Now. Let's have a little chat about diversity and the need for diversity in the arts.
I recently went to see a friend's show. Before I go further, I just want to say this: I liked it. I enjoyed the show, the performances, the whole shebang. Okay? Can you trust me on that? Thanks. Anyway. I go to see this show that is about race. No, it's not this. (Though what a lovely website you have, Mr. Mamet.) It was a small little show about the racial divide. And, in it, I saw a scene that practically made me roll my eyes out of my head. It's a scene we've all seen in every play, movie or TV show where a white person who "doesn't know black people" encounters a black person for the first time. The white person makes some offhand, casual remark with racial overtones. The black person (usually a male) responds, "...What?" Suddenly there's tension in the air. After a beat, the black guy smiles and says something along the lines of "Just kidding!" And we all have a laugh. But we all know that he wasn't kidding, that he was offended and in the climax of the play, there will be fisticuffs over it. It's a standard trope of plays written by white people about how they interact with black people.
Here's the thing: I've never, in my life, seen it happen. I've lived, as I've mentioned before, an exceedingly assimilated life. I'm very aware that I'm, generally, the only black person most of my white friends are close to, probably, in most cases, the only black person they really know. Since I was young, I was the first black person a lot of people have encountered. And, trust me, I've gotten almost all of the racially insensitive questions, remarks, observations. (Yes, I know my hair is just like steel wool, thank you very much. And no, I don't play ball.)
But this scenario, repeated over and over, I've never encountered. Usually, when I'm meeting a white person for the first time and they make an insensitive or bigoted remark, it's not casual. It doesn't slip out. It's part of a testing mechanism to see what my reaction is. And, in general, my reaction is to either get offended and make that known or get offended and let it slide for any number of reasons. I'm pretty sure that most of my assimilated black friends have similar calculations in their head. But this gotcha? Never seen it.
Granted, early on, I made a choice about the kind of person I would be in the world. Angry black men don't go far in this world, so I've generally opted for affable, easygoing. And people generally respond in kind. They may think and say some awful, horrible shit when I'm around the corner (and I bet they do), but they actually know better than to say it when I'm around. Even the most insensitive, obnoxious people I know know better.
But this scene...this scene is important, I think, to understanding what happens when a white person writes about black people. In Rob Weinert-Kendt's think piece about race on Broadway, he makes these observations:
With few exceptions, though, America's black playwrights write about race— when they choose to write about race at all—as it's lived within their own families and communities; precious few have chosen race relations as their main subject.This, I think, sums up the Dances With Wolves/Avatar problem and leads us to the problem of why black people on TV are treated so poorly. In the Gotcha scene, the writer is setting us up with one central character trait for the black guy: he's an Angry Black Man With A Chip On His Shoulder, even if he's hiding it right now. It's the gun in the first act. We're just waiting for him to explode.
When white playwrights, on the other hand, write about race, they gravitate toward redemptive civil rights dramas, wary-friendship-between-the-colors buddy comedies, racial "problem" plays.
The white person may be insensitive, but he (or sometimes she) is insensitive out of inexperience and naivete. The Angry Black Person, though, is angry out of experience and needs to learn that this white person is different. And they almost always are, by the end of the play. The journey is all on the white person to learn about another person's experience and grow. The Angry Black Person, if they even survive, has only to learn some grudging respect for the newly enlightened white person and it's all good. Hell, half the time, the play or movie ends with the black person pulling the same Gotcha on someone else. The anger is always there.
When I was a kid, the only black kid in my class, we had a class discussion about race. And sure enough, I was being called on to defend all manners of bad behavior. One thing that still sticks with me was this one girl telling a story about how she tried to get on a bus and some black girl called her "Whitey" and told her to get out of her way. The white girl wanted me to explain why this girl would do that to her, when she hadn't done anything, and how wasn't that racism? And I did. I tried to explain that sometimes people have bad days and take it out on strangers. The girl wasn't having it. At that early age, I realized that for too many people, their brief interactions with people of other races were largely unpleasant and somewhat mysterious. We were all the other, moving through life according some bizarre, dream-logic that made no sense to a rational, young woman like her. Maybe that's when I opted for Nice Guy. I don't know. But I see this pattern repeat again and again.
Art is one of the places where we can have an effect on this. And we have. But too often it's the wrong effect. Think about your favorite show with a single black regular character. (Or even semi-regular.) What kind of person is that character? I'm betting they're either arrogant and talented or angry, talented and arrogant. They usually have escaped some urban hellhole to get where they are and are constantly throwing that in people's faces. Sure, they have a soft underbelly, but they're hard. And chances are, they're a subordinate to the main character. Maybe they're an equal in another department. Maybe. But if they are equals, they're rivals.
This happens because so many shows and movies and plays are written and conceived by white people. Honestly, it's not just because they don't have a lot of experience with black people or minorities, exactly. It's because, as white people, they're trying to fix a long history of doing wrong, I think. On some unconscious level, they're thinking, Maybe this play, this movie, this script can make a difference. That it's up to them to show that black people aren't all that bad. So to begin with, they kind of have to be all that bad.
This matters, though, because it affects the way people think and act in the real world. It affects the expectations of the real world. If people expect black people to be overly sensitive (as most black characters are), they don't want to hang around them for fear of an explosion. Hell, just thinking that sooner or later, this person is going to explode in a fit of Keeping It Real Gone Wrong, is reason enough to keep your distance.
We do have a chance to make things better, to make this a better world, but, in order to do that, we need more variety, more diversity, more voices. One of the great things about this novel is that it brings the world of the minority nerd to the forefront. We exist, just like y'all. It might be good for you to meet us.
When Freeman asks what I mean by diversity, it's my one place to get all racialist: I want more black people on stage, more black people in administrative positions, more black people in the house. To do that, we have to stop teaching black people that, deep down inside, they're all okay. They know that.
PS - I meant to say, H/T to the irreplaceable Josh Conkel for the HP video.