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.'”
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.
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.
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:
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 — 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.