December 3, 2007

Funny reactions

"What! I can’t believe he said that! It’s so not funny!" I protested in disbelief.

"Well, his eyes ARE really small … why are you over-reacting?" my friend asked, half laughing.

I haven’t been watching much TV these days. Maybe that’s why I was so surprised at the kind of humour I saw at the weekend on TV. I was watching what looked like a Malaysian talk show when its two hosts walked up to a boy of Chinese descent with really small eyes in the crowd. They then started talking to him with a heavy Chinese put-on accent, obviously trying to be funny. Then one of them asked him to "open his eyes". To which the boy replied that his eyes were like that. To ensure maximum comedic effect, that host went on to make fun of his "slitty" eyes another two times. The poor boy didn’t seem quite sure how to react, but with the camera on him and possibly a few million people in Malaysia watching, he probably made the right choice to laugh along reluctantly. What was really funny was that the host who made fun of the boy, had eyes that were not much bigger than his, except that he was not of Chinese descent.

I was getting annoyed watching the kid being a target of racist jokes in front of the whole nation. Was I over-reacting just because I didn’t find it funny but disgusting instead? I wasn’t going to burn anything or hunt anyone down to make my point.

Was it is because it triggered memories of when I was 18, a group of European students walked past me and one of them pulled her eyes from the sides to make them look slitty, asking if I was from China? Never mind that I have big eyes, but the fact that I looked Chinese was sufficient for them to make fun of me with this stereotype.

So I had big eyes and the kid in the talk show had small ones but we were still made fun of anyway. Does it make a difference whether there was truth to these jokes or not? No, because the point is that in both instances, a stereotype was used to make fun of the other; from the bad Chinese-accented speech to the emphasis of a "racial marker" to put one in his or her place and to differentiate one as the "other".

Some might shrug racist jokes off and say it’s no big deal. They may even use them to make fun of their friends and each other. However, bantering amongst friends is quite different from a situation where one from a position of power makes fun of another in a disadvantaged place. In the controversy surrounding The Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, it is worth noting that the offensive cartoons were done by the dominant culture in the west to make fun of Muslims in a society where there is already a history of Islamophobia and a marginalised Muslim community.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should start banning people from making racist jokes, especially in Malaysia where it’ll just be another slippery slope to have anything and everything under the sun banned just because it offends someone for the silliest reasons. But neither should we be saying that it is okay to misuse and abuse "free speech" to defend bigotry, as some misguided people have done in regards to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.

Watching that TV talk show and reflecting upon my friend’s comments was a good reminder to keep our reactions in check when an injustice occurs, and also our reactions towards other’s reactions. As there may be times when we are too quick to dismiss certain quarters as being "over-sensitive" or "over-reacting" without understanding the bigger picture and context of the grievances. If only everyone acts with maturity and responsibility to find out whether what we are doing is really building or breaking bridges between communities in our society. Stereotyping is really just a lazy and irresponsible way to form conclusions, and in some cases, to entertain.