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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Eastern Bantu Prefixes and Stupid Americans

I really meant to write about more than just the books I've finished, and not gotten too busy to write about. (I recently read Rick Riordan's Son of Neptune, the very enjoyable seventh Percy Jackson novel, but nothing irreversible happens in it, and not much is revealed in it, except for two new, kinda fun characters, so I didn't really have any reaction.)

So, in that vein, here's a reaction to something I read while doing image spec research at work. I was looking for a 14 year-old hapa boy (my older son is only 11 but would otherwise suit the character), and found that model-turned-TV-producer (I think) Tyra Banks masterminded a segment of a modeling show (I don't watch TV, and if I did, I don't think I would watch something called "America's Top Model" - I'm not even completely sure that's what her show is called) in which models adopted mixed racial/cultural identities to fit the Hawaiian hapa identity. Only, as one blogger (lost to the mist of ten minutes ago) noted, these were not ethnicities represented in any number on Hawaii. That's stupid, part one.

Stupid, part two is that it all pretty much looks like blackface filtered through a century and a half of increased familiarity with racial and cultural differences and enough political and social sophistication to know that depicting the first not-lily-white president with a bone through his nose is over the top. (Calling him un-American is still OK, though, apparently.) These depictions are very Orientalized (refer to Edward Said, Orientalism) - depictions of people as emblems of cultural and racial difference, posed in costume and makeup to be their identities.

Stupid, part three is the prefixes. One of the models adopted the hapa identity the show called "batswana/polynesian."

Polynesian peoples do have some differences among them, obviously. I felt silly going to the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu over a decade ago for one of their performance/luau evenings. It was fun in a Disneyesque way, but with more poi. The creepy part to me was the way the different cultures were represented as variations on grass-skirts, dancing-and-drums, etc. It was unenlightening at best. Still, there is a word "polynesian," built from Greek roots "poly" (many) and "nesos" (islands).

"BaTswana," however, means "Tswana people." One Tswana person is "moTswana." The prefix gives the number and the noun class, a concept shared by Bantu languages, and not Indo-European ones. The simplest way to avoid stupidity when using a Bantu word in a non-Bantu language context is to strip it of the prefix. That would make the imaginary multiethnic label "tswana/polynesian." This is not that hard to find out. The show aired in 2009, according to the websites I read about it. I think there was wikipedia then. Right?

Which is, of course, stupid part four. Going on TV without spending ten minutes on research.

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