Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Regarding the White Gaze

A week ago, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge paid a visit to New Zealand and were greeted by Maori dignitaries, and a contingent of dancers in traditional garb and tattoos.

CNN reporter Jeanne Moos filed a story about the occasion that went dreadfully awry and quickly went viral, widely shared and villified across the internet.   It seems like a natural topic for a soft, humorous "human interest" sort of story, right?  Here is the future British monarch and his family, in western-style formal clothes including a dark suit and tie for the Prince, and they literally rub noses with their hosts as part of a customary greeting.  Two cultures saying hello.  That could be nice and fun.  

Unfortunately, Ms. Moos decided to push the joke.  The tipping point seems to be the bare-buttocked male dancers.  Moos indulged in juvenile puns, calling the event a "royal bummer," and making peculiar comments like, "Is this any way to welcome a future king and queen?"  

Oh, but it got worse.  Ms. Moos then dug up archival footage of First Lady Laura Bush being greeted in Afghanistan by New Zealand soldiers doing traditional dance -- which is a rather high honor -- while Ms. Moos compares the dancing to a Chippendales routine and the mating ritual of an emu.  

And so on in that vain.  Watch it if you wish: 

Pretty soon, there were petitions circulating on-line demanding an apology.  Jeanne Moos acknowledged the criticisms and stated, "I do humour and satire, and I am truly sorry if the tone of my story offended anyone."  It feels a bit like a standard procedure.  Outcry, followed by an indirect, not-really-apologetic apology.

I think something may have gotten lost in the demands that Moos apologize and the standard non-apology.  Saying sorry is nice, I suppose, but it's not about offending, taking offense, or apologizing.  My two sons have latched on to the phrase "I'm sorry" as a magical phrase for getting out of trouble, making a bad situation go away.  The point is -- as I often tell my own children, but it certainly applies to us adults as well -- has anything been learned?  Is there anything in this situation that helps us grow an inch wiser?

Words matter here.  This piece didn't "offend" me.  I wasn't insulted personally.  I am not Maori; in fact, I am a white Euro-American male.  My response to this piece, broadcast by one of my country's major news organizations, was embarrassment.

The moment I heard my older son, at age four, mutter something about "brown people" I dug out the National Geographics and began negotiating play dates with children who don't look like him.  We are trying to introduce both boys to people and cultures foreign to ours so that they feel comfortable and curious about people who are different, about foreign customs, and so forth.

Surely these differences between cultures can be reflected on with humor.  In fact, a sense of humor really helps.  The intent to find humor in the difference between two cultures is not in itself a problem.  What makes me cringe when I watch the Moos piece is something underneath the content.  The entire commentary is based on the assumption that Anglo is normal and what other cultures do is weird.  The object of humor is the non-white, and this is how a dignified Maori dancer in traditional garb and markings becomes the target of botty jokes.  This is embarrassing.  If Moos did not catch this, a producer should have.  They failed.
I don't think a personal apology is adequate or necessary.  What could be helpful and repair some journalistic faith would be to acknowledge this unexamined "white=normal, non-white=ridiculous" dichotomy and consider doing stories about that.  That's how CNN could make this, if you will pardon the clichè, a "teachable moment."  That would probably go much further in repairing journalistic trust and provide a positive example for how we can all look at our unexamined attitudes and widen our perspective.


lynn said...

You captured it perfectly.

Kelly said...

Yes, very well said.