SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Steve Donaldson

Race and Representation

I was always aware of diversity and racism from an early age.  However, it was not until recently that I became aware of the modern, subtle form of racism.  Stereotypical racism from the likes of the Klan or Neo-Nazis is one thing, however the vast majority of racism today takes the route of subterfuge; unseen and silently accepted.

To understand my ignorance, you must understand that my sheltered, isolated life.  I was never in public frequently enough to experience racism.  Being white, racism was never projected towards me.  Most of my social interaction occurred over the internet with people scattered across the planet.  I have had friends living in Europe, Australia, Asia and South America.  As interaction was not face-to-face, race and identity were not apparent; I had defaulted people to being white due to an engrained white-supremacist paradigm.  I was privileged enough to explore the world freely from a comfortable distance; without having to immerse myself in reality.

A paradigm is a model or pattern in which ideas can vary, but within a confined space.  One can shift their position within the paradigm, but it is futile to believe changing position will ever affect the paradigm itself.  In order to affect the paradigm, the paradigm itself has to be altered.  A paradigm shift must occur to redefine that confined space.  In this case, the paradigm is the idea white-skin is the default, the norm, and that diversity is deviation.

 In 2012, the concept of this specific paradigm was made known to me with the movie, The Hunger Games.  My girlfriend brought up her discontent with the way the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, was cast.  She explained to me despite the book’s description of Katniss as having “straight long black hair, which she normally pulls back into a long braid, olive skin and gray eyes,” only white actresses were considered for the role.  In the end, they went with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence.  Though she dyed her hair black for the role and she did a superb job playing the role, the exclusion non-white actresses in the casting call erased any chance of portraying her as anything but white.

   This incident was not unique and lead me onto a journey, exploring the long history of “white-washing” within Hollywood.  It is the process in which non-white characters are played by white actors or actresses; effectively erasing diversity and ethnicities from entertainment. It has been common practice in big-cinema for a long time.  The most recent offender is the movie Noah (2014), which has an all-white cast despite taking place in Biblical Egypt.

However, white-washing turned out to be only a piece of a much bigger issue: representation.  People of color are underrepresented positively in American culture.   The media tends to paint minorities negatively and in entertainment they are most often erased entirely, cast derogatorily or antagonistically.  Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was notorious for this.  The only non-white characters in Tolkien’s fantasy universe were the orcs (a racist caricature of black people) and the Easterlings, dark-skinned men, irredeemably evil and sworn to Sauron.

With this revelation, I discovered that was guilty of obeying this racist status-quo by making the vast majority of the cast of my own writing project white.  Although I never demonized ethnicity or exhibited prejudice, I learned that merely adjusting my position in the paradigm still supported white supremacy.  Without thinking, I had always defaulted new characters as being white.  To rectify this issue, I had to consciously abandon the existing paradigm; redefine it:  diversity is the true norm.  I have since adopted multi-lateral approach to designing diverse characters, keeping the issue of representation in mind.

Attempts at increasing representation in entertainment has been met with vocally racist backlash.  Relating to the debut of the Hunger Games movies, many people were surprised to discover a major canon black character was played by a black actress.

“Why did Rue and Cinna have to be black?  Why did the producer make all the good characters black?  I was pumped for this movie until I learned a black girl was playing Rue.  Not going to lie, it kind of ruined the movie for me.  I’m not racist or anything but when I found out she was black, her death wasn’t even as sad.  It was just an awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not some blond innocent girl you pictured from the book.  The studio should have just stuck to the book, these unnecessary changes show how bad Hollywood has gotten these days.

As if Hunger Games wasn’t enough, Hollywood plans to make the Human Torch of the upcoming Fantastic Four movie black.  Hollywood just changes stuff so they can appear witty, but really this is just a publicity stunt.  They really need to just stick to the source material.  They’re damaging the established lore from 80 years of comics.  Besides, it makes no sense considering the Invisible Woman is his sister and she’s still white.  Making him adopted will damage the team dynamic just like making him black already ruined the team’s aesthetic.  This isn’t even about race, the characters are white.  They’ve always been white.  It’s wrong to just change the race of a character!”

I once assumed we lived in a post-racism America, that racism was something that disappeared after the Civil Rights’ movement in the 1960s.  Instead, I learned racism is alive and well from watching racist fans openly harp about their outrage over a canonical black character being portrayed as black; their inability to perceive black as innocent and empathetic.  Though these young fans might have their racism written off as ignorance, it’s hauntingly similar to George Zimmerman’s inability to perceive Trayvon Martin as innocent and empathetic.  Racism had become a paradigm.

The largest reason why I find my incident an important, defining moment of discovery is because I bought into this paradigm without knowing.  Without thinking, I supported the very racism I abhorred.  My incident matters to me because it is the moment I pierced the veil.  It was like seeing the strings dance to the hands of a puppeteer for the first time.  Since this revelation, I’ve begun to see such exclusion as a terrible, common cliché.  But the worst is the representation in mass-media.  Portrayal of fantasy and fiction is one thing; portrayal of real-life is another.

Minorities are disproportionately represented in negative light.  The stereotype of the thuggish, dark-skinned criminal is a product of this representation.  It is also why people have such trouble imagining the young, innocent Rue as anything but white or the heroic, hot-tempered, crime-fighting Human Torch as black; neither doesn’t adhere to the stereotype and that makes innately racist people uncomfortable. 

In the most recent 2014 shooting of Mike Brown, the media, despite having a multitude of pictures to choose from, decided to go with the most stereotypical, negative images of Brown to make him appear as though he was a stereotypical aggressive criminal, deserving of his death.  The same was done with Trayvon Martin, two years prior. 

People, in response, started a trending hash-tag (#iftheygunnedmedown) on twitter centered on the media’s bias against positive imagery for minority victims.  People would post two pictures of themselves: one picture would be a negative image such as smoking or drinking, while the other would show something positive such as a graduation or family photo.  The poster would then ask which picture would be used to convey their identity in the event they were murdered by racially-motivated police.  The consensus is that the media would almost always go with the picture that painted the victim as an aggressive criminal.

My intention is to never contribute to this disgusting trend with my own projects and story-telling.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage