Nigeria, Norway, and Asian Girlz

Much of my teaching connects to the concept of identity, and I could simply lecture about the topic. However, for students, hearing this information from a middle-aged Caucasian man who was born and raised in the U.S. just isn’t very thought-provoking or relevant — especially since many of them think that racism and discrimination in the USA are purely historical phenomena . . . in other words, we now have a (half-)black President.

I’ve found short videos to be a great way to initiate discussion and introduce texts on the subject. This New York Times video essay by Zina Saro-Wiwa on transitioning to natural hair is a great example of how the personal can be political when it comes to identity. I show the video and discuss it with students in class, and only then reveal that Zina  is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 because of his political activism on behalf of his fellow Ogoni, one of Nigeria’s many minority groups.

Charlie ChanThe fictional Africa for Norway charity, a.k.a. Radi-Aid, produced this wonderful parody on foreign aid. When I show this video in class without any prior explanation, most students think Radi-Aid is an actual charity or they get perplexed because it contradicts their assumptions about what Teju Cole calls the White Savior Industrial Complex. Usually only students from other countries immediately identify the video as a joke.

What Kind of Asian Are You? is a great depiction of the unconscious racism that is frequently found in constructions of national identity and in Orientalist perceptions of women as objects of sexual desire. Personally I find this video hilarious — partly because I am a living example of it — but it’s a well-scripted scene played by professional comedic actors.

Comedy is very difficult to pull off successfully, and it can be tricky to use in the classroom because tastes vary wildly. While part of my standard procedure when showing these kinds of videos is to deliberately discuss how they illustrate illogical beliefs and behavior, I also try to use videos that generally succeed at being humorous rather than offensive. A great example of what I avoid is the recent Asian Girlz video by a generic whitebread pop-rock band from Southern California that has finally achieved its fifteen minutes of infamy. I’m not inserting a direct link to the video because the lyrics are fairly explicit; you can do a Google search if you like.  The band has claimed publicly that the song and video are satirical, but as comedy they fail massively. My guess is that the band members thought producing the song would be beneficial to their careers. Probably Levy Tran, the Vietnamese-American actress/model who appears in the video, thought the same thing. But although the video has generated some notoriety, it’s probably the type that isn’t wanted, and for the typical undergraduate classroom, its content is not nearly as useful as scenes from films like Blazing Saddles, the low-budget Terminal USA, or Charlie Chan in Egypt.

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