I have been listening to Chimimanda Aidichie’s “Americanah” on audible. One side effect, aside from the fact that my thoughts are now narrated by a woman with a slight Nigerian accent, is that I have been thinking more critically about race.
I always passively think about race – it’s something that comes naturally to me, since I grew up in black in Chicago. And I can critically think about race – it’s basically what I do for my historical research. But most of the time I have to turn that part of me off, otherwise I can’t enjoy anything. I started to consciously do this after the otherwise really interesting movie “Ex Machina” was thoroughly destroyed when I noticed that the android who couldn’t speak was Asian, and the android model that was just a body was black, while all the fully intelligent, Turing-test-passable models, were white. However “Americanah” seems to have broken my switch.
So, I was in this mindset when I took a tour of the National Portrait Gallery in DC. The guide was a frazzled, elderly white man, who was in turns moving too quickly and too slowly through the museum. When we got to a really interesting section, for a portrait competition they had completed, he paused our group in front of the winner. The portrait is of a black woman with a twa, wearing a polka dotted dress and white gloves. While I had assumed the portrait was completed by a black woman, due to the subject, I had my suspicions confirmed before the tour guide ever mentioned her race. “The one thing I was struck by,” he said, speaking of when the artist came to visit, “was how articulate she was.”
Articulate. Having or showing the ability to speak or express an idea fluently and coherently. Something that, frankly, anyone who is good at public speaking should be able to display. And yet, I immediately knew that when this man was talking about this particular artist, he was talking about a black artist. I was almost disappointed when he went on about her upbringing in Georgia, how her father was a dentist, and how growing up black in Georgia during that time influenced her art. I was hoping I was wrong.
I have often been told I am articulate. It always bothers me a little. Did they expect me not to be? And it’s strange. Because considering all the other things people could say, I really shouldn’t be mad about this. After all, it’s a compliment. But what it really is, is a code word. “Articulate” is code for “You have exceeded my exceedingly low expectations about black people by stringing together not one, not two, but a speech full of sentences that sound as nice, or nicer, than a white person would have said.” No one tells black people they “speak beautifully,” or are “profound.” We are simply articulate.
A few days later, in protest of all the as-of-yet-misplaced hate surrounding it, I decided to go see Ghostbusters with a friend. I really like Melissa McCarthy, especially now that writers are writing for her style i.e not making huge amounts of fat jokes, and cutting down on the obscenities. I was also curious about the other women leading the film, especially Leslie Jones. I had never heard of her prior to this film, and when I did hear of her it was shrouded in controversy. Two things in particular stuck out. One was that designers apparently refused to make her a dress – that was resolved beautifully. I mean she looked gorgeous on the red carpet. The second was a complaint, mainly by African-Americans, about her role in the film. She was not a scientist. She was an MTA worker. She wasn’t intelligent. She was cooning. She was playing to stereotypes. On and on and on.
So I was especially watchful of her role, as I am whenever there is a black people in a majority white film. And don’t be mistaken – although ‘Ghostbusters’ might be making strides for women, it is business as usual when it comes to race. There is one Indian delivery boy, the mayor’s aide is ambiguously brown, there’s a black FBI agent, and then Leslie. That’s in NYC – one of the most diverse places on the planet. I never know how casting agents can manage to whitewash NYC so effectively, I mean jeez – their freaking warehouse is in CHINATOWN and there is not a single Chinese or Chinese-American person in sight!
Anyway, I digress. So I watched the film. And I enjoyed it! I laughed at Chris Hemsworth’s dumb boy role, especially since I didn’t realize he was in the film at all. I laughed at Leslie’s completely sane reaction when mannequins started moving unexpectedly. I laughed at Melissa McCarthy’s quest for the proper wonton-to-soup ratio. I sniffled at Holtzman’s toast at the end. It was a good movie. Was it Oscar-worthy? No. But I didn’t storm out demanding my money back.
And yet when I looked at the comments on some of my favorite black nerd Facebook groups, people were highly upset.
When someone said that black women laughed at Leslie’s jokes, someone typed angrily in all caps “THAT DOESN’T MAKE THEIR LAUGHS ANY LESS TOXIC.” Someone asked why the black character had to be the unintelligent one. Someone wondered why she couldn’t also be a scientist. Reading these comments, I couldn’t help but begin to analyze.
In my mind, the commenter’s outrage at Leslie’s character and my white tour guide’s use of the word “articulate” are connected. All of the things that the word articulate is loaded with is what a certain group of African-Americans strive towards. Being clean cut, young urban professionals, who are well spoken, have money, and can navigate in America with no issues. Note: I am not saying black people want to be white. I know SOMEONE is going to read this like that. I’m just saying a lot of black people want to be Barack and Michelle Obama, or Henry Louis Gates – unapologetically black, but sophisticated as hell.
This is called “Respectability” in some circles, or “Respectability Politics” in others. The idea that if only you should shut off your loud, rap music, pull up your pants, make your earrings smaller, and then everything will be better. But the problem, not all black people are like that. Hell not all PEOPLE are like that. And not everyone wants to be like that. So when Leslie is playing a working-class, black American, (or maybe even just being herself,) she should be allowed to do that WITHOUT the idea that she is somehow dragging down representations of black people, or playing into stereotypes.
The problem is, that Hollywood doesn’t give us, or really any minority group, that room. To many people, it doesn’t matter that Patty (Leslie’s character) has not one, but two Big Damn Hero scenes. They are all too conscious of the fact that we only make up 13% of the nation, so in a lot of places this particular black person is going to be the only black person some people see all day.
That kind of scrutiny follows normal person as well. That’s why Respectability Politics exists. The nation doesn’t give Barack Obama or Amy Sherald (the artist I mentioned above) freedom either. If you are anything less than composed at all times, you are “bringing US (there goes that royal us again) down.” As I mentioned before, black Americans don’t have the luxury of just being themselves. For better or for worse, you are always representing other black people.
That’s completely unreasonable. Not every black person in a movie, or in life, can be the best of the best. But there should be enough black people in movies so that we can have a range, just like white Americans do. After all, Melissa McCarthy can be a spy, a scientist, or a broke from the hood cop. Why can’t Leslie be Patty and later on a black Senator in movie? Does Denzel always have to have a “Denzel” role? Can Will Smith be a gangbanger nowadays? Not every black person should have to be “respectable.” But that’s a luxury that is apparently only afforded to… well anyone else.
If you think I am making things up, check out this article in the New York Times. Hot off the presses, posted yesterday. “With Obama, Personal is Presidential.” The author marvels at Obama’s composure as president, father, and a man. You have to wonder if this was an article that would be written if Obama wasn’t black. Of course he makes a point to say “And those who praise Obama as a model father or husband for the black family do him a disservice. He’s a model, without asterisk for race.” However the fact that he had to make that point is telling on its own.
Barack Obama never had any other choice but to be flawless. If he made any misstep, it would be blown so far out of proportion that not only would he not recover, but race relations in this nation would be even worse than they are now. Can you imagine Obama pulling a Clinton? In today’s America, there is no room for anything in between “Respectable” and “Ratchet,” which is unfortunately where Patty falls. To horribly misuse Vanilla Ice “Anything less than the best is a felony.” It’s all related, which is what makes racial discrimination and bias so tricky. It’s like herpes – even when you can’t see it, or you think its gone, or not a problem, it’s still there.
So before you spit fire about a role in a movie, ask yourself a couple questions.“Is this really a bad portrayal of African-Americans? Did this person really ‘sell out’?” And when you see a black person speak, and speak intelligently and with purpose, ask yourself “Is this above the standards that I have set for public speaking? Or just public speaking for black people?” Both mindsets are dangerous, and don’t be surprised if you have fallen into a trap that has been carefully set by years of cultural training.