Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is this racism?

I believe that one of the central teachings in Buddhism is that we can learn how to see things as they really are. Many of us think we already see the world as is, but by practicing what the Buddha teaches, it soon becomes clear just how deluded we can be about people, places and things.

So I ask the question, is it racism being depicted in the clip below from a film titled “Windowbreaker?”

Let’s examine the basic elements of what we just viewed. It opens with two, small Asian children setting up a booby trap with marbles that is intended to act as an alarm should someone attempt to break-in their home. A Vietnamese woman is feeling fearful and vulnerable because of recent break-ins in here neighborhood. She is treated condescendingly by a white shop owner. A group of Asian youths is playing basketball on the street. We learn the hoop belongs to the white shopkeeper’s white assistant. Among the teens is an angry Asian youth. He is initially presented as being a real asshole. But we don’t know why he is an asshole. We just know that he is an asshole.

The children are left alone at night because mother has something she must do. The marble booby trap works; someone attempts to break in and wakens the children. The small boy goes to investigate, discovers the intruder, who is injured because he slips on the marbles and cuts his arm on the broken glass.

Next day, the white shopkeeper arrives at the woman’s house to install an alarm system. Outside, police are questioning all the Asian youth in the neighborhood. The officer hones in on the angry Asian youth.

The shopkeeper’s white assistant shows up at the house, his arm in a sling, to help install the alarm. He pauses when he sees the broken glass door. He turns to see the small boy. They recognize each other. At the end of the clip, we learn that the white shopkeeper has been paying his assistant to break into homes that people will become frightened enough to buy alarm systems from him.

Although this is just an 11-minute clip of a feature film, I think we can safely presume that the filmmaker’s intent with the clip is to give us a glimpse as to the nature of his film. And what I see being depicted is a white society operating under a presumption that the recent immigration of Vietnamese to the neighborhood is almost like an invasion. The Asian youths that play basketball are not using their own hoop; they come from somewhere else. The shopkeeper’s assistant is allowing them to play because he knows how they will be perceived. And it works. When another break-in is reported, who do the police question?

What we don’t know yet from this clip is why the angry Asian youth is so angry. My guess is that the film will eventually lead to two conflicts: one involving the young boy and the shopkeeper’s assistant, the other between the angry Asian youth and the shopkeeper’s assistant.

If we view things as they really are, it means that sometimes we – people who probably don’t think of ourselves as being racist, who would take extreme offense at the notion that we harbor racist feelings – must recognize that our actions are not well-thought out, that they are often automatic and proceed from a perspective that we perceive is normal, but which is perceived by others as oppressive and even racist.

This is a very difficult conversation for even the most “enlightened” among us to have.

What’s your reaction to the film clip?


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Richard. Yes, the racism here is both very apparent and subtle (the phone call the woman gets about 'certain people moving in and home values going down').

    More like this is needed to awaken us (those who don't see such situations often) to the reality that many people face on a daily basis.

  2. While overt racism is easier to identify, subtle and systemic racism is much more difficult. It is like passive-aggressive behavior.
    -overlooking people (it's not "not seeing race", it's not seeing people at all)
    -discomfort when approached by or dealing with "others" or a sense of superiority "If they would only do X, things would go so much better"
    -imposing generalized opinions on groups ("they" think this way or do x behavior)
    -attributing negative outcomes to situations involving "others" (the home values, crime "There goes the neighborhood" type thinking)
    -"our culture/way of life/jobs etc"

    There's a lot of subtle behavior that goes into it. And maybe one or two instances could be attributed to someone's ignorance or personality style but when it happens on a consistent basis it becomes the common experience.

    The thing about systemic discrimination of any kind is both it's subtlety and insidiousness. There may not be people protesting against the discriminated group, or hurling abuse but day after day of being pushed aside or being on the receiving end of unfriendly glances or suspicion is bound to wear down any good will, trust and hope people may have had. What becomes left is disappointment, resignation, resentment and anger.

  3. @Buddhist_philosopher,

    Did you catch the subtle racism developing in the little boy? His mother tells him to keep the drapes closed because of the Vietnamese kids outside, she doesn't want them to see their tv. The little girl whispers to her brother "We're Vietnamese." Her brother replies, "we're half-Vietnamese." So young and already creating distinctions.