In his song, "Free Life" Neil says, "Sing it like a black man...I'm talking about round, brown women... it don't matter if she's a belle, we'll just have a time." Other songs talk about getting with "a poor man's woman," and generally have the attitude of a white man sampling the women of the world.
Which is nothing new, of course. The thing is, Jane, who is white, is the one that pointed this out to me. "This is so racist!" she says with a laugh. And continues playing it. And plays it for other colleagues who come to chat in our room. "Check out how racist this is!" she says, and we all laugh.
The idea of course, is that we're so enlightened, we're so post-racism, post-PC that we can laugh about it. But can we?
I felt the same conflict when I went to go see Kate Rigg's Chinkorama a few years ago. It was a first and last date because the guy couldn't figure out why I wasn't laughing my ass off. He seemed to think I was a humorless wench or something.
Basically, the show was the reenactment of every bad asian stereotype you've ever heard of. Polynesian tiki girls and dragon lady seductresses and the whole bit. According to her website,
"Kate's Chink-O-Rama deconstructs, repositions, ridicules, explodes, embodies, satirizes, re-visions, dissects, reconstructs addresses, discusses, challenges images of Asian America found in pop culture and mass media.... it's a comedy music revue in the style of In Living Color, but with a decidedly asian slant.
And on a level, I'm sure it was all these things. Rigg is very politically aware and expressed that in her show. But looking around at the mostly caucasian audience, I had the uncomfortable feeling that at another level, it was just a bunch white people laughing at the brown people aping themselves.
Is that okay because it was San Francisco, and the population is supposedly more politically enlightened? Are they, really?
Would it be called into question more if it were rural Kentuckians yukking it up? What if it were African Americans? What if it were all Asians?
That raises that unanswerable question, who is allowed to make fun of who's group? And then someone points out that black people can use the n-word and nobody else can, but some white people who have grown up in the hood feel they can, and if Joe is fluent in Chinese than why can't he laugh at the falling-down nerd skit?
Well here's my humorless answer: I don't think we're there yet. With neo-nazi's targeting Asians in Minnesota, with AA representation in the mainstream media limited to the same narrow, tired, roles, with 30% or whatever Americans saying they don't trust Asians, with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act less than 100 years away, I don't think Americans have the cultural understanding, sensitivity, and interconnectedness to put on the blackface, make their eyes squinty and their teeth buck, or call their sports teams "the Braves."
I don't think we're far enough away from the colonist attitudes of convert and civilize.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Neil Diamond.