Race Talk

keeping up with the "national conversation on race"

Belated last glimpse at World Cup

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The race stories are cropping up so fast and furious I can barely keep up. The DNA-family searches, renewed attention to the “white vote,” and the California Conference of the NAACP’s support for decriminalizing marijuana are just a few of the “to get to” developments. But before I do, I’ll take one last, belated look at how the World Cup played into (and perhaps broadened) our “national conversation on race,” especially in relation to Mexico and France.

First, it’s a bit surprising that there wasn’t more discussion of race during the cup, given its South African setting. As Roger Cohen noted in the NY Times, “South Africa is a country where race is not the subtext of existence. It’s the text.” In that sense, it provides a plethora of opportunities for taking stock of when, how, and why race still matters. Almost 80% black and grappling still with the challenges of post-apartheid politics and economics (they don’t seem to use “post-racial” the way we do, A[fter] O[bama]), the country is a huge proving ground for the future of race. But there seems to have been little discussion of race in South Africa, and when the subject was addressed at all it was largely in terms of the slew of racist taunts and attitudes among European fans. I only noticed Nancy Armor’s account (for AP) of white reactions to black/immigrant players in Europe. Despite watching maybe a dozen games, I never managed to catch a glimpse of the “Football Against Racism” logo that covered each field’s center circle until just before kickoff, nor did I hear any readings of the “declaration against racism” over the public-address system before the matches. When I searched “race and the world cup,” most of the hits referenced the race for ratings.

Anthropologist Matthew Durington maintained a steady attention to the dynamics around ethnicity on the blog, Savage Minds. Drawing on John and Jean Comaroff’s book, Ethnicity, Inc., as well as his own ethnographic work in South Africa, Durington analyzed the work of cultural commodification via forms of ethnic federation related to the games—in terms of marketing and advertizing, but also various types of ethno-tourism in South Africa. He sounds these out for their anxious-making mix of enrichment and entrapment, inclusion and exclusion. In particular, he spotlighted the “Bud House” as a spectacle blending “nationalism and ethnicity in a quasi-competition linked to individual teams that reflects the annihilate side for this visual anthropologist and it is this side of Ethnicity, Inc. that scares me.” Durington also discussed how “ethnotainment” plays in complex ways into an “entrepreneurial spirit in a very neoliberal South Africa.”

The most “global” discussion about race almost certainly was linked to the vitriol and angst over the French team, which keyed explicitly on race. It was hard to mix the racial subtext in French politicians’ slur-filled diatribes against black and immigrant players on the national team. The team’s poor showing provided a screen by which whites animatedly read the failure as reflecting the hopelessness of racial integration in France. But just as interesting was the effort to analyze this public discourse. The LA Times covered this angle in a story in late June, featuring assessments from analysts there, which offer interesting parallels to how “national conversations” are evaluated in other countries.

“”Nobody has said anything openly racist, yet,” said sociologist Jacques Tarnero, who studies racism. However, the risk of tipping into xenophobia comes up when the French team is associated with the problems of the French ghettoes. It could confuse the public, he said.”

As in the U.S., at work here is an effort to gauge when/how remarks become more than just racially “revealing” or “tinged” to be judged certifiably “racist.” I find the idea that these comments could somehow “confuse the public” to be amusing, as if “the public” hasn’t already generated a huge volume of blatantly racist remarks at the soccer matches. Tarnero’s assessment tries to maintain an intriguing line between culture and race: “The debate is a trap,” said Tarnero. “You should be able to say that there are cultural problems” in the suburb “without being accused of racism.”

A far more scathing assessment is offered by my dear colleague John Hoberman, who concludes that media coverage and the political turmoil linked to the team “is best explained as post-colonial drama, as indispensible black talent confronted the white authority figure whose job it was to keep them under control.” Hoberman tracks how the debate reflects a stark shift in public discourse on race in France: “But after the mostly black French soccer team’s defiance of its white leaders in South Africa, Le Pen’s racist critique of multiracial sport has entered the French political mainstream with a vengeance.” As well, Hoberman argues that what we witness here is the way developments in one cultural arena affect larger social discourses and debates. That is, the arena of sports becomes a screen for evaluating the politics of integration: “Consequently, the failure of France’s ‘black’ team has made the success of multiracial integration seem superficial.” Most importantly, Hoberman develops a comparative national perspective and points to the role of contingency in such discussions. Case in point: Germany, where there has been “a lot of public interest in the ethnicity of their World Cup representatives, but this curiosity is still under control. Germany’s postwar inhibitions about racial chauvinism rule out official abuse, à la française.” Common in both countries, and throughout Europe, is the immense symbolic importance that sports teams hold and the underlying post-colonial, racial dynamics that make them variously, uneasily representative of national as well as transnational collective identities. The important contingency: the Germans were largely victorious while the French were ingloriously defeated, and that makes a huge difference to how people regard the prospects of integration.

This comparative view on national discourses on race was most developed, though, in a late-breaking discussion between the U.S. and Mexico. This was generated by a July 5th story by Tracy Wilkinson in the LA Times about an incredibly popular morning TV show in Mexico that featured  in their World Cup coverage (behind the official hosts) “actors in blackface makeup, dressed in fake animal skins and wild ‘Afro’ wigs, gyrate, wave spears and pretend to represent a cartoonish version of South Africa.” While to American eyes this display seems manifestly racist, Mexicans had their doubts; as Wilkinson reports, “Many Mexicans will say they are not racist and that very little racism exists in Mexico, a nation, after all, of mestizos, who are of European and indigenous blood.” Wilkinson argued the counter point, “that racism is alive and well in Mexico,” though noting that “it is primarily directed at indigenous communities.” And the debate was sparked. Her story drew over 250 comments, many in Spanish and many arguing that Americans were missing the real story. How can people in the U.S. be hurling accusations at Mexico when the state of Arizona just passed a law that appears to encourage racial profiling by police concerning illegal immigrants? But there were also plenty of testimony as to the breadth and extent of racism in Mexico, as well as in the U.S.

This is a debate that will likely find more opportunities to percolate over the years ahead. What’s interesting is to consider journalists roles in extending their evaluations of the “national conversation on race” in the U.S. to public discourse in Mexico. Much as they do with racial comments in the U.S., journalists contextualized this incident with ones in the not too distant past. In particular, they pointed to Vicente Fox’s comments in 2005 about Mexican immigrants “doing work that even blacks won’t do,” and the dust-up over the Memin Pinguin stamp with its buffoonishly caricatured blackface features. I am curious to see whether this role for journalists will develop in a transnational framework, extending the boundaries of the “national conversation.” Judging from the array of comments this story generated we’re going to need an additional anthropological perspective on the role of culture in such comparative discussions.


Written by jhartiganj

July 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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