Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Commercialization of Covert Racism

By Lizzy Mirisola

In her essay,
Covert Racist Discourse: Metaphors, Mocking and the Racialization of Historically Spanish Speaking Populations in the United States, Jane Hill explores the use of “mock Spanish” as a means of discrimination within American society. Mock Spanish, Hill argues, is most often utilized by native English speakers, and can result in subtle yet perfectly effective perpetuation of racist and/or stereotypical ideas associated with a certain set of language speakers, in this case Spanish speakers. A strong example of this, which Hill cites early on in her work, is the “Consider it Mañana” (CIM) phrase, in which mañana is unnecessarily substituted for the English “tomorrow” (120). The use of this command suggests that the listener procrastinate and act lazy and the use of Spanish to reinforce this point infers that Spanish speakers innately possess such characteristics (120). As a result, Spanish speakers serve as a model for the laziness being instructed by the quip. In this example, racism is evidently in play though it may be difficult to detect because implied meanings often go under the radar of consciousness. Consequently, as opposed to the evidently discriminatory tone of a statement such as, “Spanish speakers are lazy” which most people would pick up on right away, the racist implications of a phrase like CIM become subconsciously ingrained in speakers and listeners of mock Spanish alike, perhaps without them even realizing what’s occurring.

What I find particularly harmful and concerning about the use of mock Spanish and other forms of covert racism is that these processes can be employed (often times unknowingly) by people who consider themselves opposed to discriminatory discourse and practices. This propensity to unintentionally utilize covert racism suggests that discrimination is still highly ingrained in American society at large, a discomforting yet concrete fact. This situation is particularly evident in the media, a source that has often been charged with perpetuating certain stereotypes and excluding particular demographics. Hill cites the famous Terminator II line, “hasta la vista, baby” as an example of mock Spanish in the media. According to Hill, the use of the phrase equates Spanish speakers with recklessness and havoc-causing violence, as Arnold Schwarzenegger says it immediately before open firing a machine gun at his enemy (120).

Covert racism in the media is not limited to films; it is also present in other mediums including music. Earlier this semester, when I first heard the track, “Dark Fantasy” on Kanye West’s most recent album, I was struck by one line in particular. In the first verse, West raps,

“I fantasized 'bout this back in Chicago
Mercy, mercy me, that Murcielago
That's me, the first year that I blow
How you say broke in Spanish? Me no hablo” (0:35)


As presumably any Spanish speaker would realize, “me no hablo” is grammatically incorrect, and is seemingly Anglicized with the use of “me” in place of “yo” (though if the Spanish “yo” were to be correctly translated into English at all, it would actually be equated to “I” instead of “me”). What I find more interesting than the actual execution of the mock Spanish is the context in which it occurs. In this part of the song, West is reminiscing about his days spent growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago, yearning for nicer things (like a Lamborghini Murcielago) but unable to gain access to them. He has since been able to have these things that he had once wanted. However, at the time he was “broke,” and for some reason feels the need to translate this particular word into Spanish. This attempted translation suggests that there is some correlation between lack of money, power and influence and the Spanish language, characteristics that can then be reflected onto Spanish speakers. As far as I could find, Kanye West doesn’t speak Spanish, come from Spanish-speaking family or have any personal relationship with the Spanish language that would require him or even justify his desire to translate the word broke into Spanish. Additionally, as mentioned above, the connotations of the word broke make his choice particularly suspect.

Furthermore, because the quote reads “me no hablo” there is a sense of “lack of language” being associated with Spanish speakers. The phrase is written in incorrect, presumably Anglicized Spanish, but is more recognizably Spanish than English based on the syntax and sentence structure. Consequently, the Spanish language is trivialized and Spanish speakers are portrayed as not fully having any language at all, being English deficient and not entirely Spanish proficient either.

West continues to dig himself deeper into this hole in his next set of lyrics, which read,

“Me drown sorrow in that Diablo
Me found bravery in my bravado” (0:47)

He proceeds with the mock Spanish sentence structure employed in the “me no hablo” example by replacing “I” with “me.” In addition, instead of using the conventional English “devil” or “demon” to describe what is presumably the anti-Christ, West decides it would be more appropriate to use the Spanish “Diablo.” Again, his motives are unclear though the effects of his lexical and grammatical choices are apparent. Perhaps one of the most negative concepts one could reference is translated into Spanish within an (almost) entirely English language song; listeners left to their own devices may subconciously equate Spanish language with something overtly negative and as a result, map similar characteristics onto those who speak the language.

Kanye West is not the type to target simply one group of language speakers though. He’s far more egalitarian than that. In another of his songs “Power [Remix]” featuring Jay Z and Swizz Beatz, West raps,

“Now everything I’m rhymin’ on cause a Ramadan
Been a don, prayin’ for the families lost in the storm
Bring our troops back from Iraq, keep our troops out of Iran
So the next couple bars, I’ma drop them in Islam
They say assalamu alaikum, say wa alaikum asalaam” (2:51)

I found this excerpt interesting when I first heard it because I had never realized one could rap in a religion! After doing some research, I reaffirmed my original guess: that West was conflating Islam with Arabic, a language spoken by Muslims, Jews, Christians and followers of other religions as well. As a result, West essentially is claiming that all Arabic speakers are Muslim. In addition, he states in the first line of the passage that the following lines about the unrest in the Middle East and subsequent United States interference is “cause a Ramadan.” Here, he seems to confuse followers of an entire religion with a small sect of religious extremists who seek to cause harm to others. In total, if we follow West’s logic carefully, which demonstrates that all Arabic speakers are Muslims and all Muslims are homicidal terrorists, we find that by extension, all Arabic speakers must be homicidal terrorists. I think many people would seek to disagree with this assessment, myself being one of them.

This mapping of certain, highly negative stereotypes onto a vast and heterogeneous language group is chilling, discriminatory and quite honestly awful. And perhaps the most disturbing part is the lack of public outcry against the two examples mentioned above. I spent some time searching for reactions to what seems to be overtly bigoted rhetoric and came up with nothing, except one quote in reference to the example from “Power [Remix]” that claimed “Actually, the language is Arabic, but whatever: you get the point.” I think this lack of response clearly demonstrates that covert racism can be interpreted subconsciously and consequently may be accepted without being noticed or questioned. Here lies the potential harmfulness of the issue Hill describes. Discriminatory practices are destructive enough when people knowingly employ them. However, when habits develop within society that perpetuate negative stereotypes and people don’t even notice the cycle, the damage is presumably worse. This leads to racist ideas becoming natural to and ingrained in society at large, while many people assume we are moving in a post-racial direction and don’t seek to fix the problems that exist.

1 comment:

  1. While I find your general argument interesting and important, I think I don't agree with your reading of this passage from Kanya West's "Power." I can't say I entirely understand the passage but there are a couple of points I think you miss. One is that the references here are pretty consistently to Islam (Ramadan, prayin', assalamu alaikum...) -- and though some Iraqis and Iranians are not Muslim, most are. So I don't see the simplistic conflation of Arab and Islam that you mention. Also, Ramadan refers to the Muslim holy month of fasting, so I don't understand where you get the idea of religious extremism or terrorism. On the other hand, the phrase "cause a Ramadan" doesn't really make sense unless Ramadan is a stand-in for something else. So I think you are on to something, but it needs more explication.