04 August 2007

The Height of Racism

Not too long ago, a minor firestorm arose over race and nationality (with huge implications about masculinity) in The Sartorialist, one of my favorite fashion blogs (check it out if you aren’t already obsessed with it -- thesartorialist.blogspot.com/). On July 13, 2007, Scott Schuman, the Sartorialist who is also affectionately called “Sart” by his fans, snapped a photograph of “a young Asian man doing a great take on American Prep.” While most of his readers seconded Sart’s admiration for the man’s easy-breezy ensemble of plaid shirt and ribbon belt, some readers took exception to what they believed was his racist presumption that this man wasn’t American. One anonymous user wrote, “Have you equated whiteness with American-ness? It seems likely that this man is from Asia--judging by the cars in the background you shot the photo in Europe and thus the man is, like yourself, a visitor from afar--but by only labeling him Asian you don't clarify whether or not you are making a distinction between those who are racially marked as Asian (people with the physical features we call Asian) and people of an Asian nationality. Be more precise or leave yourself open to charges of racism.”

The rather confusing comments by “Anonymous” (“it seems likely that this man is from Asia . . . [because] the cars in the background [suggest] you shot the photo in Europe”??) created a triple-pronged debate between those who defended Sart against charges of racism, those who lambasted the rigidity of political correctness, and Asians from across the diaspora who assured Sart that they didn’t mind being described as Asian.

I’m not interested in defending or accusing Sart of racism. (The broad scope of his camera lens which has documented street and runway fashions on all kinds of bodies and in so many parts of the world speaks for itself.) More interesting to me is the inattention to the ways in which masculinity quietly frames comments offered about Asian men—comments, I might add, that have never been (so far as I can tell) made about other non-Asian men Sart has photographed.

Responding to photographs of Japanese men’s take on Dust Bowl-era fashions (9 July 2007), one reader noted:

“I love these interpretations! Maybe it’s the petitness [sic] of these men, but it makes me wish I was a boy . . .”

An aside: Why is it that when Madonna dons an Indian sari or Gwen Stefani co-opts Japanese Harajuku streetwear, we commend them for their forward-thinking globally conscious sartorial decisions but when Japanese men wear overalls, we wonder about “minorities appropriating fashion from this particular era in American history”? Who owns culture anyway?

And over a week later, responding to a photograph of “A Man of Undeterminable Origin, Florence” (19 July 2007), readers wrote comments like these:

“I want to put him in my pocket.”

“Now that’s what I’d call a cute wee man!”

“He is so compact!”

Ok—so I might be preaching to the choir here but for those who aren’t already scowling at the diminutive adjectives used to describe MEN—here’s a super abridged history lesson on the representations of Asian masculinity. In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, it was not uncommon for Americans to verbally describe and physically portray Asian men as “little monkeys,” “little brown men,” and “little [insert your choice of Asian ethnic epithet]—underlying these descriptions is a tacit distinction between white men and Asian men based on unequal degrees of masculinity. (The same logic underlies the use of “boy” to describe Black men.) The fixation on the “small” bodies of these men rather than their clothes (the focus of The Sartorialist, after all) reflects a stale and racist point of view that Asian men are naturally smaller, and so less masculine, less sexy, less capable than "normal" men whose body size and masculinity are unquestionable.

To be totally honest, though, I wasn’t shocked so much by the racist underpinnings of these comments (I’m not a cynic but I’m hardly na├»ve about the existence of racism in the most well-intentioned people) as I was by the absolute staleness of these descriptions which hearken back over a century. Even more baffling to me, though, was these users’ ability to discern the stature of these men—is there a height chart I’m not seeing??

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