Ashton Kutcher recently embroiled himself in some controversy by starring in a commercial for Pop Chips. He was featured in the ad in brownface. Kutcher used brown make-up to darken his face in order to play Raj, a Bollywood producer “looking for love.” Many Americans of South-Asian ethnicity were offended and protested the racist stereotyping of Indians. Duly chastened, Pop Chips removed the ad.
Comedian Hasan Minhaj, himself of South Asian ethnicity, didn’t think this sufficient and issued a video response blasting Pop Chips:
The Huffington Post also wrote an article about Minhaj’s response:
One common reaction to the ad’s use of stereotypes, both on Twitter and in comments, has been, “How is this any different than Sacha Baron Cohen doing ‘Borat’?”
Minhaj’s response was decisive: Borat is not in brownface.
“As a man of Jewish descent, Sacha Baron Cohen uses the character of Borat to ridicule antisemitism, misogyny, and bigotry,” Minhaj told HuffPost. “What was the point of the ‘Raj’ character? Oh yeah, to sell Pop Chips by blatantly laughing at Indian people.”
In fact, Sacha Baron Cohen has now appeared in Arabface in the heavily anticipated movie The Dictator. Cohen depicts Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, a fictional Arab character.
You know how many Americans have protested this movie? Exactly three and a half people. There is absolute silence, approving acceptance, and in fact gleeful admiration for the blatant racist stereotype that is the movie’s main character.
As Hasan Minhaj explained, the reason Pop Chips thought they could get away with brown face is
because that’s the way it is now. They wouldn’t do that with any other ethnicity. There’s a barbecue flavor of Pop Chips. Why didn’t you make him black faced and Tyrone? Why didn’t you do that? Because you knew you would get f*@king buried, Pop Chips, that’s why!
Well, at least Pop Chips removed the ad. It’s even worse for Arabs and Muslims: nobody has given two damns about The Dictator. If a major motion studio made a movie about a character in blackface, yellowface, or Jewface–they “would get f*@king buried.”
I know what you’re going to say to justify it: Cohen portrays a tyrannical Arab dictator, not just any ole’ Arab. Here’s why I’m not buying it. Can you imagine, just for a fleeting moment, if an Arab Muslim dressed up as an evil Jewish person–in Jewface no less–and made a movie out of it? Can you imagine how “f*@kingburied” that person would be?
If Sacha Baron Cohen is justifying racist stereotypes under the guise of “just portraying an evil Arab tyrant”, could Arabs make a major motion film featuring a Jewfaced actor–complete with hooknose, dreadlocks, and a skull cap–starring as an evil Israeli politician? If an Arab American or an American Muslim did such a thing, we all know how “f*@king buried” they’d be.
But, here we have Jewish actor, Sacha Baron Cohen, depicting an Arab in a racist way. The double standard is obvious: a Jewish person can get away with playing a stereotypical Arab Muslim, but an Arab Muslim would be likened to Adolf Hitler if he portrayed a stereotypical Jewish person.
Cohen’s mother was born in Israel and Cohen himself spent time in Israel. He also has associated with a Zionist movement, Habonim Dror. Thankfully, Habonim Dror is actually very moderate in its views towards Palestinians. Naturally, none of this is a crime, but it certainly means he is all the more audacious in portraying an Arab in Arabface. Imagine, for instance, the reaction of the media (Fox News!) to an Arab Muslim who is part of CAIR–or an Iranian American with ties to Iran–portraying a Jew in Jewface. Any Arab, Muslim, or Iranian who did such a thing would be “f*@king buried” alive in America. He’d lose his job, be labeled an Anti-semite, and become a social outcast forever.
Really, the truth is that one simply cannot imagine a major motion film being made using any other type of face: can you imagine the outcry over blackface? Is there even a question about that one? We’ve seen the reaction over brownface: the Pop Chips ad was removed. (Meanwhile, The Dictator marches onward without a single peep from any corner of American society.) As for yellowface, I sincerely doubt that Sacha Baron Cohen could get away with painting his face yellow and squinting his eyes. Jewface? Yeah, right!
The rules are clear:
Blackface? Not a chance!
Brownface? Maybe, but probably not.
Yellowface? No way, Jose!
Jewface? You Anti-Semite!
Arabface? We love it!
Stereotyping and racism against Arabs and Muslims is perfectly OK, because they occupy the lowest rung of the social totem pole in America.
I know people will rush to justify The Dictator, “because it’s funny.” I’m not denying it’s funny. I’ve seen the trailers and they are, quite honestly, hilarious. But, does being funny give one a pass to be blatantly racist? If a white actor made a comedic film in blackface, portraying a tribal African in native dress–with a bone through his nose and riding a cheetah–would this be acceptable so long as the jokes were funny enough?
True, comedy is a special world, but I just can’t imagine too many white comics making fun of blacks in a pejorative way and then justifying it by saying “it’s just comedy!” Certainly, black comedians can poke fun at their own community, just as Jewish comedians do to their own community. But, making fun of another race–especially one which historically has been at loggerheads with your own (i.e. white vs. black, Jewish vs. Arab, etc.) seems to me to be very questionable.
Another justification will be raised, which is that Jewish comedians, including Sacha Baron Cohen himself, make fun of Jews also. As I said above, it’s one thing to make fun of your own community. It’s quite a different matter to attack another. Furthermore, there’s a difference between relatively benign* (yet unhelpful) stereotypes (i.e. black people are good at basketball, have large you know what’s, etc.) and very malignant, extremely hurtful ones (i.e. black people are violent, prone to criminality, are apes, etc.). The jokes about Jewish people that Jewish comedians make are almost always of the former type and not the latter. Meanwhile, racist portrayals of Arabs and Muslims are often of the latter type, depicting them as violent terrorists and oppressors of women.
Compared to prevailing Arab and Muslim stereotypes, Ashton Kutcher’s Raj was significantly less offensive. How an Arab Muslim would long to be the “exotic”, funny-talking Apu character from the Simpsons instead of Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Trust me, you’d rather be stereotyped as the guy who works at a convenience store than the guy who blows it up.
*To be clear, I am opposed to all racist stereotyping, whether benign or malignant. The word “benign” is itself a bit misleading, because even these stereotypes have associations with malignant stereotypes: for example, black men being nothing but gladiators or sexual beasts. On the other hand, I recognize that it would probably be difficult to eliminate all stereotyping in comedy routines. Poor Russell Peters would be left with 2 minutes of material. Certainly, however, even Russell Peters understands and respects the difference between “benign” and malignant stereotypes.
Nonetheless, I have a huge problem with the fact that we define non-white people by their race. All we see, at least when we look at minorities, is a black face, a yellow face, and a brown face.