Sunday, October 28

Racist?

Drive south along Interstate I95 and leave North Carolina. Within a quarter of a mile South of the Border appears on your left. It's a sprawling tourist trap filled with clip-joint shops, restaurants, a gas station, and assorted tourist attractions - including a large public toilet. It presents you with a battle between ticky and tacky, with tacky ahead by a nose.

The motif is sort of stereotypical Mexican... as imagined by people who don't seem to like Mexico all that much. Now I'm not a believer in the concept of La Raza. Most Latin Americans that I've met have as much European blood as me. However they are as ethnically different from my Irish ancestors as Serbo-Croatians. There is a Latin culture that's taken on unique national characteristics as you travel from nation to nation. What ties them together is Spanish.

However, ethnic cultures always seem to clash - and those clashes produce some hot sparks, even fires - right? Last week, a television news lady was fired from her network job on NBC for having a discussion which seemed to license black-face halloween costumes. Which brings me to South of the Border in South Carolina.

Here's that Pedro public toilet. So? Is "Pedro" not as ethnically insensitive as black-face costumes? The place has been around for decades -  perhaps half a century. Its designers probably consider the motif to be fun. Moreover it's thousands of miles away from the Mexican border. But... have definitions of humor changed drastically enough over the last couple of decades to pop the place's humor balloon? Is South  of the Border a racist (or at least an ethnic) dog-whistle?

7 comments:

Earl said...

Ted, I'd say “South of the Border” is racist, stereotyping and culturally insensitive. Some in today's culture, probably almost all which support our current President but also others, would say there’s far too much Political Correctness (PC) applied in today's culture and that “South of the Border” was and is all in good humor. Granted while in some cases PC is overzealously applied, the test I've come to use is to consider if I was a person of the targeted culture or race would I feel hurt, devalued or culturally insulted. In the "South of the Border" case, it fails this test for me. Just as background, I was born in NC and have spent many years in both NC and SC but have also lived and traveled far from their borders.

Ted said...

Whoa, powerful points.

Sensitivity’s a lot like truth, Earl. It seems to be a moving target. Looking back upon a lot of years - it seems as if the things that give offense are increasingly like a lump of clay in the talented fingers of a hidden sculptor. Fingers that are continually revealing dynamic clues about discomfort. It’s as if morality’s in flux.

The fact I asked this question reveals my discomfort with South of The Border’s business plan. ‘Pedro’s’ characterization (the company’s Ronald McDonald, Cl. Sanders, & Mickey Mouse morphed together and wearing a sombrero): Is like... Yikes!! Thoughtlessly, I’ve stopped there to refuel on many trips back and forth along multi-hour North-South treks.

These last two times the morality-sculptor splatted me upside the head with a chunky hunk of Pedro in that clown outfit hawking toilets, and abruptly it not only all seemed weirder than a Steven King tale, but it explained the acres and acres of empty parking lots at dinner time along the nation’s busiest North-South interstate.

Cedric Canard said...

I wanted to comment on the picture alone because I like it—the colours and the inclusion of the observation tower which amusingly looks like a Transformer wearing a giant sombrero—but in the context of the post, I would feel rude to leave it at that and not address your question of racism.
Firstly, to determine whether this image depicts something racist, we would need to know the owner of the establishment. If the owner is Caucasian than this cannot be racist as Mexicans are also Caucasians. Yes. I am being pedantic, but I am only just starting because the entire question of racism seems absurd to me. There is only one race (the Human Race) which kind of explains why we can all mix and have babies together.
Raising the question of racism will always evoke division which in turn, partly due to heavy historical context, can incite violence. Not a good thing. And it doesn't help that even if we were to continue pretending that there was more than one race, that most people conflate "race" with things like religion or culture. News outlets and reporters are guilty of this as much as anyone, which really does not help matters at all.
Humanity would be better served if racism was called out for what it is, namely, plain old discrimination. Sure, it doesn't sound as bad, it doesn't evoke absurd connotations of Nazism and it probably doesn't make for good clickbait, but it is far less divisive which means less chance for the problem to feed itself and spiral into pure hatred. Everybody understands discrimination because most of us have had some flaw that has been used against us in some way. And because most people have, at some point, been discriminated against, there is a better chance for empathy to kick in and for corrective action to place on a wider, more inclusive scale. And if we are lucky, we may even realise on an equally large scale, that we are all guilty of being discriminatory on some level.
Getting back to South of the Border, I would doubt this was done for any reason other than marketing, a means to attract customers, stand out from the crowd kind of thing. Is it in good taste? Well, considering there is no accounting for taste, who's to say? Is it offensive? I would say it depends on whether you wish to take offense or not. I can't imagine the owner set out to be offensive on purpose. In any case, this is definitely not an example of racism.
Now, I could be accused of being insensitive at this point, but this is not about sensibilities. Just as it is not about putting myself in another person's shoes either. While I appreciate Earl's righteous sentiment, to see the world from another's perspective requires objectivity none of us possess. Even if we have a better-than-average imagination, we will, in all likelihood, still be influenced by our biases and beliefs; and whatever we imagine ourselves to feel while imagining ourselves as another person, it will be no less a myth than the one perpetuated by the stereotype. For me, the best I could hope to do is imagine going to another country and coming across a similar tourist trap called, let's say, Down Under, with a giant figure called Stevo, sporting a cork hat, shorts, singlet, flip-flops and a beer gut. Would I be offended? No. Am I comparing apples with apples? No. And that's kind of my point.
In any case, as you point out in your comment about the empty parking lots Ted, places like these end up disappearing all on their own, but not because they are racist or offensive or insensitive. They'll disappear because they are of another time and they are no longer attractive (though, like I said, I do like the scene you captured) or useful.

Cedric Canard said...

One last thing (I had to split my comment into two parts because apparently I prattle on too much).
As a kid, when I was learning about evolution, I asked the teacher why humans had developed a sense of humour. I wanted to know what survival advantage humour would have brought to the mix. My teacher didn't have an answer and it was decades later that I came across an article which stipulated that humour may have evolved to help humans live together in large communities. I don't know if this is a fact, but it made sense to me. How ironically funny would it be, if humans lost their sense of humour and in so doing brought about their own demise due to being unable to live together anymore? Ok, yeah, I do have a twisted sense of humour but better that than none I reckon ;)

Ted said...

Thanks for your comments on the Pic Cedric. Color coats everything in a romantic casing. I experimented with stripping it away from this image, leaving bones in place and the effect is way moodier - and even more dishonest. In fact the choice of a 17mm lens to make the image was my first step into a kind of dark whimsy.

Okay... wudda-hell's honest about art? Every photo. painting, poem, novel, score, sculpting... etc etc. is some sort of polemic. It is entirely impossible to reveal a naked truth in any medium. There's an acrid debate going on in America about "fake news", meaning? I guess that "fakeness" is inherent in any communication. Everything is filtered through POV, particularly when the artist attempts to be entirely objective. Exploring that is what "ImageFiction" is all about. So I rarely return to the world of B&W unless I really want to create a hit-em-in-the-eyeballs point :-)

Ted said...

BTW, I've recently begun using my Canon EF-S 10-22mm as "normal". So Pedro's image was captured at 10mm (cropped conversion = 15mm). We don't see the world through the distortions that wide angles bake into an image. Butwide-glass portals into a different explanation about life and its meaning. In post, It's neccessary to correct the lens' distortions along the frame's-edges.

Cedric Canard said...

Do you really believe that all art is polemic? Some art can be, for sure, but I would say that in every instance it would be intentional. But not all art speaks against something, at least not through my POV. And while I would go as far as to say that by its very nature, art often takes a subject matter out of its context and in so doing, could be said to tell a bit of a lie, art is not dishonest. It can be deceptive, fictional or fanciful but in each case it never tries to hide what it is. Art does not come with different personas for different audiences the way people do. And if you are suggesting that the dishonesty comes from the fact that art cannot be objective, then I would have to ask that you point me in the direction of something or someone that is. Once upon a time, a decade or more ago, there were some people around who tried to be, with some doing a reasonable job (they were called journalists) but sadly, they, like so many other species on our planet, are now extinct. Replaced with a new breed of spin-doctors, entertainers and clowns. But in the end, none can truly be objective. Just as a particle's position has infinite possibilities until it is observed, the universe has infinite potential until we observe it and then it locks in just one of those infinite possibilities and we dare call it an objective POV.
Okay, I need to stop before I ramble on too much. I really need to learn to be more succinct. BTW, I do like the look given by ultrawide angle lenses. I look forward to the day we can have bionic eyes with built in zoom. I'd definitely go for a 12-24mm zoom :)