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Everyday Accidental Racism #2 – Resistance to Affirmative Action

July 8, 2016

When the The Hunger Games hit cinemas, the first I heard of it was a veritable storm over the fact that Rue was, unexpectedly, of colour. I say “unexpectedly”, but I have never read The Hunger Games, so I had no preconceptions.

I hear that it is easy to tell that Rue was not, in fact, supposed to be white, based on the description of her in the book. Whether this is true or not, it is a fascinating insight into everyday racism.

Whyever should it have mattered if the Rue of the film was a different colour to the book, or that she wasn’t white? The usual justification was: “That’s not how I imagined her.” Yes, well, Dobby from Harry Potter didn’t look like how I imagined him either, but I didn’t take to social media in moral outrage over it. I accepted that people differently interpret physical descriptions.

I know that, whatever the characteristic, someone gets precious over it. The Harry of the Harry Potter films had blue eyes, not green, which I remember being annoyed by. When I was fourteen.

As you age you should come to understand that directors, casters and other people in the filmmaking process are not honour-bound to observe every minute detail if it will cause inconvenience. The casters thought Daniel Radcliffe was the best boy for the job. Did it matter that his eyes aren’t green – and did it matter enough to have him force coloured contact lenses in?

That’s all very well, you might be thinking, But there was surely a white girl who would have played Rue just as well. It’s affirmative action gone mad, isn’t it? Take a step back and look at the sentence. There is a hidden, racist assumption in there; that any old white girl is bound to have been just as good for the role as the girl they picked.

Even if it’s true, the assumption is that the casters, all other things being equal, would have automatically chosen a white girl by default. Therein lies the telltale error of projecting one’s own processes onto someone else.

People who felt Rue ought to have been white know that if they had been casting Rue, they would have purposefully picked a white actress over an equally good non-white actress. That the filmmakers were not racist enough to do this reflects positively on them, not negatively. Lord knows, it isn’t as if Hollywood is famous for being one big rainbow coalition.

Fear of affirmative action, or “positive discrimination”, is largely informed by racism. It is the theory that assumes that every time someone non-white is picked for a position, the reason must be because they were not white, and that a white person who was more skilful lost out. In reality, most positions can be filled by a number of different people equally well, because individual people are good deal less talented and unique than they tend to assume.

All affirmative action does is attempt to flag up for potential employers the tendency to select candidates not on the basis of skill, but on the basis of perceived similarity. This is a real risk in an interview environment; you cannot get a handle on someone’s achievements or aptitude, so you instead focus on less tangible aspects of their character, such as the poorly-defined concept of “intelligence”.

When someone uses a contraction or dialectical grammar violation that does not feature in your colloquial language, you may assume that person is less intelligent (specifically, ignorant or not very literate) when actually they are simply different.

For example, the “ain’t no” double negative construction is often taken by middle class people as a sign of ignorance, but not so much among working class people, who better recognise it as dialectical. If we were using our logic all the time, we would remember that no one speaks perfect English all the time. We constantly change, in subtle ways; different words and phrases enter the language, others leave, marking older people from younger people

Measuring ability cannot be achieved by simply observing tendency. I occasionally (depending on the company) affect subconsciously all manner of colloquialisms I would not put down in a piece of academic writing.

Advantaged people have the privilege of the assumption that their dialectical tendencies, which are just as arbitrary as any other, are indicative of higher education level. Middle class parents speak middle class English, and their children pick it up as a first language. Less advantaged people are not exposed to “correct” English first hand and would have to put it on; a skill that varies from person to person, like all skills. Middle class people don’t have to put on much of a voice. They naturally converge upwards towards the poshest variation of their own naturally posher voice.

We can move this over into race. The “black” styles of speaking in the USA and UK are distinct from white ones, at least in urban environments. There is a distinct black Londoner sound which, interestingly, white people in the area have started to pick up. I know this happens in the States too; for example, Eminem references “talking black” in his raps.

Depending on the interviewer, this could count against you in an interview – unless the interviewer is in some way compelled to think again, say by a culture of affirmative action. Of course, he could just be taught the difference between dinner-party and vernacular language.

I have heard, across the pond, black women tell other black women never to go into an interview with an afro, because it makes you look “wild”. This is an obvious injustice because Afro-Caribbean hair is always “afro” hence the word. It has to be intensely (and expensively) treated to make it smooth and straight like “white hair”.

Any employer who required such a thing would obviously be unfair, and acting in a racist manner; unfortunately, we are at the point where white employers don’t know these sorts of facts, and don’t realise that PoC frequently feel compelled to meet accidentally-racist people halfway.

Because the whole shebang has become so complicated, it falls on regular people to make sure they understand why anyone cares about affirmative action. When we watch a Shakespearian drama with black people in the leads and think to ourselves: “That’s not right. No way was Shakespeare imagining a black person in that role. This is anachronistic!” We should instead think about the alternative.

A fine black actor shows up, reads the lines perfectly, pulls off the best performance, and gets told: “That’s all well and good, sir, but Shakespeare was a man of his time and wasn’t so into multiculturalism that he routinely imagined black characters in his major roles for no particular reason. Come back when we’re doing Othello.” Othello, the raping, murdering jealous maniac.

We are people of our time, and we can afford to adapt roles to the actors we have, and not worry about finicky, superficial details. I notice that for Shakespeare in particular, we are doing just that; the British adaptations, at least, reimagine characters as different races and genders to Shakespeare’s originals, and it makes no difference at all; it’s amazing how adaptable a faithful script can be.

What we can’t do is sit around and wait for “black roles” to just appear, thinking: “They’ve got Boys n the Hood, don’t they? What more do they want? They should just make another one of those ghetto movies if they want roles so much.” There will always be more actors than roles, and that is even more the case for PoC.

Besides, if people are tied to specific types of films and to “realism”, they are tied to specific stereotypes which the race in question may want to break. It doesn’t take much empathy to imagine that no group of people always wants to be portrayed as inner city ruffians.

Moreover, when someone writes original PoC characters in non-stereotypical roles, the first question a racist white person asks themselves is: “Why is that person not white?” Their reasoning is that white = default, and any variation on that is a wilful corruption of an established norm. They think that representing a non-majority is a stretched, futile piece of political correctness, as opposed to a toss-up decision by an indifferent party. Left to the averagely racist viewer, there would no roles for PoC.

Even if affirmative action is a personal grumbling point for you because of the principle of the thing, or because you deem that in some circumstances it is taken too far, you can afford to be charitable and not say that the colour someone is born should mean they forget about being an actor, or at least forget about receiving variable roles to match their abilities. That would clearly be a racist policy.

That is the upshot of freezing PoC out of roles white people imagine as being white – some white people will always imagine any given character / role as white. Some white people imagine white characters when they were actually described as non-white. We have selective vision, that way.

When PoC invert the assumption of default whiteness, they receive derision; as if it is perfectly natural and valid for white people to create all-white fictional worlds, but unnatural and invalid for non-white people to create even partially non-white worlds.

A more outspoken racist might even call this An Agenda, like the Gay Agenda, whereby the non-whites / gays / whatever are attempting a cultural takeover, by daring to put their hands up and assert their existence.

It is taken as patently ridiculous that entirely fictional characters manifest as non-white. All-black casts not set in the ‘hood are branded unrealistic, while every thriller in which a ten-story building spontaneously explodes is given a free pass. But which lack of realism is more important? The one that provides acting roles and representation is at least worthy, as opposed to completely frivolous.

It is never “realism” that upsets white people when non-white characters appear; it is always cultural entitlement, a feeling that it is somehow your right to be constantly represented on the screen. Unfortunately, such people do not empathetically extend this right to people outside their cultural group. If particular people want to see themselves represented, all types of people want to see themselves represented, and fairness dictates spreading the representation out.

Over-attachment to seeing members of one’s own race – to the extent that, as the racial majority, you still feel under-represented whenever a member of an ethnic minority represents one major character – is a fault of the mind, best treated by training your mind to perceive the world differently.

You don’t absolutely have to imagine every character you like as looking passably like you. Instead, imagine the character differently to yourself, for no reason but for the fact that you can – most particularly different in race, if there is no description. It means that when PoC turn up in your favourite characters slots, the effect is less jarring.

I did that myself recently, and was so convinced the character I imagined was supposed to be black, I was surprised to see visual representations of him as white. That’s in mind of the fact that this particular character was quite stereotypically white: a nerdy games developer.

It’s interesting to observe how easy it actually is to break down, or completely invert, cultural assumptions. So I guess there are no excuses.


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