Dear Fellow White People: Please start seeing color.

First, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the genius that was Viola Davis Sunday night, accepting her Emmy as the the first black woman to win an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama, for her work in How to Get Away with Murder.

Davis’ speech, brief as it was, brims with power — from the imagery taken from Harriet Tubman to the naming of her black actress peers. Yet, as Caroline Framke points out,

“the lines that stand out are her indictments of systemic disenfranchisement: ‘The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.'”

Swoon.

Now, some of you may wish to stop reading right here. Watch Ms. Davis a few more times, maybe head over to Feministing to relish some of the evening’s other #blackgirlmagic moments.

Please.

The week’s barely half-over, after all. I want y’all to be good to yourselves.

And I’m about to venture into the muck of the Twitterverse on on awards night when a person of color gets recognized — and, well…that stuff can get rather not-so-pretty.

You're SURE I can't scare you off?
You’re SURE I can’t scare you off?

The brouhaha wreckage I stumbled upon while scrolling through Twitter on my phone early Monday morning (while lying in bed, cuz what’m I gonna do? get up before the alarm goes off? MADNESS) stemmed from an actress tweeting comments about Davis’ speech that — in addition to being dismissive, ignorant, and rude — were, in the grand scheme of White Entitlement, unfortunately nothing new. I mean, “middle-aged white woman and self-declared ‘I don’t see color’-type says something racially offensive, then reacts with defensive meltdown when called on it” is not generally Stop the presses!-level news.

[And if it were? I suspect my buddy Gutenburg would still be waiting around for his invention to catch on. Have you tried a Kickstarter yet, Johannes? I bet some of those movable types would make for a popular reward!] 

No, Nancy Lee Grahn’s comments were “just stupid,” in Veronica Wells’ words, and I have nothing to add to that assessment. Grahn has since apologized, deleted most of her Twitter feed from that night, and vowed to learn from the experience — which was really the only appropriate course of action open to her by then. [Maybe next awards season, she’ll give the ol’ ‘keeping it shut in the first place’ strategy a whirl.] Now it’s only time will tell, yadda yadda, and since she’s neither a personal friend nor an object of my fangirling, I don’t much care.

But here’s what did get me thinking. In the wee hours of the morning, as Grahn attempted to respond personally to (what looked like) every single person who commented at or about her, in a series of tweet-responses now lost to the ether — somewhere between the ‘I was raised to not see color’ and the ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ — came a plaintive request: “teach me.”

Of course, since she sent the same response to about 20 different recipients in a row, it came out more as:

…teach me teach me teach me teach me teach me teach me…

As a rule, any staccato series like that — butbutbut, whywhywhy, teachteachteach — indicates an Attempted Derailing In Progress™. And so, also as a rule, my typical response goes something like:

you have to stop

What Monday morning got me thinking about, though, has nothing to do with Nancy Lee Grahn or her tweets [see above re. IDGAF] — but rather, the questions people I do know sometimes ask.

Because of what I write on this blog, and the comments and links I post on Facebook, I get asked things like:

  • What am I supposed to do with this information? What can I do?
  • Here’s a thing that seems kinda problematic to me. Can you help me put my finger on why?
  • I’ve started to understand what it means that I have [this or that form of] privilege. Now what?
  • Other than just feeling angry and overwhelmed by all this, what do I do?

None of these strike me as ‘teach me! teach me!’ questions, to be clear. They are all ‘can you help me learn?’ questions, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

And which is why — despite the fact that my strong suit of “snarky discourse analysis” often does not lend itself well to “gentle coaching through the minefields of white fragility and race in America” — I keep looking for better ways to answers these questions. (Also? The person who asks most frequently…is me.)

My answers often find their way back to the blog in some fashion, whether as a fully-formed 5 Second Rant or a comment on how I try to grapple with my own privileges. But so far I haven’t talked much about my approach to entertainment consumption, despite the amount of time I spend thinking about it. Wanna hear one of my favorite strategies?

SEE COLOR.

That’s it.

See color — and be curious about what you see, as well as what you don’t.

I’m talking specifically about those moving images on the big and small screens, to be clear. This is not the whole “acknowledge the racial identities of all people you interact with, because otherwise you invalidate their experiences”-speech (though, yeah — do that too) (and yes, ffs — that means YOU TOO, Matt Damon).

Two years ago, when my PTSD was at its worst, I gave myself permission to watch fantasy/science fiction almost exclusively. If ain’t got werewolves or witches or fairy tale characters or zombies — or at the very least, a Slayer? I ain’t watching it. But even fantasy tv and films reflect particular understandings lifted from the non-mystical world. And so I always wonder, as I watch…

  • How many members of the main cast are POC? Are any POC lead characters — or are they relegated to “lead character’s friend” status? Do the POC usually (or only) play villains?
  • When a POC plays a supporting role, how many episodes does their character appear in?
  • Who gets to talk? How much do they say?
  • Who gets killed, and who survives? Who gets the show’s most violent onscreen death?
  • If there are any Native American/Indigenous characters, are they given present-day realities — or do they seem vestigial — dare I say: mystical — remnants from America’s past?
  • Do aliens and fantasy creatures function as stand-ins for racial differences? Are real-world experiences and traumas conferred upon non-human characters — who are all played by white actors?
  • Is racism ever used as shorthand for “this villain is villainous“, or is it handled with appropriate and realistic weight? Is the racist ever a motor vehicle?
  • How often are tired tropes invoked: the Magical Negro, the Noble Savage, the Angry Black Woman, etc.

The point is not to stop watching anything problematic. I like plenty of problematic things, as do we all. The point is to retrain my eyes and mind to notice the problematic things. After all, “it’s just a TV show” is another way of saying “it’s just a mass-produced means of drawing our (un)critical attention that itself (re)produces ideas of agency and dynamics of power.”

Only when I know what I’m watching, can I know if I want my media-diet to change.

And one thing I know?

I want to see so. much. more.

[via Skepchick]
[via Skepchick]

18 thoughts on “Dear Fellow White People: Please start seeing color.

  1. Well said! I could never understand why some people did not see what the big deal was! Black women have been on the screen for years.The inequality in Hollywood and disproportionate level of award giving to blackwomen is as transparent as a window. Loved this.X

    Like

    1. Yes, exactly! Viola Davis is such a powerhouse actor — to limit the kinds of roles she (and other actors of color) are offered is to grossly limit the stories and experiences that can be told.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. SEE COLOR. Love and appreciate that. When we ignore the problem and pretend it’s not there it doesn’t go away it just continues to perpetuate. As someone who pursued acting for years and was frustrated by the lack of lead opportunities, I so appreciated Davis saying that what is missing for women of color is opportunity, which is why it makes it harder if not impossible for them to win Emmys, Oscars, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! I am completely Team Viola after this speech! In fact, ever since she took the lead role in Shonda Rhimes’ second series helmed by a black woman — and got a seat in the resulting public limelight — Davis has been making one powerful statement after another. Even though I may never watch this particular show (see my above discussion of “but does your show have vampires??”), I am still incredibly grateful for her casting.

      Do you mind if I ask how long you pursued acting before turning to other projects? [No good reason for my asking this question, other than I’m a nosey parker! And I seem to remember you writing about the struggle of the actor’s life…Please shoot me a link, if you’ve written a post on this you’d care to share!]

      Like

  3. Thought provoking, as always. I never saw the woman’s tweet that you were discussing but I have a question about this:

    ” ‘I was raised to not see color’ and the ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ — came a plaintive request: “teach me.””

    This actually makes sense to me. People who grow up in a racist, sexist society unconsciously internalize racism and sexism and we don’t always see when we are being racist or sexist. So when someone points out a blind spot it makes sense to say, “teach me.” I mean we aren’t all perfect. I’m a feminist and I teach women studies but my own unconscious sexism still comes out at times. I’ve taken some Harvard tests of implicit bias and it appears that I still hold some biases. Yes, we can try to get rid of our biases, all on our own. But sometimes we need others to point out things that we don’t see, ourselves, because of our unconscious internalizations. And it makes sense to me to make that a teachable moment instead of just throwing out condemnation. Thoughts?

    Like

    1. As in everything else, context matters. Owning where my own question is coming from matters, and recognizing that the responsibility for learning is mine — and mine alone — matters.

      So, for instance, based on how you’ve asked this question and what I know about you from our previous interactions and your own written work, what I hear from you is: “I’ve gotten to X point, and I recognize that Y and Z are challenging for me — help me understand better what you are saying.” Which is the kind of question I feel eager to engage with, and is exactly how I try to word my own questions. Cuz you’re absolutely right: we are all steeped in biases, conscious and un-. To think otherwise — or to think I can deprogram myself without help or feedback from anyone — would be an arrogant and dangerous delusion!

      In context, these particular tweets sounded less “teachable moment” and far more “you think I said anything wrong?? Well, I’m putting the burden on you to convince me that racial discrimination is a real thing that exists and to make me believe that black women *are* women, too. All in 140 characters or less.” In essence, Twitter WAS “schooling” her that night. She just wasn’t listening. [And tbh, I don’t think most of us can listen, right in that first flush of being called out. Stepping away until you cool off, and don’t feel so defensive = much. better. plan. than engaging with your critics all night long!]

      I think there’s another, crucial issue at play too, anytime it’s a matter of recognizing and undoing the biases of our own privileges. Which is that it is unfair of me — and microaggressive — to ask someone without my particular privilege to “teach me” how I am being problematic or oppressive towards them. Privilege often displays itself as ‘the right to be the least informed person in the room,’ and asking someone without the privilege in question to tutor me relocates my own emotional and intellectual burden onto the people already disadvantaged by my ignorance.

      Far better that I read a book! Or find another white [or cis, or middle-class, etc.] person to help me. 🙂

      Thanks for the conversation, as always!

      Like

  4. I was floored by Ms. Davis’s speech. I can picture exactly where I was when I heard it. I was on my way to work, almost to my gate when NPR played the story of her historic win. When she said “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” I said aloud to myself “What does that MEAN?” Because sometimes things sound like rhetoric, and also sometimes I am stupid and need things spelled out. And then she followed up with her second sentence, and it hit me like a wall of bricks. Yes. Exactly. NOW I understand! And it was exciting because I realized I CAN be taught.

    And to the actress I’ve never heard of who put her foot in it on Twitter, I empathize a little. I’ve said stupid, ignorant, insensitive before without realizing it. I do hope she learns from this incident and keeps her mouth shut in future. I’m realizing that the things I feel like I’m going to explode if I can’t say, probably should be kept to myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the greatest things for me about Davis getting the lead role in a prime time TV show [which — cards on the table — I have never watched and may never. Because NO VAMPIRES!] is the platform it has afforded her to be heard: on race and gender, on representation and labor, on Hollywood as both an industry and America’s dream factory. This is not the first time she has touched something profound. You might enjoy googling recent interviews with her sometime, if you have the chance!

      And yeah, I think it’s a rare white person who hasn’t done or said something racially egregious EVER. Most of us don’t end up all over the news for it, thankfully.

      Then again, most of us [in the category of “other white people I know or would ever want to,” that is!] don’t double- and triple-down on our egregiousness, publicly and for hours on end.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “I’m realizing that the things I feel like I’m going to explode if I can’t say, probably should be kept to myself.”

      haha! I believe “private journals” and “besties with a sense of discretion” were both invented to aid in the prevention of just such explosions!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Every time I watch her…shattered all over again. Then, of course, I go back to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and I can’t help but think…this is as far as we’ve come in 50 years? Really? So sad. So head-bashingly sad.

    Like

    1. It really is, isn’t it! That this should be the FIRST TIME IN 67 YEARS that a black woman gets formally recognized as a top dramatic actress?! And still there are people who maintain that this is purely coincidental, or else — gods help us — merely evidence of real differences in individual merit.

      Liked by 1 person

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