Friday, February 15, 2013

The problema with Skippyjon Jones




Hello, friends! Been too long since I last blogged. Not necessarily for lack of having anything to say, but today I feel especially motivated to get back to the blog and speak up. I read a piece  by Nation blogger Mychal Denzel Smith, "White People Have to Give up Racism." Smith writes: "While we’ve all come up internalizing racism, since it’s all around us, only one group of people actually benefits from its existence. Not every white person is a racist, but the genius of racism is that you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spoils." As to how white people can even begin to give up racism, he suggests: "the chief job should be admitting there is a problem. White people have to name it, and it can’t be a cutesy euphemism that dodges the issue." Here I am reposting my first piece for this blog, originally posted on March 21, 2010 - about giving a name to the problem of everyday practices of racism:

Then using his very best Spanish accent, he said, ‘My ears are too beeg for my head. My head ees too beeg for my body. I am not a Siamese cat…. I am a chihuahua!
-- Skippyjon Jones (2003)

As an anthropologist, I have two words to describe the above passage: Mock Spanish.

You know Mock Spanish. If you are born-and/or-bred American - English-speaking and monolingual - then you have heard it on the playground and even in the classroom as well as at the supermarket or at the water cooler. You might be able to recall recent instances of speaking it. For example, said without ambivalence or ambiguity as a flat denial to requests for candy, car, or casual sex: "No way, Jose." Or, delivered in a comparable dead pan, part cyborg and part Austrian: "Hasta la vista, baby."

Mock Spanish is not necessarily a direct mockery of Spanish or of speakers of Spanish.

"Speakers of Mock Spanish are likely to view their use of Spanish as indexing positive personal qualities," writes Rusty Barrett, a linguistic anthropologist, in a 2006 article, "Language Ideology and Racial Inequality: Competing Functions of Spanish in an Anglo-Owned Mexican Restaurant." In other words, when Anglos (a term that is meant to contrast with Latinos) use Mock Spanish, they are "just joking" or even exhibiting their easy familiarity with another language and culture.

This is why the suggestion that Mock Spanish might be "racist" inspires insistent objections, including accusations about "political correctness." For Anglos, Mock Spanish is a sign of education and open-mindedness - the opposite of the ignorance and closed-mindedness associated with "racism."

Even more important, Mock Spanish is a sign of having a sense of humor. There is no meanness intended here, the reasoning goes - just a bit of fun.

Yet, the yuks of Mock Spanish derive from stereotypes about Latinos that circulate among Anglos. Familiar uses of Mock Spanish include the "borrowing" of words like manana, which for Spanish speakers refers simply to "tomorrow," but for Anglos connotes procrastination. In other instances, borrowings include obscene or vulgar terms like "cojones" or "caca."

Or consider this equation for constructing Mock Spanish: "el" + English word + "o" - which yields such formulations as "el cheapo" or "el stupido."

Stereotypes about Latinos might not be referenced directly in Mock Spanish, but linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill noted that "the negative residue of meaning" remains attached to its uses. "Those who hear Mock Spanish jokes, for instance, cannot possibly 'get' them - that is, the jokes will not be funny - unless the hearer has instant, unreflecting access to a cultural model of 'Spanish speakers' that includes the negative residue," Hill wrote in her 1995 article, "Mock Spanish: A Site for the Indexical Reproduction of Racism in American English," which introduced the term and the concept to scholars.

Here is where we need to consider "racism." Again, I quote from Hill's 1995 article: "To find an action or utterance is 'racist,' one does not have to demonstrate that the racism is consciously intended. Racism is judged, instead, by its effects: of successful discrimination and exclusion of members of the racialized group from goods and resources enjoyed by the racializing group."

We need to consider that racism is not now, and in fact might never have been, only about "hate." Hill suggests that a significant reason for why we need to pay attention to Mock Spanish is this: "In a society where for at least the last 20 years to be called a 'racist' is a dire insult, and where opinion leaders almost universally concur that 'racism' is unacceptable, how is racism continually reproduced?"

At this point, let us return to Exhibit A: Skippyjon Jones.

"Yip, Yippee, Yippito!
It's the end of Alfredo Buzzito!
Skippito is here,
We have nothing to fear.
Adios to the bad Bumblebeeto!"

Then all of the Chimichangos went crazy loco.
First they had a fiesta.
Then they took a siesta.
But after waking up, the Chimichangos got down to serious bees-ness.

-- Skippyjon Jones

On the one hand, the rhymes here are catchy and to be honest, clever. For example, the use of "bees-ness" not only references a "Spanish accent," but also the character of Alfredo Buzzito, the bad Bumblebeeto.

On the other hand, Skippyjon Jones not only (indirectly) references well worn stereotypes that are instantly and unreflectingly accessible to the grown-up's reading the book to their children, but it also reproduces them for another generation - in the form of what might be experienced otherwise as an entertaining, gentle, and sweet little story.

I think it proves Hill's point that parents, writing reviews on amazon, will praise this book because it "introduces" Spanish words to their children - and that the critics become accused of missing the point of the story and being self-righteous and having no sense of humor. In fact, the expectation that a children's book must be innocent seems to be used as itself a defense of Mock Spanish. That is, because this is "just" a children's book, it cannot possibly contain "racism."

That is the problem with Skippyjon Jones and Mock Spanish in general. It makes racism seem so catchy and clever and cute.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post. I reviewed a SJJ book on Amazon a while back and was accused by another person of having no humor and of being racist because I was uncomfortable with, as you put it, "Mock Spanish" and the books stereotypes. I struggled a great deal when writing the review with whether the concept presented was "harmless fun" or "damaging." I concluded by simply saying it made me feel bad. Apparently feeling bad about Mock Spanish being racist is racist. LOL Anyway, you made me feel better however unintentional. :)

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  2. Thanks for the comment - and for posting a review on amazon about the book making you feel uncomfortable in a way that is otherwise hard to describe. I think it is important for us to speak up. I know from talking with other parents that more of us share the same discomforts about SJJ than the rave reviews on amazon might lead us to believe.

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  3. Thank you for your post. I was uncomfortable with the language too. You explained well what I also found hard to describe, except to say "I don't see why this is funny." I enjoy your blog!

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    Replies
    1. parenthropologistMarch 6, 2012 at 9:58 AM

      Thanks for the comment! It is so good to know that other readers might have had the same experience - and that we are grasping for the words to describe it.

      I think the power of being accused of having no sense of humor is itself worth thinking through - so hopefully, one of these days, I will post on that topic also :)

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  4. Thank you. My 3 year old loves these books, but they make me totally uncomfortable too.

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    1. So gratified that you found this post and found it worth reading! My kids read these books in preK or K and they became part of a conversation initially about this being somebody's * imagination * of Spanish, but not how Spanish really is spoken. Then we talked later about stereotypes as forms of imagination that are not thoughtful or fair.

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    2. Perfect! I'm thankful for this insight. My kids love these books & I've always felt slightly uncomfortable with them. The idea of using them as a stepping stone for more conversations about stereotypes will be helpful.

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    3. Perfect! I'm thankful for this insight. My kids love these books & I've always felt slightly uncomfortable with them. The idea of using them as a stepping stone for more conversations about stereotypes will be helpful.

      Delete
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  6. You people are insane-o.
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