Globalization and . . . no, wait, what?

By | July 3, 2009

I was all set to run a Globalization/Delight post to ease into the holiday weekend, but was instead blind-sided by this promotion for the latest LG Cyon phone — Black & White — in Korean markets:

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In case you missed it: yes, that is two white people, one of whom is in full-body black paint. The print images accompany a video, which features the two models in various sensual poses and that strapline “a new skin.”

I want to keep my comments on this brief because it would otherwise turn into a very involved discussion of global media and constructions of difference. I would also preface my following remarks by saying that though this campaign is highly problematic on several levels, I would also not say that it’s unproblematically racist in that I think there are a lot of very complex and entangled issues surrounding race, nationality, multinational capitalism, sexuality and desire, and so on that would require unpacking. But for the moment I’m only going to talk about the part where it’s racist.

The blackface alone is racially problematic enough, but paired with the strapline of “a new skin,” it does a nice double whammy of both naturalizing whiteness (as what which is “underneath”) and suggesting that embodied difference (and the attendant structures of power involved) are a mere matter of “skin”. It is, if nothing else, rather efficient.

I came across this ad via this post, which makes very good points about LG’s multinational status, as well as the specious and patronizing nature of cultural-relativism arguments (ie — but it’s Korea, they don’t have a lot of black people/history of encounters with other races/etc). I do, however, disagree strongly on one point, wherein Turnbull suggests that we should give more weight to the fact that racism was not the central intent of the promotion:

“I’ve possibly lost sight of what was my intended main point, which is that while intent is not the only consideration in judging such an advertisement it is still probably the most important, and accordingly I’m at a loss as to how the Cyon advertisements could be construed as a deliberate attempt to demean Black people somehow, regardless of how much offense it may or may not generate: indeed, if that was the intention, then it could certainly have been done much more directly!”

I would argue that, quite on the contrary, intent is far from the most important consideration. Without delving into that whole world of death-of-the-author-reader-response, we should remember first that creations are not the same things as texts. Texts are what creations become when released out into the world, when meaning is made from them, in relation to historical condition, sociocultural contexts, and other texts. The creation — the ad — may not have been racist in intent, but the text it produced does not get off so easy.

But that aside, intent, in fact, is one of the great defenses of racist discourse. Intent is individual, racism is structural, and the ability to overlook the structural inequalities that are represented and evoked in favor of individual intentions is a form of racial privilege. In other words, racism isn’t a result of people trying to be racist, it is a result of people not understanding that they are being racist. The ability to dismiss racist symbolism because it was in some way “accidental” — which is to say a byproduct of structural power within a given historical context — is exactly how structural power works, by naturalizing its mechanisms and disavowing responsibility.

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