Wednesday, August 11, 2004

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Wrestlin' with race

I’ve been thinking about “Harold and Kumar.” First, I was thinking that the extreme sports guys are, despite their loutishness and racism, really, really painfully funny. For example, the plump man who communicates only by making pterodactyl sounds, and who bobs and weaves in this fantastically reptilian way. I mean, that was killer. And then there’s the guy who yells, “extreme cheddar!” Man, what the hell was that? I’ll tell you what that was: hilarious. There was also the “extreme mix,” which rocked the hot Wilson Phillips track (I know that there is pain / but you / hold on for one more daaaay: this song is the story of my life). Essentially, the extreme sports guys delivered non-stop. Very impressive.

(It occurs to me that some of you—one of you? Anyone out there?—haven’t seen this movie yet. I can understand only if you have only ten dollars to your name and need it to buy your mother a new kidney from an unscrupulous cut-rate organ thief, in which case you ought to quit reading blogs and instead start your own “revenge-for-hire” business a la “Dirty Work,” to which, inexplicably, and I’m mortified to this day, I dragged my gentlemanly father and highly sophisticated sister many years ago. And which, I say shamefacedly, I now own, though this shouldn’t lead you to question my enthusiastic endorsement of “Harold and Kumar,” in that said endorsement has been seconded by many high-tone, sophisticated types, whom I’ve identified by their penchant for burying their noses in Harper’s and wearing glasses. I call them “nerds.”)

Second, I was thinking about race. Debra Dickerson has this essay in Slate on being a bigot:

In a nation riven to its very core by race, I appear to be the only remaining racist. Off and on, I'm homophobic and anti-Semitic, too, but mostly, I'm racist. Yet unlike the rest of you, I'm honest about it.

Whoa, there! You speak too soon! I’ve long struggled to get over my burning hatred for the Irish, the Greeks, and the Armenians. No, no, I’m kidding. I love the Irish, the Greeks, and the Armenians. I mean, I’ve had problems with individuals Greeks, but there are just as many Greeks, if not far more Greeks, I love dearly. I loved Middlesex (a two-sittings read)! Also Maria Menounos (obviously) and, in a spirit of gender equity, the late, lamented Telly Savalas. (You’ll notice that the “Stunningly Gorgeous Crescent,” like “The Democratic Crescent,” starts in the Mediterranean rim. I won’t specify where it goes from there for fear of alienating the stiletto-wielding “newsies” who wait outside of my office and threaten to steal my lunch money.) As for the Irish, it’s not that I dislike them, but I do resent this notion that the Irish are singularly, faultlessly delightful, and I imagine many Irish would agree. You’re as likely to get mugged and beaten in Ireland as anywhere else in Western Europe, and rest assured, you won’t be beaten with a magical shillelagh. (Wait, wait. It seems that Mischa Barton, whom we have to thank for "less bling, more elegance," is Irish. Do with this information as you will.) What about the Welsh? I’ll bet they have colorful folk traditions, and yet they get diddly, apart from a reputation as untrustworthy and shiftless when it comes to honoring agreements. Honestly, I love Armenians and threw them in for no reason at all. They get a bum rap, and have had a rough time historically. I wouldn’t wish the Turks or the Reds as imperialist aggressors on any ethnonational collectivity.

Back to Dickerson. She vividly describes her “problem with whites,” a “problem” it’s easy to cop to. No one’ll give you a hard time for that, really. I should point out that I have no problem with white people, in large part because of “Jackass: The Movie”—three thumbs up. (Can you imagine anyone else making that movie? I can't.) I do think we need more creative slurs for white people, however. My favorite is “Napikwan,” a term used by some of the Indian nations of the Northern Plains. “You damn Napikwan!” has a nice ring, as does “Naps.” White people could then appropriate the term for themselves, and scowl angrily when non-whites use it. I like this idea.

The point of Dickerson’s anecdote on her problem with whites is that racial solidarity endures, that it has weight; she suggests that this is a bad thing, and I’d agree, emphatically. But it’s not that simple. Insofar as the solidaristic pose is defensive, part and parcel of preserving self-esteem, it's difficult to dismiss outright.

In “Harold and Kumar,” Harold dreads the prospect of pursuing a romantic relationship with “Cindy Kim,” a straight-laced Korean American co-ed at Princeton meant to evoke the stereotypical Asian American overachiever. She is a crashing bore. “Maria,” this shapely bombshell he worships from afar, is decidedly not Asian (she’s of indeterminate Latin origin, it seems—one assumes that making her a classical Anglonormative blonde would’ve been too much), though it’s never clear that she’s not also a crashing bore. They never really speak at length. I mean, one could argue that being a shapely bombshell is intrinsically unboring, but we’ll bracket that.

Settling for Cindy Kim represents a listless embrace of mediocrity. Harold explicitly says, when Kumar insists that he make an earnest attempt to win over Maria, something to the effect of, “I’m going to end up with Cindy Kim whether I like it or not.” Ouch. Kumar maintains that she’s actually quite fetching and that Harold needn’t be so fatalistic regardless, but it’s a sentiment that’s worthy of note. Harold gives every indication of preferring a life free of any romantic entanglements, save for an underinformed infatuation with the aforementioned bombshell, to a serious relationship with, let’s be explicit, a fellow Korean American.

That’s not entirely fair. Cindy Kim is, after all, really, really boring. It could be that Harold, when bemoaning the prospect of ending up with Cindy Kim, simply means that he’s doomed to end up with a profoundly lame young lady of refined taste and dubious sex appeal. Race doesn’t enter the picture.

Let’s flip the script: Harold’s disinterest in Cindy Kim is about race, and Harold isn’t attracted to Korean American women, but wait—do we condemn people for not being attracted to brunettes, or really tall people? Of course not. It’s an arbitrary preference, and it’s not question-begging in any way. That’s one take, and I’m sympathetic to it as a prescriptive matter: this is probably how we ought to treat the preferences of others, because we certainly can’t look into the souls of others, and as a result we don’t have a very good vantage point for making judgments with teeth. (I'd like to read this book, as I hear the author touches on related matters.) But it’s unconvincing.

I don’t know a lot about theory. I have, however, heard of this Lacanian concept known as “the mirror stage.” Google, in its infinite goodness, has thrown up this little summary:

Drawing on work in physiology and animal psychology, Lacan proposes that human infants pass through a stage in which an external image of the body (reflected in a mirror, or represented to the infant through the mother or primary caregiver) produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of an "I". The infant identifies with the image, which serves as a gestalt of the infant's emerging perceptions of selfhood, but because the image of a unified body does not correspond with the underdeveloped infant's physical vulnerability and weakness, this imago is established as an Ideal-I toward which the subject will perpetually strive throughout his or her life.

What happens to the racialized children of immigrants, who encounter one image of the mother in the home and, in theory at least, an imaginary mother in the wider world? (I’m very fond of my mother—this is a stereotype of South Asian and South Asian American men that holds true in my case. If I had an imaginary mother, well, I don’t know who it would be. Nell Carter from “Gimme a Break!”?) My sense is that a number of Asian Americanists in the universities have taken this line of inquiry as far as it’ll go. Regardless, it raises interesting questions concerning the ways in which sexual attraction is bound up with aspirations. Could it be that Harold needs Maria to affirm his own attractiveness, and his self-identification? Man, I don’t know. My intention isn’t to condemn the filmmakers. That would be odd, as they are literally, when gathered in the same room, an explosive force so destructively powerful as to merit the moniker “the bomb.” I’m just curious.

P.S.- On a tangential note, I’m told that the consensus among sociologists is that women seek mates of higher status, and this makes sense to me. As women’s rates of educational attainment skyrocket, surpassing those of men, it’ll be interesting to see the consequences of a dwindling pool, and whether or not the norms shift. My plan is to cryogenically freeze myself until they do. Hot-cha!

P.P.S- The Maltzenstein has a winning post on legalizing drogas and criminalizing rhinoplasty. Because I love the Roman nose, the bump, the serious schnoz, I heartily endorse this proposal. One might ask, “How can you advocate imposing this ban on grounds of your peccadilloes?” My reply is to give you “the gasface.” Others who get “the gasface”: Jacques Chirac (Go Sarko!) and Wilmer Valderrama, who needs to start dating women his own age.

P.P.S.- Oh my lord, it's true. The new ABA really does have racial teams! Finally, we can establish the utter supremacy of diminutive Bengali men on the basketball court! I mean, I never learned how to dribble, but ... This could be the beginning of a beautiful thing. I mean, a terrible, terrible thing. I'm stoked.

posted by Suzanne Nossel on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM


OK, you have adequately guilt tripped me and I will see “Harold and Kumar.” However, we guys who are part Iroquois Indian are very upset with all these phony Indians running around all over the place. Real Indians live in the United States. What’s with this India stuff? Where in hell is that? I need to get my own tomahawk and do some scalping. It looks like we are being invaded.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

Um, 15 paragraphs and you couldn't figure out a way to post a sexy picture of some extremely attractive actress/singer/model giving the viewer a "come-hither" look? I want Drezner back!

PS - And where is Drezner's editor? [Wasn't the link to Maria Menounos good enough? No. the picture should be on the main page.]

PPS - Or is it that Drezner doesn't let the guest bloggers post pictures of half-naked women?

PPPS - Harold and Kumar is a scream.

posted by: Al on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

This racial stuff has its good side. I am probably not more than 10% Iroquois Indian, but in the Old South a person was considered totally black with the same racial mix. Could I charge someone with racism if they dare disagree with me? More importantly, might I be able to break the law and use the excuse that the white establishment has messed up my fragile psyche? I need to immediately apply for very own race card. It could be better than the American Express platinum card.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]


I've been watching the Indian American/Asian American community evolve from being completely invisible within the public sphere (in high school, which was in the eighties for me) to the present, when, uh, we have Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle. We've come a long way! I am so proud.

Ok, growing up in a small town in Iowa as I did, my ideas of attractive were decidedly racialized and I wasn't too interested in Indian men until my twenties. Does this make me an inadvertant racist or was I just rebelling against my Indian parents (who were actually pretty cool, I was just a jerk back then. And some say still....). Anyway, I have no point to this comment except that I'm a little jealous of the 18-25 desi demographic. I think they're lucky. There's more of 'em and in the wonderful way of America this particular immigrant group is becoming a part of the mainstream and the mainstream is shifting to accomodate new ideas. The melting pot is different from multiculturalism and I for one prefer the melting pot.

I am first and foremost an American, I love my growing up in Iowa and my 'midwesterness' as much as I love my 'Indianess'. BTW, the young 'uns (desis) are always complaining to the more settled and grown-up (or so they say) me, but I tell them to quit whining. It's not so bad after all.

Yeah, Kumar is right. Harold should stop being so uptight. With like, yoga though, instead of weed.

posted by: MD on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

The Welsh!! Well, I'll have you know, that Tom Jones is Welsh.

And I love the Roman Nose, too. Rhinoplasticizing it should be a crime.

posted by: Twn on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

Check out Portnoy's Complaint: Author Philip Roth's alter ego, Alex, has a fetish for non-Jewish women. He believes that, in sleeping with "all-American" sorts, he is thrusting himself, so to speak, into America. He literally can't "get it up" in the land of Israel, he discovers, near the end of the novel, during an (attempted) encounter with a Jewish woman there.

Alex has other problems, too, but those don't really relate to this post.

posted by: Phoebe on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

Check out Portnoy's Complaint: Author Philip Roth's alter ego, Alex, has a fetish for non-Jewish women. He believes that, in sleeping with "all-American" sorts, he is thrusting himself, so to speak, into America. He literally can't "get it up" in the land of Israel, he discovers, near the end of the novel, during an (attempted) encounter with a Jewish woman there.

Alex has other problems, too, but those don't really relate to this post.

posted by: Phoebe on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

The best statement on race relations I've heard in a long time is the song "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q.

posted by: Jon H on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

Harold and Kumar: There's transgressive genius in the conceit of a Hindu on an epic quest for hamburgers and a Korean (Christian) in search of "Buddha" (i.e., high quality marijuana). And let's not forget the parallel quest of their neighbors -- Jews in search of the perfect hot dog. None of this is particularly remarked upon in the film, and in fact I got the sense that everyone in the audience where I saw the film completely missed it.

Shashwati Talukdar, on her blog, has even suggested a scriptural parallel: Kumar as aggressive Krishna and Harold as reluctant Arjun. I don't know if I quite believe it, but then, what's to believe about this improbable stoner gem?

posted by: Amardeep Singh on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

As a typical "grab bag of European ethnicities" white American, who is dating an Indo-Australian (or whatever you call an Australian with parents from India), I wholeheartedly endorse people looking outside their ethnic "clan", for whatever reason

mmm... beautiful dark eyes AND a sexy accent...

posted by: Adam on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

I am outraged by this post. Leave aside your denial of the self evident proposition that the Irish are "singularly, faultlessly delightful," where to begin?

"You’re as likely to get mugged and beaten in Ireland as anywhere else in Western Europe" -- sure, but everyone will pronounce the whole experience as being "great craic" afterwards.

And then Mischa Barton is Irish? And leprechauns fly out of mahone. She's got cousins in Donegal -- (a) who doesn't and (b) that doesn't make you irish, it means someone got on a ship 1/2/3 generations ago and Mischa is one of the many branches of that family tree.

Also, you seem not to have heard the old joke that the Welsh are the Celts who couldn't swim. And finally, I'm trying to decide if you're telling us something by having the words "Greek" and "love" in the same sentence.

posted by: P O'Neill on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

I can understand only if you have only ten dollars to your name and need it to buy your mother a new kidney from an unscrupulous cut-rate organ thief

Please refrain from summing up my life story so succinctly in the future. Your glibness shames us both.

posted by: Jeff Harrell on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

I went to see Harold and Kumar last Friday and when I saw it I thought it was insanely funny as well, and yes, beyond the whole racism thing, which added to the humor. I'm glad I came upon this site though by someone else's recommendation. Before I just saw the movie as something to distract me from the seriousness of life but this entry made me revisit it in a new way.

posted by: Erin on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

I'll probably end up watching the flick on video, just as I did with Super Troopers which was hilarious.

posted by: Cobb on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]


Amazing. Panjabi MC. Maria Menounos. International Relations. Where have you been all these years? Come over and let's chat over some chai and samosas! Piping hot, of course.

Is Mr. Drezner's p-value decreasing while he is away? I think it is.

posted by: Jas on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

"women seek mates of higher status" ...

Surprise, surprise. Women are not the only ones out there "seeking." Men are also.

In other words, tell those on the distaff side "Hey. Seek this, bitch."

posted by: paul a'barge on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

"women seek mates of higher status"

There's an interesting phenomenon going on in Saudi Arabia right now. It's called "The Spinster Crisis" in the local media.

It appears that, as more and more Saudi women get higher education, the qualities they demand in a spouse get higher, too. As a result, fewer Saudi women are accepting "traditional" marriages as arranged for family/clan/tribal reasons and expect their husbands to be at least as well educated as they are.

Thus, there's an entire generation of Saudi women who are choosing to stay unmarried, much to the consternation of a) families, b) the state.

It'll be interesting to watch how this plays out over time.

posted by: John on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

Reihan, this is a wonderful post, with one exception... Lacan. Really, I don't want to get into it, but was that really necessary?

posted by: Jonas Cord on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

You know, I've always wondered if we humans have some residual something in our brains that is left over from the time we shared the Earth with the Neandertals. How would we have viewed them? Was it especially important that we instantly recognize 'our kind' from the 'other' if the other were real threats to our safety or economic livlihoods (hunting and gathering)? Yet, we don't really know if Neandertals were threats physically, and the geographic areas of interaction may have been fairly limited, so would this residual something apply only to peoples descended from early northern populations and some areas of the Levant?

Women may seek mates of higher status for marriage, but many women find the handsome stranger irresistible. Which is of course a handy trait to have to give variety to the gene pool.

posted by: Abigail on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

This tail-chasing post on race is amusing, but in the end we are left with one sad truth: it is still impossible for me to pick up hot, drunken bimbos at the monster truck rally for some crazy FFM debauchery. Lacking all other info, they consider my obvious group affiliations (Indian, nerd, NPR listener) and proceed to kick me in the groin. Is this an arbitrary preference or stereotypes about groups? The chicks really don't care.

And I won't pay $10 for a dumb stoner flick when I can watch "The Big Lebowski" again at home with an ice pack in my lap.

posted by: me on 08.11.04 at 06:01 PM [permalink]

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