Tag Archives: whitewashing

Dear White Authors: Our Fantasy Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

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Hi friends! It’s been awhile. I’ve been focusing on fiction. The sequel to Panther in the Hive has been released, by the way!  (The Rooster’s Garden, here.) But I did write a blog this week.

Below you will find an excerpt to my latest, “Dear White Authors: Our Fantasy Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum” which has been published on Huffington Post. I encourage you to read it here.

You see, our fantasies don’t exist in a vacuum. Every character we create, every world we imagine, every king we conjure, and every centaur or alien or whatever we weave together with our words comes from somewhere. Writers, I know: we like to imagine our stories as apparitions that arise from magic or stardust; a miraculous creation that channeled through us from a mystic source. But that’s untrue: our stories come from us, and “us” is often problematic.

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Lucy: Why I’m Tired of Seeing White People on the Big Screen

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I’m tired of seeing white people on the silver screen.

First, let me note that I am white. I am a white woman who goes to the theater to see probably a dozen films (if not more) in a given year, a white woman who readily consumes TV shows and series and often blogs/tweets about them. I love film. I love what Hollywood could be, but I must say that I don’t love what it is, and that is a machine generating story after story in which the audience is asked to root for a white (usually male) hero over and over and over (and over) again. I’m tired. I’m tired of directors pretending that white actors are the default and that people of color are a distraction when it comes to filmmaking. I’m tired of black women in Hollywood being relegated to roles of slaves and “the help” over and over again. I’m tired of films convincing themselves that they are taking on something fresh and new, the likes of which the world has never seen, but in actuality adhering to tired tropes and stereotypes.

One example that comes to mind is Avatar, a “groundbreaking” film about aliens and humanity, which, underneath it all, is the same old White Savior story. But more recently is Lucy, the film starring Scarlett Johansson in which a woman named Lucy evolves and is able to use 100% of her brain’s capacity after she unwittingly ingests a massive amount of drugs.

Lucy is about what humankind could be: it’s about possibilities. As Lucy’s brainpower grows stronger and the volume of knowledge she is able to access increases, she delivers monologues about how little humans understand about death, existence, and the universe, mediating on time and history. The film likes to think of itself as reimagining everything that we think we know about humanity, and presents to us their vision of what the most evolved woman on earth looks like:

A blonde white woman.

See, I just can’t get right with that.

You see, I was an anthropology major in high school and by the time I was 16 I’d learned all about Lucy (Australopithecus), the collection of bones found in Hadar and thought to have lived 3.2 million years ago, one of the oldest hominids we know of. Lucy the film doesn’t try to hide how cute they thought they were being by naming the supreme evolved being in their film “Lucy:” they show an ape-like creature crouched by a stream to illustrate just how far human beings have come, and say as much in the opening lines, depicting vast cities built up to show our progress. The original Lucy was not really an ape, though: she had small skull capacity like apes, but her skeleton shows she was bipedal and walked upright like humans. Hadar, by the way, is in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia.

So I guess what’s sticking in my craw is the assertion that while human life originated in Africa—a detail the film neatly skims over, placing the ape-like Lucy that Johansson sees in North America—somehow the way we imagine the most evolved human being is blonde and white. Even more, when Lucy gets surges of knowledge in the film, her eyes flash brightly blue. Because blue eyes, we all know, are the universal symbol of superiority, right?

How is it that in a film whose premise rests on the idea of reimagining the past, present, and future, we still end up with a blonde white woman with flashing blue eyes as the stand-in for what personifies evolution and supremely fulfilled human potential? At one point the Ape-like Lucy and Evolved Lucy meet face-to-face as Evolved Lucy does a bit of time-traveling. Their fingers touch, and we see them deliberately posed to mimic the famous Creation of Adam painting, and in that moment I saw what I suppose we were supposed to see: humanity at its beginning, and then humanity at its end, at its most perfect. Blonde, white, and blue-eyed.

I can’t accept that. I can’t accept that there was only one black woman in the entire film, who delivered one line and who we never saw again. I can’t accept that the bad guys were Asian and that although in China, Lucy’s roommate says, “I mean, who speaks Chinese? I don’t speak Chinese!” I can’t accept that in Hercules, which I also saw this weekend, there were no people of color except for Dwayne Johnson himself and his mixed-race wife, whose skin was almost alabaster. I can’t accept that she got maybe two lines and was then murdered. I can’t accept that the “primitive tribe” in Hercules consisted of dark-haired men painted heavily, blackish green, to give their skin (head-to-toe) a darker appearance, so the audience could easily differentiate between good and bad guys by the white vs. dark skin. I can’t accept that during the previews, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a story about Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, where not a single person of color is represented, casts Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton to play Egyptians. I can’t accept that in the preview for Kingsman: The Secret Service, which takes place in London, features a cast of white boys and not a single person of Indian descent, which make up the largest non-white ethnic group in London. I can’t accept that in stories about the end of the world and the apocalypse, that somehow only white people survive. I can’t accept that while my daily life is filled with black and brown women, they are completely absent, erased, when I look at a TV or movie screen.

I can’t accept that. And I can’t accept that when we think about the potential of humankind and what our brains are capable of doing and thinking and feeling, that people of color would be absent from that imagining. I can’t accept that. And I won’t. I’m tired of seeing people that look like me crowding screens both big and small: I am not what the world looks like. Hollywood, stop whitewashing characters. Give us more films like this year’s Annie. I’m no Lucy: like everyone else I’m only using a tiny amount of my brain’s capacity. But you don’t need to be a superhuman logic-machine to see that Hollywood has a major problem with depicting people of color, and it’s time to actually reimagine what the world can and should be. 

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Catching Fire and the Limits of White Imagination

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After watching Hunger Games: Catching Fire this weekend, I was pleased to see that Beetee, the brilliant inventor and electric genius from District 3, was played by none other than Jeffrey Wright. I was also pleased that I didn’t hear any muttering in the theater about the fact that Beetee was black. We all remember the disgusting racist backlash when the first installment of the film cast Amandla Stenberg, a young black actress, as Rue (despite the fact that Rue was indeed black in the book). But my pleasure didn’t last long. The next day on the bus, I overheard a young woman and her friends—who had just come from the film, apparently—exchanging their thoughts about what they had just seen, and the young woman said, “I thought it was awesome. Well, except for Beetee. Why the f*ck did they make him black? Beetee wasn’t black.”

Folks. Let me tell you something. You might want to sit down, because this could be a shocker for you. Here it is. Are you ready?

The Hunger Games is not real. (gasp) I know. Stunning. This dystopian world in which children are sent into an arena to fight to the death is, in fact, fictional, imaginary, fantastical. And you know what that means. That means that the appearances of the characters therein are also not real. That is, they are subject to the imagination of the reader. Katniss is described as “olive-skinned,” which can be interpreted semi-loosely, but Beetee? He was merely described as having “ashen skin” and black hair. Lots to play with there. Right? It’s a book. He looks different to all of us in our heads.

But that’s not what this is really about, is it? After hearing this young woman’s comment, I jumped on Twitter and searched mentions of Beetee’s name. I came across the usual racist vitriol, but there was the occasional tweet that looked like this:

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I saw more of the same in comment sections on various articles around the web—Never read the comment sections, guys. Really.—and it has led me to believe that the problem isn’t that Hunger Games purists who believe that Beetee looked a certain way were disappointed that the film strayed from that representation, it’s that white audiences in America are afflicted with a certain limitation of the imagination when it comes to the representation of characters they are fond of. Something that struck me as very interesting was the following tweet:

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It is difficult to imagine benevolent geniuses as black, it seems, but quite easy to imagine villains as black. This is telling, isn’t it? Telling that the white imagination, when provided in a book with descriptions of a “good guy”—intelligent, valuable, kind, even gentle—imagines that character as white (like themselves) but when provided with descriptions of a villain, a killer, a dangerous maniac…imagines that character as a black man. Morgan Freeman. Who has overwhelmingly portrayed “good” characters in his career as an actor. He even played God once, if memory serves. What is it, then, that causes the white imagination to provide his face as a stand-in for what they imagine as a ruthless child killer in a fictional world?

His blackness. And only that.

As white people, we are used to representations of ourselves crowding the covers of magazines, crowning the posters of newly released films. The good guys are white, we have learned, after eons of our faces being plastered under cowboy hats and in impeccable Bond suits. White men are Superman, we have learned. White men are Ethan Hunt and Neo and white men are hobbits. Bad men, we have learned, are black. They’re gang bangers and thugs and talk loud and sometimes deliver funny lines where we laugh at their Otherness. Black men aren’t heroes, we learn. Our imagination and subconscious are so saturated with white supremacist notions of goodness, beauty, and heroism, that when confronted head-on with an image of a black man who is brilliant and kind and normal and who saves the day, we transform into robotic versions of ourselves: Does…not…compute. Hero…must be…white. It’s this line of thinking that turned Disney’s Princess Tiana into an animal for 95% of the movie. The collective white imagination had difficulty imagining a black girl as a princess…and so she became a frog.

This isn’t about staying true to the book. Suzanne Collins was vague (I believe purposefully so) with the descriptions of her characters, so when we say “I didn’t picture Rue as black,” or “No, Beetee was white,” it is not the text that is leading us. We’re following a different illogical path of logic, one in which everything we believe about ourselves as white heroes and heroines is being contradicted. The notions taught by patriarchy and white supremacy do not only effect our day-to-day encounters in reality; they shape our imaginations and our expectations, our intangible realities.

But unlike the tributes who enter the arena in The Hunger Games, we have a choice. We can choose. We can choose to step aside on what we’ve been taught is our pedestal of greatness and acknowledge that there is room for more. We can choose to transform our ideas of heroes and who can be good, and kind, and brave. The alternative is bleak. If even our imaginations are irrevocably bound to what patriarchal and white supremacist doctrines prescribe, then we’re in trouble. The moment we kill the thing in us that imagines change and difference and growth is the moment we kill any hope of a better world. The world in The Hunger Games may not be “better,” but how much worse is it really when it can imagine a genius hero who is black…and we can’t?

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Why The Best Man Holiday Isn’t “Race-Themed”

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I wasn’t even going to blog about The Best Man Holiday. I was going to go in and watch the glorious reunion of Nia Long, Taye Diggs and company and just enjoy it. But after what USAToday tweeted about the film’s success at the box office, I realized I had to. Here’s the tweet in case you missed it:

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Race-themed. When I think of race as a theme in film, I think of it as the way theme is defined. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it.

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“The main subject that is being discussed in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.” Themes are what a film is about. If a film is race-themed, then it is about race. So imagine my surprise when I saw USAToday describe The Best Man Holiday as race-themed. Forget “race-themed”: I struggle to see how the film is about race at all.

Like its predecessor, Holiday focuses on the intertwining lives of  a group of men and women: authors, football players, mothers, fathers. It’s about the bond of friendship and the tests of its strength. Financial worry. Parenthood. Marriage. Grief. Forgiveness. But what exactly does race have to do with grief aside from the fact that, in this instance, the people struggling with grief are black?

Well, nothing.

What USAToday’s tweet reveals is that white audiences are unable to see black people as beings separate from their blackness. A movie featuring a black cast surely can’t be about universal themes that any audience can relate to, this line of thinking goes: the subject matter must be about mysterious black things that only black viewers can comprehend; it must be black inside-jokes; black references; black experiences. Black movies are for black people—not for everyone. Black people are defined by their blackness and so are their films, and USAToday’s tweet tells us that explicitly.

Every day we are bombarded with movies and television shows in which white faces, white families, white marriages are plugged as the “default” experience…and no one would say that these films are about race. No one would say, “Oh, that’s an all-white cast. It must be about what it means to be white in America.” No one. Black audiences go see these films, despite their almost entirely white casts, because if black audiences only went to see films in which the cast looked like them, they’d see maybe five movies a year in mainstream theaters. Tops. Why not the same for white folks? Why was I the only white person in the theater for Best Man Holiday today? What is it about a black cast that is off-putting to white audiences? Do we really need to see ourselves reflected endlessly back at us to enjoy a film? Why did white audiences flock to see Django and 12 Years but not Holiday? Why can you relate more to a film about chattel slavery than you can about nine affluent people and their families? These are questions that need answers.

This is not to say that films with black casts are never race-themed. Of course they are. If a film is about race, then it’s about race. But Best Man Holiday is not. A film’s themes do not become about race simply because its cast is not white. Not only does this notion bind black actors to their blackness, it Others non-white experiences, casting white films as default, and everything else as “everything else.” Films with white casts are then provided with the benefit of universality: free to be any genre, take on any subject matter or theme. A film with a black cast, no matter its story, is “race-themed,” tied to the race of its actors simply by virtue of their blackness.

If we describe Best Man Holiday as “race-themed” we must ask ourselves the following questions.

Is football race-themed?

Is pregnancy race-themed?

Is marriage race-themed?

Is trust?

Is cancer?

Is friendship?

Is God?

Because these are the things that Holiday is truly about. Universal lessons of brotherhood and faith, the tests of love and the frailty of the human heart: these things are no more about race than love itself. To say this film is about race tells black actors—and black audiences—that no matter their experiences, their heartbreaks, their vows, their tribulations…at the end of the day, before they are human, they are black. This violent oversimplification of black roles not only dehumanizes black lives, but it perpetuates in white people the idea of their Defaultness and the lie that all experiences are relatable through whiteness.

We’ve all had our hearts broken. We’ve all been in love. We’ve all had a best friend at some point in their lives. How stunted is your imagination, how crippled is your notion of life, if the people on screen with broken hearts, the people in love, the people mending their friendships, have to look like you in order for you to feel a connection with their humanity?

Oh, and by the way…in case you didn’t know…

This blog actually is race-themed.

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The same old shit

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I won’t actually ask the question, because it’s been asked, but I’ll remind you of it: “Is it possible to separate an artist from her/his work?”

Sure. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. But it’s not always possible. When an artist is so much in their work—whether the presence is conscious or unconscious—it becomes difficult to ignore. It’s distracting.

Five minutes ago I finished reading Stephen King’s The Stand. And, to quote a friend, the “religiosity” became “hokey.” But more distracting than that was the subtle racism.

The Satan-esque villain known as “the black man.” The black soldiers being enormous and muscle-bound and barely human. The complete absence of “good” black characters with the exception of the religious, cornbread-baking prophet woman. The ending, with Africans carrying spears and falling dumbly down at Flagg’s feet (the book took place in the ‘90s). And don’t get me started on the female characters.

What else can I say besides the fact that it’s tiresome? I realize it was written in the 70’s. And that’s always the excuse of people who defend this and other writing. “Well that was then; there weren’t black main characters back then,” as if it was the Stone Age. As if this means it is exempt from criticism.

It’s not. Stephen King wasn’t employing these metaphors for literary effect. It’s casual. Included by way of his own subconscious notions. If this were purely a thing of the past and a pattern not present in 90% of popular fiction and film, maybe it would be easier to lay the old dog to rest.

But that dog is barking, and it only makes it worse to read this puffed-up book from the 70’s and see how little has changed.

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