Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Eskimo debate

This week's news has reported how Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons, an Inuit visiting New Zealand, took offence at Eskimo lollies, a favourite of kiwi kids for as long as I can remember. As Parsons explained, the word 'Eskimo' is racially offensive, and disappeared out of the Canadian lexicon some decades ago. According to my dictionary, it means 'eater of raw meat' - hardly a compliment. Parsons' complaint seems to have unleashed a torrent of crap behaviour from some of local rednecks, who've called on her to just pack up and go home if she doesn't like the way we do our racism.

Parsons' concerns have also met with very little sympathy from the lollies' makers. Cadbury, who produce Eskimos and other Pascal's lollies, said, "We have no intention to rename, reshape or remove the product, and trust that consumers will continue to enjoy Pascall Eskimos".

Would Cadbury use a racial slur that offended a large group of New Zealanders? Probably not. The difference seems to be that racism matters less when it's directed at far-away, exotic-seeming people.

I call that bullshit, Cadbury.

33 comments:

katy said...

I had an American friend on holiday here (NZ) recently and took her to "Little Golly's Bookstore" or whatever it is called, complete with the picture, in Kerikeri. She had always heard about what a bastion of PC NZ was and was quite speechless at this brazen example of racism!

A Nonny Moose said...

Yup, the Herald comment section is drowning beneath "PC Gone Mad" bashing.

Ur thinly veyled bigutree, let me show u it.

These people have no concept of how to make changes in the real world - as just one person, when the problem seems too big, you can make small changes, and that includes your everyday unthinking language.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the Herald comments, but those on Stuff were abysmal.

Interestingly, the meaning of Eskimo as 'eater of raw meat' is apparently incorrect - though obviously a long standing meaning, as it appears in your dictionary, as is the meaning Seeka cited in the article. The Merriam-Webster dictionary changed their definition at some point - http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxeskimo.html . There are a number of interesting articles on this issue linked from Wikipedia. Anyway, that's just an interesting sidenote, and obviously doesn't mean that it can't still be offensive.

However, what I find the most fascinating thing about this issue is that 'Eskimo' is considered offensive in Canada, but in Alaska they use it to describe themselves. What implications does this have for the rest of the world using 'Eskimo'? I'd love to read a discussion of this, but haven't yet found one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, as I know people here are generally knowledgable and articulate (which I am neither today, I apologise).

Julie said...

You may be interested in this post at the excellent Editing the Herald on the Your Views responses to this story.

Anna said...

Interesting thoughts, Anon. I'm not sure I have anything very knowledgeable or article to offer this morning myself! I do wonder about the ethics of naming a lolly after an ethnic/national group, even if the terminology is correct and intended to be respectful. It still seems like a belittling thing to do.

Have you any idea why 'Eskimo' is acceptable in Alaska - ie does it have different connotations there?

muerk said...

For me, eskimo lollies are part of our New Zealand culture. I don't think it reflects on actual Indigenous people, just as jelly babies don't reflect on actual babies.

James said...

It's an interesting issue, Anna. I honestly think that, whatever this individual thinks and whatever the 'level' of offensiveness that the term Eskimo conveys, the name 'Eskimo' here really isn't the point. It seems to me that the important point (if there is one in this media beat-up) is that there is a named after (and shaped like a stereotypical member of) an ethnic group.

As I implied on EtH, I can't imagine people finding an equivalent lolly of Maori or Africans or (god forbid) Jews. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the perceived remoteness and 'otherness' of the Eskimo/Inuit.

The next question, I suppose, is just how offensive it is to those people. I suspect I wouldn't be too offended by a lolly depicting myself/my ethnic group. But then I suppose that goes with the territory of being a white, middle-class, Anglophone male.

stargazer said...

muerk, shouldn't we also think about inuit culture and about the people who are feeling upset? or does their culture not count? see, that kind of argument seems to rely on cultural supremacy. also, cultures change, they aren't static. there are a lot of things that were nz culture that are thankfully no longer so.

basically, i'm just trying to say that framing the argument in terms of "it's part of our culture" doesn't sit well with me, not for anything. i guess i have a bias that way, because i've seen "traditional culture" used so often as a defence for some pretty nasty stuff.

Danielle said...

Katy, my American husband, too, is stunned that people are still so accepting of 'gollywogs' here. He's also weirded out by the way America-philes will display the Confederate flag without actually thinking about (or even knowing) what it means in context. If you grow up in the US south your sensitivity to racism is very acute. I tend to hope that such displays are made from a place of horrible ignorance rather than malice... if someone's displaying blackface dolls in the USA and has a store called 'Kim's Kountry Kitchen' or something, you know they're a stone cold deliberate racist with historic or even current Klan connections. In NZ I'm more dubious about people's motivations. Still bad, but not quite so bad?

A Nonny Moose said...

Muerk, in this incident ignorance is not a defence. We've been alerted to an infringement on a culture. Now that we are educated, it's crass bigotry to continue the feigned ignorance.

It takes a bigger person to stand up and say "Hey, it may have been this way for a long time, but now we know better, we're better people for it."

Unfortunately, Cadbury Pascall, along with the PC Bashing crowd, are avoiding this stance. I'd imagine they're betting that the lowest common denominator boycotting their product is a bigger chunk of market than the people who would the change.

Which is really freakin sad.

A Nonny Moose said...

*who would APPLAUD the change.

Eesh.

A Nonny Moose said...

Sorry for triple posting. Wanting to weigh in on the Gollywog issue.

My mum is the master knitter of Golly dolls (she won't call them GollyWOGS, just Gollies). When I asked why she still makes them, despite their sensitive issue, she said she uses them to teach the kids around her about equality/different cultures. She wants to make sure the kids have as much diversity in their play so that they come out with a multi-coloured/cultural view on the world.

So there ya go - why not let them serve as the "Manus" of today?

muerk said...

When my mother was growing up a colour definition was "nigger brown". Apparently China still uses it. Personally I find that shocking because the n-word grates on me.

"Eskimo" has no effect on me. I'm saying this because I'm aware of my bias and that it's not necessarily a logical argument that I'm presenting.

However, the word "Eskimo" does not have the pejorative meaning universaly. We don't use it here in any pejorative form, unlike the n-word.

And from Wikipedia "The term "Eskimo" is also used world wide in linguistic or ethnographic works to denote the larger branch of Eskimo-Aleut languages, the smaller branch being Aleut."

Truthfully, I resent having to change something that I regard as iconic to New Zealand. I'm certainly not asking Canada to start selling these lollies.

I think eskimo lollies are about offensive as tiki mugs. I don't like tiki mugs, but I accept that they are part of American culture, even though I find them offensive. It's just one of those things we have to deal with I think.

Check out this tiki mug manufacturer:

http://www.tikifarm.com/

Emma said...

Have you any idea why 'Eskimo' is acceptable in Alaska - ie does it have different connotations there?Because the Eskimo in Alaska are mostly Yu'pik, NOT Inuit. Inuit doesn't have the same meaning as 'Eskimo', just as 'Samoan' doesn't mean 'Polynesian'.

Anna said...

If we say that Eskimo lollies are part of our culture, aren't we saying that part of our culture is to treat other people disrespectfully as a source of entertainment (whether we actually mean to offend or not)?

And what it actually gained by causing this offense? I think hurt caused outweighs the gain (and the lollies would be delicious whatever shape they took).

I'm also a bit dubious of the notion of 'our culture'. Until a week ago, if you'd asked anyone in NZ to name defining or even important parts of our culture, I don't think anyone would have answered 'Eskimo lollies'. What we don't like is the fact we're being asked to change - that's not really a cultural value.

A Nonny Moose said...

"Eskimo" has no effect on me. I'm saying this because I'm aware of my bias and that it's not necessarily a logical argument that I'm presenting.

However, the word "Eskimo" does not have the pejorative meaning universaly. We don't use it here in any pejorative form, unlike the n-word.
Let's take this argument back 50 or 60 years, and put the n-word in the place of your argument:

"Nigger" has no effect on me. I'm saying this because I'm aware of my bias and that it's not necessarily a logical argument that I'm presenting.

However, the word "Nigger" does not have the pejorative meaning universaly. We don't use it here in any pejorative form, unlike the j-word.
It's all about time and a sense of perspective. Asking a generation or 2 to change from using the n-word was a tough job...it wasn't logical, right or culturally sensitive to THEIR privilidged way of being then either.

muerk said...

"If we say that Eskimo lollies are part of our culture, aren't we saying that part of our culture is to treat other people disrespectfully as a source of entertainment (whether we actually mean to offend or not)?"

Sure, but I think that's true of all cultures.

To me the important aspect of this kind of offensiveness is power. Is New Zealand actively keeping Inuit powerless? Do we actively contribute to inequalities for Inuit people? Well... no.

So for example I'm okay with the concept of "Bog Irish Chews" or "Russki Mints" because we don't actually have a power differential with the Irish or the Russians.

Prior to this being pointed out, did any of us feel less of Inuit or Eskimo culture because of the lollies?

Like I said, look at tiki mugs, they don't just use an image of a Polynesian person, they imitate sacred images of ancestors as a drinking implement. Ironic given food is tapu, no?

But that's what people do, and honestly I think it's bearable.

katy said...

I agree with Danielle that NZers in general seem to be quite naive about how other "western" countries see these things, are a bit out of step. Like anything, I think it is safest to look to how the particular group of people represents themselves and to go with that, rather than using outdated caricatures developed in 1950s England.

katy said...

Similarly I don't like this, a "foreigner" costume sold in Japan. Obviously foreigners are all male with a big nose, blue eyes and English-speaking (he is saying "hello").

http://www.debito.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/d30_3200.jpg

Chris said...

I find "eskimos" delicious, but I don't think that I've ever bought them as "eskimos" as such, just in mix things - in fact, it took me hours to work out what was actually being talked about.

"Eskimos" just aren't good value in terms of the term-spent-enjoying:price ratio.

They should really just form the stuff into 1mx1mx1m cubes, wrap them in brown paper and sell them off as "Big Blocks o' Glucose".

Julie said...

Homepaddock is concerned about the offensiveness of Eskimo lollies too although she summarises some of the other blog reactions which are more, er, reactionary.

Anonymous said...

Waste of time to be honest. If somebody is offended by a sweet then they seriously need to get a proper hobby.

Maybe she'd be ok for me to go to her country and start causing trouble? I reckon she should STFU and fix the many wrongs in her country before trying to take away whats left of our heritage.

Most of NZ agrees with me too - read the thousands of related posts agreeing to how stupid this is on all the news sites.

Anna said...

Are lollies that important to your cultural heritage, Anon? How did you cope when Sparkles stopped being made?

Danielle said...

OMG. They stopped selling Sparkles? :)

Anna said...

They sure did, Danielle - Snifters too. It was a bit sad, but it didn't seem to tear apart the fabric of NZ society.

It's funny how people can accept losing lollies when the market decides they're not needed, but we can't change one aspect of our lolly consumption to avoid causing racial offense. Priorities...

muerk said...

I was utterly gutted about losing snifters.

A Nonny Moose said...

Most of NZ agrees with me too - read the thousands of related posts agreeing to how stupid this is on all the news sites.Just because a lot of people agree, it STILL doesn't make them right. It's called being the entitled majority.

Illogicality comes in many forms, and the one most powerful is the loudest voice.

Anonymous said...

It still doesn't make you sound any better than me - in fact more people just think you're a nutter. :)

I'm happy to be in the majority who doesn't give a toss about petty things like names of sweets - otherwise I'd find it ever so hard to get through a day without being offended. Somehow I KNEW this blog would take the side of the Candaian tourist!

AWicken said...

I don't look at it as that *I* should be offended, per se. I do think that I should be aware of inadvertantly offending others, and regard people and companies who do not care if they inadvertantly offend others as selfish at best and sociopaths at worse.

God knows I intentionally pick enough battles - why would I want to fall into them? :)

Anonymous said...

Touche Andrew. Good call.

Anna said...

Anon, it comes down to whether you think lollies are more important than racism.

When the Black & White Minstrels went out of fashion, plenty of people claimed they were a harmless part of heritage as well. Now those people look like nutters. Given time, people who defend racial slurs generally do.

Anonymous said...

It comes down to what is important in life and what isn't.

Racism is never an excuse for anything - however as the product Eskimo pies are sold throughout the world including Canada, I think this Canadian girl should stop throwing stones here and deal with the obvious bigger injustices in her country.

Put it this way, how many times have you heard complaints about Eskimos or black jelly babies in the last decade? People move on and ignore any negativity and enjoy the candy. Discussion like this is really ruining the innocence of one of NZ's most beloved sweets - and for what?

Sumana Gouba said...

First off, I love Eskimo lollies. I love em straight outta the packet. The Eskimo lollies has been around probably longer than this woman. Obviously the lollies name is not meant to upset anyone, it is just a term people use.