Bombay, Bombay, India
December 31
Icy Highs is the writerly alter ego of Tharun James Jimani, author of 90s pop culture novel, 'Cough Syrup Surrealism' (Fingerprint! Publishing, 2013). He has lived in Chennai, Glasgow, Dusseldorf, London and Singapore over the last twelve years, and is- in Animal Planet parlance- a 'serial immigrant', and averse to nesting. He writes to keep the moss from gathering.


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MAY 4, 2012 7:41AM

Should art really care about Black people?

Rate: 15 Flag

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:  


'Tuesdays with Toni': 11am, Tuesdays.   

When we all know revolutions are led by people who look more like this: 


Halle Berry would never bring a sweater to a catfight. 

Or by people who can hold iconic poses that will sell thousands of teeshirts and coffeemugs. Like this:


Erykah Badu. Yes, BEADS. Bite me, Che. 

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! 


"New Girl": "It's like there's a wall between us." 

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.   


Big Bang Theory: And then there was Brown.

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.    

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I read "The Bluest Eye" many years ago. I don't remember much of the story, so it must not have made much of an impression on me. Maybe I will read it again.

"But none of them were racist. They just had preferences when it came to living arrangements"
This is great...not racist, just preferences. I have dated men from other races, but I ended up with a white blue eyed man....that doesn't make me a racist, just my preference.
art does have an obligation to be open to all artists which is to say the voices of all artists. Art seeks a universal communication but art now includes mediums not only of the decade but of the day and the moment so there are eddy's and trapped debris unaware that they are small moments in an infinitely greater though slower circle
Speaking of White girls, much was made of the fact that HBO's zeitgeisty new show, "Girls", does not feature any Black character

This kills me as they do this on my soap opera.. Either none or just send in some token african americans. We are a world of all colours, lets get with the program people.
Well done.
Being a tall, somewhat attractive, blond, female, I could discuss stereotypes all day. Blond jokes are still deemed funny. Ha, ha... Oh, wait, I'm not laughing, am I.

People are always going to have preferences based on appearance as well as personality but I agree that we need to respect each other as people first.

And personally, I have found natural blonds to be scary smart. Maybe that's why people make fun of us.
I read the New York Times write up on this issue last weekend and was hoping someone would blog about here at OS.

Not to beat a dead horse, BUT Hispanics have been in this country longer than just about any other ethnic group except for American Indians, and where are all the Latinos in films, TV, magazines, etc.? Yet, my husband, who is white, and I have noticed the increasing use of Indians (from India) as the token brown people in everything from commercials to sitcoms. They're everywhere these days! And Indians (from India) haven't been in the U.S. in great numbers for very long. So, if anything, Indians (from India) have made more progress, and more rapidly, than other ethnic groups. Sometimes it feels like Indians (from India) are taking over the world! :)

In fact, I've even noticed Indians (from India) playing LATINOS in films and on TV, as if Hollywood were trying to say that one brown person is as good as the next!

You are spot on about the dearth of brown and black writers in Hollywood. That's why we see so many wooden, one-dimensional, over-the-top stereotypes of ethnic groups.

Ever notice how all of the depictions of white people in film and on TV are always so squeaky clean, pretty, upper middle class, educated, well spoken and well groomed? A white friend told me she was shocked when she watched the film "The Fighter," which portrayed whites who were grittier and less attractive.

I told her, "Now you know how we feel."
Racism exists in nearly every human being everywhere in the world. A big chunk of it is learned behavior and a lot of it is cultural conditioning. In the PRC my Chinese friends and I were out in a park one weekend when a four year old kid pointed to me and laughed out loud as he called me a very insulting name for Caucasians that literally translates as "hairy or dirty barbarian."

His mother yanked on his arm and shushed him, but I laughed and pointed back at him and repeated the phrase. He stomped his foot, defiantly shook his head, pointed back to me and said, "No, you are the hairy barbarian!"

I laughed, got down on one knee so I could look him straight in the eye, pointed to myself, repeated the insult and extended my hand to him as I said in my limited Chinese, "Silly boy."

He giggled shook my hand, we both laughed, did some high fives and as I dismissed his mother's apologies we all went on our way.
My Chinese friends asked me if I understood what he'd said and I laughed, "He called me a hairy barbarian, which is supposed to be a great insult to Westerners; but, when you consider our history here in China, 'hairy barbarian' really let's us off easy."
Art is made by artists who make what they are called to make. Toni Morrison creates characters with great beauty and dignity, memorable unforgettable people. Look at her. She is exactly that herself. Talk show host, so not. She weaves stories of dreams and allegory, a mix of poetry and prose. It sounds like that's not for you. Why think of her as a Black Writer? Do all artists have to create from a racial, ethnic, even gender perspective? It can be illuminating and validating when they do, but no less than when they don't.

BTW, maybe try Toni again sometime. Bluest Eye is a good book, Song of Solomon and Sula, to my mind better.
Well, I grew up thinking I was white, then I moved to northern Europe and found out I wasn't as white as Northern Europeans (yeah I was almost refused entry at the disco then they saw I was with my very blond husband and grudgingly let me in), then I moved to the Caribbean where people are pretty cool about their own and your ethnicity and just ask straight out "what races are you?" because they're interested and then they'll tell you their lineage and decide you're 5th cousins.

I've been a privileged stranger in strange lands for so long that I no longer have to think in terms of race. Education is an equalizer, an open mind is another equalizer, but nothing levels the playing field or makes an impression on the small minded hoi polloi better than money. I divide my world into two camps: people impressed by status and money and my friends.
My parents said to judge peoples actions but not them. The exception that makes the rule is to ask yourself the one and only valid question of human judgement, "In your own honest opinion, is this person mostly a good person or mostly a bad person?" No other factors such as race, economics, or education matters when choosing your friends or other people with whom you choose to share your life. I try to live up to that teaching every day.

Thanks for the thoughtful piece sir - Duke
I was watching one of the old Charlie Chan movies on Netflix the other day, where the put prostheses on Sidney Toler's eyes to make him look Chinese. Interestingly Benson Fong, a real ethnic Chinese, would play his son. I also remember Marlon Brando with those prostheses playing a Japanese in a movie. It's like it was ok to have a white person play someone of another race because it made it more acceptable somehow. By and large I think white Americans are so insulated and isolated from the realization they're not the only thing in this world, but I could be making a sweeping generalization. And, I grew up among white people who were more like the ones in " Winters Bone", not the middle class ones popular on tv at the time.
I think New Girl got better once they began featuring Hannah Simone (Cece) more frequently, because ... Hannah Simone - wow.

You address an important topic. People have preferences. Someone could (and probably has many, many times) do a doctoral thesis as to why The Cosby Show has been the only massively successful American TV program featuring an all-black cast. You mention the preponderance of white, male TV writers. That group is dominated by writers who either grew up or, at least, went to college in the Northeast U.S. or Southern California. It can be painful when they try to portray a character from "flyover" middle America.

We Americans who watch HIMYM know that Ranjit doesn't represent Indians in America. Indians in America are all doctors. Except in big cities where some own restaurants. Personally, with the exception of my internist, of course, I've had few interactions with people of Indian descent (Hannah, call me, please). Hence, I'm always disappointed when our business/conversation is finished that they don't break out into a glossy Bollywood production number.
First of all, regarding your:

"as if all Indians in America are cab drivers, pfft!" it's still stereotyping, and I'm not amused."

Dude, that is a rediculous statement. Any sensible person knows that ALL can drivers are either Nigerian or Pakistani. The Indians are busy working at convenience stores or behind Motel 6 counters.

I also question your assertion that Indians are treated worse by the "arts effect" than others. Try growing up queer and Sicilian! (actually the queer part was fine because all Sicilian men are Joe Pesci wannabes). What you went through was no worse than having to hear a constant stream of BAD "Goodfather" imitations; you were never embarrassed to tears when your girl friend refused to let you teach her how to drive cuz the car was gonna blow up nor did your teachers announce to the class, every time you earned a good grade, that he gave it to you only because he didn't want to wake up with a horse's head in his bed.

;). (and yeah, this was SLIGHTLY tongue in cheek).

P.S. and no matter WHAT you say, I still think Sridevi is HAWT!
How did you feel about "Outsourced", the TV show? Personally, it was one of my faves and sadly it didn't get renewed. They played up the stereotypes by personally busting them, and had some really subversive characters overall- which was why I found it refreshing. I watch a lot of BBC tv, and was initially surprised at how often interracial and openly gay couples were represented (now catching on here in the US), and found out that there were cultural requirements for TV there to have positive representation. Maybe it was or wasn't normal, but it was a change for my American eyes at first. When it comes to art, hopefully we care about genuine experience, which would be hardpressed to translate to television (except maybe some PBS) and even less so with main stream movies. I am glad, however, that "token" or not, multiculturalism has become more normal on tv. And Winston's character has really become far more interesting now that he is not fully in the token black guy box.
My son, who is a black Hollywood actor, and I were discussing this very issue regarding "Girls." His take is that political correctness is becoming the death of verisimilitude. There are circumstances, he says, under which a room full of people will be all the same race or culture in real life, so why does it have to be evenly divided among all races on TV or in the movies? To me, it is just as ludicrous to believe that Tyler Perry can do all his movies with all-black casts. That's not the way life gets lived in America, so why pretend it does?

Stereotypes are not good, even when they are (supposedly) positive. Black men feel pressure about the size of their penises because of the expectations created by the stereotype. Some Americans of Asian descent feel offended by the expectation (and almost dismissal, in a strange way) that they are all intellectually superior to other Americans.

Thanks for another stimulating post, icy.

Halle Berry would never bring a sweater to a catfight.

Damn right she wouldn't!! She'd bring a Super Nuclear Cannon!!!! YEAH FOR HALLE BERRY!!

What? :D

Bravo, sir...bravo!

(And just for the record, I enjoyed "Sula" much more than "The Bluest Eye"--you should check that one out some time...)
I very much enjoyed this and as a wanna-be artist I enjoy the entire realm of the art world. Nothing real should be judged by TV, sorry but in my opinion nothing is anywhere near REAL. And yes, being included is about money and it goes on and on. Being genuine is what people should be about and concerned with, instead of credentials, color, clout. Yes, it is not a perfect world. I am white but a missionary's kid from Africa and I got called many 'not nice' names when I came to America as an 11 yr old kid. I had such a hard time wrapping my mind around predjudice, didn't understand it then and don't now. Good write, lots of info, and I am about to reread, thanks for this.