Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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I’m not White, I’m skin coloured!

How do I know I’m not white? My six year old grandchild told me!

This morning I was hanging up the washing. It’s a task that has fallen to me as I have a 35 cm (14 inch) height advantage over my wife. Anyway, young T was with me and we were taking turns naming the colour of items as I hung them up. On hanging up a particular towel, I called out “Brown”.

“Don’t be silly, Jii-chan. It’s skin colour!”

(Jii-chan means grandfather in Japanese, and distinguishes me from their paternal grandfather, who they call Opa). The towel was a light brown, almost beige colour, and it never occurred to me to think of it in any other terms.

So I corrected myself and said “Well, it’s really a light brown colour, don’t you think?”, to which he again asserted that it was skin colour and not brown – not even light brown.

In light of a recent post by Clare (Why I’m talking to white people about race), I was struck by the fact that instead of describing people in terms of colour, young T was describing colour in terms of people.

“But not everybody’s skin is the same colour”, I reminded him.

“I know that! You’re a silly Jii-chan.”

“So, if you told someone that you dried yourself with a skin coloured towel, what colour would they think it was?”

A moment in thought, then a lightbulb went off. “Oh yeah! I’d have to say whose skin colour it was like!”

“When I visited America, everyone said I was white.”

“That’s silly, Jii-chan. Nobody’s white. Nobody’s the same colour as that towel”, said young T pointing to a white towel I’d just hung up. I have to agree.

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“You’re not white, Jii-chan!”

 

In Aotearoa New Zealand it’s rare to refer to people in terms of colour. It’s more typical to refer to their ancestral cultural group or place of origin. Instead of hearing people described as white, black, brown, red or yellow, you’re more likely to hear them described as European, Pākehā, Polynesian, Māori, Native American, African, Chinese, Indian etc. So I’m not surprised he had no idea, that I’d be identified as being white in many other parts of the world.

That doesn’t mean that young T isn’t aware of cultural differences. Even at six, he’s aware that protocols differ depending where one is, and what might be acceptable within one group might not be acceptable within another. I want him to be familiar and comfortable in the cultures of his grandparents: Pākehā, Japanese and Māori, but I hope he never learns to associate those cultures and the differences between them with race. In fact I hope he never learns the concept of race. Culture and ethnicity, yes. But race, no.

On the other hand, when he’s ready, I want him to understand that history has not always been kind to some communities, and some ethnic groups have been disadvantaged by the actions of other groups, including our own. We, as members of humanity, have a responsibility not to allow the status quo to continue, but to take an active role in striving for a more equitable world.

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Who’s being racist?

Last year, there was a petition circulating calling for a boycott of a joint New Zealand Australian production of The New Legends Of Monkey because the petitioners claim the show is guilty of “whitewashing“. I refused to sign the petition at the time as I was unaware of the background behind it. However, if I had known the details, I still would not have signed.

The petitioner’s argument was that “media producers who replace Asian characters with white actors reinforce the idea that ‘whiteness’ is the standard and European features are the epitome of beauty, thereby convincing non-white children to loathe their own appearances and develop self-hate”. The four lead roles are played by Kiwis and Aussies.

The show is the latest in a line of fantasy TV series produced in Aotearoa New Zealand, some for NZ viewers and some for international audiences, including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Legend of the Seeker, Dark Knight, and The Almighty Johnsons, among others.

With the exception of The Almighty Johnsons, which was set in present day New Zealand, the shows depict mythological worlds loosely based on legends that themselves are set in a specific place and time. However, the shows are simply themed on the legend and make no attempt to accurately portray a specific place and time in history.

The same can be said of The New Legends of Monkey. The story is loosely based on a Chinese legend, and while the legend was set in China (after all, the story tellers and audiences were Chinese and possibly knew little of other cultures), that setting isn’t essential for the retelling of the story. The theme of the show is not an attempt to recreate a historically accurate depiction of a particular time in Chinese history. In the words of its creators the story is set in a “magical fantasy world“.

If the the actors were made up to appear as though they belonged to a different ethnicity by changing facial features (often in exaggerated form), then I believe that would be inappropriate, especially if race (I dislike that word), culture or ethnicity was part of the plot. If the series was filmed in China, then I expect it would be natural for all the cast would be Chinese, including all the minor roles and walk on parts.

However, it was shot in New Zealand, and the the ethnic mix of the actors, both lead and minor are not that different from a typical cross section of Kiwi society. Two of the lead actors speak in a fake accent, but it’s not in a hammed-up Chinese accent, which would indeed be a case of whitewashing. It’s a North American accent to make the show more attractive to a wider Netflix audience. The rest use accents commonly found in New Zealand.

I also question whether “whitewashing” could be applied under any circumstance in relation to the show.  Josh Thomson (Pigsy) and Luciane Buchanan (Tripitaka) are Tongan Kiwis, and Chai Hansen (Monkey) is Thai-Australian, leaving Emilie Cocquerel (Sandy) as the only “white” actor. So the term is clearly inappropriate in the case of The New Legends of Monkey.

While I’m not claiming whitewashing doesn’t happen, as it certainly has in the past and still does to some extent, I really think those promoting the boycott were way off the mark with this particular show. In fact I feel like they are a “tiny bit racist“.

In Aotearoa New Zealand The New Legends of Monkey can be viewed on TVNZ On Demand and Netflix. I confess I’m a fan of this genre. Below are trailers for the six TV shows mentioned in this article.