A friend of mine, who is white (which shouldn’t matter but it does), just wrote me a beautiful message that helped me deal with the aftermath of the Christchurch attack. She confessed to me that she had been struggling with her emotions and understanding her privilege. She also let me know that she had donated to those affected and would be going to a Melbourne ‘meet your neighbours event.’ She explained that the aim of the event was ‘for people to share stories about coming to Australia and will hopefully create a safe place and a place for their voices to be heard and not co-opted.’
As an Australian of Muslim heritage, this meant the world to me today.
This to me is what real allyship looks like. People of all backgrounds coming out and showing that they support and embrace a culturally diverse society, and that those with Muslim backgrounds are a part of that.
I will admit that I have been alternately heartened and frustrated by the fixation with egg boy. Initially I was happy to see a symbol of resistance to racism resonate so strongly with the community.
Then started to feel weird when fb posts started appearing to donate money to egg boy or making egg boy their profile picture. As opposed to donating to a charity that supports victims of trauma or fighting racism, or recognising the heroes among the victims.
It started to feel as though the news cycle had shifted to a place where non-Muslims could feel more comfortable, and to an individual that the public found more relatable than the victims. More and more I started to worry that people would see symbolic gestures against Fraser Anning as the end of the story. That they would stop thinking about proactively taking steps to reverse the tribalism (read racism) that Australia has been slipping into. Not going beyond the ScoMo lip service, and not really listening.
Seeing One Nation get a seat in the NSW upper house in the wake of the attack has been disturbing to say the least, as has ScoMo’s refusal to say One Nation is racist. Apparently saying ‘Islam is a disease’ Australia needs to vaccinate is a legitimate political view…still.
With all of the surrounding noise, the importance of the kind of meaningful allyship undertaken by my friend as a manifestation of her conscience and decency, is enough to feel hopeful about tomorrow.
Like many small ‘l’ liberals, I experienced the early hours after the US election as an existential blitzkrieg.
A candidate who had no experience in public service, zero respect for the core tenets of democracy, made blatant appeals to sexism and racism throughout his campaign and had bragged about not paying his taxes, had mustered sufficient numbers of voters on November 8 2016 to win the United States Presidency.
In those first fragile days, my fellow political nerds and I pored over the exit polls in search of answers, the way a clairvoyant scrutinizes tealeaves to read the future. Whether your source was CNN, The New York Times or one of the fee for service polling houses, the same outlier pattern emerged.
The Republican voting gap between college educated white voters and non-college educated white voters had diverged like never before.
In 2016, on a two party preferred basis, the percentage of non-college educated whites who voted for Trump was 30% higher than the percentage of their white college educated counterparts.
As you can see in Figure 1 below, this is six times the ‘education gap’ previously observed.
Figure 1: Percent of two-party vote for the Republican presidential candidate among whites with and without a college degree, 1980-2016
The flight of the white working class to Trump became the story. And from that news story, two political narratives were born.
The first was a tale of working class angst and goes something like this: the Liberal elites have lost touch with the ordinary working people and have become an ivory tower establishment beholden to business interest and special interests. Hillary Clinton spent all her time campaigning on the aforementioned ‘special interest’ issues, such as gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, black incarceration and climate change. She had ignored the real economic issues facing ordinary Americans. Feeling that the Democrats could no longer be counted upon to champion the concept of ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ the white working classes had abandoned a party that no longer gave a damn about them.
This position was given significant amplification on November 14, when Bernie Sanders appeared on CBS This Morning to indict the Democratic ‘establishment:’
“There needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business. It is not good enough to have a liberal elite.”
“I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I came from.”
The proponents of the above narrative have taken his call deeply to heart. In the two months since the election, the clamour for a back-to-basics working class platform from the hard left has only intensified.
It is worth noting at this juncture, that Sanders himself has been as much a vocal advocate of progressive social policies as he has been for strong social democracy. The narrative that he has come to embody is not necessarily representative of the man.
The countervailing narrative is this: the impact of sexist and racist sentiment as driving forces in this election cannot be downplayed. To ignore this fact is to run the risk of further fragmentation of a society already struggling to adjust to waves of demographic and social change.
For the first time in American history, many whites, particularly those without a college education, see themselves as an embattled group. They resent the fact that in a short space of time, the status of minorities and the role of women has shifted dramatically. The simultaneous loss of white privilege and economic security has led to an increasing insularity and nostalgia for the past. Coming off the back of America’s first black President, the prospect of America’s first female President was too much to bear.
Put another way, non-college educated whites didn’t turn away from the Democrats because they made an insufficient case for jobs. Rather they turned towards the Republicans because they promised to hit the pause button on demographic change.
Trump offered just such a retrograde vision. One where racial minorities could be jeered, women could be harassed, and LGBTI rights could be redacted from policy discourse altogether.
As a liberal I have wavered between these two narratives. Initially I felt strongly that economic dissatisfaction was the major driver for the ‘white flight’ to Trump. In an earlier post I wrote about the likely effect of rising income inequality in the United States on voter behaviour. However I have never felt that it was the only story to tell, nor considered that many of my fellow liberals would take that view.
In the past few weeks I have found myself growing more and more disturbed by proponents of the purist economic narrative, and their call for a wholesale rejection of policies that do not specifically frame the world as a struggle between labour and capital.
‘Identity politics,’ they claim, is the preserve of the urban elites, and of little relevance to the ordinary American who is barely managing to make ends meet. We should be doubling down on the real life-or-death issues affecting the working class.
The reality though is that a ‘class’ is just as much an identity as religion, race or gender. The shrinking demand for unskilled labour in traditional manufacturing industries has life-or-death consequences for some. The same can be said of the rise in hate crimes directed at Muslims, the disproportionate shootings of black suspects by police, and State interference with women’s reproductive rights.
Climate change moreover is a life-or-death issue of biblical proportions. One moreover, that disproportionately affects those with lower incomes, who are less likely to be insured, and more likely to be captive to geography.
With the passage of time comes the capacity for deep analysis. The public, the politicos and the pollsters have had a chance to analyse the campaign and voter sentiment in fine grained detail.
The final vote count which puts Clinton ahead of Trump at a count of over 3 million has dampened liberal panic to implement a knee-jerk solution.
We can see now that Hillary Clinton did not neglect the working class in favour of an ‘identity politics’ (ie ‘idpol’) agenda. A simple word frequency count of all her campaign speeches, in the primaries and the general races, indicates that economic concerns were at the centre of her campaign.
Figure 2 Word Frequency count of Hillary Clinton’s speeches (Source: Vox)
Furthermore, statistical analyses of voter sentiment has enabled us to progress beyond simple generalisations about the exit polls ie. ‘non-college educated whites voted for Trump because they are sexist and racist’ versus ‘non-college educated whites voted for Trump because they are struggling economically.’
Researchers at The University of Massachusetts Amherst surveyed a random sample of voters on a range of issues including their attitudes to gender inequality, race relations and the state of the economy and a range of factors. They then used a binomial model to analyse the effect that these characteristics had on voting behaviour. This kind of model is useful because it allows us to consider simultaneously the effect that a range of factors have on voting Republican, and to separate out which factors had an effect, and to what extent.
The results of one of the models in the study, which included only white likely voters, are summarised in the table below.
Those factors that have a statistically significant on the likelihood of voting Republican are colored red.
Table 1 Summary of Probit estimates of factors affecting white two-party vote for Trump
The above results show, somewhat predictably, that economic dissatisfaction, racism and sexism are all important ‘explanators.’
College education is not in and of itself an explanatory, once sexism, racism and economic situation are taken into account.
Also women in the study tended to vote Republican, and were not discouraged by the infamous ‘hot mic’ tapes. Go figure.
It is not just white voters that were motivated significantly by these three factors. The same model was run on a sample grouping of all races with similar results.
Each graph shows how much the likelihood of being a Trump voter increases for two people who are exactly the same, but for a shift in sentiment on one of the below scales: economic dissatisfaction, hostile sexism and acknowledgement of racism.
Figure 3: Predicted probability of voting for Trump based on values of economic dissatisfaction, racism, and sexism
Note: Predicted probabilities based on a variation of Model 1 which includes respondents of all races, while holding all other variables in model at their mean values. Vertical lines represent 95% confidence intervals.
Clearly the push-to-Trump factors of economic dissatisfaction, sexism and racism are not just a problem for non-college educated whites, but the voting population at large.
It also appears that Clinton was rejected, in large part, because of her gender. The effect of sexism was markedly more pronounced in 2016 than in the 2012 election.
Figure 4Predicted probability of voting for Republican nominee in 2012 and 2016 based on values of sexism
Note: Predicted probabilities based on the models in Table 3 while holding all other variables in model at their mean values. Vertical lines represent 95% confidence intervals.
The reality that the Democrats lost the Presidential election, despite pitting the most qualified candidate imaginable up against a narcissistic clown, calls for serious self-reflection and greater understanding across constituencies.
The need for empathy for white voters experiencing loss of privilege, was expressed perfectly by outgoing President Barack Obama in his final address.
“For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.”
At the same time he warned against falling into the trap of reverting to the purely economic narrative tailored to the white worker:
“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
A sustainable civil society cannot purport to leave anyone behind, either economically or socially. Recognising the effects of income inequality, and job insecurity on those without a college degree does not mean that we trash the idea that everyone – regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or health status – has a right to participation in public life.
As I write this article, the first steps to repealing the Affordable Care Act have been taken and Trump has revealed his pick for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, a Senator who is strongly anti-abortion and gay marriage but is good with torture.
It should be bleedingly obvious that this is not the time for small ‘l’ liberals to be fighting amongst themselves. There has been some truly excellent deep thought on how the Democrat Party can reconnect with its base, that does depend on a single narrative. It’s time to look at what constructive action can be taken to revitalise the left rather than searching for the enemy within.
The divisive excesses of the recent US election will be analysed for generations to come. One thing has been made clear: there is a broad base of ‘individuals of a non-brown hue feeling imperilled by demographic change’ (we’re not supposed to call them racist anymore).
By spreading disinformation and creating an atmosphere of crisis, a political candidate can mobilise this group to their advantage. The key to capturing their attention is to become the champion for a symbolic race-related policy.
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity soared after he promised, and proceeded to, ‘ban the burqa.’ Trump won the election after promising he would ‘build a wall.’ Meanwhile, in Australia, the ever-escalating obsession to ‘stop the boats’ has served both parties in their bids for power.
The downward spiral of Australia’s refugee policy
There is a saying that in a slow heating bathtub you’ll be boiled to death before you know it. In October of 2001, not long after the September 11 attacks, and two weeks before the Federal election, Prime Minister John Howard made a defining, election-winning speech in which he promised that,
“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Once elected, the Howard Government proceeded to embed the idea that stopping the boats was intricately connected with maintaining Australia’s security, integrity and way of life. Rhetoric around the risk of being swamped by ‘boat people’ intensified.
The Howard Government presented an answer to the perceived threat in the form of the ‘Pacific solution’ in 2001, shunting boat arrivals of asylum seekers to Pacific Island locations for processing. Critically, these islands were not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention and could not guarantee the protection of asylum seekers’ human rights.
The implementation of the Pacific Solution represents the moment Australia veered away from the rest of the developed world in its approach to refugees. Over the next fifteen years we would evolve a way of treating and speaking about refugees that is uniquely our own.
This measure was justified with loaded language. The terms ‘illegal arrivals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ were used repeatedly and often by Ministers in the Howard Government when discussing asylum-seekers.
There is another saying that springs to mind, this time from Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
We are very good at the propaganda game. The term ‘illegal arrival’ as a descriptor of asylum seekers who arrive by boat is a lie, plain and simple. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a person who arrives either by boat or plane seeking asylum without a valid visa is in fact a lawful arrival. So long as we remain a signatory to this Convention, there is no argument to be made to the contrary. And yet both parties have embraced this terminology.
The notion of ‘queue jumping’ is also a political creation. Australia is unique in debating the relative merits of ‘onshore’ versus ‘offshore’ visa applications as though these are competing groups. Or more to the point, as though one group are nasty, shady migrants and the other group are patient, orderly migrants.
The general approach by the international community to asylum seekers is one of triage. In relation to unauthorised border crossings, there is an assumption that someone who comes to a country, with no safe way to transport their belongings or indeed their person, is by definition a vulnerable person. Processing of asylum seekers is about determining the validity of claims to being a genuine refugee, and assessing vulnerability and need.
Despite drawing international criticism both domestically and internationally, Howard and his successors have persevered with their project of saving us from the ‘boat people.’ Within a decade both major parties had committed completely to the narrative.
Taking a page from John Howard’s book, in the month leading up to the 2013 election Prime Minister Rudd upped the ante on asylum hard lining when he promised,
“As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
Rudd did not win the election. However no Australian Prime Minister since has been willing to back down from Rudd’s election promise.
So as not to have to backtrack, we have tried to send them to places like Cambodia and Malaysia with generous cash offers to those Governments. These countries are not signatories to the UNHRC and do not provide basic services like welfare, education or even work permits to refugees.
So what we have on offer is a Dickensian beggar like existence in third-countries, which are neither UNHCR, nor a ‘safe third country’ in international law.
We have been in upside down land for so long, that our debates on asylum seekers today would, to someone who has been abroad for the past fifteen years, would read like a dystopian sci-fi novel. We have close to 1500 brown people in our care that are living in conditions of ‘deliberate and systematic torture,’ caught in a political trap made of rhetoric and one-upmanship.
We are so used to it that we don’t even see it or feel it, unless it is personal.
The search for a new villain
We have ‘stopped the boats’ and shown ourselves willing to do so by any means necessary, even if it meant sliding into excesses of human rights violation that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.
If we are to continue to ride the wave of racially motivated populism, the Government needs a new menace, and a new symbolic policy. Recent events suggest they are more than up to the challenge.
No doubt emboldened by developments in the United States, this week Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton announced that in his opinion, mistakes were made in the humanitarian programme ushered in by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s.
An attack on Prime Minister Fraser’s legacy is significant not only because it is the cornerstone of our current refugee policy, but because Fraser removed the last of vestiges of policy that allowed for country of origin discrimination. That is, the White Australia policy.
In a statement that seems to foreshadow a debate on a return to country of origin based discrimination, Dutton said:
“We do review the program each year, and if we feel there are problems with particular cohorts, particular nationalities, particular people who might not be integrating well and not contributing well, then there are many other worthy recipients who seek to come to a country like ours and make an opportunity their own.”
Minister Dutton has repeatedly raised concerns about gang activity within the Sudanese refugee community, and the possibility of visa revocation as a solution to ‘the problem.’ Perhaps even more frighteningly he recently extended his concerns to the children and grandchildren of Lebanese Muslim refugees on the basis that some 23 have joined militant groups abroad.
As a post 1970s humanitarian migrant, the statement reaffirmed all my worst fears. Namely, that the Inquiry is going to be the thin end of the wedge to reintroduce racial discrimination as a basis for immigration decisions.
It is unclear exactly what the next racially motivated rallying cry will be. But in the wake of Minister Dutton’s comments and the scope of the Inquiry into Migration Outcomes, many migrant groups feel like they are sitting in on an uneasy game of duck, duck, goose.
My refugee story
I have refugee ancestry twice over. My father travelled to Poland on a scholarship visa in 1972, in the midst of the Bangladeshi war of Independence. The Bangladeshi genocide is widely considered the worst genocide since the Holocaust. From 1971-1974 the Pakistani forces and associated militias killed up to 3 million people and raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape.
Poland at the time was offering assistance to the fledgling state. Like many countries it offered scholarship refugee pathways. My father aced his high school exams and was selected for a prestigious program in shipbuilding engineering.
In Poland my father completed his studies, met and married my mother, and they had me. My family fled Poland in 1981, following the failed Solidarity rebellion to the authoritarian communist government. Operating under the auspices of the USSR, the Polish Government drastically restricted normal life by introducing martial law in an attempt to crush political opposition. In order to escape the oppression my parents crossed a border (yes, fleeing means crossing a border) into Austria. Fortunately the Austrians did not sent us to a remote island for processing. Eventually we were resettled in Australia.
In Australia, my father worked as a shipbuilding engineer for a company contracted to the Royal Australian Navy, and my mother worked as an operating theatre nurse.
My father is Muslim and my mother is Catholic.
Having participated in the rituals and holidays of both religions, I can tell you now that the differences are not worth getting excited about. In my opinion, the core values of the Abrahamic religions are pretty much the same. In my personal experience the main substantive differences are the food and the commercialisation of Christmas.
It is easy enough to point to examples of extremism. Most religions can lend themselves to terrifying and extremist interpretation in the right circumstances. This is particularly the case in places of economic inequality (be it the US bible belt or the oil rich Middle east) or conflict zones.
A racist escalation in the making
The rhetoric I see on television about migrants is so far removed from what I know to be reality that I used to think it laughable. Now I know that there are people who believe a range of absurd and frightening things. This year, people shouted racist epithets at me from their cars because of my skin colour for the first time since 1994. I remember what it was like to be brown in Australia, to never be able to fully breathe out, and feel deep anxiety that we are returning to those dark days.
Fear of difference is sensible. It stopped our prehistoric ancestors from running toward strange new animals that may have wanted to eat them. You can’t make a well-informed decision about how something new impacts your survival until you observe, assess and become educated about what it means for you.
Similarly, individuals with little education and little exposure to different cultures will naturally feel anxious about difference. It is up to our politicians to provide leadership that will facilitate understanding, cultural literacy and community. I fear for all of us if they continue down the path of hatred, scapegoating, and fanning the flames of white racial dispossession among the gullible. All to score electoral runs on the board.
I would like to leave this article with a message of hope. But instead I will leave you with a message from Secure Freedom, the news channel run by Frank Gaffney, who is reportedly advising the Trump Transition team.
This is a compelling five minutes vision of fear that could easily be co-opted by Australian politicians, if we let the rhetoric of hate go unchallenged.
As a self-confessed progressive, when Amy Schumer’s parody of Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ first appeared in my FB newsfeed, my initial response was denial. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that it featured Schumer and Goldie Hawn in muddy slip dresses twerking in the middle of swampland. I kept the sound muted and continued to scroll.
Like a child in a 1990s video store walking past the porn shelf, I kept my eyes unfocussed in the hope that if I didn’t directly engage, I would be able to keep my innocence.
‘I’m a progressive,’ I thought. ‘I am ready to be confused.’
What I gleaned from the experience is that progressives friggin’ hate being confused.
Why I love Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ and was not down with the parody
Beyoncé has taken the medium of the music video and elevated it to an anthem for African American empowerment.
The song and video for ‘Formation,’ speak about staying connected to one’s humble country roots, addresses police brutality and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The video is filmed in New Orleans and features Beyoncé on a police car as the flood waters rise – both a metaphor for the escalating tension in race relations, and an indictment of the legacy of neglect and poverty in New Orleans in the ten years since Katrina.
In another iconic scene, a hooded black child dances in front of a line of bullet proof vested police – an image flashes of graffiti scrawled on a wall that reads “Stop Shooting Us.”
By parodying the filmclip’s aesthetics as just a wacky arthouse clip, Schumer and Goldie Hawn come across as culturally insensitive and entitled. Watching two very blonde women twerking in muddy slip dresses and dancing around in police vests, with no recognition of the symbolism of the imagery from the original video, was an incredibly uncomfortable experience for me.
I didn’t feel angry because the video was racist. It is culturally insensitive and just plain idiotic, yes. But no more or less than a lot of comedy.
Rather I felt angry because a personal hero of mine, who had championed one social justice issue – namely feminism – had shown themselves to be completely clueless when it came to another – race relations in the US.
Just how much I love Schumer
I am a huge fan of Amy Schumer. How can you not love a female comedian who consistently churns out laugh-out-loud material on issues such as misogyny on television, inequality in the workplace, and even rape culture?
A personal favourite of mine is her parody of 12 Angry Men, in which the jurors are tasked with deliberating whether or not Schumer is “hot enough to be on TV” and can give them “a reasonable chub.”
It is a brilliant satire on the double standards that apply to women on television, compared with their male counterparts. The skit throws into sharp relief the fact that the dominance of the male gaze in entertainment has not changed much since the 1950s.
In my mind, one of Schumer’s standout achievements as a comic has been making women’s sexual experiences valid material for mainstream comedy.
Before Schumer, jokes about sexual relationships and the cosmic absurdity that is the human body were the preserve of male comedians.
A mainstream comic like Aziz Ansari could spend a good 70% of his set talking about sex without anyone noticing, but female comedians who did the same were considered salacious peddlers of ‘gross out humour.’
Even a veteran comic like Tina Fey wouldn’t touch these topics with a ten foot pole, preferring to present her female protagonists as basically sexless, with all the sensuality of a pre-adolescent boy in a grown woman’s body.
This sucked if you were a woman. Don’t we all deserve a cathartic release that comes from laughing out loud at someone who holds up a mirror to our most intimate frailties?
Schumer gave us that, and we were grateful.
Progressives are the ficklest fans in the comedy business
By and large, progressives coalesce around the similar political worldviews stemming from a common sense of personal responsibility. We are deeply concerned about equal rights for marginalized social groups: women, people of colour, the LGBTI community and individuals with disabilities. We care about the sustainability of the environment and the impacts of armed conflict.
Seeing a comedian who speaks for us ascend to the mainstream causes us great joy. Seeing them display a ‘blindspot’ to an area we feel deeply passionate about causes a deep sense of personal betrayal.
Herein lies the irony, the more we identify with a comic, the harder we come down on them when they make a misstep.
In the age of the newspaper review, a few raspberries was par for the course of being a comic. But in the age of echo-chamber of the internet this tendency can be downright dangerous and career destroying.
In the wake of the Formation parody debacle, the Twitter hashtag #AmySchumerGottaGoParty has created an unwitting alliance between disappointed feminists and Supreme Gentlemen who ‘never found that bitch funny to begin with,’ calling for an end to the comedian’s career.
My favourite comedians are those who are both hilarious but also politically astute; Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, Margaret Cho, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Amy Schumer all fit within that description. All, at various times have made critical missteps in playing with their topics.
If we want our comedians to continue to be funny, as progressives, we need to take a step back and let them make mistakes. The alternative: risk a world where the only comics ready to take on touchy subjects are unfunny dinosaurs like Seth MacFarlane.
Do you think Seth MacFarlane worries about progressives raging out on Twitter? No. Not because he is a badass, but because his fans are all conservative white men on the verge of a Lester-Burnham-in-American-Beauty style meltdown. They don’t care if comedy holds up a mirror to society or not, they just want their random references to obscure 80’s television. They don’t even have Twitter accounts.
They are sitting at home after a long day’s work, boozing to forget the general emptiness of their lives while watching re-runs of Family Guy.
Thoughts for the future
When we see a comedian we know and love making a misstep, by all means talk about it, think about it, engage in dialogue that feeds back to your favourite comic artist. Just don’t rage out in the Twitterverse as your first knee jerk reaction.
I think that, as a comedian, Amy Schumer still has a long way to go when it comes to deftly handling issues of race in comedy. An all time low was in 2013 when Schumer dropped the following line:
“I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”
As you can see from the Twitter exchange below, dialogue, rather than indictment, goes a long way.
When we rage out at culturally insensitive material, the chilling effect on progressive comedy is all too real. We need to give comedians the chance to evolve, unless we all want to be stuck watching re-runs of Family Guy.
Last week NBC’s media department announced a plan to develop a culturally edgy sitcom that would follow ‘a widowed single father who orders a mail-order bride from the Philippines to help raise his two preteen daughters.’
Presumably NBC was trying to surf the zeitgeist of smash hit sitcom Fresh off the Boat, based on comedian Eddie Huang’s memoir of growing up Chinese-American in 90s suburban Orlando.
Mail Order Family meanwhile, is grounded in female comedian Jackie Clarke’s memoir of growing up with a Filipino stepmother, whom she didn’t like. Clarke had previously drawn on this material for a segment on the NPR podcast ‘This American Life.’
In the podcast, Clarke describes her stepmother Pora as an opportunistic, emotionally unhinged woman who has zero interest in being a mother. The illustration from the press kit for the show pretty much reflects the picture Clarke paints in her segment.
Whilst valid content for a personal, if somewhat exploitative podcast, giving Clarke authority to speak for the Filipino spouse migrant experience is problematic. People are free to share their experiences, but when they also deal with other culturally sensitive topics, how they tell their story matters.
And given the way Clarke tells the story…well let’s put it this way, no one wants to see a little freckled redhead running around with tape on her nose to look more Asian, while her self-involved stepmother looks on in disinterested disgust. The portrayal of the Columbian hot-head wife from Modern Family is positively progressive in comparison.
Needless to say the Twittersphere went nuts and within three days of releasing its media kit for the show, NBC promptly and wisely announced its decision to cancel the show.
I was relieved as hell, but also somewhat bemused by the basis on which my fellow Twitterers-in-arms had objected to the show. The focus was human trafficking, rather than the negative stereotypes about female Asian migrants that would be propagated by the show.
To be clear, human trafficking is defined as ‘the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation.’
Human trafficking comes in many forms and is a grave worldwide problem. I agree 100% with the sentiment that human trafficking is not funny. I just don’t think it applies here.
To say that a woman who meets and marries a man from a more financially developed country through a dating agency is likely to be a ‘trafficked woman,’ perpetuates stereotypes of migrant women labelled ‘Mail Order Brides’ as desperate victims with no agency.
The term ‘Mail Order Bride’ is used to describe women who publish their interest in marrying abroad on an international dating website. While they may eventually decide to become prospective spouses in a foreign country, these women do not sell themselves for sex or marriage, they merely sell their image and profile to the service provider.
The functionality of these sites is similar to OKCupid or Tinder. That is, foreign suitors can message women, but are not given private contact details. What happens from there is up to the individuals themselves. If the relationship evolves to the point where marriage is on the table, they are free to apply for a Partner visa.
Australia has a high number of Partner visa applications every year. They constitute around 25% of our migrant intake, and for the most part applicants are from low-income countries. As a result we have extensive provisions to ensure that this visa is not exploited by human traffickers.
For starters, in order to be eligible for Partner visa, extensive evidence of a genuine relationship between the applicant and the sponsor must be shown. We’re talking photos, emails, interviews and third party statements. I’d also like to highlight that, duh, the Australian sponsor must have met the visa applicant in person.
(This highlights the first fallacy of the term ‘Mail Order Bride.’ If you had to travel to the country of origin to be able to bring an Amazon kindle into the country you’d hardly call that a ‘Mail Order Kindle’ would you?)
Critically, Partner visa holders who experience family violence are able to apply for Permanent Residency. This ensures that visa holders cannot be coerced to stay in abusive relationships through the threat of deportation. They are not ‘trapped women.’
As I have a lot of family members from developing countries – particularly Bangladesh and the Philippines – I have known a number of women who have come to Australia via Partner visas. A constant source of angst for me has been the negative racial stereotyping of these women in the West. The controversy over Mail Order Family showed that these stereotypes are alive and well. Many people still cling to the somewhat racist and sexist notion that if you met your partner through an international dating web site, you are either a desperate woman or a gold digger.
There are many reasons why a woman from a low-income country would consider looking abroad for a life partner, as the preferred choice, without any sinister incentive.
A common reason women choose to list with agencies to marry abroad is that they have ‘aged out’ of the conventional marriage pool in their own country. For example, much has been written about the phenomenon of Chinese ‘leftover women.’ These are women over the critical age of 27 who have embraced education and urban living, but are considered too old for marriage. It should come as no surprise that many of them set their sights abroad in their search for a spouse.
Divorced women and women with children out of wedlock, particularly in very religious countries, are another group that may have difficulty finding a partner at home. This is certainly the case in the staunchly Catholic Philippines, where a divorce can only be obtained via an annulment.
Economic drivers play a big part of course. But they are more economically complex than simply wanting a grey-haired sugar daddy.
Over the past few decades many developing countries have followed India’s lead and invested heavily in education. Unfortunately professional opportunities in these countries have not caught up with the rich skill base of the population.
An unmarried cousin of mine in Bangladesh with postgraduate qualifications in pharmacy once lamented:
“It is very hard for us women, there are about 800 applicants for every professional job.”
By emigrating with a foreign spouse, these women can fulfil their dreams of career and family with far more agency than they would have at home.
I’m particularly frustrated by the fact that a racial double standard seems to apply when women improve their economic situation through marriage. We see this double standard throughout Western literature and popular culture. From Cinderella meeting her Prince Charming, any number of Jane Austen heroines, to Carrie Bradshaw getting a big fuck-off-walk-in-closet care of Mr Big, we celebrate these protagonists.
But when an Asian woman improves her situation through marriage, and there is a visa involved, our views are very different. Why?
My theory: racial stereotypes about Asian women as sex objects run deep. I could not even begin to guesstimate the number of times I have heard the now infamous line: “Me so horny. Me love you long time”, quoted in popular culture or by idiot coworkers.
Asian women are casually fetishised to the extent that week long bucks cruises in Thailand are a thing. We got a solid reinforcement of these stereotypes in The Hangover II, which in the credits, featured the (sadly) iconic image of a woman launching a ping pong ball from her vagina.
Let’s be real. We would never define women at home by invoking some sexist reference as to how they met their husbands. How about Nightclub Hookup Bride? OKCupid Bride? Blind Date Bride? Used-To-Date-His-Friend Bride? Or Victorious Other-Woman Bride?
(one of these could be used to describe my relationship, please take our poll below)
Many people express doubt that there can be a real and equal partnership that is based around structural inequality. That is, the economic inequality between a suitor in a high income country, and a prospective spouse from a low income country. This is of course nonsense. There is some level of inequality, be it financial, social or emotional, in the life of most relationships. This is something that does not remain static and changes as people go through different phases of their lives.
Despite what Phil Collins momma said, you can hurry love. To do so inevitably exposes one to the potential risks of scammers, play-ahs and a broken heart. Nevertheless, for most of us, companionship is a fundamental human drive. For many people an international dating agency has proven a sensible way to seek out a partner and resulted in a happy marriage. Increasingly, women are also seeking out male partners on agency listings.
I would like to submit some alternative adjectives to describe women who meet their partners through international dating agencies, for your consideration:
Brave: they are willing to travel and make a home in a new place away from their support networks and culture.
Headstrong: they often confront disapproval from their families for being willing to marry a ‘foreigner.’
Resilient: many face down judgement and suspicion from in-laws who see them as gold diggers from a backwards culture.
Ultimately, their stories are not mine to tell, but if any of these women ever write of their experiences, I would watch that sitcom.
Over the past week veteran film-maker Tim Burton has come under considerable criticism over the lack of diversity in his casting.
The dozen or so child actors in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are exclusively white. When asked to comment on diversity in films and how it related to casting in the film by Bustle magazine’s Rachel Simon, Burton had this to say:
“..[T]hings either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching TheBradyBunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”
So yeah, that generated a reaction.
A quick review of Burton’s 36 or so films confirms that he certainly has rarely felt a need for diversity in casting. In fact Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the villainous Barron in the new movie will be the first non-white with a substantial role in one of Burton’s films.
(Although it could be argued that Mr Oogie Boogie, the villain in The Nightmare Before Christmas who talks in deep baritone jive may have preceded Jackson in the colored villain slot. They were different times guys.)
Does this indicate that the casting in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is latently racist? Not really. The dozen or so children in the cast are all Caucasian, but according to the plot they are caught in a 1940s time loop.
Historically speaking, in the 1950s there were probably fewer than 20,000 non-white residents in Britain, almost all born overseas. So the probability of being non-white, British, and one of the twelve children in that region with superpowers is pretty low. I am with Burton on his casting choice in this one.
Equally, one cannot dispute that Tim Burton’s particular visions of times past (both British and American) are very, very, white. Like, if you were to line up the stars of his films end to end, you could not find a more pasty – sometimes supernaturally white – assortment of people.
In an era where ‘Make America Great Again’ means ‘Make America White Again,’ you cannot simply evoke cosy nostalgic images of a particular idealised white past again and again without reflecting on what that might mean to persons of colour (hereafter, ‘browns’).
Or generally, what nostalgia for western culture of times gone by may mean for browns.
Not everyone experiences nostalgia the same way
Generally speaking, books and movies that fetishize 1940s England, do not tend to appeal to me.
I don’t share the fascination with a simpler time of lacrosse games, picnics by the seaside and knitted tea cosies that some of my hipster friends share, for the simple fact that it represents a world I could not have participated in.
The same goes for music. While I can enjoy the music of ‘Joy Division’ and ‘The Clash’ as much as the next music nerd, when someone says: OMG I love vinyl and everything about the 70s I totally love the 70s I was totally born in the wrong era, wouldn’t you have loved to have been born in the 70s?
I think: Hmm…a time when a brown person could be called a ‘Paki’ and bashed to death by ultra-nationalists that listened to interesting music. No, not really.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, we have the back to basics lumberjack nostalgia. We have an abundance of hipsters self-styled as southern mountain folk playing undersize string instruments. It may seem a simple whimsical callback to a time before Web 2.0, but let me tell you if you are brown there is no mass appeal there. It is just music to lynch to. Or at the very least it is not going to call to something deep and basic at the root of your soul.
Look, there is nothing wrong with loving the Lumineers, or learning to make home brew, or only wanting to make movies with a gothic aesthetic.
But it’s naïve to make out like nostalgia is colorblind, particularly if you are going to invoke Blaxploitation movies as an argument for racial uniformity in casting.
They were quick and cheap movies churned out in response to the absence of people of color in American film. The cultural value of Blaxploitation remains contentious, but they were made in reaction to an exclusion by white film-makers, not as an exclusion of whites.
And as a general rule, browns do not have nostalgia for those times. It’s just Quentin Tarantino.
Nostalgia is messy and complicated and calls for a dialogue beyond one of simple racist labelling.
An example from my own life of being confronted with white nostalgia: I recently had lunch with a friend of mine of British heritage who had just returned from a holiday in India. When prompted about her trip, she immediately began gushing how great it had been to stay at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, a famous colonial hotel, where she could imagine her grandfather sipping a gin and tonic among the frangipanis.
She then went on to tell an at length anecdote about how the British had made the Indians build a famous monument, the Gateway of India, to honour the British rule as a big ‘screw you’ for having to cede India to independent rule.
For me, knowing the consequences of a rushed and clumsy partition, following decades of divide and conquer setting different ethnic groups at each others’ throats, did not make me terribly receptive to this ideal of genteel colonialism.
I had to voice my feelings about her perception of my (sort of one generation back) homeland. An interesting, productive, if somewhat tense dialogue followed.
In my opinion, it is not racist to paint a nostalgic image of an era, as Mr Burton tends to do. But if you are going to continually romanticise an idea of time and place, that excludes particular ethnic groups, be prepared to talk about it, and to wear some criticism.
People who don’t have a place in your fantasy may get annoyed.