The Slippery Slope of Racial Satire

“Why do Mexicans swim with their clothes on?”

Gustavo Arellano, author of the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! inevitably has a biting response to this question, among many other ignorant and stereotypical questions about Mexicans that flood his mailbox weekly. Arellano intends to debunk racial stereotypes through his cynical, acerbic tone, yet sometimes this tone can teeter on the border between satire and downright offensive material. To the question above, he responds,

“This is by far the most-asked question in ¡Ask a Mexican! history. So, to todos ustedes, I have my own question: Are you all chubby chasers? Like gabachos, an alarming number of Mexicans are out of shape. According to a 2003 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 24 percent of Mexico’s population is overweight. That’s the second-highest obesity rate in the world following — wait for it — ¡los Estados Unidos! Unlike gabachos, Mexicans respect the public when it comes to flashing our flabby chichis, pompis and cerveza guts — so when we’re out near the pool or by the beach, we cover up. It ain’t Catholicism, machismo or an homage to our swim across the Rio Grande. It’s good manners.”

Arellano’s column has a wide readership—it is published in more than 20 papers across the country and has a weekly circulation of about one million. Through its satire of the racial discrimination and scrutiny that Mexicans face on a daily basis in the US, Arellano’s column provides a countercultural representation of Latinos that is not typical in mainstream media outlets.  However, Arellano treads on a slippery slope with his irreverent tone, and has faced some criticism from readers—one of whom told him, “I do not believe you understand the damage you are creating by making it socially acceptable to speak the way you do.” Arellano’s response to this critique of his column is thatSatire is humor laced with stinging facts and points to make specific commentaries attacking the status quo…I advocate logical, lyrical smackdowns of Know-Nothings, who come in all colors.” Arellano clearly intends to deconstruct and challenge xenophobia against Mexicans, yet his irony may be lost on a wider audience, ending up just perpetuating the racist stereotypes. For example, the illustration above is the one that accompanies his column-a fat Mexican man with a mustache and sombrero. The politics of ethnic representation comes into play here—is drawing on stereotypes in order to invalidate them ultimately productive and empowering, or is it debilitating?

At Wesleyan, this debate has sparked up through Wesleying numerous times this year, bringing to light how racial satire does not necessarily sit well with all. About a month ago, for example, the AASC (Asian American Student Collective) advertised a week in which they were sponsoring many events on Wesleying, with a post entitled, “AIIIEEEEE, AN ASIAN INVASIAN!” Underneath the title, the post stated, “Surprise! You’re going about your average week at Wesleyan, when BAM, the Asian American Student Collective comes out of nowhere to sponsor four incredibly awesome events this upcoming week just for you.” The title was intentionally making fun of the historical “Yellow Peril”—the fear of the influx of Asian immigrants in the late 19th century, refashioning the phrase in order to reflect the many events happening on campus that week. However, this satire definitely spurred some controversy in the comments section. The following are several of the users’ comments.

 “heyyyyy wesleying, as much as I do appreciate the promotion of these fine events, can we please cease the racist headlines? … We get it, asian and invasion rhyme and there are asians here and there may not have been before. welcome to contemporary society. stop the hate speak”

“I’ve seen asian invasion used in the satirical context, but in those instances the usage was empowering. But in this context it is not. It’s othering and distasteful for a site like wesleying which is decidedly innocuous. Also, who cares if the AASC used it. That doesn’t make it right. Just because their asian doesn’t mean it’s not offensive.”

“Unfortunately, irony is easily lost on the internet; those who don’t care to look beyond the literal, will simply take this title to reaffirm their ignorant beliefs.”

While the AASC did sponsor this title, evidently it was misunderstood by some and interpreted as racist, while others recognized the satire yet emphasized that it was distasteful and ineffective in mocking the historical construct of Asians as invaders. Furthermore, the fact that the statement itself was sponsored by Asian Americans did not change its charged content for some of the commenters.

Earlier in the year, there was another controversy on Wesleying in which a blogger (non-Latino) altered a post about Latin@ Affirmation Month by adding his own comments, such as “Ay Papi!,” “mamacita” and “culo”  and by posting a picture of the backside of a Latina woman. This caused outrage on campus, and rightly so for its misrepresentation of Latin@s.  Arellano and this Wesleying blogger use similar stereotypes and language, but they have different intentions; the former to break down those stereotypes, and the latter to reproduce them, emphasizing his own interpretation of the stereotypical, hypersexualized Latin@ body. Despite these different intentions, the fact remains that specific representations of people are being perpetuated, which blur the line between satire and racism. The AASC Wesleying post highlights this—even though it was endorsed by Asian Americans and the intention was not malicious, the irony was lost on some and it insulted several people. Similarly,  Arellano’s column may be well-intentioned, but it may not come across that way to many readers.

Rather than satirizing stereotypes at the risk of reinforcing them, it may be useful to look at other outlets of Latin@ culture, as examined in Loca Motion. Here, the representation of Latin@s is not about using stereotypes in order to debunk them, but about offering other alternatives. Habell-Pallan emphasizes the work of performance artist Luis Alfaro as representing “the intersections of popular culture, spirituality, classism and Chicano life…Alfaro articulated a critique of racism…homophobia…sexism…[and] forces of impoverishment” (83).   While Arellano’s column has value in its access to mainstream media and in its critique of racism against Mexicans, Alfaro pushes boundaries and conceptions of the norm in a more dynamic way, outside of the limitations of using stereotypes. The question remains, however, will this type of counterculture movement ever get the type of circulation that Arellano’s column has?

Filling in the Blanks: The Politics of Racial Counting in America

At some point in your life, you have most likely filled in a bubble that marks your race/ethnicity, and this scribble that you make is compiled with hundreds of thousands of other scribbles, all of them turning identities into official statistics. The mark you make reifies your identity institutionally in the education system, the census, college applications, the health system, etc. If you are anything like me, you have probably looked down at the official paper in your hands and felt that the scribble you are about to make doesn’t exactly reflect you, your choices are slim, and it feels reductive, a misrepresentation of your identity. You can always check “other” but who wants to be an “other”?

While the federal government has set standards for race and ethnicity data collection, there is still no universal way of collecting this data—the Department of Education, the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census Bureau, for example, all use different modes of data collection, making analysis and assessments incredibly complex and difficult. A recent article in the New York Times discusses the way that the Department of Education has some controversial new requirements that came into effect this year. For example, if you even acknowledge partial Hispanic/Latino ethnicity (disregarding race), you will automatically be counted as only “Hispanic/Latino.” So, say you are of Chinese, Colombian, and African-American descent—you will only be reported as Hispanic/Latino. If you identify as mixed heritage and check more than one box you will be lumped together with anyone else who has checked two or more races-so, for example, someone who is white and Asian would be placed in a category as someone who checked black and Native American in an umbrella “two or more races” category. The Department of Education sees this as a step up from the more limited choices in the past, (a more comprehensive way to count Hispanics/Latinos who were often undercounted when students were identified by one race) and overall a way to accommodate the growing multiracial population in the United States.

But these new regulations are problematic for many reasons. These standards will increase the Hispanic/Latino count in the US by including white Hispanic/Latino students and will possibly erase black students who will be grouped as Hispanic/Latino or as “two or more races.” The way in which the Hispanic/Latino category supersedes everything else ignores the racial complexity of Hispanic/Latino students and essentially makes Hispanic/Latino into a racial category. The “two or more races” category is meaningless, grouping together people from many wide ranging social spheres who do not face similar types of discrimination––making statistical analysis impossible. Overall, these classifications are extremely problematic from a civil rights standpoint, in terms of tracking achievement gaps, pinpointing inequalities between white students and students of color, and finding ways to allocate resources to underrepresented groups.

On top of the Department of Education’s racial data collection system, the National Center for Health Statistics has come up with an actual algorithm that will recategorize mixed race births as one race depending on many different variables in a probability model. The center is using mathematics to define people and classify them, which seems extremely counterproductive to gathering accurate information and data.

It is incredibly frustrating knowing that with all the different ways of race/ethnicity data collection and reporting and no official standards, the original data you provide can be manipulated and altered to serve specific purposes. While the US is trying to account for the “hybrid generation” and the growing multiracial population that some see as a step towards the US being “post-racial,” the fact remains that race is still relevant, still a source of discrimination and inequality, and still important to analyze. But the way the Department of Education and other institutions in the US are going about this is misleading. Next time I fill out some sort of official document, I wonder what purpose my statistical bubble self will be serving. Will my own answer end up complicating social realities and contributing to the masking of inequalities?