Through the White Looking Glass: How People of Color are Portrayed by Hollywood

Just this past week a well-intentioned look at racial relations hit the theaters, Black or White. No sooner did it make it’s critical review debuts than did people in the film community begin to take notice of its very white point-of-view. In her brilliant piece in Forbes on the film, and how it dangerously waddles into “white savior” territory, Rebecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC on twitter) notes the following:

The movie is chock full of Black tropes and stereotypes…“Black or White” practices the same type of lopsided storytelling where Elliot’s alcoholism is contextualized with the death of his wife, yet the Black characters are devoid of any kind of complexity or humanity. While Elliot harbors very bigoted views, his thoughts and actions are still framed with a sympathetic gaze while the Jeffers family is essentially penalized for their own family dysfunction and deemed unworthy of raising Eloise.

When the creators tried to promote the film with the hashtag #LoveKnowsNoColor – many reacted with similar disdain, recalling how it is avoiding the discussion of color and resulting prejudice altogether. It is in avoiding this topic of race/color that creates so much discomfort and misunderstanding. To say there is no color is exemplary of how for whites, it’s not about color, because whites are not qualified by the color of their skin by society at large, they are not “people of color.” White people don’t fear being stopped by police, or having people lock their car doors as they pass, because for them, there is no color. To deny the topic of color is the epitome of white privilege.

And this is the problem, these well intentioned films get filtered through the White point-of-view. These progressives are essentially the white-savior types themselves, attempting to educate people on a topic they themselves barely understand. And it is in this misunderstanding that people like Ms. Theodore note is just as problematic as blatant discrimination and prejudice.

But how and why does this even happen? Simply because most films are written by White people, commissioned by White people, directed by White people and marketed largely by White people. More specifically, by White people who before their time in big cities home to many media companies, had very little interaction with the Black community.

Allow me to contextualize my own authorial bias. I am a native of the five boroughs of New York City. Unlike many of the Midwestern transplants and folks that come from homogenous White townships and counties to places like New York and Los Angeles, I grew up in an ethnic enclave of many races, religions and beliefs. Flushing, New York is probably one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in New York City. I grew up with “Black friends” just as I did with Italian friends, Chinese friends, Irish friends, German friends, British friends …only I never called them my “black friends” any more than I called my Italian friends “my Italian friends.” I don’t think White people realize how ridiculous they sound when they qualify someone by their background in one context, but never for other white people.

The problem with onscreen representation of People of Color is not just that it is filtered through a White Point of View, but an ignorant one. I don’t believe it is intentionally ignorant, but until we have a serious conversation about race and how where we come from shapes that impact, I don’t believe we will overcome this racial tension and bias. You may be well-intentioned, but when you come from a small town with a >2% Black population in the whole county to Hollywood, you are unintentionally biased by your own upbringing.

“No, not me, I am racially tolerant!” folks may say. This is the problem, instead of getting defensive, try and listen for once, try and see the other point of view instead of looking at the topic through your own White looking glass defense. I want people to really question the way they view folks of color. I want people to really think about when they moved to the city, who did they hang out with? Other folks from the same state, probably from similar economic backgrounds, but most importantly: other White people. I look at these folks, and see people scared of their own progressive White shadow. They really have hid from the fact that they have no concept of what it means to be Black in America, or what growing up in a racially diverse community is like. They are White, their POV is White, they only know White – specifically 98% White.

This film should be a calling-card for diversity in Hollywood. We need to have more point’s of view behind the scenes in order to have a more impactful and sincere version of our diverse culture. We need more films written by POC, directed by POC, promoted by POC. The main force behind the film, the screenwriter/director of Black or White grew up in a town with a .91% Black population!  Not even 1%!!!! The producer grew up in suburban Alabama, which needs no introduction to race. The star, Kevin Costner, grew up in suburban (mostly White) California. All three men are middle-aged, and White. Their POV is middle aged and white.

Of course the other issue here is that you don’t want to typecast POC into only writing/sharing culture about themselves. Why is it someone who grew up in a town with less than 1% Black population can write about Blacks, but a Black man or woman is mostly reserved for “re-writing Black characters” or “Black comedies?” We definitely need to see a more authentic POV, but the other problem is in the way Hollywood typecasts career roles for one race, but not the other.

Lets get real about racial representation on film. The same goes for one-dimensional women, damsel in distress, rescued by smart man tropes for female characters written by guys. Diversity isn’t just common sense, it helps paint a more true/diverse picture of our greatest cultural export: film/TV. And oh, by the way, it sells pretty well too. If that cultural export is largely filtered through the White Looking Glass, then we are doomed to only be sharing a small sliver of our cultural bias: the White male POV. So today, whether you are a creative or not, step outside your comfort zone and ask questions, listen and stop getting defensive. Improving diversity begins with learning how to exit your own unrealized biases by taking those important steps toward understanding.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s