Aren’t we all closet racists?

Let’s not kid ourselves. Stereotypes abound. The oldest I can remember is the Unofficial Polish Joke Book & of course scores of jokes featuring Santa & Banta, a certain Pestonjee and even recently Saif’s Gujarati parents in Kal ho Na Ho. Accents, color of skin, style of dressing, texture of hair, even type of cuisine chosen often, is a great way of decoding the land, region and state of origin. It’s possibly OK till there, if we stereotype the so called obvious and still greet warmly. It’s when we curl up our noses or then make disparaging comments thereon or then change our behavior, is where the problem arises.

Advertising has of course had no such boundaries and in the name of creative license and humor the stereotypes sail through us everyday. I’ll have to admit that most are quite funny, but many can umbrage a small or sizeable chunk. And possibly are insensitive too. But of course the show must go on.

Honestly, this is not a moralistic take but just a post with an observation. So I’m sharing with you a few ads that have been termed as exploiting ‘racial stereotypes’. They can of course evoke larger/longer debates. WHY? When a country is lampooned, it’s the sizeable chunk that’s often outraged. Even if some of them are too genteel or then docile to take make it an issue.

KOFF’S INDIAN BEER: I’ve read that the Native American Indians are tired of being portrayed as poor, drunk, living on reservations, selling fireworks and fighting over land. Either it is as the beautiful Pocahontas in a Disney classic or then as primitive savages in John Ford’s 1956 Western titled, ‘The Searchers’. Here is another take on them

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LMN DRINK: Some sound bytes I picked up from a TIME article had a Ugandan in India say this, “Indian marketers have a field day in putting ‘blacks’ where they’ve always ‘belonged,’ at least in the average Indian mind-sets”. From Bajaj Sunny to Sprite to Castrol….Double standards I’d say fellow Indians.

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METRO PCS: It’s boring really. Sometimes it’s the cliche with Indian royalty or elephants on the road & here it is the nerds and the portrayal of Indians like they were lost in a time machine.

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SALESGENIE: This time it’s targeting both the outsourcing destinations; India & China. Like I said, it may not be evil and prejudices may not be translating into downright discrimination but it does have strong overtones of marking the ’superior race’

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AMERICAN TOURISTER: Of course it is in continuity of ‘Survive Mumbai, Survive the World’. But I heard voices of dissent. So here it is. And yes this is a new one. Turkey and thieves??!!! Belly dancing is a better stereotype I am sure.

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I guess there is nothing like being able to laugh at oneself. But repeated jibes or then entertainment turning into reality can be a cause for concern. We have been conditioned as consumers & people to believe in patterns that cultures & individuals exhibit. They are much like how people of different Sun Signs have their own unique positive & negative traits. So should brands merely belabor on one set of negative or silly patterns or then capture newer patterns. After all humor needs to stay fresh. Surprising.

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23 Comments

  1. Hi everyone,

    Have I laughed at racial stereotyping at some point in my life? Yes.

    Do I take it seriously? No.

    The issue is not ‘racial stereotyping’. It’s ’stereotyping’.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXT3Sma4-rg

    This Merc commercial was a Cannes winner. But look at the title. (It reeks of racial profiling.) But do I think less of Paris Hilton, Madonna and Charlize Theron because of the ad? Do I think they are just dumb blondes? I don’t. I think they are all smart business-women who have created a distinct position in people’s minds – far better than most brands. With far less investment.

    So, what’s my point?

    1. Too much has been made of the term ‘racial profiling’. 80% of the jokes are based on a stereotype. A good joke puts a twist on a stereotype and makes you laugh. A bad joke doesn’t and falls flat.

    2. Usually, people who crib about racial profiling are people for whom the ad was never meant for, in the first place. So don’t take yourself (and advertising) so seriously. Just enjoy the joke and get on with it. Because that’s how the consumer behaves.

    • Sandhya Srinivasan |

      Hi Andy…i do agree that we should let it pass. We do all the time. This post is just to highlight that….we let it pass, which means a tacit approval of something offensive to some or many. The point is advertising uses cliches all too often. Stereotyping never gets fresh. And when it’s racial prejudices, they find really no space to breathe. Indian nerds is an ongoing drama. Of course they must evoke some glee, like jokes on sardars which are played over and over again. No one says don’t stereotype and the post merely shares a few that have done so using the world’s races.

      The only point that deserves any attention is this: when there is consistent and deliberate denigration (as opposed to harmless stereotyping) that causes hurt, harm or eventually affects interactions and perceptions in the real world, it must not be celebrated.

      Here is a beautiful talk given by Chimamanda Adichie on TED, titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story’…do check out the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

  2. Sandhya… Introspected. In any bracket of evolution, there’ll be 2 indices. If the lower level of evolution is the reference point, then it qualifies for racism. If the higher level of evolution is used as index, then the same stereotyping becomes a non-offensive identity.

    Between an aboriginal African & Pr. Obama – it must be Obama; between Shylock & Jewish Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel –let it be Wiesel. Between an average khakra-dhokla munching Gujarati who mispronounces English & scientist Vikram Sarabhai or businessman Dhirubhai Ambani, let’s choose the latter.

    • Sandhya Srinivasan |

      Thanks Anu…That’s wishful thinking and I am all game to fly. It surely is a great way of looking and many Europeans who are economically prosperous seek to see the spiritual prosperity of India and come here to fulfill something they need. Otherwise it isn’t an easy country to live in or even holiday in. As a single traveler I can vouch for that in comparison to my secure and comfortable holidays in that region. 3 cheers to your thought. With you all the way

  3. Sandhya,

    Postscript to my earlier comment, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t add that on numerous occasions, I have had my laughs at stereotypical humor. So somewhere, the term `closet racist’ does fit. As you said, so long as I don’t extend that thought into my handshake, I’m on the ok side. But still… provokes some introspection.

  4. Sandhya,

    Very informative. I agree about the LMN ad, it was offensive.

    A statement I read somewhere: “all Asians are good at math, all Jews are good with money”. As long as it is positive we actually seem to like it. That’s the problem. And you are so right; across conversations, movies and television serials, humor revolves around stereotypical ethnic jokes thus enforcing the thought even further. High time we found something else to laugh about.

  5. Hey sandhya…sore subject. i get mighty pissed whenever i get a whiff of nasty blokes as i have been a victim myself. i would let the nerd bit pass. it is better to be viewed as a geek with lots of wisdom and some eccentricities.

    The profligacy of the same in Indian advertising is a melody of yore though. it is done with little subtlety and is celebrated as insights into regional india. wow. i remember the surf ad at a south indian wedding starring some friends of the silicon valley groom am sure…foreigners eating with their hand. no justifying it, but somehow we don’t give a damn.

    By popular logic Aishwarya Rai with snow white complexion, blue-green eyes from karnataka doesn’t fit into the image of the south indian woman does she? how does it work really i wonder.

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