While riding the bus today I did something I’ve been trying to make myself do more often: I called out someone for their racism. This particular woman was, as well as being racist, rather drunk and loud and obnoxious. Now, I’m generally loath to want women to be quiet – women so rarely get to be loud! I usually enjoy loud and proud women. And I’m not generally averse to swearing, being in large part a sailor myself. But this woman (and her companion, who was quieter) was really loud and swore very very much. She was just a big jerk, really. She kept saying “dirka dirka Mohamed jihad” (or something approaching this). I’m not even clear as to why she was saying it, there seemed little context. It looked like she just kept saying it because she thought it was funny. I had spent a good deal of the ride standing very close to her (not that that matters all that much as she was swearing so loudly and profusely that none of us on the bus could help but hear her) and as the bus gradually emptied I decided to move closer to the front. I walked quickly past her, and was not conscious of bumping into her at all, although it is possible that my backpack did brush her. She kept talking to her friend and then said (in an even louder voice) something about people being rude going past others without saying “excuse me.”
I don’t remember what my first words were. I don’t even remember if I acknowledged what she said to me or pointed out the irony of someone who is incredibly rude complaining about being brushed with a backpack. I think I started with asking her to please just stop saying that “dirka dirka” crap, that it’s racist and stop it. Her response? “What?? It’s from a movie! It’s from a movie!!” I wish that at the time I had responded with “And? The movie can’t be racist too? It being from a movie doesn’t mean it’s not racist.” I didn’t swear at her, but I did reiterate that what she was saying was racist. I wasn’t even angry about it, but rather, upset (I’m not saying that anger isn’t completely appropriate, just that I was stuck in nice mode). At that point the bus driver interjected and asked for quiet (he didn’t really ask me, but rather implied that he was talking to both of us). He said that he didn’t want to get in the middle of it, but that she had already been warned about her extreme language once before and he had already taken away her beer. One more need for comment by him and she was out. She was quiet after that.
An older fellow, kind of rough around the edges, came up to me a little later and asked if I knew which movie it was. I was trying to remember, knowing it had “America” in the title. The driver interjected that it was “Team America.” I haven’t seen it, but I do recall hearing about the middle-eastern characters and the “dirka dirka” business – I believe they were terrorists and that was what the writers thought would be a funny way to describe Arabic? Someone who has described this movie to me didn’t seem to think it was racist (or didn’t comment on it). But you know, it makes my stomach do this little unpleasant churning thing and I’m inclined to think that if I, a white person, suspect that something is racist, it probably is. When in doubt, call it out, right?
I told the older fellow that I could be wrong, ya know, but it feels racist to hear it, and if I call it out, at least then people will think about it. He replied “Yeah! I’m certainly thinking about it now.”
For those that have seen the film, what do you think? Racist? It seems to me that it’s likely not feeling racist to some because the characters were terrorists. Well, they may be bad guys, yes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t racist to mock their religion – one of the world’s largest – and their language (their interpretation of that religion is a little different I think). Cuz, yanno, lots of Muslims and Arabs aren’t terrorists. How is it different than using sexist words to insult Anne Coulter? There’s a lot of things you can criticize Coulter for, dear god, but her sex isn’t one of them. Melissa McEwan of Shakesville has a great post about this. Well, lordy, she has several!
A lot of us have noticed this increase in equating Islam and Middle Eastern people with terrorism. Witness all the ZOMG Obama’s a Muslim!! hysteria (thank you, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, for speaking out publicly about this equation). This feels like more of the same to me. While the makers of Team America may not have wished to say all Arabs and/or Muslims are terrorists, by using the religion and race of the bad guys as the club with which to mock them, they are actually doing just that. When you present a villain to the public, then use something not intrinsic to their villain-ness to mock them, you are linking the former to the latter. You are, in fact, saying those non-intrinsic factors are actually intrinsic to their villain-ness, else why use that as the club? This is the link that forms in the watcher’s mind, consciously or no.
As progressive people, as people of good conscience, we need to speak out against these sorts of bigoted connections. We need to wield our teaspoons, as Ms. McEwan says, and bring a light to these patterns. Racism, like sexism, homophobia, ableism et al, are systemic and institutionalized. To fight it, we need to resist systematically, to each instance we encounter. If, like myself, you find yourself faced with an oppression that does not personally affect you (but you’ve been doing your reading), trust your gut a little. If you wonder that maybe it is bigoted, there’s a good chance that it is. If you’re wrong, then, like the fellow on the bus, people start thinking.
And that is always a good thing.