The #OscarsSoWhite Problem Is Very Personal To Me

Representation in the media means a lot to me for selfish reasons. Being a trigueño (a word that has euphemistic connotations of anti-blackness) Puerto Rican man, I just didn’t see myself represented often in the media. In Puerto Rico anti-blackness can be very subtle, but to bring the topic up in public contexts is to invoke spirited (and misguided) 19th century discourses of mestizaje (racial miscegenation) and post-racial soceities.

When I was young I could easily count the number of Black and dark skinned people in local Puerto Rican media. Then, they slowly disappeared altogether, with the advent of multinational (American) television companies that bought the local networks and supplanted local programming with shows from the US. Watching local programming dwindle, while US film and TV came in large droves, had a profound impact on the creation of my ‘self’.

As an adolescent, I rejected many elements that I thought of as “Puerto Rican” and felt alien to me; I adopted an ‘alternative’ identity with elements that were foreign (American) to boost that identity. I can now tell that the elements I rejected were mainly gendered roles I felt uncomfortable with. I just saw myself as an outsider anyway, since others would easily throw around pato or maricón (a faggot). How was I, as a queer dark skinned nerd from the hood supposed to form any parallels with what I was seeing around me, and even less so in film and media that rendered not only me, but my whole Puerto Ricanness, invisible?

That empowered me for a bit, until I came to the US and realized those elements that I had adopted were up to be questioned, given my skin color. Because whiteness works that way. I remember an acquaintance asking me what Star Wars character I would like to be.

Him: So would you be Lando?
Me: …I always thought of myself as more of a Jedi.
Him: Oh, Mace Windu then?
Me: … no. More like Obi-Wan. He’s my favorite.

This was just months after having arrived in the US. My racialization had started, and at the same time, Whiteness was reclaiming back the elements that I had borrowed. Those cultural touchstones were not mine. I wasn’t allowed to be anyone I wanted in Star Wars, I had to be one of the only two Black characters in the six movies.

One thing is to be underrepresented, and another is to be ignored completely. Invisibility renders you below the treshhold of attention. So when one of the most respected film awards fails to nominate (or, presumably, even consider) media that reflects diverse topics, characters, and stories, then that invisibility is reinforced by power. That’s why it is important to note the issue with #OscarssoWhite.

Others have asked “why should we even care about the Oscars?” To me it matters because of the inherent economic and social power that Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wield. The Oscars have a place in US and the global landscape; movies that are Oscar nominees and/or winners go on to be released to wider audiences, the filmmakers are more likely to receive attention from investors in the future, and the actors attract more promotion (reputation) and accolades.

 

When I came to mainland US from Puerto Rico for grad school, I realized that I carried a lot of biases and prejudices against African-American/Black people. Moving to the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC forced me to reflect on these biases and re-evaluate them. All that I knew about African-American/Black people was based on what I had watched on TV and movies (much like the example from the tumblr link above). I honestly did not have another frame of reference outside of visual media. This was pre-Twitter and pre-Tumblr. I was only exposed to very particular and narrow narratives involving Black people and that definitely shaped my thinking.

Media exposure is important in itself to showcase different and diverse perspectives. Those of us who are inclined towards studying culture can’t keep silent about the individual and social dangers that cultural supremacy can have in erasing differences and diversity. There is also the argument that the Oscars can’t justly be considered the top accolade in the film industry, when they are only considering a fraction of movies being made. If the same films with the same stories are being made and awarded year after year, where is the space for more diverse stories beyond Black pain and slavery?

PS. Please also read this post by Dr. Waren from Texas A&M University. He draws parallels between the issue of Oscar nominations with a similarly pervasive case of institutional practices in higher education.

 

 

Advertisements

Colonized mind

Yesterday, I saw a conversation happen in front of me at the metro, and all I could do was cringe. I tried to speak up, but my voice failed me; I failed to call them out. Maybe it’s because I’m exhausted of brown and minority folk tearing each other down.

White supremacy, the patriarchy, capitalism; the systems and ideologies in which we operate, were not designed to allow a bunch of us attain success through whiteness, maleness, and the 1%. We obtain some and unfortunately tear each other down when we have the illusion that success in these systems is just slipping through our fingers. As if we “just tried harder we could _________”.

Unfortunately these circumstances beget structural violence and inequality; we then reproduce that ethos of supremacy, patriarchy, and whiteness within our own groups, and as we interact with other minority/oppressed groups we discount others’ experiences to prop our own.

I want to keep learning how a decolonized anthropology can aid with issues of solidarity and intersectionality.

I conclude this short post with this Fanon quote:

“I, the man of color, want only this: That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another. That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.”
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Several scattered thoughts on the debt crisis, the 4th of July, and Puerto Rican identity

Last weekend I got asked about how I felt about my upcoming move away from DC. I will miss this place so much. I am leaving friends and moving on from the life I have known for the last 7 years. Furthermore, moving to the mainland allowed me to have access to rights that I couldn’t attain when I lived in the island; citizen and all.

This article from the Guardian summarizes really well the diversity of opinions regarding our political status in Puerto Rico. For me, the question of our status has never been an easy one to answer, though every Puerto Rican has an opinion about it. Lived experiences permeate what we make of our island, and our political status. Politics permeate so much of our lives: I remember being toted around to political rallies by my abuela when I was barely five. The discussions in my grandma’s house were very passionate, since my abuelo (who was a veteran) was very pro-statehood and abuela (Nuyorican) was very much pro-commonwealth. In hindsight, these are silly distinctions in regards to the political parties on the island. They focus so much on our territorial status, yet in 63 years of our official designation as an Associated Free State (aka the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) little has changed.

Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961)
Much like the song America from West Side Story (the best song worth listening to in that musical), boricuas have a diversity of opinions about what we have left behind and how we currently feel now in the US. This song is as relevant today as it was when the musical came out in 1957.  I have read so many posts on social media from fellow boricuas giving their take on why they left or stayed on the island (given the current debt debacle and the circumstances that led us to this crisis).

And then there are our experiences on the mainland. Every Puerto Rican experiences living in the States differently, depending on their socio-economic background and how much can they pass as white (or other passable images of Latinxness). These experiences are not unique to the mainland, since the island has a colonial heritage that is based on racism and colorism which is all about mejorar la raza.  Yet not all Puerto Ricans experience the mainland in the same way; it’s really hard to talk about the shared experience of a group of people who have had a history in the US since the 19th century (our flag was born in New York), have been citizens since 1917, and are transnational to a certain extent. The closest comparison I can think of is Hawaii, but I have to learn more about that.

Throughout the years I have been racialized in ways that I was not prepared for; my insular vision didn’t help. The diversity of experiences among fellow Puerto Ricans means that you will find people that will validate your experiences, and others who will shut you down because your opinions do not fit into their views/experience in the US.

I thought of this on the recent 4th of July weekend. I reflected on what it means for me to hold a celebratory space for this holiday. I thought of Juneeteenth and I thought of the upcoming 25th of July holiday on the island; when we celebrate the creation of our current territory status in 1952 on the same day that US troops landed in Puerto Rico during the Spanish American war in 1898.

These thoughts took me some time to distill. I hope that discussions about Puerto Rico’s current debt crisis lead to both reflection and action about the need to transform our political status as a territory of the US.

Teaching about #Baltimore and #BlackLivesMatter

Minneapolis rally and march to support the people of Baltimore

I teach an introduction to social cultural anthropology and linguistics course, and I have made sure that this course presents current societal issues that anthropology can best contribute to. As such, this past Tuesday, instead of talking about globalization (which was the topic of the day) we talked about what was happening in Baltimore. The reading for the day was Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots, and even though we didn’t get a chance to discuss it, it was very appropriate for the discussion that we had.

The ground rules for the discussion were based on the concept of safe space. We were going to talk about sensitive issues, and I emphasized that opinions should be respected:  “let’s argue, but do so respectfully for the purpose of learning”. I also emphasized that if someone became uncomfortable and wanted to voice those feelings, they should bring them up; if that happened we would move on.

So we started the discussion by talking about the role of the media and how protesters are being characterized. We talked about coded language with racist undertones to describe Black protesters who were engaging in peaceful demonstrations.

We talked about systemic issues of poverty at the intersection of race given the socio-historical context of the city of Baltimore.

We talked about the difference between #BlackLivesMatter and #Alllivesmatter, and how the latter deviates the conversation and does not address systemic inequality.

We talked about the Stanford prison experiment and the psychological implications of people who hold positions of power. We also discussed empathy in the context of a research project that showed that White people thought Black people felt less pain.

We talked about Power (with capital p) and Institutions (with capital i). We talked about the role of the police as a representative of the government. In this case we have noticed that the government has been responding violently (to the point of murdering Black people for seemingly innocuous offenses or qualitatively different reasons than White individuals committing said offenses) when a particular group of people is perceived to challenge the superiority of its law enforcement.

We talked about how the Police should protect its citizens. The current contradiction is that the individuals who are supposed to protect us, are seemingly not doing so. We discussed the rationale of brown and Black folk not trusting the police (given the high profile cases of white policemen killing Black people being aprehended); similarly how women are enculturated to fear the night (given the grim statistics on sexual assault).

We talked about how if this were happening in another country, we would be concerned that the government was disproportionally silencing (killing) an ethnic group inside its borders. Think of civil war scenarios in Syria for comparison’s sake… or Rwanda…or…

As I hold a position of power, I felt the need to engage in this conversation. Anthropology students should be in a position to analyze what is happening 20 something miles away from us. Some students need to hear that their fears and concerns are real, and that there are some of us in temporary positions of power that can ackowledge that. Other students need to hear what their peers say and how their thoughts differ. The rest need to be challenged, so that they don’t stay silent and reproduce the racial discourses that sparked the current situation and continue to maintain inequality in Baltimore…in Chicago…in Long Island… In Ferguson…

#Scififorall

This year I did my first New Year’s resolution ever, and that was to make an effort to consume more media by Women, PoC, and other folks who don’t get to present their art as easily as others can. I’m happy that so far I have been successful especially with the books I have read this year (for every book by a mainstream white male author that I read, I also read one by a PoC/Woman/Queer/etc). What this made me realize is that there is tremendous amount of diversity out there that is amazing in itself.

It also made me realize that I don’t need to consume media that does not accurately represent the world as it is today. Why? Because Sci-fi is amazing. Sci-fi takes me to unimaginable places, and allows me to expand my imagination by going to such great lengths. Yet, I don’t understand when some artists create sci-fi that is only white. Why go to great lengths to imagine new future possibilities, and make them centered about the experience of a people with a particular skin color? I know most of these choices are under the level of awareness of overt racial discrimination, but that does not mean they were done outside of the realm of racial politics. And it’s not wrong or bad in itself, but when this is what you see all the time, it gets a bit frustrating for non-white folk when all they see in the movies is just that.

Where does that leave me? Are people with my skin tone not imagined in the future? Are we going to be extinct?
I’d rather not consume them then…
#scififorall

Fieldwork and Privilege Part 1

P.S. I realized that I haven’t talked much about my research, so I will do so in a future post. In the meantime here is a link to my profile in the University of Maryland, College Park Anthropology department website which has some info about my research.

Time to travel to the near past…

I remember a particular conversation I had in a bar with a friend (intemperate indian) who’s a fellow anthropologist. We were chatting after some sort of department event we attended, and our conversation shifted to privilege and its discomfort.

We had a moment (as we often do, since we don’t think very differently )in which we talked about how if you don’t feel discomfort as an anthropologist in the field, then there is something wrong. And it’s probably you, and probably there might be some privilege that needs to be checked. Mainly because when I go to the field I’m going to study a lot of things that are outside my experience—because I’m educated, because I’m not one of the people under study, because I’m not a woman, because I’m a US citizen, because I’m studying reproductive health, because it’s just awkward to ask these women questions that they weren’t even thinking of answering when they came to the clinic…etc

Within this fieldwork, there is a level of advocacy that is implicit. Yet, when trying to carry out the advocacy efforts through research, I encountered problems in the field, with the topics of my questions. When I was carrying out interviews in the clinic, I was trying to do so as to get their perspective on the topic of male circumcision and decision making; at no point I was trying to make the clinic look bad by pointing out that they rarely discuss male circumcision. This was in fact a rich point of the research itself! Without going too much into what I found in these interviews (which is what I’m currently working on now) I quickly noticed that the perception was that circumcision was not talked about much. But more telling is that before beginning my interview process, those troublesome encounters have been brought to my attention by white people who to their defense said they were trying to defend their clients. I actually believe this to be true, since they were worried how my questions will bias the women in the clinics and then perceive that the information they are not receiving can be harmful to their children. Put another way, they wanted me to reframe my questions as to not frame the clinic as the sole responsible entity for giving the patients’ information about circumcision, so that the women seeking services did not feel they were missing out on something. I’m not trying to jump to conclusions about what this actually means for my research, yet I found it very interesting. The fact that the rest of the Latino staff apparently feel comfortable enough with my presence and trusted my intentions and the goals of representing a particular perspective with this research. The fact that some of the staff actually mentioned how happy they were about my visits—and mentioned how glad they are that a Latino student is doing a PhD—is a stark contrast to the comments and criticism-not necessarily negative, but still criticism- I received from the white staff.

Discomfort and fieldwork are evidently related in my experience, especially when I am an anthropologist whose background has been impacted by colonialism. Yet I’ve never made the connection before as to what that meant in terms of my own privilege. It’s an interesting position within the us/them dialectic, since my entrance to the field has definitely been helped by the fact that I somewhat look (and to some extent talk) like the majority of the staff in the clinics. But I still need to be vigilant and to not take for granted in the ways that I pass, and the times I need to get checked.

Nobody looks like anything (or the day I come out of the clóset)

Puerto Ricans on the island, by contrast, didn’t have full consciousness of being a minority because they’d never had to live as one.” (P.159, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor)

You can say that some people have a “something something”, like in the context of “claiming someone”. But more than often, you see the opposite, where some try to distance themselves from their afro-roots.

Reading Junot Díaz novels, watching Black Dynamite, and my book The Afro-Latin@ Reader have made me think more carefully about what it means to be dark skinned and Latino in the US. This is nothing new to me, as I always fluctuate my conversations around topics of race, gender, etc… Which has made people associate my presence as the “race person”- and I don’t mean like good friends, asking another friend about a particular hairy/racist situation and trying to get some insight- in a microagressive matter, in which they turn to me if they want to learn something “multicultural”. Sometimes this is ok…sometimes it’s not, mainly because it’s not my purpose in life is to educate them; there’s resources out there, so learn them.

I do been thinking about how this actually affects my daily life, and I’ve come to realize that I actually walk a line between several identities… One of which, it seems I was in a weird denial phase, which sounds awfully familiar to one of my other identities – queer. I’ve become racialized in the US, and as such I’ve come to experience certain things different than my home in Puerto Rico. As much as I can empathize with my fellow Latin Americans, I have privileged that they’ve not because of my colonial heritage (i.e. citizenship by the 1898 invasion). I can relate to other Hispano parlantes, because I grew up in an idealized pan-Latin@ identity. Immortalized in songs by Rubén Blades, Juan Luis Guerra, Violeta Parra; marked by spilled blood by Bolívar, Ché Guevara, and Ramón Emeterio Betances; declamado in poetry by José Martí, Julia de Burgos; and so on…

And we learned about the Taínos, and the Spaniards that came over… And yet, our African foreparents were dedicated a page in our history books (see Godreau and Llórens, 2010 for more info). And lately, I have paid more attention to that. My dark skin has made more aware of what I am, and what I am not. But mostly, what I have found, and haven’t found in my ancestry (thanks for nothing Ancestry.com).

Yet, while we heard so much about amazing people like Celia Cruz, Rafael Hernández, among others that have been recognized as Latinos some people seem to gloss over the fact that they were afro-descendants; that they were dark skinned… the ever elusive black word.

So, while as a Puerto Rican I have in fact a lot of ‘races’ in my ancestry, I always dragged my feet regarding my afro heritage. It was always there and never hidden. Yet, in Puerto Rico racism is more subtle, so I never thought of actually having to come out regarding my blackness; even though society (my friends, neighbors, ex boyfriend, etc…) never let me forgot that I was indeed black because of my skin color, my wide bridge-less nose that wasn’t made for “regular people” glasses, and my butt… *le sigh*.

So here it is, I’m afro descendant everybody. I’m an Afro-Latino. I am the byproduct of colonialism. I am dealing with it. I am proud of where I come from.