As a Dominican-American writer, I’ve oftentimes found the most poetry and words in my culture and the history kneaded among it. While a melange of my works has definitely attempted to capture the arresting and vibrant facets of the heritage, I’ve found there to be an underlying pressure to discuss and/or mention the struggles faced as a person of color.
It is what receives the most recognition—the mention of pain and despondency is compelling to editors and audiences, however, we must also analyze how media is always eager to attach these struggles to people of color so as to profit off of it. There are scarce moments in films, writing, and shows in which characters of color can be just that: Characters of color. Writers or producers, often white, utilize these struggles to provide nuanced storylines. And while representation and diversified portrayal is integral, there are forms of media that slackly fuse these stories for profit.
The telling of people of color’s affliction is something that must undoubtedly be acknowledged—in books, films, and other mediums of media. It is a pertinent portion of history that must be addressed across all spectrums; however, media has sort of reconfigured this idea in an attempt to commodify off of people of color’s struggles.
Take HBO’s announcement regarding the airing of a new show entitled “Confederate,” which warps the narrative of the Civil War by providing an alternate stance in which the Confederacy wins the war. Not only does this present an absolute tone-deaf and negligent perspective on historical reality, but it’s also really indicative of a more pressing and pointed issue: Producers love probing into social issues and curating a framework that constructs a more marginalized image for people of color, especially black people. It perpetuates the notions of systemic oppression by giving particular groups of people, in this case, white supremacists, something to further indulge in so as to validate their repressive beliefs.
And let’s discuss Orange is the New Black—a show in which the stories of women of color are often integrated with narratives that heavily follow stereotypes, and while the writers are attempting to display one of those nuanced storylines, it’s extremely unsettling to think the writers are molding these characters without any sort of direct perspective.
Now, let’s pivot the focal point on something more absolute: Poussey’s death.
The writers attempted to draw dialogue regarding police brutality by portraying the correctional officer, Baxter Bayley, who killed her as a fresh, guileless, and naive young man who didn’t mean to do intentional harm. However, that’s a skewed image, as the officers who murder black people are oftentimes the absolute opposite. This adds to the futile attempts that the writers make in order to meld their pseudo-social activism into the show. Rather than prompting actual discourse, they exploited black trauma as a means of entertainment.
One book that has set a disconcerting tone for me is Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, which follows the progression of a relationship between two teenagers. Park is half-Korean and Eleanor is white; Rowell includes social commentary regarding assimilation through components such as Park’s mother’s decision to change her name to Mindy so as to sound Americanized. The vast aspect of the novel that bothered me most was Eleanor’s continuous use of racist dialogue and wrongful depiction of Asian-Americans. In Rachel Sun’s article regarding this subject, she describes Rowell’s stances as “somewhat insulting.”
Published in the Los Angeles Times, she writes of the blatant fetishization and racism. “And perhaps that was playing into the culture of the late 1900’s and depicting the nature of our society back then,” Sun writes, “but it did not come across as being self-aware. To me, it seemed more like blatant racism and ignorance towards Korean culture than anything else.” This captures how white authors who attempt to diversify their pieces often rely on racial stereotypes rather searching for correct facets of the given culture.
It’s important for inclusive spheres to portray genuine and thoughtful narratives—narratives that offer an insightful and direct perspective from those who have experiences to flesh out from, narratives contrived not for profit but for palpable, educational, and raw reasoning. That is what is lacking most in media.
Yes, write more diversified and representative storylines across all mediums. Yes, absolutely. But also include more stories that don’t centralize around people of color’s struggles.
We want to see ourselves in different plots – not just as mere commodities.