hidden fences and tripped syllables

Awards season is here–whether you foam at the mouth at the mention of “Oscar” or start to yawn instead. Regardless, now is the time when critics and audiences sum up the highlights of the cinematic year. We start hearing more and more about “Oscar bait,” a reference to the period films and historical biopics and somber dramas that usually garner the acclaim of the Academy. This is when we reap the so-called best of the harvest–the films that enter the pantheon of essential films introduced to later generations. For Americans, these films are meant to reflect the peaks of our cultural and creative endeavor.

So I was irked when a reporter interviewed Pharrell Williams at the Golden Globes for his work on “Hidden Fences.” The ire flared again when Michael Keaton later announced Octavia Spencer (a notable black actress) for her nomination in…again “Hidden Fences.” There is no “Hidden Fences.” There is the movie Hidden Figures and the movie Fences, both of which:

a) came out recently

b) contain predominantly black casts

c) have received much praise from audiences and critics alike

But it’s a simple flub right? Shouldn’t I let it go and simply move on–after all, people make mistakes when on-air all the time. However, to simply dismiss it would be to forget #OscarsSoWhite. Last year’s awards season controversy centered on the startling dearth of people of color featured in film and critical attention…at least startling to many white Americans. When the gap finally become too wide to miss, suddenly you saw this outpouring of indignant articles and tweets confronting the Academy.

Black Twitter and other spaces where POC congregate have been tackling this subject for years.

I find myself less trusting of mainstream awards shows when it comes to representation of minority groups–and for good reason. When an actor or actress of color becomes a media darling, the result can be a double-edged sword: while their performance or film receives deserved recognition, the awareness of their race also heightens with it, and it can lead to some painful “flubs.” I still remember how people cooed over child actress Quvenzhané Wallis a few years ago for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and yet few took the time to pronounce her name correctly. Her otherness took form in the syllables of her name, which became unwieldy steps tripped over by white announcers and reporters and late-night hosts.

She was not the only person of color to have her non-whiteness pointed at by Hollywood, and she was not the last. White Americans do not have a great track record when it comes to celebrating people of color in cinema. The African-American blog MadameNoire has a great tongue-in-cheek article that highlights just how many black celebrities have been mistaken for each other over the years. The gaffes turn into a joke on SNL and then the public moves on–but we haven’t moved forward. That two major films like Hidden Figures and Fences can be confused for each other when this doesn’t happen to the La La Lands and Allieds underlines the need for more media spaces opened to people of color. It also underlines just how desperately America needs re-education on how white privilege functions both on the screen and off.

If two black films getting popular is such an anomaly that they can be treated as interchangeable, even though they focus on different subject matter, how indistinguishable are black people in everyday life?

I’m not talking about friends and neighbors–I’m talking about what happens when the rich diversity of darker-skinned peoples becomes subsumed into Black (for more on the history of racial labeling, check out The History of White People). There is so much awkwardness and tension surrounding the use of the labels “White” or “white people,” and weirdly enough, a nonwhite person could be written off as a “reverse racist” for using them. No one bats an eye when you start talking about black people. The facile use of “Black” implies that those connected to that category as normalized as part of a collective while “White” is associated with the individual. Black can be collectivized, blended and stereotyped on that level while White has the option of remaining safely unique and independent (no, those jokes about “white people can’t dance” are not equivalent in this conversation). White people don’t actually have to be white or a people, but black people will still ping on the radar in relation to their racial group first.

This isn’t even a phenomenon exclusive to black people–I’ve observed many times when a Korean and Chinese person are confused for one another, when blanket statements about “those Hispanics” pop up in conversation, when a Indian friend is asked if their “English name” can be used instead because their actual name twists the tongue. It stings. Not only are people of color defined first by a group status, reducing our singularities, our identity is implied as “forever foreign” (as Mia Tuan points out in her book Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Todayor, simply, alternative to the norm–not white. When you are not the implicit norm, less time and space is allocated by the mainstream to examine those nuances that craft the complexity of your personhood.

Lack of exposure to diversity and a lack of effort to make those differences matter in personal practice cultivates this kind of latent indifference that slips into daily interactions. It may not be intentional, but it casts people of color in the role of the perpetual Other, and the reality is reinforced when our varied cultural ways of being, even down to the way we worship, can be construed as a deviation from standard–or worse, superfluous enough that it’s optional to learn our histories. That is why I took African-American Literature only as an elective in college–because we didn’t read black stories in the required core English classes. That is what it looks like to be on the margins: even your stories aren’t easily accessible.

In his speech on racial separatism, Malcolm X critiqued some contingents within the Civil Rights movement for over-emphasizing assimilation into American society as the ultimate goal of the movement. He stressed that the push for integration had not benefited black people–it just gave a new shape to their marginalization. He pointed to the white flight that occurred after neighborhoods were integrated, the economic disparities black people faced even as the color line by law appeared to dissolve. His words challenged listeners to think critically about whether assimilation signified true equality or a buttressing of whiteness as the ultimate aspiration for all Americans. I wonder if he feared what would be lost if black people were assimilated but not embraced on their own terms.

While I disagree with his conclusion that racial separation is the answer, I resonate with his frustration. Sometimes it feels like for all the self-congratulating speeches our nation gives itself on our progress, the otherness of our communities has been sharpened in the process. For instance, Black and Asian and Latinx persons shouldn’t be treated as exceptional only when they represent the exception for “their people,” framed in a triumphalist narrative that is palatable enough to be celebrated. When that happens, they are still being defined by their otherness and how well they negotiate it in white-dominated spheres of influence like Hollywood.

We shouldn’t need to be reframed or renamed to be welcomed as equals. We are allowed to be individuals, God-created persons who embody a mosaic of taste and talent and experience. And yet we should also avoid diluting our ethnic differences away to replace them with an antiseptic type of colorblindness that misses the richness of our individual and collective histories and cultures. There is a way to honor that variety without crystallizing it as atypical. Unity emerges from differences valued rather than tolerated.

We celebrate MLK’s birthday today, and it’s vital that we don’t romanticize the man and the injustices he noticed and challenged during his lifetime. MLK was a controversial figure who didn’t just speak of dreams–he spoke about the alienation of black people in a society not designed for our flourishing. He was the man who preached:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

MLK framed inequality as not only the result of these silences, but also as a reflection of our estrangement as a greater American community. We are still not one people when some members are accepted as American without a second thought while others clamber over the -dash.

When even the names of people of color cannot be pronounced correctly, the American story contracts a little more, and the walls press against the backs of those who rarely enter the center of the action. We (people of color) are here. Our stories already indent this land. So maybe it is not the belonging associated with assimilation that we seek. I don’t want to be melted away into a pot of progress, my blackness, my Latinxness ceasing to matter. Neither do I want that diversity casually stumbled over, glanced at, treated as alternative and alien instead of beautiful and right and utterly normal.

Maybe we simply want the freedom of visibility, to be acknowledged, not as beacons of racial progress to indulge or emblems of the exotic and unpronounceable to tease, but as equals. What is hidden and held back can be hurt; when those hidden step into the light, they are human, bodied, and lovable. MLK was one such person who mirrored Christ in the way his actions clothed once-invisible bodies so they would no longer be ignored or diminished. He helped dignify marginalized peoples and champion the worth already inherent in their creation. So now when our names are spoken, when our stories are shared, when we join with our brothers and sisters of all colors and take up more space in the fabric of America, we honor that legacy and carry it forward.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 

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