Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Racism, irony, and “gingers”

In Posts on February 7, 2012 at 4:03 pm

I’m worried that Anglophone culture is inventing a new racial category: “gingers,” people with red hair, pale skin, and freckles. Like most Americans who have heard the term, I first conceptualized “gingers” as a separate category from “white people” after watching the South Park episode “Ginger Kids.” Characteristically for South Park, the episode satirizes racism while also arguably indulging in a great deal of it; the show has always succeeded in taking extreme liberties—repeating the n-word umpteen times in another famous episode—by positioning itself as ironically depicting social ills with the actual intent of lampooning them. If you’re offended at the depiction, you’ve missed the irony, or so the logic goes.

I trust that the South Park writers’ actual race politics are blameless, but the story gets more complicated. Since the airing of “Ginger Kids,” “ginger” as a racist term has continued to develop momentum and is now doing real damage, inspiring not only expressions of evidently sincere hurt from redheaded people, but actual discrimination and violence. The term remains culturally acceptable thanks to a soupy half-irony that allows for the simultaneous enjoyment of a clean racial conscience and the thrill of racist titillation. This half-irony can be thought of (in a hopefully useful analogy) as a viral adaptation, allowing the term to propagate without triggering the regular responses of the cultural immune system.

The seamless transition from satirizing racial prejudice to exercising racial prejudice suggests that irony can shield racism—or even create it ex nihilo—just as readily as deflate it. I suppose the easy conclusion would be that we simply shouldn’t give voice to prejudice, not even ha-ha prejudice; but I strongly believe that forbidding people to have a sense of humor about a topic only makes it funnier, and I also object to the brittleness and self-righteousness of that approach. I personally don’t intend to stop enjoying, and propagating, racially charged humor within the boundaries of appropriateness that I and the world set. So I suppose my main takeaway from the “ginger” story is that irony isn’t a panacea: we are never as hip and detached as we think we are, and the world itself has an inescapable aspect that is flat, straightforward, serious, and painful.

Further viewing: What actually got me thinking about this topic is a recent (and extremely graphic) music video from musician M.I.A., depicting genocide against red-haired people. I noticed that my primary response to the video was not “what if a totally neutral group, like redheads, was suddenly discriminated against?” (as probably intended), but more like “we need to stop depicting discrimination against redheads.”