02 September 2009

Universal Standards on Stereotyping - MC Mong's "Indian Boy" (Year 3, Day 8)

Watch this video. Then we'll talk.

At first, I was appalled. I'm not Native American--or, as the Canadians would say, First Nation--or anything, but it seemed to me the utmost of bad taste. MC Mong, the main artist in this song and, I'll admit, one of my favorites in K-Pop, seems to mock the cultures of the true natives to my native land. He and his cadre wear ridiculous headdresses and dance around like savages in the jungle and the desert and a football game apparently being played in a black hole, all the while hunting down two explorers who dared consider partaking of his treasure horde. Despicable. At the worst, insensitive. At the best, just plain ignorant.

It seemed to me indicative of how Koreans I've met tend to stereotype other cultures.

It didn't help my opinion of it that this is the poster advertising the album.

The hangeul says, in effect, "Mong becomes an Indian boy."

It also didn't help my opinion of it that the first time I saw it, I didn't have the benefit of subtitles. I was in the cafeteria at school, and, as is their custom, the students turned to the Korean MTV equivalent MNET, which incidentally, unlike MTV, actually frequently plays music videos. I felt a little sick watching it but managed to finish my meal.

I went up to my room to figure out what the lyrics for the song were, and for the most part, besides the possibly offending "I am an Indian boy" lines, it is a simple upbeat love song--a boy declaring that he was lost without his girl and that he will always protect her.

And it was here that my gut reaction--my conditioned response as an American bred in a racially diverse environment that shuns all forms of stereotyping--began to recede and my mind began to say, "Well, now wait a moment. Assume charity. What are the words and the images together actually saying? What does it mean for MC Mong to say that he is brothers with Geronimo? What does it mean to be an Indian boy?"

So, let's be charitable for a moment and assume the best of Mr. Mong. Let's assume that he's neither malicious nor ill informed. Let's assume that as in all his videos, he's using caricatures to portray an idea, and that it is our job, as the viewers, to try to understand what he's communicating to us.

An Indian boy would then seem to be:
  • A marksman ("My arrow is aimed at your heart.")
  • Someone who spends a significant amount of time outside (Dancing under the stars, sleeping in the desert, building fires)
  • Someone of incredible endurance (his breakfast is kisses from his love)
  • A globetrotter (going to Alaska, Niagra, the Nile, etc.)
  • Someone to be trusted and who will look after his love ("You're the one I'll protect until the end"; "I'll do anything for you")
The imagery holds up with much of this. We see MC Mong's Indian boy as being proficient with archery (so long as he was aiming for his love's head and not her heart...), always outside (with the possible exception of the black hole football game), in various locales worldwide, and almost always in defending or support positions (protecting the treasure from greedy explorers, in the stands as a band member at a sporting event, and as a lineman on the football team).

In fact, as with most of MC Mong's headliner songs, the main image of the song seems to be only slightly related to the actual theme of the song. Stereotypically, we don't think of Native Americans wearing Sioux headdresses living in tropical jungles, sitting at tables, or dancing in deserts. Nor do we associate them with Alaska, Niagara Falls, or the Nile. The same holds true with hip-hop and tie-dye style clothing. What's more, we typically don't associate them with football or marching bands, unless we happen to go to a school or support a professional team with them as our mascots ("And Indians?" "Don't be racist, Timmy, they're called 'Redskins'").

In the end, MC Mong was probably just using the image to convey a story he wanted to tell about a boy meeting a girl and wanting to be with her forever and how fun that can be.

Still, the question must be asked, is using stereotypical images of a culture (or, at least perceived stereotypes, because his formula for creating a stereotypical Native Americans is apparently, "Take any person in the world in any setting. Put feathers on their head.") even for apparently harmless and complimentary purposes to be allowed?

My gut American reaction is still, "No," that we're better off not having to ask this question in the first place, that, in the end, not having this sort of imagery in the consciousness is probably better for harmony between cultures.

But then I think about it. It is fun. It isn't the sort of racist stereotyping where he's actually making fun of someone (a la Dave Chapelle, Carlos Mencia, Chris Rock, Jeff Foxworthy). He seems to have this conception of Native Americans as people who like to have fun. He's not insulting them for that. He's joining them in that. In fairness, I don't know of any culture that doesn't like to have fun. And perhaps, because MC Mong is Korean and I'm an American, he feels comfortable calling himself a fun-loving brother of Geronimo and I don't.

For me it raises questions of the universality of cultural taboos. In other words, are stereotypes taboo in all places at all times for all peoples? Can we impose our standards of what is appropriate, politically correct imagery on other peoples when we don't share a common history? Are we only uncomfortable because we are Americans and have built our country on the backs of whom we whites considered less than ourselves? Are Native Americans even offended? Or are we Americans just ashamed of our past and want to hide our shame behind "staying P.C."? Would the rest of the world say, "Lighten up!"?

That's part of the reason I came to Korea, after all. To get the world's perspective on things we Americans take for granted. I asked my students what they thought of this video. "Teacher, it's just fun."

In the end, I would say this video seems harmless.

But how harmless is it really?

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