It's Such a Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

In the great mockumentary film, "This is Spinal Tap," the band learns that its new album, "Smell the Glove," will not be released because the cover---featuring a "greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man's arm extended . . . holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it"---is sexist. Band member Nigel Tufnel is confused. "Well, so what?," he asks. "What's wrong with bein' sexy?"

Thus we come to the Spanish Olympic basketball team, which, as part of an ad display in Spain, posed around a court decorated with a dragon (okay) holding their eyes so as to appear, they thought, as though they were Chinese (not okay). The gesture has been widely and fairly criticized as inappropriate and offensive. Some commentators have linked the pose to other instances of racism, directed against Black athletes, among Spanish sports fans. Interestingly, the Spanish players have responded with Nigel Tufnelian obtuseness.

Consider L.A. Lakers center Pau Gasol's statement: "It was something supposed to be funny or something, but never offensive in any way. . . . I'm sorry if anybody thought or took it the wrong way and thought that it was offensive."

Or the explanation of Jose Calderon (who plays professionally in the NBA for the Toronto Raptors): "We thought it was something appropriate and that it would always be interpreted as somewhat loving." He went on: "Anyone who would like to interpret this differently is absolutely confused."

I'm going to give Gasol and Calderon the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did not subjectively intend to cause offense. But that leaves the question of why they would have thought it would honor their Chinese hosts to simulate what they (the Spanish team) took to be distinctive morphological characteristics. If the games were being held in Lagos, say, surely the Spanish team would have realized that putting on blackface would be understood as something other than a gesture of respect. Indeed, it's hard to think of any distinctive physical trait of a group of people---whether real or falsely stereotyped---that would be a fit subject for homage via simulation.

By contrast, cultural homage is perfectly acceptable. Thus, Barack Obama's donning of native Somali garb in 2006 was taken as a sign of respect by his hosts (before it became an issue in the current Presidential campaign). And it's not hard to see why the two forms of imitation would be understood so differently. Imitating (real or imagined) morphological differences is a way of saying that such differences matter (even if the imitator is trying to say that he admires the imitated), while adopting native garb or a host's symbol (as with the dragon) expresses a common humanity. These meanings were not inevitable, but they do seem to be pretty well understood---except, apparently, in Spain.

Posted by Mike Dorf