We Don’t Live in Imaginationland

Or, you can’t will societal problems out of existence.

Here’s something you’ve probably seen before. It’s a pretty popular exchange between Morgan Freeman and some guy about Black History Month. I agree with everything, right up until the last bit:

“Morgan Freeman”, it says, like he’s God or something.

Now, Morgan Freeman drives home a very salient point: Black history is American history and it’s inane to treat it as anything else. But his solution to get rid of racism is to “stop talking about it”, and I find that problematic for a bevy of reasons. The final few seconds of the video I linked illustrate Freeman’s actual point: that drawing racial distinctions between people and using it to define them just makes racism worse, no matter how pure your intentions. But notice that the picture doesn’t reflect that. The excerpt ends at “Stop talking about [racism]”, because that is what many people–namely, people who aren’t affected by racism–want so badly to do.

The reason why I think this is such a popular solution to societal issues–in this case, racism–is because when you’re not affected directly by racism, it’s very easy to pretend that it doesn’t exist, that it’s just a marginalized view expressed by a couple of Confederate nostalgics that will one day die off and rid us of this pestilence. I’m an upper-middle class Chinese girl who lives in southern California. You have no idea how easy it was for me to go through elementary, middle, and part of high school believing that racism had been solved–and most of my peers felt the same way…except, unsurprisingly, for those of us who belonged to marginalized groups. In my sheltered bubble where everyone was financially privileged, white, or both, it was all too easy to think that racism was a relic of a bygone era. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Racism is still a thing, and it’s not as in-your-face as Jim Crow anymore. Hell yeah we have to talk about it.

We have to talk about racism because the causes and manifestations of racism in America are often now de facto than they are de jure. In other words, racism is not perpetuated so often by actual laws as it is by accepted societal mannerisms (and even now, we still have states wanting to implement voter ID laws, poll taxes, and gerrymandering their districts until they’re lily white). Chances are, if you’re like me, you were brought up not with outright disgust and fear of black people, but with a mild distaste and distrust in them. It wasn’t something that was explicitly taught to me, either; it was just that for the majority of my childhood, nearly everyone I hung around was white–and so that became subtly ingrained in the way I viewed people. I’m still trying to kick that to this day. And it gets worse. Did you know that there are still people out there who think that blackface is acceptable for a Halloween costume? Anyone with a remote knowledge of American racial history ought to realize that no, that is not by any means okay at all–like, wasn’t blackface the comedic device people invented specifically to parody and dehumanize black people? Yeah, let’s totally just dress up as Suzanne from Orange is the New Black and Gandhi even though we’re lily white because using makeup to make yourself look like a different race is totally okay, right? No. And we have to talk about that, because people might not know that. How about racially charged Halloween costumes, period? Here’s Chris Brown dressed up as a “terrorist”:

Haha, get it? Because terrorists are Arab? Let’s just put this turban together with this bullet sash and pretend that ordinary Muslims in America aren’t terrorized every day by people who can’t make the distinction between “extremist Muslim” and “the other 99.9% of Muslims and/or vaguely Middle Eastern-looking people”. Hey, remember that time when a couple of guys shot up a Sikh temple because they thought it was housing terrorists? Even though Sikh is only related to Islam by like, the wildest leaps of logic imaginable?

Oh, and how many of you have heard of the natural hair movement? Did you know that it’s still looked down upon for African American women and men to wear their hair in non-Western styles? This is pretty obvious if you do a Google search of Kerry Washington. Notice how all of her hairstyles are Western approved, even though her natural hair probably looks more like what she looked like in Django Unchained? (Sorry for having to mention that racist train wreck of a movie.)  And you can’t just explain it away as “Hollywood is an asshole”. No, this prejudice exists everywhere. Tiana Parker was sent home from school because her dreadlocks were not “presentable”, and she has since switched schools. She was seven. Seven. Imagine being told at that age that your hairstyle of choice, the one that was best suited to the way your hair grew out of your head, was not okay. Feel shitty yet?

Does anyone else find something kind of fucked up about the fact that wearing your hair in the way that it grew out of your head is seen as unprofessional and unpresentable for a certain group of people? I mean…come on. Come the fuck on. And yet, most people probably didn’t realize this until I pointed it out. Another reason why we have to talk about racism.

How about this? You know how people still debate the usage of the n-word so much? At least in that context, we acknowledge on some level that using it, throwing it around, etc. is not okay. Because we’re talking about it, we’re keeping it real and acknowledging that tossing the n-word around in normal conversation can be really offensive. Not so with the word “gypsy”.

Seems so innocuous, right? I mean, we use the word “gypsy” to describe people who look like this:

Hell, Pacific Rim even named a Jaeger the Gipsy Danger:

Well, hold your horses there. Did you know that “gypsy” is a derogatory term for those nomadic peoples? The correct term (and the one Romani lobbyists would insist you use) is Romani. “Gypsy” was a word created by other peoples to dehumanize and label them as dirty, thieving delinquents. Hell, “gypped” is a word in English vocabulary that means “cheat or swindle”. And guess what? We’ve so normalized and accepted the use of this racist slur that we named a giant robot “Gipsy Danger” in a film that, by all accounts, was really progressive in terms of representing non-white characters leading the story! We toss this term around and are legitimately shell-shocked when we realize that it’s a hurtful, racist slur! And you know what? We need to talk about that!

In short: “stop talking about it” is a lazy solution to racism concocted by people who are not affected by it, derive privilege from it, and feel uncomfortable having to question their daily habits and being aware of whether or not their actions are insensitive or offensive. And you know what? Fuck comfort. These are painful conversations, but we have to have them. You can’t just will societal problems out of existence. Societal problems become societal problems because people start to see them as accepted norms, not things that need to be solved. That’s why it’s still so hard to uproot sexism, classism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia–you name it. Because most people are unaware of how these things manifest, it’s nigh impossible to have an enlightened conversation on them and figure out as a society how to solve them.

And that’s just not okay.

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2 Responses to We Don’t Live in Imaginationland

  1. joannetechie says:

    thank you for mentioning mainstream media here, where in general, where finding a show/movie/book/anything with a POC main character is a rare thing. but the thing is that with the success of elementary and pacific rim, more and more shows are starting to branch out in terms of main characters (orange is the new black, sleepy hollow, almost human, etc.) media, when done right, can be a powerful tool to change the mindset of those who are privileged and don’t know it.

    • lynnbetson says:

      I completely agree. I think films like Twelve Years A Slave send their own jarring, haunting messages, but the biggest success of everything you mentioned above is just that it’s so subtle; by seamlessly incorporating POC characters into what would be, to a lazy casting director, an all-white narrative, we’re removing the cultural barriers to non-white characters. It’s only when people sit up and realize, “Wow, this cast is FULL of non-white characters!” that they also sit up and realize, “Wait, why is this such an unusual thing?”

      Thanks for your thoughts!

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