Friday, April 15, 2005

Ghettopoly: Our Role

Some of you from Champaign-Urbana may have seen this before, but since this same dynamic still permeats our society, I thought I would reprise this article here. This was originally published in the "Public Eye", the paper of the Indy Media Center in Urbana, Illinois.

Ghettopoly: What is your role in it?

by Xian Barrett

It’s the kind of open-and-shut racial issue that comes along frequently. What kind of racist nut would create a game called “Ghettopoly” and fill it to the brim with every conceivable racist stereotype about ghetto life? In the game, “playa’s” must choose between playing as a 40 ouncer of malt, a marijuana leaf, an “oozie”, a pimp, a basketball, crack cocaine, or a hoe. They then try to jack, steal, and deal their way to riches in a format similar to the classic Monopoly game. The cultural references are obvious and offensive principally to African Americans, but also target other groups such as Latina/os and Asian Americans.

Once the game began to be sold widely at Urban Outfitters, response was swift. Protests and boycotts abounded and Urban Outfitters, and Ebay soon halted distribution of the game. The creator, David Chang, a 28 year-old Pennsylvania man whose family emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. when he was eight-years old, was vilified as a racist. Hasbro Inc. filed a suit against Chang for creating "irreparable injury" to their monopoly franchise with his game’s “highly offensive, racist content”.

While it is easy to proclaim that Chang has gotten his just desserts and commend the banishment of this racist product, are Chang and his game really just bad apples to be cast away so that we can resume our travels down the path of racial harmony? Or is the outrage and toppling of Chang merely another cog in the machine of American racism?

Chang’s inspiration for the game didn’t come from some developed hatred for African Americans, Latina/os, Asian Americans or other ghetto inhabitants. He wasn’t some misguided student who strayed from America’s teachings of diversity and racial understanding. His inspiration for the game was watching MTV and mainstream depictions of ghetto life. Chang was a good student, who learned the lessons of contemporary American racial politics well and applied them cleverly for his own personal gain. He said that he created Ghettopoly “not as a mean to degrade, but as a medium to bring together in laughter” and that the goal was to laugh “at ourselves and how we each utilize the various stereotypes.”

His mistake was not that he held these mainstream beliefs, but that he voiced himself in a way that brought attention to them. The ugly stereotypes he displays are the cornerstone for much of our government’s public policy toward the ghetto and the prevalent intellectual disdain toward hip-hop culture that says that people of color are fine as long as they are educated and indoctrinated to write, speak and behave in acceptable ways. In showcasing these views through his work, he allowed himself to be the most convenient scapegoat both for minority groups looking to hold someone accountable for this daily racism inflicted upon them and also for those complicit with racism who perpetuate these stereotypes but like to view themselves as non-racists.

You see, this was business as usual in America: An individual acts with the backing and blessing of institutional racism. The minority community is understandably upset. The individual gets crucified. The institution is vindicated and the minority community is appeased.

So we’re supposed to just shake our heads sadly at Chang’s response on his website “Ask yourself; Is Jay Leno a racist because he made a comment about Asian people eating dogs? How about Snoop Dogg, on his TV show on MTV, is he a racist too?” It may be a poor defense that doesn’t justify his racist game, but these are still good questions—can we answer them? Even if the answer is “Yes, and David Chang is too” then why is he the only one getting punished and are we going to do anything to change that? He asks whether it was his skin color or the content of his speech that made people so angry. I suppose the answer depends on the person, but the simple difference in treatment that he receives is some evidence of racism that we are all being complicit with.

The only way it’ll ever change is if all of us interested in racial equality become less self-interested. It shouldn’t take a personal tie to a particular situation to change it. We shouldn’t be satisfied if racism is occasionally out-ed and dealt with. We need to be cooperatively and consistently vigilant on all forms of these injustices. Even if people will say, “This isn’t your fight, or you should shut up because it doesn’t affect you.”

Sadly, this didn’t occur in response to Ghettopoly. The first petition I found to protest the game contained this text, “Designed by an Asian American, (someone who would not be knowledgeable of the TRUE African American perspective), it features all of the stereotypical messages & images that have suppressed blacks for decades.” In assuming the impossibility of Asian Americans understanding the African American perspective, what hope does that leave for a general empathy that is necessary to vanquish bigotry?

Perhaps this is the same line of thinking that caused the 103.9 FM Philadephia radio station DJ, Tarsha Nicole Jones, to begin a “Chinkopoly” segment in which callers were encouraged to contribute their own “property names” based on racial stereotypes of Asian Americans. Asian Americans who called in to complain were ridiculed. Another popular response was “Why doesn’t he make Chinkopoly?” as if denigrating one’s own race makes it ok to denigrate others. As usual, the greater trend of people of a minority group being held responsible and attacked for the actions of a member of their group continued.

So while Chang’s reflection of hip-hop culture is certainly racist, that doesn’t necessarily make his detractors any more enlightened in the field of racial justice in this country. Chang even refers to Hasbro’s suit on his site by encouraging readers to learn more about the history of Monopoly (and Anti-Monopoly) as an example of a major corporation trying to maintain control over the profit derived from a traditional game. Do the racist elements to his game give us a right to root for a major corporation trying to crush a little entrepreneur?

Why is so much less being done to attack Urban Outfitters? Not only did the chain carry Ghettopoly, but they’ve sold a “Chinaman” halloween costume that stereotyped those of Asian descent and have contributed thousands of dollars to the campaign of Senator Rick Santorum, who made headlines for his equation of homosexuality with incest and beastiality.

As groups mobilized against Chang and wrote letters to Hasbro encouraging them to sue, thousands upon thousands of units of the games were sold at Urban Outfitters stores or via the internet. Even after the controversy peaked and the game was pulled, Chang’s site continues to be backlogged with orders for the game, and demand for the game has pushed some retailers to sell the game for upwards of eighty dollars. Who are these people so eager to purchase the game? Are they supposed to be some kind of racist aliens from another planet too? I don’t think cutting the supply of Ghettopoly will inflict some sort of drastic change on their conceptions of race.

Most of all, what of all of us who were proud of ourselves for recognizing the racism inherent in the game, but had no constructive response to the greater problem at hand? Do we seriously believe that learning and avoiding actions on the list of the “101 things that make you a racist” will actually prevent our complicity in deep-rooted American traditions of racism and bigotry? Patting ourselves on the back each time one of these racial incidents occurs and we respond “correctly” doesn’t remove our role as accomplices no matter how many times we tell ourselves that it does.

So in a way, I want to thank David Chang as he’s given us yet another opportunity to see that racism is not some sort of dying fad. He’s reminded us that, in our society, color of skin is a large determinate of the legitimacy of speech on racial issues and that as usual, the fairer fare better. He’s demonstrated that people of color and those empathetic with us are more likely to destroy each other than actually address any of the deeper social constructs of race and we need to work to change that.

So will we learn his lessons and begin work on the tremendous task at hand or will we sacrifice him in our role in maintaining the racist status quo?

We have a new chance to acknowledge that racial prejudice is something that permeates all spheres of our society and the move away from it is going to be a lot harder than we’d like to admit. Whatever race, class, gender, sexual orientation or educational background we belong to won’t allow us to passively avoid perpetuating bigotry, so the next time we encounter a social red flag like “Ghettopoly” let’s focus our outrage on building rather than destroying.
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