Saturday, April 09, 2011

is this image funny to you?

I've been involved in a discussion around this image the last couple of days. Someone posted it on her blog, to illustrate a blog post aimed at explaining to Swedish people how you go about getting your driver's license in California. She found the image funny, and added it to her informational post as a light hearted ending. She said "This is not what a California license looks like, but, who knows, maybe soon it will, given all the illegal immigrants here".

When I saw it, I was shocked. To me the image is deeply racist, and I think posting it without comment is to perpetuate prejudice and stereotypes. I wrote a comment to the writer because I didn't want Swedish people reading the blog to think that this kind of "humor" is OK.

The writer of the blog was upset by my comment. She thought I had attacked her. Other readers (Swedish immigrants in the US, or Swedes living in Sweden), all, except for one, thought I was the bad guy. They said I was overly sensitive, and that you have to be able to joke about things. They said you can't be politically correct all the time. They said that since the writer is not racist, she didn't mean any harm.

The writer herself said it was unfortunate the image was misinterpreted, and that you can't please everybody. She took the image off her blog. Other readers continued to comment, urging her to put the image back up, repeating that she hadn't done anything wrong, and that she had been unfairly attacked.

I don't think saying "everyone interprets differently" is a good excuse. There isn't anything funny about the image. All it does is pile old stereotypes on top of each other: The Mexican immigrant is portrayed as short, fat, over sexualized, he can't write his name, doesn't know his date of birth, is entitled to services, wears a sombrero, and wears ammunition across his chest like a member of a guerilla. His status will never change, and he is referred to by the words 'illegal', and 'alien'.

The woman who posted this image lives in Siskiyou County in Northern California. Siskiyou County is 80% white. That's extreme, even on a national level. Here is a comparison:

Percentage of white people
Siskiyou County        80
Santa Clara County   37 (this is where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area)
California                   42
US                               65

source: US Census Bureau

It's possible that anyone living in a homogenous area actually does not know about the tension between different ethnicities in the US. It's also possible that people with no experience of their own take stereotypes present in news and other media stories for true. Because I am originally Swedish I have been especially saddened by what I perceive as ignorance among Swedes, and Swedish immigrants in the US. Here are a few facts that I think most of them don't know:

1. California's economy, such as it is, depends on the work of undocumented workers. Conservative writer Victor Davis Hansen has said something along the lines of "The difference between Michigan and California is that in Michigan people mow their own lawns." He is referring to the fact that middle class Californians in vast numbers employ undocumented workers to take care of their children, their yards, their pools, and their cleaning. And everyone in the state, and outside of it, enjoy cheap produce picked by underpaid farmworkers.

2. California became a state in 1850, after the Mexican-American war. Texas, to take another example, became a state in 1845. In both states there are people, families, who have lived there since before the land became part of the US. Being white does not grant you the right to determine or imply who belongs, and not. The face on the driver's license is that of an "illegal alien", but it looks just as much as the face of someone whose family may have been American citizens for six or seven generations.

3. President Reagan granted amnesty to undocumented workers in 1986. Over the past ten years when I have been teaching in California many of my students have been the children of parents who acquired residency through Reagan's amnesty.

4. The private university where I teach gives full scholarships to undocumented students, if they quality. (The same standards apply to them as to other applicants, obviously.)

5. Undocumented students, who have been brought to the US as children, are not entitled to loans, or any type of financial aid. If they aren't awarded scholarships to private universities they are on their own. Undocumented students can attend California State Universities and pay in-state tuition, but they have to pay all of it out of their own pockets. They work full-time, and save as much as they can to pay for school. They yearly costs for four-year California public universities range between $15 000 and $30 000.

6. When I see the image of the 'illegal immigrant' I see the face of some of my students, or the faces of some of my students' parents. I see hardworking immigrants, who do the best that they can for their children and their families. I see people who struggle against prejudice. I see people who work harder than I ever have in my life.


Umepojk i Mason, Ohio said...

When I first saw the image on the other blog, I just glanced at it, and though I didn't thing is was 'nice' I didn't react. When I read your comment, I took another look. When you look at the incredibly stereotypical photo, 'mucho' for sex, 'too much' for weight, and then the comments about weapons and voting, the X instead of a signature, it can only be classified as racist. I had a link to the blog on my own blog, under "Expatriate Swedes". The link is no longer there. I had previously thought of removing it, finding the content lacking in sophistication. This was the straw. Let me add, that my view regarding the issue of illegal aliens is quite far from yours, even though I find myself quite far on the left in this country.

Lotta K said...

Hi Lennart, thank you for your comment here, and thank you for chiming in on the other blog. I was really surprised by the other commenters there. About immigration: I think it's a very difficult issue. I wanted to give my side of the story, but I;m fully aware it's just one piece of the puzzle. However, I do find the situation of the kids who have been brought here, sometimes as infants, to be inhumane. They're caught in the middle: Growing up as American, but with no legal status.

Umepojk i Mason, Ohio said...

Siskiyou County may be 80% white, but that excuse doesn't work. My county (Warren, Ohio)is 91.6% white!

Lotta K said...

Wow! I wasn't thinking of it as an excuse, necessarily. Just as a rough estimate of how many people of color a person would be surrounded by in different parts of the country.

Ingegerd said...

Thanks Lotta! Your thoughts on race and ethnicity are always the best, making me think and think again.

Ingegerd said...

Not to mention your incredible patience.Instead of telling stupid and ignorant people that they are just that, you try to make them see things differently.Hopefully, we end up with a few less ignorant people in the world, all thanks to you :-)

Lotta K said...

Thank you Ing/egerd! I don't know if you read the other blog, or if you saw the comments people wrote after I had left my comment. They were pretty nasty. Almost a surreal experience seeing Swedish people defend their right to be racist. Dan (my partner, who happens to be of Mexican descent) wanted me to blow the whistle on her to her employer, and her local paper. She;s a California State employee.

Annaa M said...

Aha, du har för första gången råkat ut för det hårda svenska bloggklimatet! Har ju inte läst bloggen i fråga men kan gissa. Att det för många av dem som kommenterat kanske inte ens handlar om att försvara rasism utan att till varje pris försvara själva bloggaren, vad hon än skriver. Jag har ju själv hamnat i blåsväder några gånger, en gång faktiskt när det handlade just om rasistiska uttalanden på en blogg.Håller med Ingegerd om att det är väldigt tålmodigt av dig att försöka vara seriös!

Handlar det för resten inte också om att många svenskar i allmänhet har en väldigt hovsam attityd till utlandssvenskar? ("Engelska kusinen" får säga saker som aldrig skulle accepteras om hon bodde i Sverige!) Föstås klart irriterande om någon kommer in och stör friden med avvikande åsikter.

Lotta K said...

Det var just det som förvånade mig mest, i alla fall i efterhand, att alla så blint försvarade. Antingen tittade de inte närmare på bilden, eller så begriper de helt enkelt inte vad den betyder i ett socialt sammanhang. Ett par hade förstås uttalat rasistiska åsikter, men det var mer väntat. Och huvudargumentet, att man inte kan vara rasist om man är invandrare själv, alternativt att man inte kan göra rasistiska saker om man inte hatar människor för deras ras, är ju bara korkat.

Eva said...

Vilken oerhört obehaglig och rasistisk bild - vad är det för fel på folk som inte ser det?

Argumentet att "man inte måste vara så politiskt korrekt jämt" alternativt att man "måste vara så politiskt korrekt i Sverige att det är som censur" hör man tyvärr alldeles för ofta i Sverige nu.

Lotta K said...

Jag vet verkligen inte, Eva. Om man som vit försvarar sin rätt att skratt åt det här, då försvarar man ju bara sin rätt att vara elak. Och varför vill man det? Jag tycker det är så sorgligt.