Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Default Human Being

(originally posted at bigwowo)

Answer this question quickly--
what race are the people in the picture above?

What are their defining characteristics, what color is their skin, how are their eyes and lips shaped? Can you tell what race they are?

If you answered White, you're wrong. If you answered Asian, then answer the next question: who are these people? Actually, that question might be too hard, so I'll give you the answer: from left to right, it's my daughter the Pod, me, and my son Gun-Gun. (Gun drew this for me yesterday.)

This question of What Race is that Cartoon comes from this cool blog post that King found: Why do the Japanese draw themselves as White? It's hilarious but true. When Japanese people draw this:

...Americans see White characters, while Japanese people see Japanese characters. As Abagond points out with great perspicuity, it's because in America, the "Default Human Being" is White, while in Japan, the default is Japanese. Sure, the Japanese anime characters above have big eyes, but do White people really have eyes that big? And Abagond is right about skin--some Asian people are as light or lighter than White people. When I first went to Japan, I too thought that the anime characters looked White. But after a while, I began to see them as Japanese people see them.

Abagond writes:

If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being. For them to think it is a woman I have to add a dress or long hair; for Asian, I have to add slanted eyes; for black, I add kinky hair or brown skin. Etc.

He also talks about Marge Simpson, who has yellow skin and a big blue Afro, but whom people still assume is White. Absent any stereotypical feature--slanted eyes for Asian, black skin for black, turban for a Sikh--people in America assume Whiteness. White men are the only people who don't have to have a racially stereotypical identifying characteristic in order to be viewed as White.

It's a very interesting observation because I find that under most circumstances, I too assume Whiteness. My son watches a Nick Jr. show called the Backyardigans, and even though the characters are all animals, I think that post-anthropomorphism at least some of the characters are supposed to be African American.

After all, their names are Tyrone, Uniqua, Tasha, Austin, and Pablo--with the exception of Austin, their names all sound minority. The creator of the Backyardigans is an African American woman named Janice Burgess. But we (including me) are so used to assuming Whiteness that we experience cognitive dissonance when we see non-White people portrayed with non-stereotypical physical characteristics or non-stereotypical normal experiences.

I've been reading lots of literature recently and thinking about White writers vs. Minority writers. Readers usually adopt their notion of the Default Human Being and use that model unless the writer specifically brings up the race of the character or has the character doing stereotypical minority things. It's a hard dichotomy to manage, I think, because minority experiences are similar to non-minority experiences, yet there are also unique situations that come from being a minority in a majority culture. We don't want to be Whitewashed, yet we also don't want our experiences to be ignored.

So while I think it's good for us to play both inside and outside society's idea of the default human being, I think that ultimately we want to get away from it.

Maybe things will be different for the next generation. Gun-Gun used to watch a show called Sid the Science Kid. Sid looked racially ambiguous to me at first sight, and when I watched further, I learned (I think) that he is the product of a Black woman marrying a White guy.

Perhaps through exposure to more diversity in the media our kids will more open to understanding people of different ethnicities without having a Default Human Being concept based on race.


Michael Carper said...

I enjoyed this post. I never realized how caucasians "take" white-skinned people as their own, without any defining characteristics.

Barbara said...

Stumbled onto your blog because I was looking up why all AG dolls seem to have buck teeth..LOL!

Anyway uhm...when I looked at the picture your son drew and read the following question, my reaction was: "Uhmmm....I don't know?" They don't have any defining characteristics so... :)

Vincent said...

I have been meaning to comment. Great post especially post-"Last Airbender." You're right - Abagond is right - the "default human" representation is informed by environment and expectations. I would ask: How important that Asians see themselves represented in media? I value it without a doubt but have to admit I don't expect it.

hou said...

White men are the only people who don't have to have a racially stereotypical identifying characteristic in order to be viewed as White.
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