Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What’s in a Song? On representations of cultural diversity

In early December my daughter came home from school singing a song, “Soy un Chino Capuchino Mandarín.” She said it was a Christmas song her class was preparing for the end of school Christmas party, and they would all dress up as Chinese people. In the song, the Chinese are on the road to Bethlehem and are approached by the Magi asking them for directions, but they can’t help because they don’t understand Spanish. Just hearing her sing the line, “Como Chino Capuchino no entender,” aroused such anger in me. Here they go, portraying Asians as inescapably foreign and alien, even stupid.  I immediately pointed out to my daughter that her friend Han Han, who is Chinese, speaks Spanish perfectly. “Mami, es una canción!” (“It’s just a song!”) she replied. But the worst was to come. For their Chinese costumes, the teacher sent home garbage bags to be decorated at home with black adhesive tape in order to look like Chinese robes.  Garbage bags? Really? As if the song and the idea of dressing up like Chinese people weren’t offensive enough. But once again my effort to challenge distortion with reality (“Chinese people don’t wear garbage bags,” I pointed out) was rejected by my 5-year-old. “Mami, the teacher said.” And hence the insidious crime of this activity, invested with all the authority of the school, taught to 5-year-olds who are still learning how to see the world and shaping their perceptions of cultural difference.

So began two weeks of painful deliberation by my husband and I about how to respond to this and whether to let her participate. Our response to this incident is shaped by our training as anthropologists of education who focus on issues of cultural diversity in schools, as well as our personal identities and experiences of cultural diversity in the United States. This training and experience has attuned us to the role of ethnic and racial stereotyping in relations of inequality. We are new to Spain, but in the few months we have been here, we have learned that the Chinese are one of the most marginalized, if not the most marginalized immigrant minority group. They have the highest school dropout rate, and in some recent studies of the second generation (children of immigrants born in Spain), the Chinese are the least likely of any ethnic group to identify as Spanish or to have friendships outside their ethnic group.

In Madrid, the face of the Chinese are the small merchants who operate the numerous ‘bazaars’ selling cheap imported goods. Madrid is home to the largest Chinese distribution center in Europe. Chinese merchants have been the target of protests by Spanish shoe merchants (one in 2004 ending in the burning of a Chinese shoe warehouse) and in the central city neighborhood of Lavapies in 2005, they were the target of a ‘cleansing’ campaign by municipal authorities and Spanish merchants who associated the Chinese with ‘suciedad’ (dirtiness), contamination, and illegality. That’s right, the Chinese were associated with garbage. Fast forward to 2013, and a central city public school assigns its kindergarten class to dress up as Chinese by wearing garbage bags. This, very briefly, is the social and historical context within which we interpret the meaning of this activity, as outsiders to the school but specialists in cultural diversity.

Insiders to the school interpret the activity from different lenses, of course. In the past two weeks we have spoken to parents, the teacher, the principal and the academic director, about our concerns. No one we have spoken to can see anything wrong with the activity. In each case, their first response has been to assure us of the absence of any racial intent. No problem, as Americans we’re used to the “I didn’t mean to be racist therefore I’m not” argument. We assure them that we are not accusing anyone of racist intent, or any harmful intent whatsover, but that we are concerned about the implications and consequences of this activity for children in the school, especially children of Asian descent. They explain that the song comes from a traditional and popular villancico sung by the famous “Payasos de la Tele” (clowns of the television) in the 1970s.  One mother told me, “most of us parents in the school grew up with that song, and that’s why you won’t find anyone who sees anything wrong with it.” The Chinese immigrant parents, of course, did not grow up with that song, but it hadn’t occurred to anyone we talked to to ask what Chinese parents would think.  When we raised this question, we got some thoughtful “Hmm”s. The school staff admitted that they had some thinking to do, and agreed to make some modifications to the activity, for example, removing some of the hand gestures that had children pulling their eyes to make slanty-eyes (yes, that had initially been part of the song). But the overall sense I got from these conversations was that they (Spanish parents and educators) believe that we (Americans) have a ‘race problem’ which causes us to be overly sensitive and therefore unable to see the harmonious and agreeable nature of social relations in this school and Spain in general (people said as much in many different ways). So which view is right?

The real difference here is not between a Spanish and an American version of race relations. Many Americans would agree with the Spaniards that my husband and I were overreacting and that “political correctness” (the term actually used by one Spanish father to describe our reaction) was stifling harmless and spontaneous creative expression. The real difference, instead, lies between a critical view and an uncritical view of cultural representations; between a view that considers the role of historical context and power inequalities in cultural representation and asks who has the power to represent whom, and a view that does not. While the uncritical view uses historical referents to justify dominant representations of minority cultures (the TV Clowns sang the song in the ‘70s, so it’s okay), the critical view uses historical context to question dominant representations (Chinese merchants have been the target of ‘cleansing’ campaigns in the recent past, so is it really a good idea to have children dress up as Chinese people by wearing garbage bags?). And as to the absence of racial intent, can any cultural image ever be innocent in the context of racial inequality?

On the question of what is the best way to parent a child in these circumstances, I remain uncertain. While I see mostly negative outcomes of allowing my daughter to participate in racially offensive stereotyping, I also see negative outcomes of forbidding her to participate and separating her from her classmates. It is a difficult situation, and I don’t claim to know what is best. On one thing I am clear, however. Between the critical and uncritical view, I will always choose the critical. To be uncritical is to be allow yourself to be swept by currents that have resulted in mass inequality and to disown your own capacity for independent thought, not to mention your responsibility to make change. I agree with Freire: to develop critical consciousness is our vocation as human beings. And yes, it is painful.

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