All posts by Kendra James

[Thursday Throwback] Brown and Out of Town: a POC Traveler’s Guide to Racism

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

Author’s note: Before anyone jumps all over me, I use “brown” here as a general term for people of African or indigenous American descent, not solely South Asians or Central Americans, though the article discusses issues for all POC travelers, not just the ones with darker skin.

Ah, Madrid.

I had decided that for spring break in 2005, instead of going to Memphis as planned, I’d take a week-long trip to Paris and Madrid instead. After all, in a weird twist of fate, the plane tickets to Europe were only about 100 dollars more than those I had bought to go to the place Elvis and I both called home. I figured as I could speak, read, and understand Spanish and French, I’d be fine. I’d been to Paris before, and loved it, and had heard awesome things about Madrid from my friends, so I thought, “Why not? Just breathe, and take a chance.” So I did, though I wasn’t exactly prepared for the less than warm reception in one of the liveliest cities in the Iberian Peninsula.

Paris was no problem, possibly due in part to the city’s expressed love (read: borderline fetishizing) of black folks (Josephine Baker, anyone?) or the running assumption that I was Moroccan/generally North African and not a black American. Most people just treated me like I was French, before I opened my mouth, of course (despite my perfect French accent, my occasional pause to find vocabulary words from my high school French mental database was a dead give-a-way). No one was rude to me or my friend with whom I went out on occasion (who is half white American, half indigenous Mexican, and clearly “of color”).

Madrid, on the other hand, completely did me in.

On a super basic level, I wasn’t a big fan of the traditional Spanish food, and, instead, flocked to the numerous Middle Eastern restaurants like water in a desert mirage. And though I was only there for three days, these little hole-in-the-wall, family-run eateries ended up being my surrogate safe havens as walking around on the street proved, well, difficult. I would say the city, overall, was far from receptive. While I understood having a pride in being Spanish, or a Mardileño, to be more specific, what I did not understand was why that translated into racism. I faced constant stares, and I mean constant, many of which were steeped in anger or confusion, despite my more than proper attire (I was not one of those fanny pack-wearing, head buried in a map, incapable-of-speaking-the-native-language types of tourists, trust me). I was cat-called, a lot, and though I was conditioned to that from having lived in NYC for four years at that point, what I hadn’t been exposed to was the overtly sexual racist epithets thrown my way (none of which I will repeat here). I tried to search the eyes of other people of color for an explanation. People of Asian descent seemed happy, even moreso there than in Paris. And people clearly from Africa also seemed OK, though I am sure their black skin proved problematic at times (look no further than the Madrid soccer related racism or even the recent Formula One racing incident in Barcelona). It was the somewhat racially ambiguous brown folks who seemed to run into trouble.

El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and other phentoypically outcast Latin American immigrants (along with black Africans) held lower-echelon jobs and noticeably received stares and a little street harassment as well. Their spoken Spanish was a reminder of Spain’s colonial past that history had erased, glossed over, or simply euphemized, much like textbooks of Japan, the United States, or any nation, and their appearance even more so—typically indigenous and/or African features blending with those of the Spanish conquistadores and settlers of yore rendering many of the Latin American immigrants who had come to Spain in search of work easy to spot. I noticed that Caribbean Latinos and mulatos caught hell too, receiving the same sets of glaring eyes that I did when on public transportation or simply andando a pié.

To put it nicely, it was an awkward existence I led, at best, ceasing my outdoor activities more or less once the sun set because I had been propositioned more than once in the day time, and didn’t want to risk full on sexual assault at night due to my having been assumed to be a prostitute on account of my skin color. The hostel employees (all of Latin American descent) and the falafel bar owners loved me, but they were about the only ones in Madrid who made me feel somewhat human. On the cab ride to the airport, a place where I would later be racially profiled (read: separated from a line of a ton of other people, searched, forced to weigh my carry-on, a small backpack, and made to pay 60 Euros for it being a few kilos overweight on account of an art book I had bought for a friend from the Museo del Prado!), I vowed never to come back and counted down the minutes until I’d return to Paris for my departure to New York.

But during this cab ride, I learned a few things to which I was not initially privy prior to going to Madrid. The cab driver asked me how I liked Madrid, to which I replied, “I liked it, but I don’t think it liked me too much,” which led to our discussing (no kidding) race relations in Spain. The driver, born and raised in Spain, offered a perspective I had not fully considered. He mentioned the abject poverty and limited knowledge of Spanish that plagued African immigrant communities, and in many Spaniards’ minds, the state, as they were paying taxes to support unwelcome refugees. He also discussed the cause for my frequent run-ins with men who had less than Puritan intentions in their approach: that many women from the Dominican Republic and North Africa became prostitutes in Madrid to make ends meet. His explanation for the differing treatment of Asians vs. people of indigenous or African descent boiled down to the ability to assimilate.

“They come here already speaking Spanish,” he said. “. . . and with money” he added. He didn’t agree with how I was treated, and noted that I “seemed fine,” but was sure to note that “a lot of Madrileños aren’t ready for that kind of change. The young people, maybe, but their parents and people my age, not so much. They think they are pure, and forget about the years the Moors were here. They want things to stay the same. Come back in ten years, and maybe things will be better.”

Though I was back in Paris a few hours later, I thought about what he said for a while after that. While comfortably nestled in the plush leather-upholstered seats of the Swiss Air flight back to New York, I wondered if my little trip to Spain would have been different if I possessed a lower level of melanin, or even if I looked noticeably more African instead of bearing an appearance that confused people. Upon returning to the United States, the same friends who had recommended Madrid felt a tinge of regret for not having mentioned “the racism thing” or at least not having forewarned how it may have affected me. In retrospect, they all noted, as whites, they had never thought about it. They had only heard stories, those they had selectively compartmentalized in a place far away in the back of their brains because they didn’t really have to worry about it in Europe or in the United States in the same way, say, someone visually different from the majority would.

The experience and the discussions I had in the aftermath of my time in Madrid made me reflect on the privileges, or lack thereof, we have while traveling. Though I had a bad experience in Madrid, that is not to say every person of color has a comparable story. In fact, I know a few black women who loved Madrid and who have gone back several times, stating that they experienced a few incidents of racism, but mainly that it was more an issue of mistaken national identity than anything else. I think, too, of what the cab driver expressed in relation to his (and, arguably, the city’s) impression of Asians. Even my white friends had expressed a considerable sense of alienation in Madrid at times, not due to language, but mainly in relation to cultural differences or even physical ones (being super tall or Nordic in appearance, you name it). In looking back on the experience and after hearing those of others, I was able to put things more into perspective.

Even I am “privileged” (in a physical sense) in some locations, notably northern and central Brazil, where my appearance did not garner unreasonable attention, many assuming that I was just “one of them.” I even thought of my experiences in the United States. I didn’t feel as if my physically assigned racial characteristics made me stand out in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, whereas my white or Asian-American friends expressed extreme discomfort on account of stares and even statements geared toward them. I find myself losing sight of how powerful my appearance can be at the right place and at the right time, but never forget how much of a burden it can be in other situations.

In reflecting on my previous travel experiences as I prepare for an upcoming trip to Portugal, I began thinking about how many additional things I have to consider as a woman, and, in particular, a person of color before I travel. It’s amazing how many things travel guides leave out when it comes to the treatment a person of color may receive in a certain country, how to react to incidents of racism, or even whether or not what you are experiencing has nothing to do with race and all to do with cultural miscommunication. Though maybe I should expect it by now as many of the travel guide writers are white. Then again, only white people travel, right? (kidding, though on average, whites DO travel more widely and frequently than blacks, at least.. . though, given, this could be due to a series of factors that would lead me into an entirely new post, so I’ll shelve this for now).

Besides consulting the Minority Travel Forum on Rick Steve’s Graffiti Wall with posts from travelers of color (including people involved in interracial relationships, who have adopted children of a different race/ethnicity from their own, etc), which I highly recommend, it’s worth considering the following:

1. The travel guide will most likely leave out information about the reception, or lack thereof, you may experience as a person of color. This includes common words/sayings with which you may not be familiar, but that are actually not racist (i.e. if someone in the Dominican Republic were to call you “negrito” or “indio,” it would not be meant as a racial slur, rather a term of endearment based on your skin color and/or heritage).

2. Expect the unexpected, and don’t go into the situation assuming your experience will match those of your white peers and/or friends and family of color. Your command of the native language, body language, familiarity with the culture, style of dress, etc can alter how you are perceived and treated.

3. Don’t always assume racism is at play. As a result of the history of the United States, people of color and whites alike have been rendered into sensitivity machines, often analyzing things at a level of sociological sophistication that may not be of issue in some other countries. Also, bear in mind that every nation has its own respective history and deals with race and ethnicity accordingly. Don’t attempt to color their history with your own. Think of these things before you jump the gun.

4. Find out what you can do if you ARE a victim of racism. There are several anti-racist groups (i.e. SOS Racismo in Spain and Portugal) that hold workshops and do outreach based on race-related issues. Sites like this may be worth checking out prior to taking a trip.

5. Reconcile your prior experiences with those of the present. The United States and/or your home country more likely than not has witnessed acts of racism, many of which continue. Don’t assume that it’s only the country you are visiting that has problems. If we think of the Amadou Diallo case or the Jena 6 or Vincent Chin, the U.S. is a scary and ugly place for POC too. It doesn’t make racism here or elsewhere any better, but it definitely makes you realize that every country has its problems, so you can’t let a few instances of racism frighten you away.

6. If traveling by yourself and feel threatened as a result of your race/ethnicity, try to remove yourself from the situation, if possible and find a place where you feel more welcome. You may even want to try to get to know other people like yourself in that country, depending on the duration of your stay, to get tips on places to avoid, how to behave in the case of a threat, etc.

7. Do your homework. Before traveling anywhere, ask around and look up information detailing the experiences of people like yourself. As I mentioned before, their experience may not entirely mirror the one in which you are about to partake, but it may offer some helpful advice.

8. Have a good time, despite any adversity you may encounter. If anything, I learned to laugh at the experience in Madrid in retrospect, and in a weird case of Stockholm syndrome, have considered going back one day, though with a friend this time. If you have spent the money to go somewhere else, you might as well try to get as much out of it as you can!

Thursday Throwback: The Dead, River Spirits, & a Magic Hat [Racialigious]

This Article was originally published on July 30, 2009

by Guest Contributor Alex Felipe originally published at AlexFelipe.com

Filipinos don’t celebrate Halloween, they instead have a day dedicated to the dead on 1 November, the Araw ng mga Patay [Day of the Dead]. It’s a holiday that is the perfect metaphor for Philippine spirituality: an imported Catholic holiday that hints at an animist past.

Having grown up in Canada I only just recently learned about this tradition, and I experienced my first Araw ng mga Patay only last year. I went to go visit my grandfathers graves, they had both died during the 90s and been brought back to the Phils.

The holiday is an odd one seen through the lens of a Filipino raised in Canada. Families head out to the cemetery to clean the tombs of relatives, bring food, flowers, light candles, and pray. But more or less it just seems like a day where everyone decides to have a family picnic—a picnic that just so happens to be in an insanely crowded cemetery.

It’s an odd sight to be honest. Drunk men playing cards on grave markers next to a family singing karaoke on a portable machine next to parents praying the rosary for a recently deceased child.

Strangely enough, it’s a generally mirthful holiday. There are fast food tents set up in the cemetery just for that day: McDonalds, Jollibee, Greenwich Pizza, Ando’s Chicken, and more—all in the middle of a cemetery.

To my foreign influenced eyes, this holiday seems light and fun; a nice way to remember the past, but in the Phils—despite how casual the atmosphere is—there is a real fear that to not pay respect at the grave of a family member would have severe repercussions from the spirit world.

It’s moments like these that really help remind me of our people’s animist past, and the very real connection to the spirit world that doesn’t exist here in Canada.

 

Tala-andig pre-sacrifice ritual. Miarayon, Mindanao
This past lives on despite, or perhaps more accurately, within the country’s Christian framework. As one Tala-andig tribal leader told me in during a visit to their community in 2005, “In our political system we have to go through channels–barangay captain up to the President. You can’t just talk to the President, first you have to go to the local barangay captain, then to the mayor, then the congressman, etc. It’s the same way with our beliefs. We start with the spirits and work our way up to [the Christian] God.”

I am particularly fascinated by our living family mythology. As a Filipino, even a Filipino in Canada, all our family histories are ripe with this folklore. I am proud to even have a little of it attached to me.

I’d like to share some of these stories with you, old stories that sometimes seem a world away, and make me nostalgic for a place I can’t remember, for spirits that I cannot recall…

My great-grandfather, my paternal lola’s father, was apparently a Spaniard (don’t hold it against me). My Mommy Es (as we call our grandma) tells me that he was an older man in his 50s when he married my great-grandmother who was 18. His name was Gabriel and he was a soldier with Spain when he was younger.

My grandmother didn’t know him very well, he died before she became a teen and he was stern man who only really interacted with his kids to discipline them. One thing she did remember about him was his magic hat.

This hat was one of the family anting-antings [magic talisman]. They were often amulets worn around the neck (most commonly they gave the wearer invincibility against a specific weapon), but they could be anything—in this case, a hat.

Mommy Es first told me about the magic hat in my teens when I was a massive comic book geek and it caught my imagination enough that I have never forgotten the story, and have never forgotten the sense of loss I felt for not having it—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

So he had a magic hat. This hat was said to have an amazing power: he could use it to transport himself anywhere on earth by simply putting on the hat and thinking about the place. It had an unusual caveat: it would only work if the wearer used it in a place where he was out of sight from watching eyes.

I was an atheist as a teen, and I didn’t really believe in its powers, but it intrigued me. Did one have to be completely out of sight or just have no one watching? How far was its range? Did you have to image the place so well that you couldn’t go anywhere that you hadn’t already been? And of course: why didn’t he use it to be a superhero?

The hat was lost during the war with Japan, after my great-grandfather had died. When my Lola’s family was forced to run to flee into the mountains it was left behind. I have no idea how such an important piece of magic could be left behind, I mean you’d think this hat would have been pretty damned useful during a war.

I, of course, also wondered how my Lola could believe in such an outlandish story—and she really believes it was real. She would tell me about how he walk into a room and just disappear or just appear out of no where when she thought she was alone. It’s all just a little creepy if you ask me—knowing that he was a Spaniard in a Philippines just recently free of Spain—to think that he would just appear and disappear randomly through my grandma’s childhood memories.

 

A statue of a child Jesus behind a young man playing a video game. [Manila]
In the mountains my grandmother had a more dangerous run in with another creature of Filipino mythology.

Throughout my life I have always known my Lola to be afraid of rivers and creeks, it originates from the War and the time she was attacked by a river spirit. She tells the story of how she was in her early teens and went out to the river to fetch water. Usually one of the older family members did it but she felt she was old enough. Her family later found her by the river near dead.

They attribute the incident to a run-in with a river spirit that she forgot to ask permission from.

The theme of river spirits continued with me, but in an opposite direction. I’ve always loved small forest rivers and creeks. I can sit by them for hours.

My maternal Lola, we called her ‘Nanay’ [which means “mother”] loves to tell the story of how when I was a toddler I was always running away from home. At first they would get worried (I have no idea how a baby less than two could run away from home, but that’s the story), but they would always find me in the same place. I would run to the creek in the wooded area near our home and play with my friends the duende.

Duende were mischievous spirits that inhabited the land. While the name is Spanish, the spirits are Filipino, stemming from our animist tradition. Duende were mischievous and often played pranks on people. They could also be very dangerous if offended, and they were easily offended (as my Mommy Es’ story shows). But if you were good to them, they were very protective of you.

Nanay would say how she would often find me there and she would see strange things: like how I would apparently be playing with spirits she couldn’t see, she would see me splash water at an invisible friend–and water would splash back.

She marveled at that friendship as duende were usually creatures to be avoided. In stories even those they befriended usually found themselves in serious trouble. I’ve always loved that connection, and when I went back to the Phils to discover that the creek was gone and the area cemented over and covered in homes I felt a real sadness and I truly hoped that my mythological friends were ok.

To this day when I walk through forests, or come to a creek I would bow my head and greet the spirits. And to this day I’ve always felt safe in wild areas—I’ve had quite a few close calls, but I’ve always come out ok.

Now I’m not saying I believe these stories to be literal truth, but there is wonderful metaphorical truth to be found in mythology—it’s the truth that cannot be spoken of in literal terms, the truth that is within all religions, the truth that’s corrupted by those that see only words but can’t grasp their meaning.

One Filipino wrote on an online criticism of the Araw ng mga Patay holiday “I will never understand the Filipino fascination with the dead, much less their superstitious beliefs concerning the dead among us. I prefer to deal with the land of the living. After all, it’s the living people that need our help as we can do nothing for the dead.”

nullI disagree, many of our problems in the Phils and as Filipinos (especially those of us raised outside the homeland) comes from this disconnect between the present and the past, tradition and modernity. In our headlong rush to become equal to the West [whatever that may mean], we are quickly discarding our mythologies instead of allowing them to evolve. This stupidity is an attempt to strip us of our relationship to the land, each other, and the past.

But these stories live in us whether we want them to or not because our parents, our grandparents, and our families have lived with these stories and they have influenced how they act and how they have raised us.

Tradition is not a static creature. It lives and evolves within the people they inhabit. We cannot remove ourselves from it any more than we can try to remove our blood from our bodies. We can definitely try, and I know too many that do, but the sad result helps neither the living nor the dead.


(all images: ©2005-07 alex felipe / All Rights Reserved)

Quoted: On Mental Health in Korea

According to research by the department of Family Medicine at Hallym University, some 60 percent of people who attempt suicide are suffering from depression. Yet too many people in South Korea have outdated views of psychological illness. Many think that when someone is suicidal he simply lacks a strong will to live; he’s weak. There’s little sympathy or interest in probing below the surface.

And it’s not easy to get therapy for depression in South Korea, where there is still strong societal resistance to psychological treatment. Kim Eo-su, a professor of psychiatry at Yonsei Severance Hospital, told me: “One out of three depression patients stops mid-treatment. One of the biggest issues is that many patients think they can overcome depression on their own through a religious life or through exercise.”

Many people who seek psychiatric treatment are afraid of doctors keeping records. There was a rumor going around recently among married women that having a record of treatment or medication for depression could mean losing custody of your children if your husband were ever to sue for divorce.

Satisfactory explanations for the root causes of the epidemic are hard to come by. For the elderly, many analysts cite the breakdown of the traditional family unit, and the poor economy. Among the youth, the pressure over college entrance examinations is often blamed. And for the middle-aged, it’s uncertainty about the economy. But no matter what the age, too many South Koreans see suicide as a viable escape from the stresses of modern life. That attitude has to change.

South Korea’s Struggle With Suicide, by Young-Ha Kim; April 2, 2014

Thursday Throwback: Classic Film Review: Imitation of Life

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

This review was originally posted on January 12, 2009

If there’s a classic film on race that gives “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” a run for its money, it’s 1959’s “Imitation of Life.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film, which stars Lana Turner and Juanita Moore. There’s no denying that this film is chock full of stereotypes and relegates its black characters to the sidelines—even on the DVD cover. So, why today is this Douglas Sirk film still regarded as ab fab? A few reasons come to mind—both shallow and serious.

For starters, Lana Turner’s wardrobe is to die for. Mahalia Jackson sings her ass off, and the acting in this melodrama reaped Academy Award nominations. To boot, the movie’s emphasis on mother-daughter relationships gives it mass appeal. Mix in a couple of failed romances and an untimely death, and you have all the ingredients needed for a tearjerker.

“Imitation of Life” inspired a 2001 R.E.M. song of the same name and the 2002 film “Far from Heaven.” Also, in ’02, a scene from the film was featured in Eminem’s star-making vehicle, “8 Mile.” Its enduring popularity made it no surprise when the film debuted on DVD in 2003.

The Lana Turner version of “Imitation of Life” is a remake of the 1934 film of the same name starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, based on the book Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst. (Both films were released together in a DVD set in 2008.) In the first film, white actress Colbert and black actress Beavers hawk a pancake recipe together. In the 1959 version, the focus here, Lana Turner (Lora Meredith) runs into Juanita Moore (Annie Johnson) on Coney Island after their daughters become playmates.

At first, Lora has no idea that Annie is the mother of little Sarah Jane. “How long have you taken care of her?” she asks Annie. Annie is brown-skinned, and Sarah Jane is “light, bright, damn near white,” as the saying goes.

Lora looks like she’s going to crap her pants when she learns that Annie isn’t SJ’s mammy, prompting Annie to tell her that Sarah Jane’s dad is “practically white.” This explanation is good enough for Lora, who likely would’ve needed smelling salts had SJ’s dad been actually white instead of practically so. Still, there’s no way for us to know his race for sure because he took off before Sarah Jane was born, leaving Annie to fend for herself and young daughter alone.

Now Annie has fallen on hard times. She’s jobless and apparently homeless and begs Lora to take her and Sarah Jane in. Why she wants to move in with Lora doesn’t make much sense. Lora’s a widow who’s not only broke but behind on her bills. It takes a stretch of the imagination to believe that Annie would insist on moving in with her instead of a more prosperous white woman or that Lora would take Annie in. Still, the two women move in together. To Sarah Jane’s chagrin, Annie assumes the role of maid and mammy, her payment being room and board.

“I don’t want to live in the back. Why do we always have to live in the back?” Sarah Jane objects when they move in with Lora and her little daughter, Susie.

Sarah Jane is none too happy about her station in life, a station she blames on her mother’s dark skin. Accordingly, she wishes Lora were her mother. She takes Susie’s white doll away from her because she doesn’t want to play with a black doll. Later, she pricks Susie to find out if their blood is the same color because she’s heard that black blood is different from white blood. Sarah Jane also wants to know what color Jesus was. When no one answers, she fills the silence by declaring, “He was like me…white.”

The discord Sarah Jane brings to her new household follows her to school also. When Annie shows up during the middle of class one day, she finds out that Sarah Jane has been passing for white. (This is the scene featured in “8 Mile.”) Her cover blown, Sarah Jane has a temper tantrum, stomping defiantly in the snow with Annie chasing her.

A major stereotype in “Imitation of Life” is that of Negro as saint. Annie is ever patient with Sarah Jane. She never raises her voice or backhands her, as you can bet some parents would do if their daughter pulled the stunts that Sarah Jane does. Because Annie is so Christ-like in the face of SJ’s ingratitude, it’s difficult to sympathize with Sarah Jane, who comes across like an evil brat. Yet, this child has clearly been through a lot—a father who abandoned her, a mother society tells her is a mismatch and a Gypsy-like existence due to the limited resources her mother has to draw on to survive. As she matures, one would hope that Sarah Jane would develop a more three-dimensional perspective, transferring the anger she has with her mother to the racially stratified society they live in. This doesn’t happen, though.

Fast forward a decade, and Sarah Jane is still furious with her mother for being black. It doesn’t matter that Lora Meredith is now a movie star and that she, Sarah Jane, Susie and Annie live in a house that could be on MTV’s “Cribs.” Sarah Jane remains surly. She doesn’t want to date a colored boy, objects to helping Annie serve Lora’s guests and to enrolling in a colored teacher’s college.

On one count I agree with Sarah Jane and that’s to do with serving Lora’s guests. We find out that, while Lora has spent her money carelessly, Annie has saved every bit of hers, so why is Annie content to remain Lora’s maid? Rather than invest in creating a life of her own, Annie puts aside cash for Sarah Jane’s schooling and for the lavish funeral she’s probably planned for before her daughter was born. It’s as if the only thing this black woman has to look forward to is death, a misconception, I believe, even in 1959. Since Sarah Jane refuses to go to teaching school, Annie won’t need to drop any coin on her education, though. Instead, she spends her money tracking Sarah Jane down when she runs away.

Sarah Jane decides to bounce when her mother’s presence makes it impossible to pass for white. First, Sarah Jane’s white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) dumps her and beats her up after finding out who her mother is. Then, Annie shows up to the dive bar Sarah Jane has been performing at in secret and blows her cover there. This leads SJ to pack her bags and head to California.

Am I the only one who cringes at this plotline? It’s common knowledge that blacks pass for white to obtain the opportunities denied to them in a racist society. Sarah Jane herself says, “I want to have a chance in life. I don’t want to have to come through back doors or feel lower than other people.” Yet, she’s passing for white to work in clubs? She could have remained black and landed such a gig, which entailed not only dancing but also taking off with clients after performances. Rather than give Sarah Jane any worthy motive for passing, the filmmakers chose to exploit the stereotype of the mixed-race woman as whore. Perhaps as a white woman, SJ could be an Ashley Dupré level whore rather than a Divine Brown level whore, but a whore she’d remain. Adding to my concern is that the storyline emphasizes how Lora Meredith refused to lie on the casting couch to be a movie star. In short, the white woman has integrity. The tragic mulatto, not so much.

While SJ is “dancing,” Lora Meredith has some personal drama of her own. She’s recently reunited with her former flame Steve (John Gavin) after dropping him years ago to pursue her acting career. This time around, however, their relationship faces another challenge when Lora’s daughter convinces herself that she has fallen in love with Steve. What a silly plot twist. Susie knows that her mother and Steve were once more than friends, so it’s pretty absurd that she deludes herself into thinking that now Steve has the hots for her and not for her mother.

Susie (Sandra Dee) is the character who most makes me want to hit “fast-forward.” Equal parts bratty and giddy—when she’s not pouting, she’s squealing—Susie is completely self-centered. She shows limited empathy for Sarah Jane and Annie, which is saying a lot given that she’s grown up with them. Then again, one can’t blame Susie too much for being self-absorbed. The woman who gave birth to her is such a diva she makes Mariah Carey look humble.

Don’t get me wrong. Watching Lana Turner being fabulous is junk food for the eyes. After Lora makes it big, we see her in her dressing room wearing a curve-hugging metallic gown and a matching jacket trimmed with fur. The next scene finds Lora in her luxurious new digs wearing a sheer floral piece that ties at the waist over a rose bodysuit. Even at home, she’s fierce. Other ensembles include a flared shimmering tube dress with a luminous pink shawl and a bustier cut Grecian gown halved by a turquoise sash. Turner is knee deep in jewels throughout the film. Pink gems, turquoise gems, platinum.

Beyond the wardrobe, however, Lora can be hard to swallow sometimes. How full of herself she is comes to light when she tells Annie that she didn’t know that Annie had any friends. Annie’s response: “Miss Lora, you never asked.” And when Annie grieves because Sarah Jane has disowned her, Lora is beyond callous, arguing that Susie’s crush on Steve is the bigger issue at hand. “This is a very real problem,” Lora says of Susie’s feelings for Steve, which are about as deep as an episode of “The Hills.”

So, let’s get this straight. Annie’s 18-year-old daughter hates her, hates her black blood, is a chronic runaway and is exotic dancing to make ends meet, and Annie’s problems aren’t “very real.” Seriously?

Although I’ve told you what happens in the movie thus far, I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say that, in the conclusion, we’re led to think that the characters have gotten the reality check they need to stop being hateful bitches. The ending features Mahalia Jackson singing with such emotion that you’ll get chills. If you’re the weepy sort, have a box of Kleenex on hand. Also, if there’s anyone you need to make peace with, prepare to make amends.

The 1959 version of “Imitation of Life” has been criticized for being an over-the-top departure from the novel. Moreover, the casting of Susan Kohner as the older Sarah Jane has been criticized because she’s not black, as was actress Fredi Washington, who played the role (but with a different name) in the 1934 version.

I thought that the Mexican-Jewish Kohner did a convincing job as Sarah Jane. Acting and looks wise, she’s believable as a light-skinned black, which wasn’t at all the case for Anthony Hopkins in 2003’s “The Human Stain.” Perhaps she drew upon her experiences with real-life mother (dancer Lupita Tovar) in playing Moore’s daughter in “Imitation of Life.” Whatever her method, the onscreen chemistry between the two earned both Kohner and Moore Oscar nods. Kohner won a Golden Globe as well. Compare this to Turner and Sandra Dee, who weren’t acknowledged for their acting in the film.

In addition to criticism about the casting, “Imitation of Life” has rightfully been targeted for fueling the stereotype of the tragic mulatto. The film makes it clear that Sarah Jane doesn’t have a chance because she’s racially mixed. “How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?” Annie asks Lora. However, what’s been overlooked at times is that Annie is a tragic character as well, and not just because her daughter rejects her. A strong black woman before the phrase was in vogue, Annie is everyone’s “Rock of Gibraltar,” as Steve describes her. Although she’s tired and weary, Annie takes time to give Lora a foot rub, a gesture Lora would never deign to make for her. In the beginning of the film, both Lora and Annie are broke, but Annie assumes the role of maid, doing Lora’s laundry because she likes “taking care of pretty things.”

Juanita Moore, interviewed by The Black World Today in October 2005, made it clear that saintly, self-sacrificing Annie in no way represented her. “Annie was nothing like me…,” Moore told the publication. “I have been in a lot of pictures. However, most of them consisted of my opening doors for white people.”

And such was the fate of a black actress in the 1950s.

If you’ve yet to see “Imitation of Life,” become initiated by catching airings of it in January and February on Turner Classic Movies.

The Avenues School in New York City

Diversity and Jet Powered Upper-Class Multiculturalism

By Guest Contributor Frank Ligtvoet

In my research for a piece in the Huffington Post on independent schools and the lack of diversity I came across Avenues. The World School in New York, a newly founded school in Chelsea. The school’s expression of diversity was so far away from my take on the subject, that I – after some hesitation to get so direct – couldn’t resist to write and make some serious fun about it. Avenues is in essence not very different from many other independent schools in the US, alas. But in comparison to the serious efforts made by some of their New York competitors like Calhoun, Brooklyn Friends and Dalton to break away from their ‘exclusive’ traditions, to become more inclusive and less upper class white, Avenue stands out. Being the new kid on the block it could have learned from its peers.

The Times devoted earlier this year an article on the new New York based, for-profit independent K-12 school with its somewhat bloated, urban-chic name Avenues. The World School. It has the title: ‘Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy?’. For my black kids, Joshua and Rosa, the answer to that question is absolutely not. And it might not be for white kids either.

I invite you to have a look at the ‘Leadership: Our People’ page of Avenues’ official site. What you will see are 17 portraits of ‘Our People’ with above nice descriptions of who they are and what they have accomplished in their lives. Impressive men and women, yes, and all middle aged, and then – disturbing: all white. Very white. Almost the whiteness of the definition of white when Italians and Spaniards were still regarded non-white, an Anglo-Saxon and German kind of white, an old-fashioned kind of white. (See Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.)

Of course, it is fine to be white. I myself am white with a Germanic name. But it is not fine to be collectively white, not in a city that is as diverse as New York, not in a country that is less and less run or dominated by whiteness, not in a country that consciously makes efforts to be more inclusive, that strives to ‘a more perfect union’, and particularly not in a educational institution, in a school that is a world school in a non-white world. To be fair: the New York campus has three non-white leaders and one is the Director of Admissions, not an unimportant position.

Of course there is, like all other independent schools in the US, a whole section on Diversity on the website. You can read there that the Avenues’ budget allows 10% of the student body to be social-economically diverse. Hope for a higher percentage will be found in donations from parents and alumni, in – again – old-fashioned charity that is. There is no goal, the goal is for what the money eventually allows.

The real Avenues diversity is, however, projected in the future when according to the grandiose plans campuses elsewhere on the globe will be established: The broader Avenues learning community, eventually comprising campuses in many of the world’s leading cultures, will be exceedingly rich in cultural diversity among both students and staff. The thousands of students and faculty from China, India, Europe, Africa, Latin America and North America who will be an integral part of the Avenues culture will represent unprecedented cultural diversity.’

Avenues’ diversity is not the diversity in the definition of most other (independent) schools: it is not about sharing the privileges that we white people amassed over the course of history, it is not striving for equity and equality, it is upper-class, multi-culturalism, powered by jets between the campuses, campuses which will be each max 10% diverse as well. (From a global diversity perspective is the expression ‘the world’s leading cultures’ also a bit awkward, to say the least.)

To go back to the whiteness of the Avenue’s leadership: what does all this whiteness say to my kids, who are adopted and happen to be black? There are no black people good enough to have those important jobs? There are not even people who are not black and not white, like Asian or Latino or Arab people who are good enough to fill those positions? How can the leadership create diversity if they are not even able to diversify their own administrative body? The world of the New York world school is white. We, 7 year old Rosa and 9 year old Joshua, and their brothers and sisters of color, don’t count in that world, our heritage doesn’t count, the ‘unpaid work’ of our forefathers and –mothers doesn’t count. We can attend – of course – if we have the money, but what we are and who we are and where we are from doesn’t count in the Avenues world. And imagine the unthinkable: if my kids would attend and finish that school, what would be their idea about themselves? That they had to submit to almost complete whiteness to become the people they are?

I am sure that as an ethical service to the people who will send their kids to Avenues, the curriculum will be very, very worldly and very, very diverse, but it is not the flexible ideology that counts in the real world, it is the real and hard facts that surround us, the faces we see and the social hierarchy they represent.

The loss will not only be for the kids of color, but also for the white kids: they will experience that whiteness not rules the world any more once they leave the white, multi cultural bubble at graduation. And one can wonder if an education at Avenues under the ‘Our-white-people-leadership’ will be so effective after all, in a steadily more and more diverse world.

Frank Ligtvoet is the Founder of Adoptive Families with Children of African Heritage and their Friends, NY and published about adoption and diversity in a.o. Adoption Today, the Huffington Post and the New York Times. He tweets as @frank_ligtvoet.

 

 

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Open Thread: What Makes A Black Film a Black Film?

By Kendra James

Every so often it pays to check in on the current “Black Film” rubric– ie, What makes a Black Film a Black Film? It’s a question I found myself struggling with as I wrote about Dear White People last week and realised that I couldn’t bring myself (and director Justin Simien didn’t want his audience) to stick it in the same category of Madea’s kooky and poorly directed adventures. But why is that?

Like a lot of popular movies that fall into the Black Film category Dear White People has a majority black cast, a black director, and deals with subject matter meant to resonate with a Black audience. Yet even beyond being an Indie, it’s clearly a different beast than 2014′s well performing Ride Along which seems to more easily fall into the traditional Black Film category. Making comparison and thinking about other movies that also seem to fall without question into that category -let’s consider movies like The Best Man series, the Barbershop series, and romcoms in the vein of Think Like a Man or Why Did I Get Married- I started to wonder if maybe it becomes a question of quality.

To include quality on the rubric is clearly problematic, leaning towards the implication that to be placed in the Black Film means to be a bad film. But do we place 12 Years A Slave in that same Black Film category? What about The Butler? They fall under the drama genre, but so do movies like Stomp The Yard, ATL, Coach Carter, or The Inkwell; a group of enjoyable, if otherwise unnotable films, with black directors and casts found under the “Urban Drama” category on Amazon . (Urban Drama being another way of saying “a drama with Black people in it.”)

Does it really come down to a question of quality with, perhaps, a side of pedigree- films nominated for multiple awards in various categories? It’s a tricky qualifier. Stomp The Yard with white protagonists is called Bring It On and it’s a comedy or a teen movie, not a “white film”. Coach Carter is called Hoosiers or Miracle and again it’s not a white film, it’s a sports drama. The Inkwell becomes a drama/romantic comedy directed by Nancy Meyers, starring Meryl Streep, and… well, you can see the trend. There’s no real need to recategorise any of these films as “Black” or “Urban”, but for some reason we do.

But what if beyond the merits of the cast, director, subject matter, and relative quality, it’s a simple matter of character relateability? White viewers are conditioned with the societal requirement that it’s necessary to at least pretend to empathise with the Solomon Northups of the world. The Kenya McQueens? Not so much. With that we’re left with a qualifier almost more insulting than the question of quality. While Black audiences are expected to relate and empathize with white characters in films regularly, the moment we ask them to do the same for us suddenly it’s a Black Film. In that case, the categorization is almost left up to the white viewer alone.

So is it cast/director, subject matter, quality, or a question of white audiences being unable to empathise with characters who look nothing like them? What actually makes a Black Film? Thoughts?

DYLAN MINNETTE, BELLAMY YOUNG, MADELINE CARROLL, TONY GOLDWYN

Open Thread: Scandal, S03E15 “Mama Said Knock You Out”

By Kendra James (subbing in this week for Arturo Garcia)

Content Warning: Mentions of sexual assault.

Why is the volume on this show constantly turned up to 11? Use of dramatic tension becomes less effective if its the only thing used to advance the story along. Unless it’s desired outcome was thoroughly succeeding in turning Scandal into a show that I have less emotional attachment to than the adolescent canines over on MTV. In that, it’s succeeded.

This week we were introduced to the older Grant children who’ve been away at boarding school for three seasons of television (we’ll ignore the fact that the calibre of boarding school those kids would likely be at are in session for far less time and have far more and longer vacations than their absence would indicate), as Scandal attempted to refocus some of the parent/child drama way from Olivia and Eli over to the Grants and their brood.

That was all less exciting than the D&G maternity cloak Lynn Paolo had Kerry Washington swishing around the White House in, but here are a few stray observations:

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The Walking Dead Roundtable 4.15 “Us”

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Hosted by Jeannie Chan

It’s been a slow-going during the second half of the season. Even with this one episode before the season finale, things don’t get revved up too much. Boundaries get tested, priorities get shifted, and the various groups of survivors continue towards Terminus. Read on for our reactions to this week’s episode.

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