On the eve of the ultimate non-event the mawkishly celebratory-portentious tone of the news broadcasts (“30 Straight Hours of Millennium coverage” — Yikes!) sent me fleeing to the movie channels.
One was just starting. It had a circa-1980, plastic-makeup, B-grade look. As I was about to click the remote I spotted Paul Newman and Jacqueline Bisset, two old favorites not seen in a decade. The Day Time Ended seemed an absurdly portentious title utterly unsupported by the feeble script, the bland cinematography and the dime-store special effects. But by then I was gripped by something more compelling than the film’s failed attempt at suspense — morbid curiosity. How bad a movie could a pair of fading stars be roped into?
An old volcano is rumbling to life, threatening everyone on a tropical paradise. The all-white cast is augmented by five Asian/Pacific Islanders in bit parts. Two are hapless, refugee-looking kids, maybe five and seven. Among the three non-white adults is Pat Morita whose character is married to a muu-muued white woman a half foot taller and twice as heavy. In fact, Morita’s near-dwarf stature — 5-2 by my reckoning — made all the Whites look heroic by comparison. I suspect that was the reason Morita was cast. The film certainly made no effort at drawing on Morita’s considerable acting or comedic skills.
The movie is remarkable because it turns out to be a textbook study of the elements that make up what I call Nouvelle Racism. In Original-Flavor Racism the ugly, false premises are overt. Asians and other minorities are blatantly portrayed as stupid, cowardly, nasty, homely, whatever. It is the concoction of an era when racists thought minorities powerless to strike back or even to raise an audible protest. Original-Flavor Racism saw its heyday during the 1940s and 50s when all three branches of the U.S. government routinely enacted, enforced and affirmed overtly racist laws like Japanese-American internment and anti-miscegenation statutes. Original-Flavor Racism is easy enough to spot and embarrass on the increasingly rare occasions when it surfaces. Thus the birth of Nouvelle Racism.
In the aftermath of the Civil Rights and the multi-cultural movements of the 60s and early 70s, it stopped being profitable to push Original-Flavor Racism. Instead, like the cicada, racist impulses wormed underground and emerged as something that would fly in a world of heightened consciousness. A nouvelle racist doesn’t need to toss around ugly slurs or ugly portrayals of minorities. He has learned that it’s more effective to use non-verbal, implicit and subliminal techniques to convey the same sick message — namely, that minorities are inferior.
The otherwise undistinguished volcano movie is noteworthy because it blends three key elements of Nouvelle Racism. The first ingredient is to make Asians look pitiable. The movie does this by having all three Asian adults, one by one, plunge to their deaths, leaving the two Asian kids in need of rescuing by Whites. What makes this technique so effective is that it swathes the racist message in compassion. How do you protest a display of compassion? Yet the effect of consistently portraying Asians as being incapable of saving themselves, much less those who depend on them, is obvious.
The second key element of Nouvelle Racism is to undercut Asian males through slyly invidious comparison. Unusually short, homely, pockmarked and/or ineffectual Asian males are thrown cheek-by-jawl with un-credibly handsome, tall and charmingly effective white heroes. The Asians are made to die or fail or both while the white heroes succeed by virtue of superior strength, wit, charm or whatnot. In the volcano movie none of the Asians is tough or smart or lucky enough to survive the perilous route to salvation. All the whites are. “Tough break, guys!” is the overt message. The subliminal message? “Shoulda been born white!”
The third ingredient of Nouvelle Racism is ultimate salvation through white heroics. When all seems lost, when all the Asians have proven themselves short of smarts, strength, savvy, the white hero comes through, and to boot displays the superhuman compassion to risk his own life against astronomical odds to save those obviously inferior minorities. Who can object to seeing those fat-cheeked kids being safely carried across a river of lava by a white geriatric tightrope walker in tandem with the handsome, middle-aged white hero. Even the Pat Morita character’s size-16 white wife is saved by a white guy while Morita himself takes a lava dip. Is there a message here?
Yes, and it also suggests tangentially a fourth ingredient of Nouvelle Racism becoming increasingly commonplace in American media, primarily in the glitzy ghettoes of TVland — Asian women throwing themselves at white men but not vice versa. I am in no way bothered by real-life interracial relationships or even cinematic romances between white males and Asian females. What bothers me and most Asians is the implicit message suggested by the one-way racial-sexual dynamics. In itself this is nothing new, of course, just more of the old Susie Wong stereotype which apparently retains its grip on the white imagination. These days, however, Nouvelle Racism has added a covering twist — the Asian woman makes bitchy noises while pursuing the white male. It’s supposed to show, I suppose, that Asian females aren’t submissive but have their own minds which tell them to pursue white men. That strategy may appease some, but from my viewpoint it does nothing to make the underlying racism less offensive or toxic. It’s calculated to create and widen a perceived rift between Asian men and women.
The object of Nouvelle Racism, of course, is to hinder protest. Nouvelle racist messages stink as much as the Original-Flavor variety, and are far more toxic in their subtlety and insidiousness, but it does take a few more words to verbalize the offense and to articulate objections. Conceived as a way to sneak under the verbal radar nets built to screen Original-Flavor racism, Nouvelle Racism is sneaky, sly and cowardly. It’s up to the more intelligent among the Asian American population to stay aware of the increasing slyness with which racists continue to poison the American media well and to keep articulating phrases that neatly pinpoint their cowardly strategies like squirming insects to a well-lit display case.