Friday, April 20, 2012

How white people don't think about race by a white person

Girls sure is creating a lot of excitement for a show that hardly anyone watches. In case you hadn't heard—and you probably haven't—there is a controversy about the lack of black people on the show. I only learned about it because I read Ta-Nehisi Coates and I'll cheerfully admit that one of the reasons I read him is so I don't have to pay attention to the people who think and write about race all the time. Coates is a good filter for me and he writes well.

Anyway, there is a rather familiar line of complaint out there:
I pulled out my phone and texted my friend Willa.

"So Girls is like indie SATC," I wrote. "Yeah" she replied. "And everyone on the show is white," I responded. "Yea,” she typed back. “Lots of White."
The key word to note here is "indie".  There was a lot of grousing about the lack of black characters in Star Wars too but that felt different. I mean, "This is the indie scene! It's supposed to be different and it's so effing white." And yet, it's true, one thing that really marks the indie scene is its whiteness.

It's unconscious whiteness. That will be little comfort to many who will promptly, and correctly, reply that most racism is unconscious. I don't think that is what is going on here. The overwhelming whiteness of the indie scene is, ironically, the consequence of a set of perverse incentives that came with attempts to not be racist.

Back in the 1980s, I met some people who pushed a very successful campaign to get the Canadian government of the day to take action on literacy issues. I remember one of them saying, "The easy part is getting people to see there is a problem. Where most advocacy groups go wrong is with the proposed solution. The public expects to be given the problem then the solution and after they invest in the proposed solution they expect the problem to go away."

After that he added that you really only get one shot at a solution per generation. If the proposed solution doesn't work, that's all you get. And that is the first thing to get about how white people think about racism. Once they've made a certain set of moves, they expect the problem to go away. "Hey, a black man got elected president, we can stop worrying about this."

The other part of it is that white people expect that the solution will involve the disappearance of race. And they expect that quite literally.

It's sometimes said, with considerable justice, that a white person's ideal black artist is Bob Marley. And you can see why in the song "War". The song is inspired and heavily based on a speech that was given by Haile Selassie. The "solution" to racism that post-boomer whites bought into is better  set out in that speech and song than anywhere else. Here is the key bit of the speech with some added emphasis:
That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained ...
That is the solution to racism that white people embrace; it's a desire not just to live in a post-racism society but a desire to live in a post-racial society.

There would be black actors in a series like Girls if they could be there the way Denzel Washington played Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing. His skin colour has nothing to do with his identity. Except that is all nonsense. In a truly post-racial society, Denzel Washington would have been cast as one of the two romantic leads—Claudio or Benedick.

The ironic result of several decades battling against racism is that identity is more firmly connected with skin colour than it was in the era of Minstrel shows. But the solution that Bob Marley promoted—that a person's skin colour would mean no more than the colour of their eyes—is still the ideal for white people.

Think of how having a black actor play one of the girls on Girls would change the way way we'd all think about the part. Suppose there is a plot line involving drug or alcohol abuse. You couldn't really have the black girl be the one to have those problems could you? But she has to have some problems to struggle against so what would they be? It would very rapidly get boring if her character was always about race. And what music would she listen to? It would be great to have a young black character who was a huge Taylor Swift fan but that would not be allowed. Where would she have grown up? If she is too comfortably upper middle class, some will complain that this is the Huxtables all over again. If she is poor, another whole minefield comes with that.

The irony is that if you want the post-racial social environment on TV, the characters all have to be white. We are so hyper aware of race that any time a black character appears on screen, "race issues" and "race identity" comes with them. And that is why indie culture is so white.


  1. She could (the black girl) be a rural black person, or a military brat, neither option is poor or Huxtables. But then, displaying (or realizing there would logically be) multitudes of black experiences is beyond the scope of any whites, apparently.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      My point, wasn't that this was the only ways whites could see her but rather that the terror of seeming to fall into either a stereotype and called racist for doing so or for being trashed by other whites for creating a supposedly "inauthentic" upper middle class family as the Huxtables were alleged to be.

    2. But they do only see two things, that is why they whine so much about "being yelled at for getting it wrong". They refuse to think of other options, or accept that there could be other options. It's irritating because it's so silly and dishonest.

      Meanwhile Awkward Black Girl, a very popular web series similar in some ways to 'Girls', gets no network pickup precisely because it's not 'poor ghetto black girl' or 'Huxtable black girl'.

    3. I haven't seen "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" yet but I'll make a point of checking it out. It sounds intriguing and considerably more like life as I know it than "Girls". Thanks for the tip. I wonder, however, when I read your claim that it "gets no network pickup precisely because it's not 'poor ghetto black girl' or 'Huxtable black girl'". Do you think that shows on either of those themes would get much network attention? I doubt they would.