M.I.A. is a singer/songwriter most known for her song “Paper Planes” which was featured in the movie Pineapple Express and then sampled in the song “Swagga Like Us”. She was born in England to Sri Lankan parents who moved her back to Sri Lanka when she was very young and consequently she was in Sri Lanka during the civil war. She’s known for her political activism and much of her music has been acclaimed and also criticized for its political overtones. Being a big M.I.A. fan, I follow her albums and videos. There’s one that came out for her song “Born Free” that’s a really good example of the social construction of race and the violence that these categories can lead to.
I will give a warning for this video though. It’s pretty graphic in some parts. I was debating on making a post about this but I chose to because it really gives a realistic picture of racial violence. So if you want to watch it know that there’s nudity and sexual content, physical and gun violence, police brutality, harsh language, and some blood and gore.
If you didn’t want to watch the video, I’ll give a summary. The main storyline of the video is that a SWAT team goes through a city and rounds up young, white, red haired men. The connotation is that these men are a race that is suffering some kind of discrimination or oppression within this fictional society. The SWAT team then drives this bus full of men to the desert and kills them in various ways, seemingly simply for being of this “race”.
I like this video because it really gives a portrayal of how socially constructed race is and the possible negative consequences of assigning power and creating a stratification among all these different races. In the beginning of the video, we see the SWAT team driving and then breaking into an apartment building. Then when we see them find the one white, red haired man, we don’t assume it has to do with some kind of race issue (at least I didn’t the first time I watched it). The most surprising moment in the video is the first shot of all of the men on the bus. It’s like a lightbulb moment when you realize it’s not one individual man, but a whole group of men who are similar; it gives the impression that they’re a race. A little bit later we see a political mural of these men, which reinforces the idea that these white, red headed men are their own race and are being oppressed because of their identity.
The second half of the video shows the violence that can come with socially constructed race categories. This video seems extreme, but when you think about it, conflicts much worse than this have occurred throughout history in the real world because of race and ethnicity. We’ve seen violence in Rwanda, Bosnia, the Holocaust, etc. all because of these constructed groups.
Just to kind of make something clearer, I know that whiteness is a race already. But what I think is in this video it’s a separate race of only red headed white people, which I think is obvious in the video but just in case it was confusing. It shows that race is constructed over time and place. While this group isn’t considered their own race in real U.S. society today, there was for a while a trend of poking fun at what were called “gingers”—white, red haired people. I think M.I.A. chose to use this group because it shows that it doesn’t take much to mark people as different and then treat them in harsh ways because of that perceived difference. Even though this video shows an extreme example, it does get the point across.