This is PoC at this point.
I’m going to start this off with a quote from Chip Delany, writing in the essay “Racism and Science Fiction” which was published in NYRSF in 1998. It’s online, you can look it up.
“Since I began to publish in 1962, I have often been asked, by people of all colors, what my experience of racial prejudice in the science fiction field has been. Has it been nonexistent? By no means: It was definitely there. A child of the political protests of the ’50s and ’60s, I’ve frequently said to people who asked that question: As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.
We are still a long way away from such statistics.
But we are certainly moving closer.”
N.K.Jemisen, Leslie Jones, John Boyega, Candice Patton
Danai Gurira, Nicole Beharie, Lucy Liu
*We’re going to be hearing a lot about this topic, as next month is Asian American ,and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The Model Minority Myth has often been used as a way to silence Black Americans from speaking out on their own oppression, as it was invented as a way for White racists to escape culpability for their behavior, and ignore systemic racism, by “pretending” to elevate another racial group to favored status. I say “pretending” because White people don’t actually care about Asian Americans either. The MMM has been used as an excuse to ignore social issues within Asian American communities.
The real fallout from the Model Minority Myth for Asian Americans:
Zack isn’t a new breed of Asian-American. It’s just that Zack and the millions of others like him are rarely seen in Hollywood movies. It was 1987 when TIME ran its cover story, “Those Asian American Whiz Kids,” which chronicled the academic prowess and affluence of American-born children of Asian immigrants. It was a flashpoint for Asian-Americans at the time, who became aware of their image as the “model minority” (a term which first appeared in the New York Times in 1966). A follow-up in 2014 revealed things hadn’t changed: “The belief in a blanket Asian-American culture is so thick that it has resulted in confusion when Asian-Americans deviate from the model minority myth,” wrote journalist Jack Linshi. “[T]hose who display that diversity are often perceived as exceptions.”
This misperception that Asian-Americans are naturally gifted and succeed more has been devastating for the psyche; the Counseling and Mental Health Center of the University of Texas at Austin purports Asian-American students are “more likely to seek medical leave, more likely to go on academic probation, and are less likely to graduate in four years.” The university has statistics to illustrate the crippling pressure: 33 percent of Asian-American students drop out of high school. Asian-American students were likely to report stress, loss of sleep, and “feelings of hopelessness” but “were less likely to seek counseling.”
And not all of them have the resources to seek help: 11.8 percent of Asian-Americans live below the poverty line. The model minority monolith ignores Asian-Americans from less-prosperous regions. A national report in 2015 revealed that those of Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong heritage “earned bachelor’s degrees at a lower rate than the national average.” In 2013, The Myth of the Model Minority author Rosalind Chou told NPR “there are consequences to living in a country with a racial hierarchy,” to which Sharon H. Chang argued in ThinkProgress results in complete and total invisibility, even within one’s own minority group.
*This one was a topic that I’d both noticed and didn’t notice. I’m one of those women who are somewhere in the medium brown category, so the only time I ever noticed colorism, was when I noticed how I was treated when I was around girls with lighter skin. I kind of knew, but didn’t, that girls who were darker than me got treated shabbily, but it didn’t really register until I saw the movie Dark Girls a few years ago. I couldn’t imagine how horribly the women in that movie had been treated, and I’m sorry to say I’d remained largely oblivious to it. I’m taking steps to correct my woefully ignorant stance on this issue:
The “Angry Dark Skin Friend”
There’s a common pattern in many forms of black media where there are 2 black female characters who are friends or sisters, one being lighter in skintone, while the other is darker. Even though darkskin and lightskin women form friendships all the time, the way they’re commonly depicted in Black Media is what stands out and perpetuates certain stereotypes:
1. in the film/show/etc, the main character/focus of the 2 is typical the lighter skin woman
2. this makes the darker skin woman the “sidekick”
3. the lighter skin woman is portrayed as prettier, nicer, “classier”, more reserved, and/or overall more likeable and desirable
4. the darker skin woman is portrayed as shady, mean, loud, desperate, abrasive, aggressive, and/or overall less attractive (many would say “ghetto”)
These photos show just a few examples that came to mind…
Coming to America (1988) – The darker skin sister was more desperate for a man, chasing after Prince Akeem, Simi, and even her sister’s ex-fiancé. In the frame of society’s norms, this would be seen as “fast”, “tacky” or lacking in morals, which would therefore, make her less fitting to be a wife.
House Party (1990) – The darker skin friend (AJ Johnson) was the louder, more outgoing friend who was ready to date both Kid & Play, whereas Tisha Campbell’s character was more timid, and ended up being Kid’s “better suited” love interest.
Martin (1992-1997) – Once again, Tisha Campbell is playing the main female character, Gina Waters, and love interest to the main character, Martin Payne. While Gina is depicted as a kinder, classier, professional, “wifey” type, her best friend/assistant Pamela James, played by Tichina Arnold, is depicted as a loud, angry, man-less, berating black woman with “buckshots” and “beedeebees” in her “horse” hair, who was constantly butting heads with Martin.
Proud Family (2001-2005) – Penny, the lighter skin girl, was the main character with Dijonay, the darker skin girl, as the friend/sidekick. Dijonay had a less “traditional” name, as did her many siblings, was portrayed as louder, having more attitude, and was constantly chasing after Sticky, a boy who not only didn’t want her, but preferred the lighter skin friend, Penny.
Rick Ross’ Music Video for “Aston Martin Music” (2010) – In the early portion of the video, we see a young Ricky out on the block with other neighborhood kids, dreaming about owning a luxury car one day. Among the kids there’s 2 young girls, one darker skin and the other lighter skin. While the darker skin girl is quick to berate him and tear down his dreams of ever being that successful, raising her voice and waving her finger in his face, the lighter skin girl is quick to reassure him and support his dream. Once again, this display reaffirms the stereotype of darker skin women being mean, bitter, and angry, while lighter skin women are kinder, sweeter, and happier.
*This person is reminding us all that at the intersection of race and sexual expression, there is a helluva lot of anti-Black racism, in the fandoms. As a straight, cis-gender, woman of color, who is supportive of these issues, I really do have to stay on top of of what these communities are saying if I want to be a good ally. One of the ways I do that is by constantly reading, keeping informed on the subject, through the writings and speeches of those who are are actually experiencing it.
I’m really tired of white LGBT people sanctimoniously preaching to LGBT people of color what constitutes “good” vs “bad” LGBT representation. You expect us to put up with heavily white-dominated, often toxic and racist representation that harms us, in the name of progressiveness, but at the same time you turn around and make fun of our sources of representation and tell us that they aren’t “good” enough or don’t hold up to your racist, exclusive standards.
You’ll tell us to endure racist writing and racist white characters but then mock LGBT characters of color using all sorts of absurd reasons – “there wasn’t enough time for them!” or “they just aren’t realistic!” or “I’m going to rant about how a children’s cartoon is reinforcing bourgeois, imperialist conceptualizations of class”. You never give LGBT people of color a chance to celebrate the few sources of representation they have. You rant endlessly about white LGBT characters being tokenized or killed off, but when the same things happen tenfold to LGBT characters of color, who are also brutalized, fetishized, and sexualized by both their creators and their fandoms, you use all sorts of justifications to whisk away any criticisms LGBT fans of color have.
Stop telling us what to prioritize and what not to like. Stop making us feel bad for finding representation in sources that you might decry as not “good” or “intellectual” or “radical” enough for you. Stop condescendingly informing us that the shows we love are bad but that the shows you love are good using x circular logic.
You’ll celebrate 0.2 seconds of a same-gender couple’s appearance in a children’s movie (like Finding Dory) but if a show begins to flesh out a storyline for LGBT characters of color (as in The Get Down), you’ll say “lol Dizzee only kissed another boy for a couple seconds so it’s terrible representation and you’re an idiot for liking it”. You’ll lament Commander Lexa’s death but justify Poussey Washington’s death. You’ll fawn over Clarke Griffin but claim that Asami Sato is a “bourgeois light-skinned imperialist”. You’ll drool over Connor Walsh but call Magnus Bane “predatory”. You’ll say “lol Barb from Stranger Things is clearly a lesbian because she died” but remain silent when lesbians of color are brutalized or killed off. You’ll claim needing LGBT representation and use that as a reason not to watch shows with people of color in them but when The Get Down and Queen Sugar both have LGBT representation, you won’t say anything about them or give them the time of day. You’ll glorify Carol, which had sex scenes, but claim that The Handmaiden, which also had sex scenes, involved “the male gaze”. You’ll get angry at cishets for expecting us to put up with heternormative media but tell LGBT people of color to shut up when they criticize how white and racist LGBT shows are and how they alienate LGBT people of color.
And I am completely exhausted by this. It is not “divisive” or “whiny” of me to bring this up because guess what? White LGBT people use the exact same arguments against cishets when they talk about how “LGBT representation is unrealistic and blah blah blah”. Yet you turn around and pull the same line of rhetoric when LGBT people of color try and express themselves. You’ll either use our media (all the “foreign” LGBT movies that you watch and consume, all the iconic LGBT characters of color who broke boundaries and stereotypes, all the LGBT celebrities of color who are outspoken and compassionate, etc) without giving credit where credit is due, or you’ll tokenize our media, stamp it as not good enough, and glorify your often racist, exclusive, and frankly bad media and demand that we put up with it. It is immensely hypocritical, not to mention self-righteous.
And as a corollary, to the above, is a reminder that some shows and movies are engaging in little more than performative diversity. They don’t actually care about representation, but they do want the brownie points that come with doing the absolute bare minimum required to support inclusion. (We’re looking at you MCU, Disney, and DCEU!)
There’s such a weird fixation in media about “firsts”. Beauty and the Beast boasting disney’s “first gay scene” is the one I’m thinking about in particular, and Power Rangers with the “first gay superhero”, and in both cases it’s a blink and you’ll miss it thing, something that maintains plausible deniability of queerness within the film itself, but establishing explicit queerness in everything outside the film. We know Lefou is gay because the interview told us he was in disney’s first gay scene.
And most of these discussions of firsts devolve into which first is first. Bill gets announced as the first gay companion on doctor who, and then follows the argument of whether Jack counts as companion, whether he was the first pansexual companion while Bill is the first gay companion, whether Amy or Clara was ever canonically bisexual and should that be a factoring in calculating firsts as well. (I remember a similar argument going on when Martha was announced as the first black companion, and people were like “but Mickey?” And there’s definitely commentary waiting about contentious Firsts and characters of color, but my white ass has nothing incisive to offer on that front except the hope we are kinder and better towards Bill than we were towards Martha.) And meanwhile, here is Bill, a black gay female companion, and while that fact has definitely not gotten lost, it is still very very cool and good that she is the companion even if she is not the Absolute First.
The language of Firsts is everywhere when you start looking for it, the idea that this show/movie/video game is doing something New Never Before Done Whoa Look At The Unprecedented Gay. And when this trend worries me, it’s because:
1) it gives off a strong whiff of performative representation, where the representation isn’t as important as people knowing you’re doing it
1a) the corollary being that the emphasis on First First First makes me worried that creators are not interested in Second Third Fourth. That having had the First *spins wheel, throws dart* Lesbian Asian Marvel character (a guest star in three episodes of the Defenders, maybe fifteen minutes, every gif set celebrating her has the same three quotes because that’s all there is), they are now exempted from every having to write a Second Lesbian Asian Marvel character. Because they already did that. Didn’t you see the article in Entertainment Weekly? It was a very big deal.
2) the trend of press on the First Gay Thing tends to vastly outscale the actually gayness, which traps us in an endless loop of hype and disappointment (versus Dumbledoring where the gayness is revealed retroactively for a previously ambiguous character or relationship, and it’s a weird combination of vindication because you thought they might be gay, surprise because you didn’t expect them to be gay, and disappointment because why didn’t the work just say they were gay)
And this, even more than the rest of this post, is a personal grievance but 3) queer fandom has spent decades finding representation in subtext, in coding, in wishful thinking and disciplined literary analysis of the text. This whole First thing seems come with a subtext that every other character who had significant ambiguous relationships, was flamboyant or butch, was in anyway queercoded? Not queer. This here is the first gay thing, and we’re very brave for being the first to have done it. Gay characters must formally come out to count.
Putting aside explicitly queer characters (which exist! Which have a history that creators and fans are welcome to build upon instead of thinking they have to invent gay representation every time they launch a franchise), queer history and queer art has always entailed writing and reading in between the lines. Which requires there be lines. If the new trend is unwritten in text, out and proud in press, what does that offer? I’m happy that Explicitly Confirmed Queer is a thing that’s happening, I very much am, but if a gay child who has never read a think-piece cannot recognize themself in your Brave Unprecedented Gay Character because they didn’t read your interview with the av club, then what use is that character? What was the point? What have you actually contributed to us?
And finally, a clear illustration of the difference between racebending and whitewashing, since some o’y’all seem confused on the issues. (Also, I thought this article was really cute! Tag me! I’m the raisin in the bottom left corner.)
This is a jar full of major characters
Actually it is a jar full of chocolate covered raisins on top of a dirty TV tray. But pretend the raisins are interesting and well rounded fictional characters with significant roles in their stories.
We’re sharing these raisins at a party for Western Storytelling, so we get out two bowls.
Then we start filling the bowls. And at first we only fill the one on the left.
This doesn’t last forever though. Eventually we do start putting raisins in the bowl on the right. But for every raisin we put in the bowl on the right, we just keep adding to the bowl on the left.
And the thing about these bowls is, they don’t ever reset. We don’t get to empty them and start over. While we might lose some raisins to lost records or the stories becoming unpopular, but we never get to just restart. So even when we start putting raisins in the bowl on the right, we’re still way behind from the bowl on the left.
And time goes on and the bowl on the left gets raisins much faster than the bowl on the right.
Until these are the bowls.
Now you get to move and distribute more raisins. You can add raisins or take away raisins entirely, or you can move them from one bowl to the other.
This is the bowl on the left. I might have changed the number of raisins from one picture to the next. Can you tell me, did I add or remove raisins? How many? Did I leave the number the same?
You can’t tell for certain, can you? Adding or removing a raisin over here doesn’t seem to make much of a change to this bowl.
This is the bowl on the right. I might have changed the number of raisins from one picture to the next. Can you tell me, did I add or remove raisins? How many? Did I leave the number the same?
When there are so few raisins to start, any change made is really easy to spot, and makes a really significant difference.
This is why it is bad, even despicable, to take a character who was originally a character of color and make them white. But why it can be positive to take a character who was originally white and make them a character of color.
The white characters bowl is already so full that any change in number is almost meaningless (and is bound to be undone in mere minutes anyway, with the amount of new story creation going on), while the characters of color bowl changes hugely with each addition or subtraction, and any subtraction is a major loss.
This is also something to take in consideration when creating new characters. When you create a white character you have already, by the context of the larger culture, created a character with at least one feature that is not going to make a difference to the narratives at large. But every time you create a new character of color, you are changing something in our world.
I mean, imagine your party guests arrive
Oh my god they are adorable!
And they see their bowls
But before you hand them out you look right into the little black girls’s eyes and take two of her seven raisins and put them in the little white girl’s bowl.
I think she’d be totally justified in crying or leaving and yelling at you. Because how could you do that to a little girl? You were already giving the white girl so much more, and her so little, why would you do that? How could you justify yourself?
But on the other hand if you took two raisins from the white girl’s bowl and moved them over to the black girl’s bowl and the white girl looked at her bowl still full to the brim and decided your moving those raisins was unfair and she stomped and cried and yelled, well then she is a spoiled and entitled brat.
And if you are adding new raisins, it seems more important to add them to the bowl on the right. I mean, even if we added the both bowls at the same speed from now on (and we don’t) it would still take a long time before the numbers got big enough to make the difference we’ve already established insignificant.
And that’s the difference between whitewashing POC characters and making previously white characters POC. And that’s why every time a character’s race is ambiguous and we make them white, we’ve lost an opportunity.
*goes off to eat her chocolate covered raisins, which are no longer metaphors just snacks*