A couple of times in the last three months, I’ve had a conversation about racism in performances that has gone like this:
Me: “…and as a choice, I think that’s a very problematic way for the director to have gone and ultimately I find that it perpetuates harmful racist stereotypes.”
Other person: “Well, the actor of color had a choice to play this part or not and they chose to do it, so why is it a problem? They consented to this. Are you saying they shouldn’t be allowed to do what they want or to play this kind of role?”
In the moment, the first time, I spluttered a little bit. Because that’s not what I’m saying at all. I think people are completely allowed to do what they choose if it’s not hurting anyone else, and that it’s another handicap of being in a minority that people assume that your individual choices have to stand in for your entire minority group. It’s not fair. I get that.
In thinking about it more, though, I think this is the wrong conversation.
The conversation about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs is not about her backup dancers choosing to perform that night. Who knows why they did? It’s a huge, star-studded event with tons of cachet to put on the resume; they were probably paid very well; maybe they didn’t even personally have a problem with anything that happened in the show. That’s not the point.
The point is a larger cultural one. The point is that there’s a way that people of color (and in the VMA case, women of color) are portrayed that is harmful to them and that is sadly not the exception to the rule but the rule. The point is that the more that we as the people with money and power choose to continue to portray them in harmful ways, even in seemingly irrelevant showcases like in some silly award show, the more people inherit these stereotypes, the more young people of color think that’s what they’re supposed to be, and the more subtle foundations for future harm get laid.
Everyone is allowed to make their own choices. Sometimes they don’t even realize the broader social implications of those choices. And everyone is allowed to act as an individual. But other people are also allowed to tell them when their choices are racist or sexist or homophobic or otherwise perpetuating images that might actively hurt other people. Then it’s up to them to do what they want with that information–refute it, try to do something different next time, ignore it, whatever.
I’m more interested in the broader conversation, the one about the content of the performance, why it’s problematic, why the multiple people working on it made that choice, and what we as an audience do with it. So I don’t think I’m going to have the above conversation anymore, because it’s a narrowing of scope away from what I find to be most important to talk about.
If that’s not okay with you, that’s fine. I hope your own conversations go well.