Doctor Who and the #WhiteGaze

There may be some spoilers in the post. But it’s still probably important for you to read anyway. I’m just sayin.

I’m supposed to be relaxing, sitting on my couch, catching up on some Doctor Who (yay for a lady doctor!).

Instead, I’m sitting on my couch, coming down off a rage- and trauma-induced panic attack, writing on my blog.

The third episode of this latest season of Doctor Who is about Rosa Parks and the American South in the 1950s. Like, a time and place where my parents were born, where my grandparents and great-grandparents and many great-aunts and uncles lived and struggled under the menacing gaze of Jim Crow. Many of them made it out. Many more didn’t. In so many ways, it was a time that feels like foreshadowing of today with near-daily tales of Black death at the hands of a white government. For us, it’s guns. For them, it was mostly nooses. For us, it’s hashtags. For them, it was the obituary section of the local Black newspaper. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Thinking about this continuing racialized trauma affects me emotionally, spiritually, physically. Historical trauma is a real thing. Historical trauma that continues to translate itself into new forms and perpetuate itself in new violence is a real and terrible thing. The early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., the struggles of Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and my ancestors affects me. Their work means something to me. Particularly in this dumpster-fire, shit-pool of a world I live in now, I hold up the perseverance of those who came before me and it is sacred. It belongs to me and mine. It is not for casual consumption.

So that is why it enrages, infuriates, terrifies, traumatizes me to see that work and that struggle pranced about on screen for my fellow geeks, mostly white, to consume and enjoy. The only Black main character left on the show (after they killed his grandmother in the first freakin episode–spoiler alert) gets shuffled around 1950s Alabama by a nice white lady alien and an old white man like it’s just no big deal. He nearly gets strung up for trying to hand a white woman her dropped handkerchief. He nearly gets strung up again for sneaking into a whites only motel. He nearly gets strung up again for sitting in a whites-only restaurant. Each time blithely led there by the white characters who are able to roam freely through this Jim Crow world. (The Brown woman main character doesn’t suffer as much but does get a taste of life on this side of time and space: though she’s Southeast Asian, everyone keeps referring to her as Mexican…like it’s an insult.) The Black man has his very existence threatened again and again, and it’s nothing but collateral in the more important mission of maintaining control of the space-time continuum.

When the time travelers do encounter the eponymous star of the episode, the main focus is on the white characters running around town setting the stage just right so she can have her famous moment of resistance on the bus. Yes, she’s there as an important figure of history, but only provided the nice white lady alien and her old white man companion and their two coloreds can keep all surrounding events in line to allow Mrs. Parks to fulfill her historical role.

Rosa Parks is reduced to a character in a sci-fi show (Dr. King also makes a cameo), a modern-day Black man is tossed into the degradation of the Jim Crow South in the U.S., the struggles and heartbreaks of a people are paraded on the screen—all to entertain an audience. A white audience. Because the setting of the historical narrative, introduction of the characters, and insouciance with which the subject is dealt all suggest that it is the story of an “other” being told for the benefit of an audience that would otherwise have no connection.

It’s the white gaze at its very finest. And I am so not here for that.

So, I’ve quit that episode and I’ve pounded out my frustration on the keys of my laptop in this blog post and I’ll find some other way to relax tonight. But watching my history trotted out as fodder for an alien show? No fucking thank you.

How to Become White Famous

With Jamie Foxx’s new Showtime comedy series on tv this past fall, it’s got me thinking abut what it takes to become “white famous.” You know, when a person of color in the entertainment industry goes from just being known and celebrated by their communities to being super-famous and widely celebrated because white people “discovered” them. (It’s kind of like how Columbus discovered America. Actually, it’s just like that.)

There are so many examples of entertainers of color who have achieved white fame—Beyoncé, Jackie Chan, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx—I thought it’d be interesting to look at some common threads that pop up when entertainment by or about people of color suddenly makes it big among white folk.

So, here are a few tips on how to become white famous:

Tell a story about famous white people.

White people love nothing more than to read/watch/listen to stories about themselves. They love their accomplishments. And if you can manage to make their stories even cooler than they actually are, all the better. Ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the musical Hamilton. He retold the story of one of the many white founding fathers in musical form with rap and R&B and presto! white people the world over lost their shit. Many of the rest of us knew Miranda from his show In the Heights—it also had rap and salsa and even some Spanish. But nah, that was about colored people living in a colored neighborhood; it wasn’t white famous material. When he tells the story of a famous white guy, he can even go so far as to remake the entire cast of characters with actors of color and white people still fall head over heels for it. (Well, not all of them. A group of white performers tried to sue the show’s producers early on for “discriminatory” casting.) The key, though, is that the entire story is about white people. (In fact, the only actual character of color in the show is Sally Hemings who makes a minute appearance during a Thomas Jefferson number at the beginning of the second act.)

Tell a story about white people being “reverse oppressed” by people color.

Not only do white people love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves, they love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves being “reverse oppressed” by people of color. It lets them cross their proverbial arms in self-satisfaction and say, “See, they don’t have it so bad. We don’t treat them any worse than they treat us. We all are hurt by racism.” Ask Kumail Nanjiani, the creator and star of The Big Sick. His film is about how he fell in love with a sick white woman and bonded with her family while his Pakistani family and community, in all their backward non-Western ignorance, refused to accept the interracial relationship. White people loved this film and are really mad that it wasn’t nominated for any Golden Globes. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s got ignorant, stereotypical brown people, with extra points for the overbearing maternal brown women characters. It’s got the innocent heart-rending love of a beautiful white woman, the prize of any brown heart. It’s got the kind, accepting, well-meaning, super-progressive white family full of support and racial utopian-kumabaya-why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along “color-blindness” (apologies for the ableist language here). My goodness, people, the white woman is sick! And the brown people are so unaccepting of her! The film is based on actual events, so it’s horrible that Nanjiani’s partner had to suffer so much with her health. Nevertheless, with the caricature brown folks and the up-play of white sympathy, it is a white person’s dream romantic comedy.

Tell a story about people of color being oppressed and then rescued by the timely arrival of a couple “white saviors.”

Yes, this is still a story about white people. Look, do you want to be white famous or not? But in this case, you can actually tell a bit of the story of race oppression. The only caveat is that you’ve got to include at least one, preferably a few, white saviors to rescue the poor oppressed people of color from their degradation. Some of the best examples of this aren’t actually created by people of color but they do feature people of color as the main characters and have helped catapult some of colored folks’ careers, so that’s something. Basically, take any slavery movie—Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, whatever—make a spectacle of the real degradation and violence of slavery, then add a well-meaning, abolitionist Quaker or two and you’ve got yourself a white famous hit. It even works for other time periods. Like, The Help wouldn’t have been so white famous without the sweet Emma Stone character to help the help tell their stories. Oh, thank goodness for kind white women! Or in the modern-day tv show Longmire that centers on the story of a Wyoming sheriff who often leaves his jurisdiction in the white world to invade life on the local Crow and Cheyenne reservations and lay down the law in aid of the poor natives. What would we all do without a strong white man to take charge of us! White people love stories like this because they can completely ignore their complicity in the ways of the “bad whites” and only identify with the grace and goodness of the “good whites.” Every white spectator reads/watches/listens to these stories and immediately sees themselves as the Quaker, the sweet young journalist, the fair and impartial lawman. It’s a sure shot to white fame.

Finally, if all else fails, tell a story full of racist stereotypes…BUT dress it up as irony.

Nowadays, even in this political climate, white people know they shouldn’t say or do blatantly racist things. They know better. And even when they mess up, they know they can always rely on irony and high humor to save their white skins. But what they enjoy even more is when they’re given the opportunity to enjoy some good old-fashioned racist humor without feeling bad because hey! it’s ironic! There are just too many examples of this to even go through them all. Apu, the supposed South East Asian convenience store owner from The Simpsons. Anything starring Jackie Chan. Madea from practically all Tyler Perry movies. (I know what you’re going to say about that last one: Hey! April, I thought Black people loved Tyler Perry? How is that white famous or even racist? Please. We pretend to love Tyler Perry the way Black folks pretended to love shuck and jive minstrel shows back in the 1830s. That kind of unabashed coonery has always been and will always be for “massa’s” amusement.) White people know they shouldn’t sing the “We Are Siamese” song from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or “What Makes the Red Man Red” from Peter Pan, by the same company (Disney has always been hella problematic, y’all), but they figure they can laugh all day as thick-accented Jackie Chan kung-fus his way through rush hour with loud-mouthed Chris Tucker cooning it up at his side. These caricature characters of color are no problem in the name of modern-day irony. And mega-bonus points if you can combine these racist stereotypes with white characters from other types of marginalized identities. So Gloria, the young, buxom, heavily accented, shrill, money-grubbing, violence-prone Colombian wife of a wealthy old white man is totally fine because she plays opposite the old white man’s gay son and his husband. It’s totally fine, everyone, they’re a Modern Family. Also, irony. Ha.

As you can see, it’s not too difficult to become white famous. The formulae are pretty clear. The challenge, though, is staying white famous. Thing is, you can’t stray too far from the scripts. Remember when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade and white people suddenly remembered she didn’t belong to them? Yeah. They didn’t like that much. Of course, Queen Bey had already built up so much white fame that it didn’t faze her profile at all. But still, entertainers of color walk a fine line and have to be careful. In any event, if you’re aiming for that grand prize of white recognition, I hope these tips help. And good luck. Remember, though, us folks of color still see and love you. No matter what.

Hamilton and the White Gaze

After shelling out way too much on a ticket about a year ago, I finally went to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton last week. It was amazing, of course. And yet.

I have such conflicted feelings about the experience of sitting in an audience that looked like this:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 6.40.36 AM

Tweet of emojis about what it felt like being the only POC in my section at Hamilton.

Here I was at a f-cking brilliant Broadway show that borrowed heavily from black musical traditions, written by a genius of a latinx man, with a cast full of people of color, and all of it, all of it, taking place under the laser focus of the ever-present white gaze.

Especially given the period-ness of the piece and the references to black enslavement, it made me think about how white slave owners, like Washington or Jefferson, used to make their enslaved folks perform songs and dance from their native traditions for the amusement of white folks on the plantation. Even today the white gaze voraciously lays claim to the cultural heritage of us “others”: white people designate their “spirit animals” as they sit back and listen to jazz, rock, or pop and contemplate checking out the latest film featuring ancient traditions from this or that culture that has been white-washed beyond recognition. Yet, for many, never once do they stop and reflect on the cultural appropriation taking place to make their chosen entertainment possible.

“It must be nice, it must be niiice…” to be able to use your gaze to claim ownership to the creations of others. To mark that territory as your own just as surely as your ancestors planted flags in inhabited lands and killed the native “scourge” in the names of their kings and queens.

All of this felt so real to me sitting there with all those white folks, watching this amazing show that showcased so much of what people of color bring to culture, and sensing that so much of that simply bounced off their privileged white bubbles. To my dismay, my seat-mates sat stone-faced while I rejoiced openly at all the sampling and references to music my people have created, most of which I recognized right away. (Except, good grief, I don’t know where I was when Biggie released the “Ten Crack Commandments” cuz I didn’t catch that one and my sis had to set me straight. Forgive me, y’all.) I cried “Amen!” when Jefferson got called out on his ownership of slaves and watched as the folks sitting next to me shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I hooted and whistled, much to the annoyance of those around me, when someone successfully spat a particular witty and fast-paced set of lyrics. I groaned out loud when a character said or did something stupid, thereby catching side-eye from those to my left and my right.

To them, I was disrupting their enjoyment of this show on the “Great White Way” (oh, so much loaded into that phrase)—this show that was their show, created for their amusement. Just made me shake my damn head.

I wish I had millions of dollars—with the gentrified ticket prices to this show, it would take that much at least—to buy up the Rodgers Theater and hand out tickets in my Harlem neighborhood (“Hey, neighbors! Did you know Hamilton lived right up the street? You can still visit his house. Also, this show is great!); “In the Heights” that Miranda has always called home; in Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy where Biggie grew up (well, what’s left of his neighborhood given the rampant gentrification of Brooklyn); in the Bronx where hip hop was born; throughout all the communities of color in this city that witnessed the actual events on which Hamilton is based. “Folks, come on in! Feel free to whoop and holler and dance! Make some noise! Enjoy! Relish in seeing folks who look like you on stage. Live the experience. See what it’s like to finally recognize yourself in the story of a Founding Father. Delight in this brilliant show. ‘History has its eye on you’…but maybe, just maybe, this can be a moment for you to enjoy outside the white gaze.”