Making sense of Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl ad: A “discourse identity” approach

During the Super Bowl, viewers are socialized into understanding that the spectacle is not just the game itself, but also the multi-million dollar ad spots during the commercial breaks.  This year the most notorious of these was Michigan GOP Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s racially charged political ad, what ABCNews referred to as “the slur heard ‘round the country.’”

The scene opens with the music of a gong, as an Asian woman in a conical bamboo hat rides her bicycle down a dirt path, alongside a field of rice paddies.  She stops, looking into the camera as she smiles, and says in mock broken English “Debbie spend so much American money.  You borrow more and more, from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie ‘Spend It Now!’” The scene cuts to Hoekstra, saying “I think this race is between Debbie ‘spend it now’ and Pete ‘spend it not.’  I’m Pete ‘spend it not’ and I approve this message.”

The media backlash was almost immediate, characterizing Hoekstra as a “racist,” criticizing him for capitalizing on Asian stereotypes and perpetuating xenophobic sentiments toward China.  Yet he was not the only one to receive the fury of media attention – many wondered who this young Asian actress was and why she would subject herself to such degradation.  In the end, Hoekstra took the ad off of his website and somewhat sarcastically apologized, stating that any insensitivity was intended for the “liberal left and their reckless spending, not the Asian community.”  The actress, Lisa Chang, was shamed into issuing a public apology, where she expressed regret “for any pain that the character [she] portrayed brought to [her] communities.”  The Hoekstra ad and ensuing media fiasco raise important questions, such as:

1)  What content (spoken, written, or audio-visual) is appropriate (or not) in the context of campaign or attack advertisements; if inappropriate, who receives the blame (or not), and most importantly, who gets to decide these things in the first place?

2)  Why did some viewers, including pundits, journalists, and other “experts,” find it more appalling for the Asian actress to participate in the advertisement than Hoekstra?

3)  Why were these two the only ones punished by the media for their involvement, when an entire team (including writers, producers, camera operators) was responsible for the production as a whole?

In Scollon’s 1996 article “Discourse identity,” he makes a compelling case for understanding news media through the careful breakdown and analysis of discourse identities (i.e. the various combinations of social-interactive and production-reception roles). Taking examples of Hong Kong print media as case studies, Scollon advocates the “discourse identity” approach as a method for unraveling the complexity of roles we take in discourse.  The approach is particularly useful in cases of mismatched identities, he argues, because we are perceived negatively when our discourse identity is incongruent with our expected social role.  Moving forward I will address the questions above by beginning this process of unraveling the discourse and social identities of the actors involved in the Hoekstra ad to show the negative consequences of mismatched identity.

A visual semiotic approach would certainly confirm the critiques of Hoekstra’s ad – the gong in the introduction, the conical hat, the actress’s broken English, and the discourse on jobs being sent oversees all make use of stereotypes about Asians and Chinese, in particular.  In other words, that the ad capitalized on cultural stereotypes through visual and discursive means is clear.  But who is held responsible and by whom?

Pete Hoekstra Lisa Chang Media critics
Social-interactive role Framer, player Player Framers? Players? Observers?
Production-reception role Author, animator, principal Animator Judge

Lisa Chang, despite being merely a player in the spectacle who animates a stereotyping and racist discourse, is perceived negatively.  To use Scollon’s terminology, this to me insinuates that there is a perceived mismatch in identities – visibly as an Asian(-American) woman, Chang is expected not to be a player in a racially degrading discourse.  As a consequence, media critics treat her as though she were author, animator and principal – considering criticism for negatively portraying her “community.”   Hoekstra, on the other hand, explicitly approved the ad’s message but is judged similarly to Chang.  This doesn’t take into account that he is a player and framer of the discourse, in addition to being author, animator and principal of the discourse. Furthermore, there was little to no attention paid to the many others who contributed to the production of the ad by media critics.  Detangling the discourse identities of the two faces in the ad draws attention to the many others responsible for its creation.

Lastly, the media plays several important roles in this discourse: 1) in the reception role as judges, and 2) in the social-interactive as potential framers, players and/or observers.  Further analysis might analyze the social-interactive roles media networks or organizations adopt in relation to a bit of “news.” For example, do they air the ad without participating in the discourse (players) or do they take a position on the discourse (framers)?  Does Fox editorialize certain topics more than MSNBC, and vice versa?  What about a racial-justice-oriented publication like ColorlinesWhat role can the media play in maintaining or changing racist discourses?

 

Language ideologies, profiling and discrimination

As a biracial, 2nd generation American growing up in an urban setting, I was raised in a multilingual home and grew comfortable speaking Hungarian with one grandma, Spanish with another, and a mix with my own parents.  But outside of the home, I noticed some people weren’t as understanding about my lifestyle and upbringing.  I noticed people had things to say about immigrants — and not very nice ones.  I was told my parents had an accent.  Huh?  The older I got, the more hateful I understood the rhetoric to be.  Racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, ignorant, plain and simple. And it wasn’t just people I knew, it was coming from all angles — politicians, journalists, and other powerful, important figures that people listened to.   These people had the power to determine policy and impact my life and everyone around me.

Thankfully I had the opportunity to get my BA in hegemony studies.  Not really, but that’s what it felt like.  Actually I studied linguistic anthropology, and there I thrived on any reading materials I could get my hands on to get beyond the everyday ideologies about language, immigrants — and get the “real deal” from people who knew their stuff.  My roles models became people like Foucault, Duranti, and my own advisor Dr. Pagliai, who studied racist ideologies from a linguistic anthropological framework — and get this, she got paid to do it!

Here are some of the readings/articles/books that I loved then as much as I do now, my go-to reading list for anyone interested in the prevalent, yet unexamined beliefs about languages, dialects, and their speakers.  If you think other people have an accent, but you don’t or that you can “tell” someone’s race or ethnicity by the sound of their voice, then this is for you.

1)  Lippi-Green, Rosina.  1997.  English with An Accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

What I love so much about this book is that it shows that you don’t need a PhD to understand linguistic insights.  English with an Accent is a highly accessible reader that, for starters, topples down the most common myths about language.  What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?  Is Ebonics bad English?  Is there such a thing as bad English?  She provides readers with the tools to understand language and variation, and the ability to distinguish between language ideologies (beliefs about language) from data-driven, empirically-proven, insights on language from the people who’ve been doing this for a living.  Through various case studies, she also provides compelling demonstrations of how institutions capitalize on linguistic ideologies (via “language subordination”) to create and perpetuate inequalities and prejudice in various social arenas (public schools, children’s movies, employment).  A must-read for educators, parents, policy makers and the public at large, IMHO.

2)  Urciuoli, Bonnie.  1996.  Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican experiences of language, race, and class.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Despite being an older publication, the insights Urciuoli provides in this book remain relevant today and extremely helpful as a guide in understanding how immigrant communities are racialized/otherized/marked through a complex conflation of language, class, and race.  Taking an ethnographic approach, she explains how Nuyoricans are stigmatized seemingly on the basis of their linguistic makeup (unabashed codeswitching, Latino English dialect, etc), but covertly on the basis of cultural constructions of race and class — what Urciuoli calls “race-marking mapped onto language behavior.”  In this longitudinal study she shows how a stigmatized identity results in a “glass ceiling” of sorts, whereby New York Puerto Ricans are routinely and systematically denied access to positions of power in society.  A must-read for Newt Gingriches everywhere.

3)  Baugh, John.  2006.  Linguistic profiling.  Black Linguistics: Language, society and politics in Africa and the Americas, ed. by Sinfree Makoni, 155-168.

Like racial profiling (alive and well in legislation like Arizona’s SB1070 despite civil rights laws that clearly denounce the practice), linguistic profiling refers to the practice of judging speakers identity, competence, intellect (and on) based on features of their spoken language.  A ubiquitous phenomenon in the life of a public school kid in DC, “you sound White,” “stop talking Black” could be heard through the halls and packed a heavy socio-politico-ideological punch with every utterance.  John Baugh’s study, beyond being an interesting research project on a hot-button issue, has been invaluable in “real-world” applications: namely, fair housing advocacy work that works to eliminate civil rights discrimination and civil rights enforcement and compliance more generally.  While admitting (albeit reluctantly) that linguistic profiling might be a natural human inclination based on its prevalence throughout antiquity, he argues that people can and should be more mindful about their own prejudices and stereotypes, and to strive toward higher tolerance of speakers with backgrounds different than their own.