Race in the Carnival and Mardi Gras Colour Face

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

From time to time, we at Racialicious discuss the stickiness of trying to talk about race in the context of cultures we are not familiar with.  It’s easy for us to talk about the U.S. and Canada, since members of our team live solely in these two countries. But when it gets to trying to talk about other countries, it’s hard for us to do that with as much right, or sensitivity.  Because there is nothing worse than getting xenophobic while you are trying to be anti-racist; in other words making assumptions or presumptions about a racial culture that you know nothing about.

So when reader Frida sent us in a tip about Carnival in Germany (roughly equivalent to Mardi Gras in the U.S.) I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it.   Frida noted that snide and politically satirical floats were par for the course at Carnival, and this year was particularly rife with floats mocking “fallen saviour” President Obama.  Nonetheless, this float caught her eye:

Frida did a good job of interpreting this bizarre float, explaining:

On this particular parade float, Obama and Hu are depicted in bed together, with Obama handing Hu cash– a remark on the tremendous loan debt America owes China. Note how Hu, dressed in yellow, is depicted as wearing a yellow stereotypical “coolie” hat.

I know very little about Germany’s racial culture that is informed by real, on-the-ground knowledge.  Out of context, this image is maddening for so many reasons.  Like the sex for cash motif: how much do the races of each leader play into the choice of this image?  Both African Americans and Asians have been target of distressing sexual stereotypes to do with sex work for eons, in a way that also dehumanises sex workers.  But perhaps there is no history of that in Germany, which makes this image more difficult to dissect than if it was an American image.

But then there is the drawing of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a heart on the side of the float (yes, whaaa’?).  Frida writes:

In the picture above, there seems to be a painting of John Lennon and Yoko Ono (?) on the side of the float, bordered by a heart. Representing what exactly? Is it some remark on the relationship between “Orientals” and Westerners? What do John and Yoko have to do with Obama and Hu?

Uh, interracial pairings involving Americans and East Asians all look same?

And of course, there is the dreaded coolie hat, that universal indicator of Chinese culture; everyone except Obama and  Uncle Sam are wearing coolie hats.


But we’re not just dealing with German culture here, we’re also dealing with Carnival/Mardi Gras culture.  And the point of this culture is inversion.  It’s a time for adults to invert sexual and racial mores without consequence, even though this float seems loaded up with racial stereotypes that are very much grounded in the uninverted status quo.

Every year at Mardi Gras and Carnivals worldwide, racism comes to play.  For example we can look at the ubiquitous Voodoo floats featured at almost any U.S. Mardi Gras (Grases?), and be troubled by the reductive and inaccurate representation of “voodoo.” For example, I recently saw a Voodoo float staffed by white people, where everyone was dressed like the cast of Flintstones, with bones in their hair and leopard print loincloths.  I imagine that that representation of Voudou, which is an important part of Louisiana culture and history, is about as respectful as the coolie hat.

At the same time, I recognise that there is a huge tradition behind these representations, one that people of colour or black folks are often active in. As much as the representations trouble me, as a total outsider to both Louisiana and Mardi Gras culture, there is some racial playing there that is way over my head, connected to the fraught racial history of black and white people in the south.

Still, it seemed worthwhile to write up Frida’s tip.  And I have to admit that I have an ulterior motive: this isn’t the first time this Mardi Gras season that I’ve seen a coolie hat at a Mardi Gras parade, and I’m fishing for someone to explain to me why vague East Asian culture is being plonked down in the middle of the racial minefield of Mardi Gras.

About two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a Galveston Mardi Gras parade.  We watched countless marching band and floats of every variety imaginable – 60’s music, 20’s gangsters, a frat float made solely of couches, and that sorry Voodoo float I described earlier.  And then came some lion dancing.  Nice, I thought, there must be a sizeable Chinese community in Galveston.  And it was also one week to Lunar New Year, so the lion dancing didn’t seem totally incongruous.

Except that right after the lion dancing, came an “Oriental” float.  And everyone on the float – apart from one woman, as far as I could tell – was a non-Asian person with a Geisha wig, fu manchu moustache, or “oriental” robes.  Now, if there is a big enough Chinese community in Galveston to warrant a Chinese float, why not let the Chinese people do their own float?

Again, in the inverted context of Mardi Gras, this float definitely was not as bad as going to something like the St Paddy’s Day parade and seeing a bunch of leprechauns wearing coolie hats (or leprechauns dressed up as “voodoo”).  While there is a precedent for the voodoo float, it was still cringe-worthy.  The lack of discernable precedent for the Mardi Gras yellow face got me even more puzzled.

We can try to hold our tongue, give the benefit of the doubt, and not scream bloody racism when confronted by images that are troubling but have meanings we do not know, because they are a part of cultures unfamiliar to us.

Nonetheless, all those white folks in colour face put a bit of a damper on this yellow person’s parade.