You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us. You will try to make Mandela a Magic Negro and you will fail. You will say that Mandela stood above all for forgiveness whilst scuttling swiftly over the details of the perversity that he had the grace to forgive.
You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail. You will fold your hands and say the blacks have no-one to blame now but themselves.
Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it.
I’ll be 34 this year and we’re only beginning to see a change in the scenery when it comes to diversity and the fantastic. A recent UCLA study found that even though racial and gender diversity in television remains appallingly low, more diverse shows bring higher audiences while less diverse ones struggle. Meanwhile, some major networks may finally be getting the message. At this year’s annual Fox Broadcasting confab, titled “Seizing Opportunities,” the underlying theme was more diversity equals more money. Speaking to an invitation-only crowd of executives, producers, agents and media coalitions, Fox COO Joe Earley said this about welcoming more diverse shows: “Not only are you going to have more chances of a show being made here, more chances of a show being a success on TV, more chances of making it into syndication, more chances of a show selling globally and making you millions of dollars, but you are going to bring more viewers to our air and keep us in business.”
Cultural critics have rightly decried whitewashing in the name of social justice. Networks are now beginning to see dollar signs where they once imagined dearth. But beyond money and morality, diverse programming is also a question of quality. “Racist writing is a craft issue,” the poet Kwame Dawes said at this year’s AWP conference. “A racist stereotype is a cliché. It’s been done. Quite a bit. It’s a craft failure.”
Without an understanding of culture, power and history, diversity is useless; it’s blackface. And television has often given us nothing but that: cheap stand-ins and tokens to up their numbers and check off boxes.
By Guest Contributor Ellen Oh, cross-posted from Hello Ello
When I do my diversity presentation for high schools, I open with this chart:
It’s an immediate attention grabber. Why? Because this highlights the gap in diversity of caucasian and POC authors. This is an informal survey taken by author Roxanne Gay that breaks out authors reviewed by the NYT in 2011 by race. Nearly 90% are caucasian. This by no means shows a complete breakdown of publishing. But I would venture to say that a more accurate number of published books might even further compound the gap between caucasian authors and POC authors.
Jimmy and Merlie “Pinky” Edwards, circa 1975. Image courtesy of Edwards family.
Take Pinky. In 1974, her father, Jimmy Edwards, was a 22-year-old sailor aboard a United States Navy ship visiting the Philippines, 9,000 miles away from his hometown, Kinston, N.C. He fell in love with a Filipina named Merlie Daet, who gave birth to their daughter, Pinky. Mr. Edwards had hoped to marry Merlie, but as a sailor, he could not marry a foreigner without his captain’s consent. The captain refused. Despite his best efforts over the years, Mr. Edwards was unable to find Pinky (or Merlie).
Until 2005, that is. USA Bound, a now defunct nonprofit organization that reconnected Filipino children with their American fathers, told Mr. Edwards that it had found Pinky. He flew to the Philippines, only to find her living in poverty in a cinder-block hut in the mountains with her husband and five children. Determined to give her a better life, he sought United States citizenship for her.
To his surprise, it was too late. Although by birthright, children born out of wedlock to an American father and a foreign mother are entitled to United States citizenship, they must file paternity certifications no later than their 18th birthday to get it. But since the military bases in the Philippines have been closed for over 20 years, virtually all Filipino “Amerasians” — a term coined by the author and activist Pearl S. Buck to describe children of American servicemen and Asian mothers — have passed that age.
Stories like Pinky’s are legion. Amerasians in the Philippines substantially outnumber those living in neighboring countries, with recent estimates as high as 250,000. – From “The Forgotten Amerasians,” by Christopher M. Lapinig
When Michelle Obama revealed the “secret” to her workout for perfectly toned arms, it became national news. This revelation, however, did not quell the debate and fascination over the gender politics surrounding this particular body part, as CNN and Fitness magazine are two of the many outlets that use Michelle’s arms as the ideal goal of suggested workout plans. Michelle has gracefully weathered the storm of public attention about her workout regimen by turning health and fitness into one of her defining public issues, with the “Let’s Move!” campaign. But the story about Michelle’s arms is not an innocent case of celebrity flattery or fitness gossip; it is part and parcel of the American public’s obsessive concern with the public presentation of Ms. Obama’s body.
I just saw the most problematic image on Facebook. It was a photo of four blonde female pilots in combat gear with the caption, Hey Taliban, look up in the sky! Your women can’t drive, but ours CAN!
Despite the issues I have with militarism, or this country’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m all for cheering for female pilots (yea, bada&& flying ladies!). What I can’t just can’t stand by and let slide is this “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” rhetoric, a rhetoric which only illuminates how–both actually and metaphorically–racism, xenophobia, and imperialism so often play out on women’s bodies around the world.
To me, this photo represents how blithely and blindly women from the Global North allow ourselves to be used as (actual and metaphorical) weapons of war against women from the Global South. In fact, that offensive caption isn’t significantly different from comments I’ve been hearing this week like, “These are countries where women have very little value.”
Sadly, the place where I’ve been hearing such phrases isn’t on some conservative TV program or website (where I think that all-woman pilot photo originated), but rather, on the PBS film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, a well-publicized neo-liberal “odyssey through Asia and Africa” hosted by everyone’s favorite white saviorNew York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof. Continue reading →
Southern Methodist professor Willard Spiegelman, from New York Times “Class Acts” spread. Courtesy: New York Times.
A New York Times Magazinespread titled “Class Acts,” featuring six professors styled in designer fashions, recently resurfaced in the social media sphere largely due to the media’s budding interest in fashion in unexpected workplaces. Initially, I was thrilled to see the NYT acknowledge that we professors could be stylish, too. But, as I removed my rose-colored Burberry glasses to examine the slide show again, I saw that there were no professors that looked like me. No professors of color.
But even after our insightful social-media venting session, I was still bothered by the spread. And it wasn’t simply because “we” weren’t included. It was because the spread ignored the battles related to dress and adornment that African Americans have endured, both inside and outside of the academy. A brief look at major moments in Black history reveals how battles over race, class, and adornment have majorly influenced mainstream American fashion trends.
Recently, the New York Times has been beefing up its coverage on India.
Presumably, there is no quality journalism about India that isn’t produced by an American news outfit. Associate Managing Editor at the Times Jim Schachter notes “…I don’t want to cast dispersion [sic], but there is not a great media diet for the non-resident Indian.” The assumptions embedded in his statement are staggering. What would a “great media diet” look like? Is it only constituted by bourgeois forms of media consumption? Are NRI’s unable to seek out a “great media diet” for themselves? Must they be spoon-fed by the venerable New York Times? It appears that knowledge about India from India (or the Indian diaspora) just doesn’t cut it.
In addition to the new blog entitled “India Ink,” which has been operational for just under a year, I’ve seen an uptick in articles on India recently–a very unscientific and cursory perusal of the more recent articles reveals news on “dirt-poor farmers,” sex crimes, and corruption, or about how India is a growing economic powerhouse. This is of course, followed by discussions of how India is “between two worlds,” with respect to “tradition” and economic disparity–with no indication about how neoliberalism is complicit in the widening income gap, not just in India, but worldwide. Combined with Nick Kristof’s regular martyring operations to rescue underage trafficked prostitutes in Kolkatan brothels, what we have here is a consistent picture of an India that is not yet “fully modern,” informed by the liberal discourse of rights and progress. It seems that the New York Times will never, ever tire of incessantly replicating imperial tropes.
So, I was naturally curious to see whether there might be an alternate, less polarizing narrative about India when I came across this New York Times Modern Love column; a Canadian woman’s account of her trip to India and how she (maybe) fell in love with an Indian man nearly twice her age. At first pass, I found myself caught up in her stylish prose. But there was something about her essay that unsettled me: Jeong’s writing is of a piece with that familiar eroticization of India–Orientalist imaginings of the lushness of nature combine with the well-worn tropes of India as chaotic, as a seductive and sexual place of pure experience, spirituality and true self-knowledge, with sinewy yet docile natives. If I had a penny for every time a (usually white and almost always North American or European) person has gushed to me about how much they love India because they found God or themselves there/how it was wild and filthy and beautiful all at the same time, I’d have a serious amount of change by now. Continue reading →
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World