Category Archives: race

Stumbling Toward Diversity

Pop culture doesn’t reflect the diversity of day-to-day life in America, especially in urban centers. Lena Dunham’s new series “Girls” on HBO — so wonderfully, awkwardly realistic when it comes to depicting bad job interviews, the vagaries of friendship, and bad sex — flails like a dying fish when dealing with race. Its world is so homogeneous that the show would be more accurately titled “White Girls.” NBC’s “The Office,” set in Scranton, PA, is more ethnically-mixed than Dunham’s Brooklyn; so is the Seattle of ABC’s “Gray’s Anatomy,” which led the charge with color-blind casting in 2005. According to the New York Times:

 “Grey’s Anatomy” has differentiated itself by creating a diverse world of doctors – almost half the cast are men and women of color – and then never acknowledging it. …

When Ms. Rhimes wrote the pilot, she didn’t specify the characters’ ethnicities, so her casting process was wide open: Mr. Washington, who once played a gay Republican in Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” was nearly cast in the role played by Patrick Dempsey, who is white; his Dr. Burke was to be played by a white actor who was forced to drop out at the last moment. Ms. Rhimes imagined “The Nazi” as a “tiny, adorable blond person with lots of ringlets,” until Chandra Wilson walked through the door (“I thought it was endearing,” Ms. Wilson said of her part. “Endearing as the word ‘Nazi’ can be.”). And even though some network executives assumed Ms. Oh’s hypercompetitive character would be white, Ms. Rhimes did not – in the pilot’s script she wasn’t even given a last name – so all it took was one “fabulous” audition from the “Sideways” star to christen the character Cristina Yang. …

Ms. Rhimes has also worked hard to extend diversity to her show’s smallest roles. Determined not to have a program in which “all the extras are white, except the lone janitor,” she has created one of the most colorful backgrounds in television, a hospital in which punked-out bike messengers and suffering Hasidim roam the corridors. “Shonda’s only rule is drug dealers and pimps cannot be black,” said Dr. Zoanne Clack, a black writer for the show who also practices medicine. Even the episodic roles – a gay African-American, a young Hispanic couple – are multicultural.

Rhimes’s choices of seven years ago were bold but incredibly successful. Why haven’t they been replicated? After all, following the enormous impact of Twilight, Young Adult bookshelves exploded with copy-cat novels about vampires and virgins and the occult in general, and one fully expects “Mommy Porn” to become its own genre in the near future now that Fifty Shades of Grey has sold 3 million paperback copies in April alone.

One answer is that Rhimes, as an auteur, breathes rarefied air. Like other writer-directors/producers — a talented but small and exclusive fraternity that includes Alan Ball, Joss Whedon, Matthew Weiner, David Chase, and David Simon — she has an unusual amount of creative control over her finished product. If diversity is a priority for her, she can make it happen. Dunham, as this frat’s newest pledge, is still trying to figure out what her priorities are, and some of them are stellar, like being funny and worth watching. As Jenna Wortham of the Hairpin writes, part of the reason that “Girls” has become a lightning rod for the frustration that people of color don’t get to see their experiences reflected on screen is because it “is actually good. It gets So. Many. Things. Right. It’s on point again and again, hitting at the high and low notes about being in your twenties ….”

Dunham prioritizes reflecting her own life experiences and those of her friends in an authentic, engaging way, and apparently this is her world: part Jewish, part WASP-y, and overall fifty shades of pale. She is hardly unique in having a friend circle that reflects her own heritage, although she may be the first well-known person to be publicly shamed for it. Salamishah Tillet in the Nation points out that this larger issue needs to be addressed, since many of us live segregated social lives, and it affects us whether we realize it or not.

Still, we can sympathize with Dunham’s choice to remain true to [her] life and simultaneously be disappointed, because it implies that Dunham, for all her creativity, ambition, wit, and skill, lacks imagination. How hard is it, after all, asks Sarah Seltzer in the NYT, to at last break free of the traditional paradigm where “Characters written as racially neutral (or even as nonwhite) are virtually always cast as white even though movie-watchers and TV watchers of all backgrounds will search for a mirror, an entrance point, among the faces they see on screen.”

Dunham is far from the only auteur, though, with this failing; as Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic points out, why should a 24-year-old just starting out be blamed for not diversifying media when the problem is a systematic one? Judd Apatow is one of Hollywood’s most successful producer-writer-directors. He’s prolific, too: a typical year finds him involved in 2-4 high-profile projects in one capacity or another. And he’s not afraid to take risks, including, most recently, working with newbie Dunham to bring “Girls” to the screen. Yet no film of his has had a single leading character that Joey Drayton would have to think twice about bringing home to her parents. (Unless Tracy and Hepburn have a problem with emotionally-stunted man-children.) The few non-white characters in Superbad, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and the others in his stable, even 40 Year Old Virgin — featuring Apatow’s most diverse cast and his smartest script — exist on the fringes of the story and are there mainly for comic effect.

His most recent foray into relationship comedy, Five Year Engagement, which I recently reviewed with writer Adam Freelander for the Billfold, wastes the talents its few non-white actors by rendering them as depressing stereotypes: the bespectacled, socially-awkward Asian guy, the dick-obsessed black man, and Mindy Kaling, who, as Adam puts it, plays “Mindy Kaling, which is technically not an ethnic stereotype, though I’m concerned it soon will be.” The movie’s inability to deal with race in any kind of sophisticated way distracts from its otherwise poignant, interesting exploration of real-life problems.

Is it better, ultimately, to write minority characters, even when you end up making an ass of yourself, or should you stick to what you know at the expense of relegating minorities to the margins, if you remember to include them at all? Put simply: Try and maybe fail, or don’t try?

Unfortunately, as long as “don’t try” is an option, too many filmmakers and showrunners will quail at the prospect of doing it wrong and getting criticized and will revert to what feels easier. We need a sustained outcry against having movie after movie and TV show after show that is as white as a “New Yorker” cartoon. This is not about Lena Dunham; this is about our culture, and how much more we will all benefit from color-blind casting in our media and, hopefully, in our lives. Studios needs to stop considering it an option to have a totally vanilla cast, or one that pretends to be a sundae just because it has a couple of sprinkles here and there. Producers need to insist on better minority characters, and to recruit minority writers, directors, and producers to help them and their staffs see around their blind spots. Everyone will be better for it.

And writers, have a little courage! Expand your boundaries. Good faith efforts are often rewarded, especially as long as the quality is there. Just ask Shonda Rhimes, whose show was just renewed for a ninth season. Channel the advice of one memorable minority character from a 1977 classic: “Do or do not. There is no ‘try.'”


ETA: Cross-posted to Huff Po here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t need my love

But he has it anyway:

I think it’s most worth noting that “I forgot Obama was black”–in all its iterations–is something that white people should stop saying, if only because it’s really dishonest. One way to think about this is to flip the frame. Around these parts, we’ve been known, from time to time, to chat about the NFL. We’ve also been known to chat about the intricacies of beer. If you hang around you’ll notice that there are no shortage of women in these discussions. Having read a particularly smart take on Brett Favre, or having received a good recommendations on a particular IPA, it would not be a compliment for me to say, “Wow, I forgot you were a woman.” Indeed, it would be pretty offensive.

The problems is three-fold. First, it takes my necessarily limited, and necessarily blinkered, experience with the fairer sex and builds it into a shibboleth of invented truth. Then it takes that invented truth as a fair standard by which I can measure one’s “woman-ness.” So if football and beer don’t fit into my standard, I stop seeing the person as a woman. Finally instead of admitting that my invented truth is the problem, I put the onus on the woman. Hence the claim “I forgot you were a woman,” as opposed to “I just realized my invented truth was wrong.”

Ditto for Chris Matthews. The “I forgot Obama was black” sentiment allows the speaker the comfort of accepting, even lauding, a black person without interrogating their invented truth. It allows the speaker a luxurious ignorance–you get to name people (this is what black is) even when you don’t know people. In fact, Chris Matthews didn’t forget Barack Obama was black. Chris Matthews forgot that Chris Matthews was white.

(Emphasis mine. The wisdom, however, is all his.)

As a Box of Hammers

When experts come off as idiots in the pages of the Washington Post, I wonder whether the problem is with bad ideas or bad expression. Or both? For example:

“No man is an island,” said Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School

“Loneliness is more than just feeling bad,” said Chris Segrin, a professor of communication and health at the University of Arizona

The researchers said the effect could not be the result of lonely people being more likely to associate with other lonely people because they showed the effect over time. “It’s not a birds-of-a-feather-flock-together effect,” Christakis said.

I’m going to put together a study showing that even really bright people speak almost entirely in cliches. Although how bright are these guys? First they tell us our fat friends make us fat, but don’t abandon them! (“‘We are not suggesting that people should sever their ties with overweight friends,’ Christakis adds. ‘But we are suggesting that people are influenced by the behaviors of those around them, and if they’re interested in losing weight, forming ties with people who are the proper weight is likely to be beneficial.'”)

Uh huh. Now, they tell us that having lonely friends will make us lonely. In its lukewarm conclusion, the article does not advise against pushing these folks off on ice floes. At least, not per se. The implication, though, is clear.

These studies are heartbreakingly, essentially American. They present us with “experts” who affirm conventional wisdom, and they “prove” that losers have a social contagion. The fat, the lonely, everyone you instinctively avoided in high school (or else WERE in high school) — all those weirdos — they are not just repellent. They are bad for you.

As awful as these men should feel for wasting our society’s time and resources, the editors of articles such as “Loneliness is transmittable from person to person” should feel worse.

Over in the New York Times, whatever editor was responsible for article juxtaposition shouldn’t be feeling too great either. Roger Cohen’s elegiac opinion piece (currently #3 on the Most Emailed List) ends extolling color-blindness in America, the Land of Opportunity:

Westminster, like Britain, has changed. Openness has grown. Bigotry’s faint refrain has grown fainter still. But I think my old school should throw more light on this episode. And I still believe the greatest strength of America, its core advantage over the old world, is its lack of interest in where you’re from and consuming interest in what you can do.

Directly below it on the Most Emailed List, however, is the article “In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap.” In other words, Cohen’s words will totally apply to you — unless you’re black. Ouch, NYT.

Bias watch: Day 2

Dana Milbank makes an ass of himself in today’s Post describing the woman who may be America’s Next Top Jurist:

In selecting Sotomayor, Obama opted for biography over brain. As a legal mind, Sotomayor is described in portraits as competent, but no Louis Brandeis. Nor is Sotomayor, often described as an abrasive jurist, likely to be the next Earl Warren. But her bio is quite a hit. In Spanish, her surname can be translated as “big thicket” — and that’s just where Republicans could find themselves if they oppose this up-from-poverty Latina.

Who says she’s not brainy? Well, no one that Milbank can name, but why let fact intrude on this lovely fictional narrative. Who describes her as abrasive? Duh, PEOPLE. You know, smart people, with titles and experience and everything. Just trust me on this, says Milbank. As I’m sure many folks will.

Let’s make a song, shall we? Then we can sing it in response to anyone who claims that this brilliant, accomplished woman is merely Ghetto Barbie (comes with a briefcase!).

The song will begin:

Princeton U! Yale Law!
ADA for Morganthau!
Princeton U! Yale Law!
ADA for Morganthau!

Okay, that’s more of a chant. No one ever accused me of being Bob Dylan. (Bob Dylans out there: help?) I am accusing Milbank of willful deceit, however, unless he can back up his demeaning, offhand assertions that there is nothing to Sonia but dark skin and a good bio. God, I hate this nonsense.

A National Conversation About Race

Tell me again why anyone thinks it would be a good idea to embark on a national conversation about race. The NYT turned over that stone last week and I yelped as though I’d seen a cockamouse. NYMag has done it; Time has done it. And, of course, there’s that widely circulating story: a volunteer approaches a house in a swing state and asks the woman at the door for whom she’s voting. Her husband answers from within the house, “We’re voting for the nigger!” “We’re voting for the nigger,” she repeats politely.

Today this “conversation,” or “horror show,” continues. On Sunday, Colin Powell gave a stirring, pointed denouncement of John McCain’s campaign and endorsed Barack Obama as a “transformational figure.” Democrats high-fived and Republicans signaled the bartender for another round. And then it turned ugly.

The charming cartoonist who depicted our former Secretary of State as a black Benedict Arnold also said the following:

“The only reasonable explanation for such a public political “about-face” in the midst of this important election is that Colin Powell, perhaps understandably, wishes to see someone who looks like himself in the White House.

“It’s my opinion that General Powell has based his endorsement of Barack Obama on the color of his skin, not his qualifications, his experience or the content of his character.”

Neither is he the only one to jump to that particular conclusion. Rush Limbaugh expressed his disappointment in similar terms:

“Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race. OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I’ll let you know what I come up with.

“I was also unaware of his dislike for John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. I guess he also regrets Reagan and Bush making him a four-star and secretary of state and appointing his son to head the FCC. Yes, let’s hear it for transformational figures.”

Wonkette also published highlights from the wingnut response, including the following:

— I’m not surprised that Powell has endorsed a Chicago street thug over a real American hero either. “How ‘bout some ‘blow’ General? Then we’ll go help ACORN register some more ‘voters’.”
— This is why you don’t let traitors in your midst. They are capable of doing far more harm than good.
— Clown Powell showed us his true colors with his endorsement of this communist weasel. He just spit in the face of the military he supposedly cares about.
— Oh please….he’s black and he is endorsing one of his brothers…just too obvious. It’s not hard for the everyday American to understand.
— Planet of the APes mentality..”Monkey supports monkey”..

All this despite the fact that Powell contributed the maximum allowable, $2,300, to McCain’s campaign last year and only recently came around to Obama.

Colin Powell worked so hard for so long to transcend his skin color and be seen as a person. By and large, he succeeded: if he wanted, he could probably have been our first black president. At the end of an illustrious career, he’s been reduced to just another brother. And you know how brothers get treated, especially when they try to vote.

angry about things?

Someone pointed out that most of my entries are written on the topic of My Being Outraged About Something. That’s horrible! I don’t mean to be doing that. Most of the time I’m a very positive person. Right now, for example. I’m at my secret internet full-time job (not to be confused with the secret internet part-time job I held briefly last spring) and I like it! I really like it! The people are — well, they’re around me right now so I won’t say much about them, but they’re all my age, which makes “work” feel more like “summer camp.”

We get our first paycheck today, in fact, I believe. That’s pretty good for a week in which we’ve spent one day being oriented by playing name games; one day touring NYC campuses undercover (that really took me back); and three days now at a computer lab doing things that actually require thinking and creativity.

Also, I just saw Juno, this year’s Little Miss Sunshine the same way No Country for Old Men is this year’s the Departed. It was the best thing I’d seen in a long time, possibly since Pan’s Labyrinth. It was as funny as Knocked Up but didn’t make me feel dirty afterwards because it didn’t seem to be saying that men and women are fundamentally different and can never get along, never never never, but they have to get & stay married anyway, just because.

Atonement–you know, the literary movie about War and Love and Betrayal and Big Ideas–was respectably good, especially in its first act, but it didn’t move me nearly as much as the story of the adorable, snarky, midwestern 16 year old and her adorable, sweet sorta boyfriend. Mostly, and this is key: I believed it.

Oh, and Malcolm Gladwell! He wrote what I hope will be the definitive word on race and IQ. (God knows at least I’m not interested in reading more on the subject.) Basically, he reminds us that an IQ test is not like a blood test: you don’t get objective results because one must TAKE an IQ test. Since it’s active, the individual can’t be separated from the results. Which is to say, someone who wasn’t groomed to be sit down quietly and concentrate on a paper-and-pencil test is virtually bound to do less well than someone who was. Also, Gladwell has a way of making statistics legible without condescending to his readers. I appreciate that.

See? I like stuff! In fact, I like everything, except Ditchens and Howd.

a modest proposal

Instead of banning a word that no one is allowed to use anyway except black people and Quentin Tarantino, why doesn’t New York do something useful and necessary like banning Ann Coulter? True, she probably wouldn’t set foot in our slanderous, treasonous, godless city, but in case she were tempted to have a meeting with her publisher or a wax and yet another micro-mini, I would love to have it on record that should she cross city limits, should the sun set on her presence in this sane corner of America, we will boil her in oil and feed her to the homeless.

What’s that you say? My rhetoric makes me almost as bad as she is? Oh, my friends, if only that were true. Ann Coulter drinks of the fire of Mordor the way you or I might enjoy a lemonade. Her skin is synthetic, pieced together by sweatshop third-world labor, and her soul is made of the ash of Rome on which Nero fiddled. Nothing I could do could put me on the level of Ann Coulter. Seriously? She called John Edwards a “faggot.” Seriously.

It’s time for action. Big Apple! I call to you. AC is at least as harmful to my heart as trans fats, at least as toxic to my lungs as cigarette smoke. Let’s start a nationwide trend, making it clear we have no room for such horror in our city.

Primary colors

I knew this (pre)election season would be exciting: what with Obama AND Hillary in the race, it’s going to bring the racism and sexism out of everyone, even the people who think that the 21st century has parched them of both.

Case in point. Today, Joe Biden decided, fuck this exploratory committee nonsense — he’s going to straight out declare his intentions to run for Presidents. Five points for verve and style, Mr. Biden, and minus seventeen-hundred for substance:

Mr. Biden is equally skeptical—albeit in a slightly more backhanded way—about Mr. Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

But—and the “but” was clearly inevitable—he doubts whether American voters are going to elect “a one-term, a guy who has served for four years in the Senate,” and added: “I don’t recall hearing a word from Barack about a plan or a tactic.”

Awesome! Well done, Mr. Biden, especially in the use of the word “clean.” Perhaps Obama can use that as a tagline for his campaign: “Vote Barack! He’s not nearly as dirty as those other black people. Like, you know, Frederick Douglas. And Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Here’s a guess. Joe Biden has macaca’ed himself right out of the gate. From here, his presidential ambitions with sputter, eventually die, and he will buy a yacht to share with Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart. They can name it “So Close, Yet So Far.”

ETA: When I reported this to my brother, he responded, “That’s not -that- racist.” Is this something about which reasonable people can disagree?