Racism, misogyny, and other words that make society cringe

In the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey, Mario has finally learned how to change his clothes.

He can buy different hats and outfits throughout the different regions of the game.

One of the regions is a Mexico-inspired desert area, the corresponding purchasable outfit is a sombrero and poncho.

My first, gut reaction: Mario looks effing adorable in a poncho.

Then I did some more reading. I am not sure why I didn’t see this coming. I really should have (and I truly will, next time).

Some people were ragging on Nintendo for being racist. For cultural appropriation and being insensitive to Mexican heritage.

Who were the people ragging on Nintendo? Well, mostly white people from what I could see.

After a closer look, I didn’t see any upset comments from people of Mexican heritage. Some were like, “Hey, guys, chill out. I am Mexican. This is awesome, I am flattered to see Mario in a sombrero. Oh, and if you look at the level design, you can tell Nintendo REALLY did their research above and beyond what I expected.”

Then the white people were basically like, “Shut up, this is bigger than you.”

Now, let’s talk about cultural appropriation.

I have known several white people throughout my life who wore dreadlocks.

I spent most of my life not having the slightest idea that anyone would find that offensive.

Then a few years back, I read an article (written by a white woman) about why she stopped wearing dreads.

Basically, she had been called out by an African American woman, who told her it is not culturally acceptable for her to emulate a hairstyle of her ancestors.

The woman who was called out thought that was insanely stupid at first. She thought, “There is no way I am racist. I am honoring her heritage, not disrespecting it. We may come from different cultures, but now we can influence each other and make our own choices based on what resonates.”

And back when I read the article a few years ago, I completely agreed with that perspective.

And I still do, in a way. But it’s not as simple as leaving it there.

Because what the white woman who wrote the article came around to eventually, was that she hadn’t walked in the black lady’s shoes. She hadn’t grown up with the same exact set of stigmas, fears, and barriers. She didn’t have the same cultural memories influencing her socialization and genetic heritage.

Of course, as a white woman who embraced balance and harmony with other people, she didn’t see a problem with adopting a fashion that appealed to her.

But what does that mean to people with other perspectives? And aren’t their perspectives just as valid?

Imagine growing up in a society that doesn’t even clearly acknowledge its own categorical subjugation of your people.

You’re black. Or Native American.

And white people say, “It’s not my fault. I can’t control what our ancestors did. Everything is equal now. We don’t keep your people as slaves anymore. You have all the opportunities anyone else has.”

But you know it’s just not true. And you wonder why they can’t see it too.

Then those oblivious people further reinforce their perception that all is well and equal, by wearing your clothes and hairstyles. Most of them don’t understand the cultural significance of those fashions like you do, but they think it looks cool.

And then they say, “Hey, look how equal we all are!”

What we all need to realize is that our actions always influence other people.

Even without the intention of being offensive, we can open up enormous wounds in other people by our oblivious behaviors.

Even intending purely harmonizing things, we can still catalyze great pain and resentment in others.

It is foolish not to care about this. And to lumber through life doing whatever we want and letting other people’s reactions be their own business.

Of course, we also can’t put all our energy into walking on eggshells, making sure we always say and do the right things so that other people aren’t offended. That’s unrealistic, stressful, and leads to its own kind of resentments.

There is a middle ground.

To live our lives according to our values, doing the best we can. And if we hurt others along the way, be willing to apologize. To be humble and generate conversation and understanding.

Sometimes, we can heal our cultural rifts just by listening. The rifts happened to begin with because we weren’t seeing each other’s sides. Let’s aspire to see each other’s sides and see what happens.

An attitude of, “I didn’t mean any harm, so you can just get over it, snowflake” only perpetuates the problem.

I’m instantly reminded of a situation that transpired recently in the industrial music scene, with Combichrist drummer, Joe Letz.

It’s a thought-provoking situation that I have personally learned a great deal from.

(I’ll get back to Mario in a sombrero soon, don’t worry.)

On a recent Combichrist tour, Joe Letz (white person) wore blackface. I think he was going for shock and awe. I mean, he was also crossdressing in pink.

If you don’t know what blackface is, Google it. It’s good to know about this stuff.

Short version: in the early days of Hollywood while African Americans weren’t really accepted as celebrity material, white people were playing them in movies with really bad make-up jobs and horribly demeaning exaggerations of stereotypes.

I guess that about covers it, but maybe Google it anyway. Knowledge is power.

…yep.

Letz’ decision to use blackface caused quite a fuss in the scene. It was a fuss I didn’t even notice until PIG announced Letz as their drummer for the upcoming Prey & Obey tour in the US.

The controversy was brought to my attention by Christof Krztov, mastermind behind the act Distorted Retrospect.

Christof publicly stated that he would not be supporting PIG if Joe Letz was involved with the tour. This was on the grounds of not only Letz’ recent portrayal of blackface, but on a pattern behavior over the course of several years in which Letz displayed disturbing racist behavior.

My intention here isn’t to burn Letz any more than he’s already been burned. But the evidence was presented, and it was ugly.

I came to realize, I wasn’t going to be supporting PIG either. Not with Letz on board.

I started following Letz on Facebook around that time, to see more of what he was all about. He issued a statement around then, which basically said:

“Sorry you guys didn’t get it. I’m not racist, I promise. I was just joking.”

It was wordier than that, and with a lot more excuses and justifications.

Well, eventually PIG announced that their views are diametrically opposed to the antics of Joe Letz and he was off the tour.

A couple days or less later, Letz was also fired from a tour that was in progress, with Birthday Massacre.

Overall, a bad time for Joe Letz.

A good time for so-called social justice warriors.

And a butt-hurt time for people who think social justice warriors are scum of the earth.

After a while, Joe released another statement. This time, an actual apology.

Saying that true, he didn’t realize how much his behavior would affect others. But now that he saw the damage that was done, he was sorry. And that he was committed to expanding his perspective of the world and growing as a person. Taking a break from music to focus on family and stability.

Some accuse him of insincerity for the sake of damage control.

I don’t think so. It would have been much easier for him to say, “Fuck you all,” and he still would have had the support of a niche fanbase.

But he humbled himself. He was obviously shaken up by what happened. Think about it. Really, Joe Letz lost what must have felt like he lost about everything all at once. He reflected, and he made a choice.

I am proud of him.

But let’s really look at what happened here.

Was I just being an oblivious white guy, standing up against racism with a bunch of other oblivious white people?

Was is it anything like white people calling Nintendo and Mario out for racism while Mexican people sat back and said, “I have no problem with this; this is awesome!”

Uh, no.

I doubt very many people from a black background are okay with what Letz did.

The industrial music scene has relatively few black consumers. During this debate, they did not have much of a voice that I could see on social media.

But it’s definitely true that no black people were celebrating Letz for representing them.

Because Letz wasn’t representing them.

He was just being an oblivious creep.

Hey. I’ve been an oblivious creep before.

I’ve done shocking things to prove points no one wanted to hear.

I’ve also paid consequences for those actions.

And so has Joe Letz.

This whole situation is important, because it brings up a vital discussion.

If we keep accepting symptoms of racism as normal, how are we ever going to transform our culture?

Some people seem to think we can’t transform our culture. To you, I say: Open your damn mind. Look at how far we’ve come. Sometimes it seems like we are going backwards, but that’s part of growing up as a society. If you look at the overall curve of change, we’re headed in a positive direction.

But there are those who cling to the norm. And who defend their racist jokes. Just harmless fun, right? They don’t mean anything by it, right?

Think about that. If it’s harmless, then why does it hurt people?

And how do we justify knowingly hurting others?

Meanwhile, we get pissed off when people cross our boundaries and hurt our feelings.

When someone’s joke is digging into YOUR wound, that’s when it stops being OK.

And that’s a bunch of crap. And you know it.

So, Mario is a sombrero. What do I think?

All right, listen.

Mario is an Italian plumber from Brooklyn. Designed by Japanese people. He speaks English and has a flamboyant Italian accent. He powers up on entheogens that are illegal in the United States. I have no idea where he got his fashion sense. Probably from the entheogens.

Whatever.

Mario games have always involved traveling through a variety of different worlds with accompanying music themes.

Desert levels with music with Arabian sensibilities. Is that cultural appropriation? Is that racist?

Is it really crossing an unforgivable line to put Mario in a sombrero?

Another one of his new costumes has him emulating Uncle Sam.

He looks much better in the sombrero, but that’s just me.

So here’s an idea to address these issues in the future.

When we realize we hurt someone with our actions, take a moment to realize: I just hurt someone. And I didn’t mean to. But I am sorry. I will meditate on this.

And then, ask those who have been hurt: What about this hurt you? What could I do differently that would honor both my intentions and your feelings?

If the affected community only expresses approval for Mario’s new adventure, then let’s not preemptively turn this into a keyboard warrior orgy. I’m talking to you, social justice warriors. Choose your battles.

(And I say this as a self-labeled social justice warrior.)

But feel free to generate conversation. Ask around. Ask your friends, and people you talk to online. “How does this affect you? How does it make you feel? What are your thoughts?”

When I heard people pitching a fit about Mario being a shape-shifting racist (actual term used), I was like OMG.

But is it harmful? Is it harming anyone?

I don’t know. Is it? It’s not harming me directly.

But if it’s harming someone, I care. Not about demanding the world bends over backwards to their needs, but just about listening to where they are coming from and seeing what I can do to help.

Let’s not forget… And this is kind of a big deal that will need to be addressed in coming years for sure…

Both the Mario series and the band PIG have been generating material since the 80’s that could be considered, say, misogynistic.

Mario is still going after his damsel in distress, and PIG has used many lyrics and images influenced by a male-dominated society.

These themes are steeped in tradition. When Mario started saving the princess in the 80’s, society wasn’t calling out that trope as stale and misogynistic. People simply loved Mario, and Nintendo wanted to keep making something that people loved.

So they kept doing the same thing over and over and over again.

And it’s still fun as hell. Mario Odyssey looks to be one of the greatest games ever made. Still chasing down evil to save a helpless woman, though…. Facts are facts.

Is that OK?

I don’t know. Again, you tell me.

Would I love to see Nintendo apply their amazing level of innovation to moving around the cultural paradigms presented in their games?

That, I can answer: Absolutely.

And I think they are working on it. I could think of some great examples from the new Zelda, of Nintendo being reasonably socially-conscious and progressive.

So let’s see what happens with Mario.

As for PIG, I know a lot of self-respecting women who adore front-man Raymond Watts’ music and message.

Some of PIG’s lyrics, I do think are symbolic of problematic aspects of society that disagree with my moral aspirations. But isn’t that what being an artist all about? Representing where you stand in society? Expressing yourself as authentically as possible?

I’ve always loved PIG, because it represents aspects of me that are very real but stigmatized by society. My darker, seedier, needier sides. My sexual angels and demons. My dance with my devils and addictions.

I am not defending it. Again, the question is: Is it hurting anyone? And if so, what can be done differently?

PIG showed a willingness to listen, analyze, and discern by firing Joe Letz.

That’s enough to sustain my respect and give the benefit of the doubt while I continue this journey into finding my optimal ethical position.

Looking forward to more from PIG and Mario in the future.

‘Till then, let’s do our best to be excellent to each other. Be kind to others, even when you think they are being ridiculous. And thank others for being kind to you when you’re being ridiculous.


Originally published at Andrew L. Hicks.