Ever since Charleston, I’ve been watching myself. I’m so far from perfect you can’t even see it from my breakfast table, but I’ve been asking the questions, over and over: where am I actively, outspokenly, effectively, daily anti-racist? Where am I not? How can I do better?
Certainly, I’ve done better on Facebook. I spend a lot of time there; I’m choosing to say more and stay silent less, and that’s deliberate. I’m engaging more often and rolling my eyes less often. I’ve got a network; I’m learning who of my friends is willing to join with me and who is not.
And my life has always been just a few steps to the side of the experiences shared by most people around me. I’m brown (mixed race) acculturated mostly white, trying to figure out what that even means in a conversation that’s got nothing but stark no man’s land for border dwellers.
The first time a saw a movie with all South Asian actors, I was in my early 20’s and it took me half an hour to turn off the TV when the videotape ended. I looked at my partner at the time and said, “Is that what it’s like to be white?” He didn’t really understand the question. And how could he? He had no way of knowing that when you don’t see yourself reflected in the media around you, ever, you either bend your identity to fit what you are seeing or you begin to believe you don’t exist. The complexities of multicultural and multiracial identity can wait; my point here is that I rarely saw any South Asians on TV or in the movies and when I did we were weird exotic outliers, more often than not. There were only a handful of us in town and we didn’t happen to cross paths, except one person with whom I was constantly getting confused. Even when I expanded the “us” in my head to include Middle Eastern families, there was still just not much context.
And context matters. Social media, TV, newspapers, movies, mattered then and they matter now. Video games, comics, novels: matter. Who we see matters. I recently signed on to beta read for author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who is working on a fantasy novel with a strong base in South Asian culture and I am delighted every time something feels familiar to that corner of myself that is so often neglected. This is my experience. But it has been giving me ideas about #blacklivesmatter. Because media matters, and not just the news.
I’ve been sick for about a week. So when I sat down to watch Netflix and all of my usual suspects had been exhausted, I flipped through and landed on a kind of a classic chick flick. Boy meets girl, stressful situation, they fall in love, external circumstances conspire against them, in the end they triumph. Not super complicated. But. About halfway–maybe further–through the movie, I noticed that damn near all the characters were black. Of course if you’d asked me in scene two, I would have told you that they were. But I was more interested in this cop who was being groomed for politics, the stage mom turned manager, the talented performer, so it took a while before the analysis kicked in. And I realized that there are choices I make. I can choose to seek out more media with black characters, with leading roles and supporting casts that are black. There are a striking number of stories that could be authentically told in nonwhite contexts that are not. And with Netflix at the ready, it’s hardly justifiable to only see movies I’m sure of. When I visited DC a couple of months ago, I was kindly lent a car; the owner had the radio tuned to the radio station of Howard University. I was delighted. And I didn’t touch that dial. We don’t have black radio here in Scarborough, Maine, at least not that I’ve found. But I bet it’s on the internet.
And when all the music I always listened to seemed to be associated with some painful past moment of my life, I turned to Songza and found it thick with R&B and hip-hop, which I didn’t think I liked, but I was wrong. Then there was the revelation when I discovered that I knew absolutely zero about funk, its history, its connection to American civil rights movements, or anything else. So I’m getting myself educated now. Better late than never.
When I was a teen there were black kids all around me–not as often in my classes, because racism is rampant in our schools–but on the bus, in the halls, in the cafeteria. Since I left that part of the country I’ve lived in very white places, most of the time. Aside from a two year stint in Chicago, everywhere else has been overwhelmingly white. My cultural exposure has been limited by my geography. Now I know that movies are not reality, but I also know I learned a LOT from books as a kid, and there’s truth in the cracks where the light gets through.
So I’m making a conscious choice to seek out media that represents the world I live in, not just the street where I hang my hat. It changes my brain. And that matters.