“What’s it like being the villain in every video game?”

*Please note: Some of the links in this post go to content that may be offensive to some viewers.  If you want to read my opinions of the day, you’re welcome stay on this page.  If you want to look at the examples I am citing, feel free to follow links.  If you want to avoid a loose collection of my thoughts on racism, maybe you would find LOLcats more amusing!*

Legal disclaimer: I’m not trying to suggest that everyone likes cats, or that everyone should like cats, or that cats are delicious.  I’m merely providing an alternative to today’s post.  Linking to I Can Haz Cheezburger does not constitute an endorsement of cats, cat ownership, cat websites, LOLcats, or any other iteration or form of cat-itude.

Upon meeting him in a video game store, my partner kindly asked my friend’s German partner what it’s like to be the villain in every video game (read: Nazis).  We all had a good laugh and agreed to get together later for dinner, after which the other couple proceeded to beat us very badly in a game of Carcassone.

There is a German exchange student living with my parents, and when someone told a story over dinner about visiting a Chicago-area “soup Nazi,” the kid was horrified by our cavalier Seinfeld-esque treatment of Nazism (to say nothing of our offhand dismissal of ‘grammar Nazis!’).  Apparently, to get a student visa and come to America-land, he had to fill out some form that says he has never been affiliated with neo-Nazi organizations.

I use this article in my class about political cartoons and comic book superheroes as an entry point for a discussion of heroism and stereotypes:

When did Nazism become okay to use as shorthand in video games and cartoons (that link is just one of thousands of possible examples), newspaper headlines, jokes in sitcoms, or casually throw around at the dinner table for laughs?  I’m not saying that it is okay, or that everyone finds it funny, but hanging out with a few Germans helped me reconsider the stereotypes that we take for granted as acceptable, even if they aren’t.

Loosely on the topic of racism (or prejudice, or whatever word you like to use for it), I remember sending my partner an e-mail forward with images of transportation in other countries.  I sent it along because I thought it was interesting how ingenious people have to be in areas without roads, especially if they are bringing sixteen baskets with live chickens in them on a tiny bicycle.  My partner kindly took this opportunity to gently point out that it’s not, in fact, particularly funny when pictures of Third World countries or of people doing things that seem unusual to certain audiences circulate on the internet, a predominately First World forum.

Likewise, in this video about critical thinking, the narrator uses rice as an example of a fallacy, pointing out that although many Asian people do eat rice, eating rice doesn’t make you Asian, and not eating rice doesn’t make you not Asian.  My partner pointed out that, although this seems like convenient shorthand to lesser mortals, it could also be interpreted as fairly offensive if you think about the cavalier use of this example for more than one second.  For example, why not say that, although many white people can’t dance, there might be some somewhere that can, and not being able to dance doesn’t automatically make you white?  I don’t have an answer, and I’m not suggesting that one generalization is less problematic than the other, or even that ‘problematic’ is a word, I’m just offering food for thought.

It’s sort of funny (in a tragic way) that I didn’t come to these conclusions on my own.  I like to think that I try to maintain CONSTANT VIGILANCE regarding stereotypes and misapprehensions in the work of my students, my peers, and myself.  The topic of depictions and imagery of Indigenous North American (or North American Aboriginal, Native American, First Nations, or Indian… the preponderance of terms speaks to the vast implications of naming and identity) communities and individuals, especially mascots, is an issue I take special care to raise with students at Carleton, an institution that rests on traditional unceeded Anishinabe territory (as was proudly pointed out at orientation by a very awesome lady).   (And the fact that spell-check doesn’t accept Anishinabe is also rather illuminating…)

‘Native-style’ mascots are another good example of a taken-for-granted, but immensely problematic, way of appropriating, essentializing, and stereotyping a group of people in a way that would be considered racist for any other group.  Then again, I did pose for a family Christmas card wearing a hoodie featuring the now-retired University of Illinois chief mascot.  Reconciling (or at least balancing) one’s academic inclinations with one’s reality remains, as ever, a process fraught with tension.  Hopefully, with a few more years of distance, this example could serve as a teachable moment of self-reflexivity.

There are several great sources, including this excellent blog post, about the some of the implications of implicit assumptions that typically drawn from popular culture images of Indigeneity.  This is a topic I will return to, in part because I have learned so much about topics in Indigenous studies at McGill and Carleton (and they didn’t even have to send me to cultural sensitivity training).

Returning to that exchange student, his English literature class read Maus as part of their curriculum, and he was asked to give the “German perspective” in class.  From what I understand, the teacher was very careful about asking for that perspective, and it was generally a successful pedagogical tool.  I found this interesting because I am frequently in the position, at parties or in classes, of giving The American Point of View to citizens of Canada-land.  To be honest, my point of view isn’t particularly “American.”  It can be interpreted as quasi-feminist, academic, lefty, funny, abrasive, and a host of other adjectives, but I would hardly consider myself representative of any of those attributes, either.  My favo(u)rite thing to do in Canada is pass as Canadian until the ideal occasion to reveal my real American roots presents itself.  Hilarity typically ensues, but that’s a topic for another day.

We really only covered Nazis, mascots, and rice.  That’s barely the tip of the iceberg on this topic, I realize, and I’m sure it will come up again.  Just putting pen to paper (fingers to keys) in my most massive procrastination undertaking to date, and because writing helps me think.

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