Becoming Aware of Prejudice

five chineseFirst published on 28th September, 2008 in StarMag

A FRIEND said to me, of a mutual acquaintance, ‘She looks like an Australian aborigine’ and I replied, in horror, ‘Oh what a thing to say!’ Later, I realised, with even more horror, that my response implied that I believed her observation to be negative. And the only reason for this is because I myself have negative views of the physical appearance of Australian aborigines.

Coincidentally, this incident happened just when a children’s literature email discussion group of which I am a member was in the midst of a rather lively debate about ethnic stereotyping and racism in children’s literature. One of the books cited was Five Chinese Brothers (G P Putnam’s Sons, 64 pages, ISBN: 978-0698113572) by Claire Hutchet Bishop, illustrated by Kurt Weiss.
Many perceive this book (first published in 1938) to be racist in the way it depicts the Chinese. In it the brothers in question have bright yellow skin and slant eyes. The siblings are resourceful and smart. They also love one another dearly. Some object to the fact the brothers look alike (this supposedly suggests that all Chinese look the same) but their similarity is an important part of the plot. However, all the other characters in the book (the crowd, for example) also look alike.

At the tail end of the discussion, an American-Chinese member of the group asked if it might be that certain images are considered racist only because they are generally seen as undesirable.

For example, why should someone Chinese feel slighted if a Chinese family is drawn with slant eyes unless she believes that slant eyes are ugly? If slant eyes and yellow skin are generally thought of as attractive, would anyone consider the illustrations in Five Chinese Brothers racist?

This is certainly food for thought. It certainly echoes the questions I ask myself about my perceptions of beauty following the incident with my friend.

the foldI think most Asians have been conditioned into believing that Asian facial features are unattractive. We rave about big eyes (with double eyelids), ‘high’ noses and fair skin. This desire to have Western facial features is the subject of An Na’s YA novel, The Fold. In this book the main character, a Korean teenage girl, must decide if she should go for a surgical procedure that will give her double-eyelids.

ActualIy, I grew up resenting the fact that my three older sisters had double eyelids and I didn’t. They would kindly offer advice about how to go about creating folds in my eyelids, and they also urged me to regularly tug at my flat nose. I was amazed when I read about Amy, in Little Women, using a clothes peg to encourage a more Roman profile. Didn’t all Americans have high nose bridges? Well, in any case, at least Amy was blonde and blue-eyed!

It was the general consensus of the discussion group that Five Chinese Brothers would be rejected if submitted to a publisher in 2008. No matter if no one is offended by the illustrations, no matter if the illustrator did not mean to be mean-spirited, there is now more sensitivity to the possibility of causing offence. Everyone is much more politically correct and careful. Is this a good thing? Well, imagine a picture book in which Chinese characters were drawn with pink skin and large eyes. It might not cause offence but it certainly wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of Chinese people. We know that there are slant-eyed Chinese as well as large-eyed Chinese. We know that some of us have brown skin and some are very pale. Not all of us struggle to pronounce the letter ‘r’, just as not all (if, indeed, any) Indians slap their foreheads and wail ‘Aiyoyo’ in a crisis.

Even if we adore the idea of yellow skin, we do not all have yellow skin. People do not all look alike or behave alike. No one likes to be lumped together and dismissed as a ‘type’. And yet, my reaction to my friend’s remark makes it clear that I perceive Australian aborigines as looking just one way. I am appalled, but I don’t know how to reverse this perception. Perhaps the best I can do is be aware of it.

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