What’s Race Got to Do With It?

Vicky

Recently, I was scrolling through my social media, giggling at various pet pictures and Star Wars memes. My laughter came to an abrupt halt as I read through the comments and saw the one comment that always makes my blood boil. “I agree with this, but why did the author have to bring race into it?”

Dear fellow white people: PLEASE STOP THIS.

Look, I’m white. I’m so white that last December 24th, my husband thought I was the ghost of Christmas Past. NASA has asked me not to sunbathe because the reflection on my skin causes interference with their observations of space. I see my skin color represented in the media all the time. From villains to protagonists to comedic relief characters, there is no shortage of people who look like me on the big screen.

My husband and I in Japan

My husband, however, is Southeast Asian. His family immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. And until I started dating him, race was simply not something on my radar beyond, “oh hey, Black people exist.” When I would see people talking about race in relation to their issues, I was apt to say, “Racism is illegal in this country! What does race have to do with this?”

Fellow white people, race has EVERYTHING to do with it.

Picture, if you will, living in a place where you are a racial minority. Maybe you’re living in rural Japan. Or maybe you’re living in Ghana, or Delhi, or Bangkok. You are the only white person in your community. You’re stared at while walking down the street. People ask you seemingly benign questions, but they are essentially asking you to speak for your entire race. Is that your real hair? Why do you need sunscreen? Why can’t you just spend all day out in the sun with your friends? When you come home at the end of the day, and all you want to do is relax and watch some TV, you’re blasted with advertisements for products not designed for you. That shampoo does nothing for your hair. That lotion has bleach in it. 

To top things off, no one on TV looks like you. You could never pursue your dream of acting here, because there are no roles for people who look like you. And on the rare occasion that someone who looks like you does appear in a movie or TV show, they are a comedic relief character displaying offensive racial tropes, or they are a villain who everyone loves to hate. People who look like you are never portrayed as love interests or complex, interesting characters.

Sounds exhausting, right?

It is, and I know it is because that was my reality while living in Japan for a year. I was the racial minority in an area where English was not widely spoken. There was one TV channel in English – CNN. Since I happened to be there during an election year when Bush would ultimately get re-elected, I was bombarded with questions about why he had been re-elected. Why did Americans do this? Why do you hate the rest of the world? Why are you so stupid?

Yet, this is nothing like what it is like to live as a Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color (BIPOC) in the U.S. But it was a tiny window into what it is like to live as a minority, and an experience that opened my eyes to the problems that minorities face worldwide.

Perhaps you think this doesn’t happen all that often. Allow me to share with you an encounter I have had more than once. A couple of weeks ago, I went to my child’s school to pick up supplies for her. Something that should have nothing to do with race, right? I gave the school staff member our last name which is very-obviously-not-European. Her eyes widened, and I spelled out the first four letters for her. This is a pretty typical reaction since my name can be pretty intimidating to people who aren’t accustomed to seeing it. When she came back with my child’s supplies, she pointed to our last name on the box and asked me, “Why would you do that to a child?” As if somehow thousands of children in Southeast Asia cannot learn their own names. My five year old can say our name just fine, why can’t an educator after I’ve said it multiple times to them in a short period? My husband and children heard this woman’s comment about our last name. The three of them remained quiet, my youngest not really understanding the encounter and my husband too shocked to respond. Apparently I clapped back something about it being my name, but I was too angry to remember what I said.

But “stop making everything about race,” right?

So why does representation matter in the media? Because my children, along with millions of other BIPOC people in the US, hear things like this every day. “Your name is too hard to pronounce.” “Wow, you’re so well spoken for a Black person!” “Ugh why are you speaking Spanish to your family? This is America, speak English!” “Why are you so upset by my sexy Pocahontas Halloween costume? You’re just looking to be offended.” 

There is a level of mental fatigue that comes from living in a place where you don’t feel like you belong. When the world is stacked against you, it’s difficult to believe that you can succeed. But when you see people who look like you as the hero of a story, it helps boost self-esteem.

When we, as a society, see minorities portrayed in a positive light, it helps to shape society’s opinion on them. Yes, we all bleed red. We all want love. We all want someone to care about us. We want to matter. But until we can start showing people that they DO matter, race will have everything to do with it.

Finn goes from villain to hero in The Force Awakens

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this attitude within the Star Wars community. When The Force Awakens revealed the character we came to know as Finn, a Black Stormtrooper who ended up becoming a hero, the reactions I saw were horrifying. “Stormtroopers can’t be Black! Ugh, this is just Disney trying to cater to the SJWs! Now we’re having forced diversity in Star Wars!” Never mind the fact that Stormtroopers were no longer clones long before The Force Awakens.

I am not privy to Disney’s reasoning behind putting a Black actor in a lead role, but I personally loved it. We got to see a Black character become a hero. We got to see him struggle with making a decision between self-preservation and putting his life on the line to fight evil. All things that we routinely see white protagonists do – but now we get to see that it is not only white people who struggle with these things. That underneath the melanin, we share the same struggles, the same desires, the same hearts. And while I in no way advocate for becoming color blind and hence ignoring the issue that exists, I think it is important to see that we have more commonalities than differences. This has a way of humanizing those who have been dehumanized and triggering a sense that we need to fight injustice.

Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico

For Black people, seeing Finn has everything to do with race because now we can see a 
Black man become a hero in a major franchise. In a society where Black men are often portrayed as murderers, drug dealers, or deadbeat dads, this is incredibly important. Southeast Asians are often portrayed in ways that glorify the sex trade in the region, so when a woman of Vietnamese heritage is portrayed as an important part of the resistance, it empowers my own children to see they aren’t a media cliché and don’t belong on the sidelines. That they are powerful and deserve respect and inclusion in all areas of life.

How can we as individuals and as a society do that? For starters, recognize the need for diverse representation in the media. When you see a Black Stormtrooper, if your first thought is, “oh this is forced diversity,” try reframing your mindset to say, “Hey, these Stormtroopers now realistically reflect a diverse galaxy!” When you see an actress of Vietnamese descent in a major role, don’t automatically sexualize her. Speak up when you see people saying racist things about actors. Seeing diversity in media is not only good for the people represented, it’s good for us white people too. It helps us create a healthier society that sees beyond melanin content. It helps us to see the diversity around us. And it opens our eyes to systemic racism so that we can identify how we can dismantle it.

It is very easy as a white person to dismiss things and say that race has nothing to do with it because for us it rarely does.  We’re well represented in media and our names are questioned more for which heritage we’re from, not as a negative comments.  Don’t dismiss the comments.  Don’t overlook representation in media. Instead applaud franchises like Star Wars who include and celebrate the beauty of diversity.  

The time is NOW to allow diversity to take center stage.