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anna ([info]annavtree) wrote,
@ 2006-09-04 22:29:00

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Current music:You Won't See Me Tonight (Nas w/ Aaliyah)
Entry tags:meta: race

I need for you to draw the picture for me
This is a post that I've been trying to write for over a year. I've never been able to figure out what I wanted to say until I started watching Prison Break. This post is about how Latino and/or multi-racial actors are being 'white washed'. and 'passed'. I use the term passing as a short hand for 'textual and/or sub textual effort to make a Latino and/or multiracial character "Whiter"'. I DO NOT use 'passing' in the strict historical definition of the term. This post deals explicitly with issues of race and racial identity. Please pass by if that is not your cup of tea.

Thanks to Sheila for the initial idea and for all her help and patience as I bitched and to Amy for reading and finding Zak and to LaT for letting me force her into reading a draft.

I've fallen in love with 'Prison Break' recently. I love a good heist flick but the main reason for my show love is Wentworth Miller. Wentworth Miller is hot like burning. Most people seem to know and appreciate this fact but what many people (including the show’s writers) don't seem to know is that Wentworth Miller is biracial. Let's say that word again, "biracial". See, not that scary?

Prison Break explicitly codes Wentworth Miller's character as White with the nickname 'Snowflake', the casting of his father, brother and younger self and the brief storyline about Michael Scofield taking up with the white supremacists. The show's continued labeling and emphasizing Michael Scofield's race is occasionally obsessive in it's focus. Besides the obvious blacks vs. whites race riot/posse storyline that floated around during the first five episodes, there is also the repeated and season long use of the nickname 'Snowflake'. Now let me be clear about something: I hate this nickname. Hate it like burning. I'm not sure why the writers so love this nickname. It is such an invocation of 'passing' and a blessing of that practice that I'm a little shocked that they pull it out so often.

There is also the sense that the nickname acts as a blinder. If the writers mention the nickname and Scofield's whiteness often enough, we will overlook Wentworth Miller's skin color (seriously, European people do not have skin that color) and hair. But the nickname conveys an obsession about Scofield's race that is out of proportion to the interest that the show conveys in the race of any other character. This is a show that deals with race in a vary obvious way (Sucre's Puerto Rican heritage, for example) but no other character has a nickname that so consistently invokes race.

Another example of an actor being 'passed' is Martin Sheen's role as Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing. I must say that the 'first Latino president' storyline with Jimmy Smits that TWW ran drove me insane. Martin Sheen is Latino and the West Wing cast him as the Whitest man in America, a former New Hampshire(!) governor descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence/Mayflower immigrant. That is an awful lot of effort to make him seem very, very White. Could they have made him any whiter?

Yes, they could. They brought Jimmy Smits on as the next Democratic presidential candidate and spent 1.5 seasons emphasizing his Latino-nesss (first Latino president, Latino issues, Spanish speaking on the part of Santos), the better to contrast it with Bartlet's 'Whiteness' and the better to show us all how well Martin Sheen 'passed'. Because only darker skinned people can be Latino!

Another of my issues is with the casting of Jamie Bamber as Edward James Olmos' son on 'Battlestar Galactica'. The show very rarely touches on the issues of race in any way. This makes sense on a lot of levels. The world of the show is not our world. so it makes sense that this world would not have the issues of our world. But the writers and creative people of this show are part of this world and have some awareness of this world that, obviously, influences how they create the world of BSG.

The casting of Bamber officially labels the Adama family as 'White'. Now, I like Jamie Bamber almost as much as the next fangirl but Bamber is very White. He isn't even one of the categories of White that our country loves to call 'ethnic' (like Italian and Greek).

The core of the acting talent is obviously Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos. There was no way that they weren't going to cast these actors but the fact is that after those two none of the other actors really have resumes to write home about. I like Jamie Bamber in this role but I can't figure out why a Latino actor wasn't cast as Olmos' son. It would have meant so much and been so fantastic to see a Latino family on TV, especially a Latino family that wasn't very consciously Latino. Many people (such as Pam Noles) who are wiser than me have talked about the lack of people of color in fantasy/sci-fi. Jamie Bamber's casting takes an actor of color (Edward James Olmos) and makes him White. It takes an opportunity to bring something important and racially conscious to a genre that, for a long time, hasn't been the most racial conscious environment and runs in the other direction. It is such a reactionary decision and it shadows what could have been a progressive event.

The casting of Jamie Bamber makes Adama a white character and I don't understand why. Is it necessary for the storyline in any way? I don't believe in colorblind casting so please don't comment to tell me that Jamie Bamber was the best choice for the role. There is many an actor of color who has missed out on a role because of his/her race. Appearance (which is what casting is partially about) is not colorblind. I don't understand why it was necessary to 'pass' EJO's character as white. I'm not looking for a 'very special episode' or even an explicit acknowledgement of race in the BSG-verse but the 'Whiteness' of Jamie Bamber is such a contrast to the ethnic identity that so many EJO roles have embraced.

It is puzzling to me because it would be so easy to implicitly make the Adamas Latino. It would have provided a nice racial balance from the 'crazy, religious, Black people of Geminon' who follow the White Goddess figure. Given Edward James Olmos history as an explicitly Latino actor and Latino activist, this casting decision is especially disappointing.

But, anna, how do you know that Bamber isn't being coded Latino? Didn't you just argue that Latinos come in many colors? Well, I'd like you to meet Zak Adama. He's Canadian, has hazel eyes and wants to learn Spanish. If you still don't believe that he is white, I encourage you to take a look at the last names of his characters. Feel free to contrast those names with the names of EJO's characters. Do you see a difference? I think it is safe to say that Tobias Mehler (Zak Adama) is white. EJO is Latino but the two actors who play his sons are White. Majority rules in more ways than one.

There are so many ways in which TV has become more progressive and more racially aware but, as I said, there seems to be a reactionary trend in which Latino and biracial actors are 'recast' as White. White privilege and the White standard has expanded to include more people but it remains White privilege and a White standard that is not about expanding the ethnic definition of the standard character but is instead assimilating People of Color into the standard by robbing them of their ethnic and racial identities.

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Pt1 (or a reply I never thought would be this long)
[info]witchwillow [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-06 08:06 am (local) (link) Track This
I'm commenting because I understand what you're saying and for the most part I agree that there's something wrong with it. I think there's something inherently wrong with 'color blind' thinking. But I admit that for years, I didn't get it. I thought it meant greater opportunities. I thought it meant equality. Why should it matter the color of someone's skin, or their ethnic heritage? But then things began to dawn on me.

It first began with Smallville and Kirsten Kreuk, so in a sense I'm replying to the poster who mentioned her as well. As a DC comics fan, I was initially disappointed that Lana Lang wasn't a redhead like comics canon. But then I saw the actress and I began to wonder if, given that the show was to be set in modern times, the girl next door with the last name of 'Lang' looking obviously Asian wasn't a nice way of showing that Smallville wasn't completely whitewashed and Clark Kent grew up exposed to different people and different ways of life at an early age. I thought that possibility was brilliant.

But then Nell didn't look Asian. And there was nothing remotely Asian about Lana's family life. Not one token bit of furnishing, clothing, jewelry or culinary taste. No one ever brought up the fact that Lana was Asian. There wasn't a single quip about how she wasn't a 'stereotypical Asian geek' but was head cheerleader. Granted, the latter could be because it didn't matter in town, Lana was just Lana. But I noticed it. And noticing it with her, led me to notice it with Pete Ross.

Pete's family was a successful Black family in the heart of America. But no one mentioned it. No one. They'd made the decision to change canon and make Pete, African-American. They'd hired an actor who quite obviously could not and would not pass for white, unlike Lana. And even with Lana I kept holding onto to hope that maybe she was supposed to be Native American. But nothing came of the Ross' Blackness.

In a show where there was a Native American Reservation, Native protests and Native legends, I knew it could not be possible that the writers had no inkling of how race played into things.

There's a history that comes with having skin of a certain hue. There are expectations. There are prejudices that will be faced. It's all something to take into consideration. And the writers factored all of that in with the Native American characters. Those characters had a distrust of 'white government' and powerful white men. Their otherness was often central to their plots. Perhaps it was cliche, but the history of their ancestors, the history of the world was not ignored.

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Re: Pt2
[info]witchwillow [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-06 08:14 am (local) (link) Track This
But the writers did not do that for Pete Ross. Even as I began to understand, dishearteningly that Lana was coded as white. I kept waiting for them to do something with Pete. And they didn't. There was all this hue and cry about the damn creamed corn factory. But not once was it implied that the Rosses thought they got a bad deal because of race; either it affecting their choice or ability to have a proper contract lawyer, or in how Lionel Luthor perceived them when he drew up the contract.

Pete's mother was a judge in the middle of Kansas, and no mention was made of what an extraordinary accomplishment it is. Which I think it is in general, without her also being Black and a woman. When Pete has family problems and his parents are having issues about who gets a promotion and who makes more money and whether to stay or move, there's not one mention of the opportunities for a Black woman. Or that they could move to an area that was more racially balanced and how his parents wanted that for him.

The 'color blindness' made Pete very obviously a token minority, at least as far as I was concerned. They threw him up on screen for color and that was that. In a town where Clark Kent and others had been strung up in corn fields because they seemed too different from the status quo, to not have Pete feel anything about it in a way that reflected his race smelled like hot, fresh bullshit. To have Pete occasionally paired with a date who was not African-American and there not even be a look between students about it, smelled of bullshit. That's not the real world.

And if they were going to be real enough with the Native American characters; If they were going to be real about a father alienating his son and trying to twist him to his own purposes; if they were going to be real about a stubborn farm man and his struggling farm and struggling finances and how that played into who and what Clark Kent was, why couldn't they be real with Pete?

To me it felt like they denied him and the entire Ross family, their Blackness and heritage. And if that's true colorblindess it's more devastating in some ways than out and out racism because it makes people invisible.

What I get from that, is that race doesn't matter. And not in that positive 'race doesn't matter, you're a beautiful human being' way. But race doesn't matter because it's too uncomfortable making for people who aren't non-white. It reads as 'I deny your unique differences because it makes me uncomfortable'. Which seems dangerous and detrimental.

A white character can have Italian heritage, Irish heritage, Russian, German, etc and that uniqueness is recognized or celebrated. It deepens the character and helps the audience relate to them. When that doesn't happen with non-white characters it continues a cycle wherein there's no chance to relate to 'other'. There's no chance to go 'Oh, that's different but somehow just like my family'. Which means people accept that there are no differences, when very clearly some do exist and then people become confused when non-whites point out that their life experiences and their point of view come from a different place.

I think that people should talk about this and mention this 'invisibility'. I don't care that the writers might be thinking they don't know enough about the Black experience to write it, so they just don't because they want to be polite. That's a cop out for me. It's a cop out that excludes true representation. That excludes possible role models. And it's a cop out that leads to more of the same. Least of all, it sure as hell shocked me out of my suspension of disbelief. How could I believe in a boy from space, when they didn't have a reliable, boy whose ancestors were slaves, up on screen.

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Re: Pt3
[info]witchwillow [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-06 08:15 am (local) (link) Track This
Bringing it back around to Prison Break, if the younger brother did indeed have another mother, a black mother, but the bond he felt with his 'half brother' was so strong he would do all this for him anyway - how does that detract from their story?

Having not watched the show (my roommate does and squees but not coherently), I don't know if 'Snowflake' is meant to emphasize his newbie status in prison or the fact that the bank hold up was his first crime. But I can understand your frustration in thinking that it's a code to reinforce the characters Whiteness against people thinking 'Oh, bond of blood that doesn't notice race'. Because the way you describe it, that's the only reason I can see for that kind of continued emphasis.

((Also re: Pete. As I watched I realized they also had no idea what the hell to do with the character as a whole. But I think that not dealing with Pete's heritage may have played a part in their cluelessness. Because they didn't flesh the character out, they couldn't properly utilize him))

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Re: Pt2
[info]buggery [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-06 04:27 pm (local) (link) Track This
if they were going to be real enough with the Native American characters

They weren't. All too often the Native characters on SV were more stereotypes than individuals, even without getting into the "magical Negro" aspect of several of them wrt Clark and his important, presaged, paleface destiny.

And, of course, there was the casting issue. Yes, they made excellent casting choices with some of the characters (whom you could then see grinding their teeth as they delivered some of the more egregiously stereotyped dialogue) but on other occasions they cast someone with no Native blood whatsoever (and so they delivered that sort of dialogue without even being conscious of the irony). The girl cast as Clark's "Indian princess" sweeps-week love interest was the most egregious example of this. That the producers then had the gall to claim they couldn't find an actual Native actress who was pretty enough was injury on top of insult, and not unrelated to why I stopped watching soon after her character was introduced.

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Re: Pt2
[info]witchwillow [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-06 05:25 pm (local) (link) Track This
Wait a minute. They shoot in Vancouver! They couldn't find a....

Ok.. it hurts and burns.

And I did say that some things seemed cliche. Isn't cliche paying some attention to matters, whereas Pete was completely invisible. Though in the end it was a disservice all around.

I will say thought that given that I think of Clark as an Alien, I wasn't so much going 'Oh Great White Hype' so much as wondering when Earth became 'Downtown Krypton'; where the bad boys went to find heart and soul with native 'ethnic' women.

(Also I see your Rubensque beauties and raise you one of my own :) // Reposted because I apparently deleted or switched that icon and forgot. Arrrgh html. Ok I need a nap obviously.)

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Re: Pt2
[info]annavtree [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-08 03:06 am (local) (link) Track This
Yes, because there are obviously no pretty Indigena women. Idiots.

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Re: Pt2
[info]annavtree [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-08 03:04 am (local) (link) Track This
I think Mrs. Ross is a very good example of a time when the race of a character was all about appearences and no one was really thinking of what it really means to be Black and a judge in the middle of Kansas. Even some kind of stereotypical story about, I don't know, a Freedom Ride would be better than nothing.

I think part of what I was saying about this post is that 'color' is more than 'color'. It is culture and heritage and history and we are robbing characters of those things.

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Re: Pt2
[info]witchwillow [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-12 03:02 pm (local) (link) Track This
(have had net problems, and also LJ saw fit not to notify me)

The whole episode wherein someone kidnaps the child of a judge! Where white men, kidnapped the black child of a black judge. I realize I still get confused between CommonWealth law and American Law. But I still thought there should have been federal someone involved in that; at some level. Even if Clark was supposed to save the say with his superhearing.

My roommate says that Smallville is not the best show to use as an example since they apparently don't think about a lot of things; from how long it takes to build a wedding cake, to what an asylum should look like, to the forces of gravity that so far we believe to be universal.

But I agree with you. We're all not bits of red and green you toss into the eggs to make ranchos huevos. Those bits of red and green come with actual flavour and should be nutritious. Otherwise, it might as well be red and green squares of crepe paper.

And that was possible the worse analogy ever and a sure sign I need lunch.

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Re: Pt2
[info]annavtree [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-20 02:19 pm (local) (link) Track This
Exactly. There is a history to that situation whether the show deals with it or not. In not dealing with it, media tells us that it isn't really there. And, yes, SV is a pretty terrible show about things like earth logic but the historical weight of white men kidnapping a young black man are pretty heavy. When 'culture' ignores those things, it tells people that those things don't matter. But they do matter. I guess that is my baseline point for this post. Race/culture/ethnicity all matter no matter how much you wish they weren't. The 'white standard' should not be the goal of equality.

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Re: Pt2
[info]witchwillow [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-20 03:31 pm (local) (link) Track This
Let me not even get into the rammifications of a white federal agent beating on a young black man to get information about someone else.

Can you say 'Boy' ?

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Re: Pt2
[info]annavtree [kill]​[hide comment]
2006-09-27 08:30 am (local) (link) Track This
This goes straight to one of my rants about how ignorance is no excuse or justification for being offensive. There is no 'safety' in ignorance and sometimes I feel like popular entertainment believes that there is.

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