black hollywood, ‘what are you?’ and “that’s so raven”

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Today’s class brought up a lot of really interesting stuff for me. I went into this year thinking that 2 hours would feel like an eternity, but more often than not it feels like a fraction of the time needed to fully unpack the stuff we’re reading! Just to add a few things to what I said already today:

bell hooks: “Only a few of the black women I talked with remembered the pleasure of race movies, and even those who did, felt that pleasure interrupted and usurped by Hollywood. Most of the black women I talked with were adamant that they never went to movies expecting to see compelling representations of black femaleness. They were all acutely aware of cinematic racism – its violent erasure of black womanhood.” (464) This was a quote I was intending to put into my presentation and evidently forgot – it reminds me of Viola Davis’s Emmy, and the way that black actresses still seem like a novelty to many people. The word ‘usurped’ is interesting here; it always makes me think of Hamlet, and how Claudius usurped his throne. Here it seems to contrast with ‘interrupted’ – per the (Merriam-Webster) definition of ‘usurp’, has Hollywood “seize[d] and [held] (as office, place, or powers) in possession by force or without right” the power of black people in film/on TV? And how might a black viewer see this differently from a white viewer?

For instance, do white critics assume that black women watching a movie will identify with black women on screen, even if they have nothing in common aside from the fact that they are both black women? I certainly don’t identify with every white woman I see on screen – there are many more factors at play here (age, economic/family background, personality, situation, etc.). And, in fact, often I identify with characters who are not white females. Is this wrong? Maybe I’m taking this too far, but it definitely leaves me wondering.

Back to the question of ‘what are you?’ and how it relates to ethnicity and race. Merriam-Webster says ethnicity is “ethnic quality or affiliation” and cites race as a synonym. Race, on the other hand, is “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock”, or “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits”. This equates humans with animals, who can also ‘belong to the same stock’. The first definition of race seems linked to that of ethnicity: coming from or being affiliated with a particular place. The second definition seems purely based on physical traits, which leads back to the question.

I went to a public high school in Vancouver that was 80-90% East Asian. I was one of maybe 20 Caucasian girls in our grade, and you could count the number of black kids on two hands. Sometimes when my mom was late picking me up, I would wander the halls counting the number of people in each graduating class with the last name ‘Wong’ (I think the record was around 10). In grade 8, I was the only ‘white’ kid in my Socials class, a fact that was pointed out to me multiple times by classmates. When I was asked ‘what are you?’, they didn’t want to know that I am half Scottish (on my dad’s side) and an eighth Polish, an eighth Lithuanian, and a quarter English/American immigrant (on my mom’s side). They could tell by looking at me that I was ‘white’, a visible minority at my school.

My 13-year-old sister is having a similar experience – she just started high school at a different school, also primarily East Asian, and after her grade 8 orientation in September, I asked her how the other kids seemed. Her response was that they were nice, that all the boys looked “like they were 8” and that most of her classmates were East Asian. Not uncommon in Vancouver, especially in particular neighbourhoods, but it is important to note that middle-class white people can also feel like a minority in certain situations. In fact, anyone can feel like a minority in one way or another.

Finally, just to mention some alternate things I wanted to present on – I definitely considered talking about representations of black families in the media (The Proud Family, That’s So Raven), and particularly the latter in relation to race. Rarely did the Baxters dwell on the fact that they were black, because I don’t think it was their primary identifier. The dad self-identified as a chef, Raven self-identified as a psychic, they all self-identified as San Franciscans, but there was one episode focused on Black History Month where race was the main focus. Raven and Chelsea went to get jobs at a Claire’s-esque store, and Chelsea was hired over Raven because the manager was secretly racist (clip here). Definitely could have talked about it forever, but didn’t think it was as relevant as HTGAWM.

That was long. If anyone has made it this far, I applaud you. Congrats. You deserve a cupcake. 🙂