Really? In 2018???” Yeah, this stuff is still here.
In fairness, these sorts of crude stereotypes occur in pop culture less frequently now than when I was a child in the 1960s. I vividly remember watching “Dick Tracy” cartoons at the age of seven or eight and seeing a character named Joe Jitsu, drawn as a slant-eyed Asian caricature. TV commercials sold a popular brand of corn chips using a character called the Frito Bandito who survived into the 1970s – and yes, it was as bad as the name suggests. One could go on for hours describing obnoxious stereotypes of African Americans, gays and pretty much any other ethnic or cultural group you care to name that showed up regularly in ads, TV, movies, etc.
While everyday bigotry of this sort has mostly faded from pop culture, it’s found a new amplifier in social media. Who can forget the obnoxious image of President Obama’s face photoshopped onto an image of an African in stereotypical native garb, complete with a bone through his nose?
I wish I could say such garbage was the exclusive province of the far right, but it’s not.
Not long ago a gun control activist – the father of a shooting victim and a man I genuinely admire – responded to that rather odd White House meeting between President Trump and Kanye west by sharing a “humorous meme.” It showed an image of Trump and West, apparently naked (mercifully shown from above the waist only), with West laying his head on Trump’s chest in an affectionate embrace – a snickering use of suggestions of male intimacy as an insult.
So I tweeted back a request that the activist please refrain from sharing such homophobic memes. His response was, roughly, “Oh, I didn’t mean anything by it. I just thought it was funny.”
I have no doubt that he didn’t mean anything by it, just like the ad agency behind the Frito Bandito didn’t mean to insult Mexican Americans and the “Dick Tracy” creators didn’t mean to insult Asians. They, too, “just thought it was funny,” but it wasn’t. It’s not. At least not if you’re the one being made fun of. Then it feels like bigotry.
As I explained in a followup to that gun control activist: Somewhere there’s a gay 13-year-old who’s alone and confused, and feeling worse right now because he keeps seeing affection between two men being used as a joke or an insult. It doesn’t matter how innocent your intent may be, this sort of thing does hurt. I know. I was that kid, a long time ago.
The second time around, it felt like he got it.
I can already hear some readers slamming me for “political correctness,” but political correctness is just the right-wing term for treating people with respect. Everyday bigotry has consequences, even if they aren’t obvious to those who perpetrate it.
Bruce Mirken is Greenlining’s Media Relations Director. Follow him on Twitter.