Sunday, September 19, 2010

Burkman, Nigerians, Ethiopians, Call Centers in India and Peggy: Can We Talk About Race Calmly Yet?

I hesitated on even posting the above video or approaching the topic of race, ethnicity, and divisive rhetoric in America because some people tune you out as soon as they read the words "racism" or "racist." Will we have to think up new words to discuss this critical topic in order to avoid national implosion or are there still some adults in America?

In the video posted above conservative columnist S.E. Cupp and former senator Al D'Amato (R-NY), call out GOP strategist Jack Burkman on his use of "racist bullshit" (Cupp and D'Amato's definition) to explain why he thinks the United States Postal Service should be a private corporation. Burkman appeared with the columnist and D'Amato on Money Rocks, a Fox Business News show last week. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann calls Burkman another Tea Party personality and some are calling the blow-up on Money Rocks an example burgeoning enmity between the GOP and the Tea Party, which is leading loyal Republicans to attack some Tea Party folks at their weakest point, the perception that they are a bunch of racist Yahoos.

Is this what it takes for more Republicans to start admitting they know racist language when they hear it, for them to be threatened by another conservative group that people perceive to embrace racist rhetoric? Or are some Republicans simply waking up and realizing that allowing racist propaganda as a political tool to thrive in their party was a mistake? (If so, um, Republican Newt Gingrich didn't get the memo.)

Remember that it's the Republican Party that gave southern, pro-segregation Dixiecrats fleeing the Democratic Party sanctuary back in the day. Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, would like us to forget American history, but some of us remember.

In the midst of some Americans attempting to either rewrite history on race matters or escape it, I see a growing number of distraught people who blame racism on those who examine racism in American culture and politics and who analyze racist rhetoric. Consider this comment, which was the first comment in a post at BlogHer that discussed a study discussing the pitfalls of attempting to be racially "color blind."
Gee, this whole race thing is really getting a bit much, I am starting to wonder if "true racists" could be behind all the "race" articles and discussions !!!or maybe it's the politicians -divide and conquer ???? ... Forget race, your friend is a friend, neighbour/co-worker, whatever, who cares what colour they are ????
Another person commenting on the same post even suggested we dismiss scholars who examine race. She said "studies mean nothing."

You'll see similar thinking pop up almost anytime Americans attempt to talk about racism, thinking that reveals a knee-jerk response to the words "race, racism, and racist." Just study the comments section whenever old-school Civil Rights activists such as Rev. Jesse Jackson or Congressman John Lewis call an incident "racist," and you'll see what I mean. You'll can find this type of thinking in discussions of Henry Louis Gates run-in with the Cambridge police officer or in comments on CNN reports about race in America. There are people who believe that those who identify racism are the "racists" and are projecting racism onto others as though "racism" is either not real or unworthy of scrutiny.

I've even read comments around the web where some people attempt to equate calling anyone's behavior "racist" or the person "a racist" to be as bad as calling someone the "n" word. In other words, they treat "racist" as though it is a label to which no definitive behavior can be attached and miss that the word "n*gg*r" is a word to which many negative concepts are attached but the word itself is associated with a racial group regardless of behavior. What happens if we swallow the idea that the words "racist" and "racism" cannot be attached to specific types of behavior, attitudes, perceptions, and policies and therefore cannot be defined?

These attempts to misconstrue and silence any discussion of race and racism and its cousins xenophobia and bigotry have caused me to wonder will we ever be able to have an intelligent discussion about these important social issues again and how they shape societal attitudes as well as political and economic policies in ways that harm America and negate its democratic ideals?

I am running into this wall on examining race as I work on an article about how we approach race, racism, xenophobia, and our perceptions of what these words mean and what messages express our underlying beliefs about race or appeal to repressed feelings on the topic, repressed because we live in an age of political correctness and may be on the precipice of abandoning its goals. I am still in the prewriting stage of the article and this post is part of that.

So, I am wondering specifically how do we talk and develop and deliver messages that communicate effectively on topics that touch race in ways that neither appeal to racist beliefs nor ignore "race" as the big elephant in the room? Can it be done? I say I'm running into a wall because I find people hedge what they say or get defensive even if asked "Is thus and so racist?"

I find that people are inclined to not call a message "racist" or a person "racist" if they like the message or person regardless of the message conveyed or the behavior involved. It's as though they think if they laughed at say a Russel Peters joke that relies on stereotypes, for instance, that their laughter or taking pleasure in the joke makes them racist and Peters too. Or that they would rather determine something that their favorite singer said (Yeah, I'm talking about the John Mayer incident) was not racist no matter how racist it was because to acknowledge the racism in the message may mean they love a racist's music. Consequently, it's difficult to get people to honestly examine messages and behaviors that they enjoy in terms of race and racism.

Last week I asked whether Discover Card's new Peggy series of commercials appeals to xenophobia and possibly could be construed as racist in context of a public perception that the commercial alludes to customer service from India. I mean, can you name another country that's building a reputation as the center of overseas customer service? Some people who like commercial were angry that I would even ask the question, "Are the commercials racist or appealing to xenophobia?" Those who like the commercial had difficulty separating their enjoyment of the commercial from the other hidden appeals to audience in the commercial as though to acknowledge seeing the unspoken appeal meant they as pleased viewers were racist or xenophobic.

I concluded early that the ads are clever and The Martin Agency, the company that created Discover's Peggy commercials, did a good job producing a funny ad that could have been a disaster in terms of full-frontal xenophobia or racism. I do not think the creators of the commercial were trying to appeal to xenophobia or racism but that attacking the frustration of poor customer associated with service from non-native English speakers was smart. Customers don't like the kind of service they're receiving not because the CSRs are in India but because dealing with non-Native speakers who seem to have a different cultural attitude about what constitutes good customer service adds another barrier to already frustrating experiences such as getting a refund or holding company's accountable for lost packages or damaged products. That the CSRs are people of color is coincidental; however, this fact makes it necessary for an advertiser to tread carefully when addressing customer dissatisfaction with such service.

Is Discover telling us, however, that they pledge to never use foreign CSRs? If so, what does that mean? And what does it say about us if we assume the bad service is the result of the people being "foreign"?

In that same post, I added a preview of ABC's new show Outsourced and commented that this show will more than likely stir discomfort. It's about an American company's customer service division being outsourced to India and how the white American manager whose been shipped over to India with the jobs adjusts.

Researching my article, I visited Sepia Mutiny. (The website's name is a pun on the Sepoy Mutiny.) I suspected someone at the site had been thinking about the ways in which the show could go wrong, and I was right. I found a post published as early as May in which site members are starting to question the show in terms of stereotypes. The opinions in comments are mixed with some concern that the show may do a disservice to the Indie movie Outsourced upon which the show is based. For a variety a reasons, many of those commenting don't think the show will last.

Now look at the video embedded at the top of this post, if you haven't done so already (h/t to Roger Ebert who wrote and tweeted about it). The panel turns on GOP strategist, Jack Burkman because he uses racist language to frame his opinion that the United States Postal office should be privatized. He says:
Most of these guys working in the post office and should be driving cabs. And I think we should start stop importing labor from Nigeria and Ethiopia. That's about the skill level. They're only in there because of massive union protection.
Burkman succumbs to that full-frontal racism and xenophobia I think the Discover Card ad tries to avoid. He is directly linking incompetence to ethnicity/race. That's a big fat fail. (At Mediate comments indicate surprise that a Fox network panel acknowledged his words were racist.)

The Discover Card commercial avoids this message as direct appeal by giving Peggy a fuzzy foreign accent, one that's hard to identify, and by making the character a white man pretending to be a woman. This aspect of the commercial resonates with customers who feel that foreign, outsourced customer service centers, usually in India, intentionally seek to deceive customers in misrepresenting their true identities. Consider that previews for the show Outsourced have a scene in which an Indian call center worker fakes a southern American accent, even referencing the "grits" that mama used to make him. Is this a real practice of Indian call service workers, faking out Americans about who they are and where they're located? According to a variety of sources, such as this Marie Claire article, Indian call center employees are trained to fake American accents.

If you saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire, then you may surmise that this deception is not reserved for Americans. In the movie, the main character works at a call center servicing Great Britain and his company also trains workers to lie about its location.
The company he works for is called XLS Communications and is an Indian call center. Jamal is a trainee who’s being taught the geography of key places in London, England. The purpose for this is when British customers call and ask the employees who they are and where they’re from, the employees can say they live in Britain and pretend to know what they’re talking about. (Source)
Again, I give these examples from Outsourced and from Slum Dog Millionaire to say that while Peggy's pretense of being female when he is actually male, while funny, have been included in the Discover Card commercials because they resonate with consumer perception that foreign customer service representatives, specifically those in India, pretend to be something/someone other than who we know them to be.

The Discover Card commercial rightfully plays up this deception but does so with a humorous analogy that will not make the average customer sense a potentially racist or xenophobic message. In addition, with Peggy's constant "yes" in ways that don't make sense to an English speaker, it taps into the frustration customers feel when foreign customer service operators keep repeating the same thing. Actually, CSRs even in America are told to repeat verbatim a script, especially when dealing with "difficult" customers. A native English speaker has trouble doing this; however, because a native English speaker is more likely to have enough facility with the English language to grasp the nuance of any case the customer is making and is able to invent an alternate response that means the same thing.

I say "more likely" because I know of exceptions. I have dealt with native English speakers in Customer Service who don't seem to pick up nuances at all. I have also dealt with non-native English speakers who, after being exposed for a while to western culture, pick up nuance quite well.

Speaking of exposure to culture, there are differences in culture that contribute to the stress between foreign customer reps and Americans, different expectations from American customers of how customers should be treated versus other cultural attitudes toward whether money is ever refunded, negotiating prices and concepts of haggling, fiduciary relationship, fairness in representation of product and services, etc. When these cultural differences collide with language barriers and awareness that the CSR is a "foreigner," many American customers will jump to the conclusion that the service representatives are unskilled and "stupid." Doesn't Peggy seem daft in the Discover Card commercials?

Nevertheless, what the Discover Card commercial does and what Jack Burkman does are chasms apart. The Discover Card commercial ultimately ties Peggy's incompetence to the fictitious USA Prime Credit company not caring about its customers. Peggy hangs up on her customers, the ultimate in lack of concern and disrespect, and by using a white face and a man to actually play Peggy, which is the racial/gender default in America, as well as by using a fuzzy rather than specific foreign accent, the Discover Card commercial separates Peggy's incompetence from any specific race and culture. So, while we may suspect the commercial implies service from India, the commercial does not tie incompetence and a lack of customer concern directly to a specific group of people. Consequently, anyone looking at the commercial will not focus on the ethnicity of Peggy but on what it is that Peggy does wrong in serving customers.

While Burkman gets a fail, Discover Card gets a pass. It works hard not to blame bad service on a specific ethnic group. We can quibble about whether the company should have attacked customer service from the angle of foreign representatives another day. In the meantime, let me say that Discover pinpointed a common frustration many American consumers experience, the poor service that too often results of cultural barriers and miscommunication.

Burkman, however, says almost explicitly that people of color, Nigerian and Ethiopians, working in the USPS cannot do the work because they are Nigerian and Ethiopian. He simultaneously implies these groups are only good for one thing, driving cabs, invoking the notion of not only white but also American supremacy as well as stereotypes of cab drivers and Africans. While he tries to clean up his rhetoric later and say he meant that unskilled labor is ruining the post office, we are left to wonder why he thought the best way to make his point was to tie specific nationalities to incompetence at all.

So, can we get to a point of talking about racism and rhetoric without getting into screaming matches ourselves?

View Discover Card's first Peggy commercial here.


RiPPa said...

Burkman was playing the new African boogeyman card meme that has surfaced within recent weeks thanks to Newt Gingrich. Can't blame them. I mean if you wanna be genuinely racist, take it to the source... which happens to be Africa. After all, wasn't that where Obama was born?

Vérité Parlant said...

You're onto something, Rippa.