Kind of a momentous week, this. Finished Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye", finally. Because I've started and stopped so many times in the past, it felt like a big deal. For about 11 seconds. Then I was like WTF?! T'was not the gripping, empowering, seminal Black novel I was expecting. Plus, Toni Morrison looks like a talkshow host on daytime TV; see:
When we all know revolutions are led by people who look more like this:
Or by people who can hold iconic poses that will sell thousands of teeshirts and coffeemugs. Like this:
I jest, of course. But "The Bluest Eye" did leave me cold. The narrative was so fragmented and dystopian (to me) that I didn't know what to do with my Sympathy. There are moments of magical prose, but I wanted to root for someone, to feel wronged and condemned on their behalf. But the greatest tragedy here is that a poor little black girl wishes for blue eyes. I see why that's maybe not ideal, but we've all been there. I'm a man of color, and I've wished a million times for pale blue eyes, lighter skin, social security, Privilege. I've been with White women and Brown women and Black women and Yellow women. None of them smell or taste the same, and one is not better than the other. But you do get served quicker when you're dining with a White woman. I can either ruminate on the unfairness, or take more White women to dinner.
Speaking of White girls, much was made of the fact that HBO's zeitgeisty new show, "Girls", does not feature any Black characters. To be fair to writer/director/actor Lena Dunham, she did say she plans to include more Black characters in the second season. But why should she? If art is expression, and if art is personal, why is it so necessary for art to be "inclusive" or "multicultural"? Lena and her friends simply work, live, eat and sleep in a universe populated entirely by White people. I'm down with that.
I'd rather art be honest than token-touting. I grew up on "Friends" and "Seinfeld" and "Frasier", none of which had Black characters. I'm ok with it to the extent that it feels artificial and put-on when I see a Black character on TV shows with a predominantly White cast. When I see a Black dude share a flat with Zooey Deschanel and co in "New Girl", my head screams: "PANDERING!" For three months in Glasgow, I was in the rather amusing position of sharing a big house with an Indian acquaintance, a Nigerian friend, my German girlfriend and her Chinese girlfriend. Here's a curious fact: none of them liked renting with a Black flatmate, not even my Black friend!
The Indian guy would have preferred an all-Indian set up, the Chinese girl would have preferred a fellow Chinese girl but didn't mind White people (I was given a free pass because I was seeing her best friend), my girlfriend would have liked for it to have been just the two of us, or an European household, and my Black friend wanted to live on his own. But none of them were racist. They just had preferences when it came to living arrangements. Admittedly, we were all temporary residents in a foreign country but it does shine a light on racial attitudes, I think.
America, I understand, is much more multi-layered and integrated. They have a Black President who may or may not be a Muslim, a communist or a non-native. That's just how they roll. African Americans are Americans, as are Irish Americans or Norwegian Americans. They are unified by the flag, and pop culture, and language, and the Constitution. Except, they're really not, are they?
Lesley Arfin, one of the writers on "Girls", responded to the criticism about minority-inclusion thusly:
I get it. I really do. It's how I feel about "Slumdog Millionaire". That didn't represent ME, despite my being an Indian man. What are the chances that a billion people don't all live similar lives, right? Guess what, Rajesh Koothrappali from "Big Bang Theory" does not represent me either. Neither does Ranjit from "How I Met Your Mother". So I'm neither slumdog, nor supergeek nor cab driver. I didn't particularly care for either stereotype in the case of the TV shows (though HIMYM could arguably be ironic stereotyping: "as if all Indians in America are cab drivers, pfft!" it's still stereotyping, and I'm not amused), and I remember being enraged and disheartened and just a little ashamed when "Slumdog Millionaire" hit theatres.
But was that a fair reaction? Let me tell you something. It's not easy being an Indian man in a White country. It's just not. There will always be an idiot who thinks it's funny to kick the back of your seat at the cinema while you're watching "This is England", every time the word "Paki" or "nigger" is used on the screen. The last thing we need is more negative stereotyping, more hurtful nicknames. There will always be idiotic movies like "Crash" that perpetuate the myth that racism is somehow circumstantial, and subject to context. It's not. You either respect all individuals, irrespective of caste, color or creed, or you don't. At all times. It's non-negotiable.
But non-inclusion or under-representation of races or communities on TV is not racism. It's artistic licence -and myopic writing, maybe- but it's not racist. Frankly, feeling entitled to any kind of representation (cultural or personal) seems a little arrogant to me - if you want to watch yourself in a movie, make it yourself. Besides, considering most of the writers and producers on American TV are White gentlemen, would you, as a minority community, really want to be represented by these guys? Look at the examples of Indian representation above. Ever picture yourself as any of those guys? Didn't think so.
But Jamal or Koothrappali or Ranjit are not racist caricatures. They're just stereotypes that don't flatter. I wouldn't mind if Indian men were stereotyped as having larger-than-average penises, like African men are, and if this became a recurring theme in pop culture. That, I'd be fine with. I remember reading a Samuel L Jackson interview where he said there were simply no roles for Black men in Hollywood other than "junkie" or "criminal" till the mid-nineties. And then things slowly started changing with movies like "Men in Black", and "Independence Day" (YES, they had to start off with movies set in apocalyptic situations; still, wouldn't you rather play a superhero than a cab driver?) TV, because of it's larger reach, will take just a little longer to level the playing field. It's still hard for many Americans to invite Black people in to their living rooms.
Till that happens however, let's just be thankful for stereotypes that flatter, shall we, Black people? You guys have your freakishly large penises and bootilicious women, and we have supergeeky brains and arranged marriages. And the stereotypes are not going anywhere till America addresses the real problem: the very small number of writers from minority backgrounds. Colored writers. Gay writers. Women writers. And some of them will write stuff that you just don't get, create characters or scenarios that don't represent you, just like writers do now. Like Toni Morrison did. Get over it. You're just not the target demographic. More importantly, let's remember that art is under no obligation to care for Black people or Indian people or gay people, but America is. Governments are. People are.
Icy Highs's Video Recco:
Ashton Kutcher dons a brownface for a Popchips ad. So much for inclusion.