The Insidiousness of Soft Racism

January 13, 2007

I apologize in advance, because this blog posting was written in anger. I was so angry about this last night I started to cry --I'm so angry it's hard to get the words out. And I apologize, because this isn't a specifically Asian American story. But it's about the fight that we face, nonetheless. I work in documentary film production, for a very large film corporation that will sue me if they find out I've blogged about them, so it shall remain nameless. Right now I'm in a battle I'd never thought I'd be in, one that touches on the very basic issues of ethnic representation in the media, and I've gotten a big insight into how difficult it is to make the smallest inroads in this white-dominated industry. I have just finished writing and coproducing a film about African Americans during World War I. The other members of this team are all white; I'm in fact the only nonwhite of the 25 people in this department (there are many women,gays, and Jews, to be fair). The film is (unsurprisingly) about the incredible prejudice faced by black soldiers, how blacks were overlooked in favor of a white commander, how most were made laborers and not allowed to fight, how they were not allowed to march in the victory parade in Paris, how they returned to Jim Crow and lynchings. I would like to have a black man narrate the film. It's an African American story, and I think it's appropriate to have an African American voice relaying it. As the film is about opportunity and representation, I also think in whatever small way I can, it would be nice to give a black actor that opportunity. I wish that the film came from a place that had greater consciousness of race issues, that had African Americans on staff (there was one, but she left) and that engaged on these topics more than once or twice of the 100 films we are making. But as that is not to be, I feel the least I can do is get a black narrator. Incredibly to me, I am getting a lot of opposition on this idea from my producer. He feels it would be mere tokenism to have one of the 100 films we are making be narrated by a different voice. Plus, he argues, "what does it mean to have a black voice, anyway? A lot of the people we've auditioned, quite frankly, didn't 'sound black.'" And should we have only French people tell the stories about France, and Germans tell the stories we have about Germany? His arguments both enrage me, and to me, expose his ignorance of race relations in America. I am not fighting for this because I want someone who "sounds black" --otherwise, we could just get a white man to speak with a "black accent." (That's something they did on a previous film, which is a whole nother story and is so offensive to me I practically lose consciousness.) I want to honor our subject matter through the PROCESS of the making of the film. I want to acknowledge the historical silencing of black voices by letting them speak out now. And i want to open the industry to include African Americans, even if it's just for this film, even if some would say it smacks as window dressing on a film that was made in an environment that adheres to the white, patriarchical hegemony of 35 years ago. The thing that bothers me most about this is that I like pretty much everyone I work with. Documentary filmmakers tend to be progressive, compassionate people, who are aware of social issues. My producer worked for CBS --lord knows he should have a great deal of social awareness --and does on certain levels. I respect the work of my colleagues --but I feel like I'm pretty alone in this fight right now. The people I have shared this problem with give me sympathetic nods, but no one has gone to bat with me on this. And the producer I work for is intractable. Which makes me realize why it's so hard for things to change in the media, which let's face it, is still run largely by white men. It's not that they don't care (though I'm sure many don't), but for me, where I work, it's that they can't even SEE. Race is an abstract concept to them, something they can choose to consider, or choose to dismiss. If it becomes a little more complicated, they can opt out of the question. And, it seems to me that my producer sees ethnicity is merely another flavor --seasonings on top of the white. There's French flavor, and we're not using the French-flavored narrator, so why should we go with the Black flavor? As if that were an equal equation --as if the history of racial exclusion that we SPELL OUT IN THE FILM does not apply to us, is not a problem that we all have a responsibility to reverse. And call me an idealistic bleeding heart liberal, but I still want to fight for social justice and change the world in whatever small way I can. Yes, I've sold out. I work for a big corporation making very conventional films. I'm not walking picket lines or lobbying congress or feeding starving children in Africa. But in this place where I am, I can do this one, little, tiny thing. I want to give the film just a little bit more integrity. And I am totally baffled that my colleagues don't understand this. So please tell me, am I overreacting or otherwise totally off base? Should I just acknowledge the fact that I'm working for THE MAN, that the film is the result of an ivory tower full of well-intentioned but ignorant white people, and give up this fight? Would having one black narrator be such tokenism that it's better to stick with someone white? And if not, what can I say to my boss to make him understand? Should I give him a copy of Marlon Rigg's "Color Adjustment?" I honestly don't know what more I can say, other than sending him to an African American history class. Am I wrong in feeling this argument symbolizes more than my boss realizes?




Explaining to white people what it is like to live in this world as a minority is a waste of breath. YOU only know what it is like to walk in your shoes on your path. Trying to tell someone (for instance the 80 white males I work with in corporate America) about some of the issues or battles that I wisely navigate and elect to fight is truly a waste of breath. But sometimes out of complete frustration and the exhaustion of consistently "rolling over" because "that's just the way things are" pushes me over the edge and I have to say something even if it falls on deaf ears and it does.
Keep u the fight! Much love!
hey Jennifer, i'm glad you spoke up and are continuing to speak up. i don't think asking for a black person to do the voiceover is insignificant or unimportant. if anything, i think this issue shows your colleagues' true colors (no pun intended, i swear) and their assumptions/beliefs/values. anyway, don't let it get to you too much - that is why alternative outlets are so important, while also trying to do good work within the system. i'm glad you are there, and you should feel proud and then go get yourself a massage/backrub.
Race Relations have such a long ways to go in this country. In my day to day interactions and even reading these responses, I observe a lot of ignorance, frustration and anger. We all must not be complacent and think we have reached the mountain top of equality. It is a slow and uphill battle. I always get irritated when I hear people talk as if this country is completely fair and equal especially regarding racism. Slavery is over right? the civil right movement eradicated segregation, right? we have affirmative action etc etc. People seem to forget that although we have gotten rid of a lot of the major forms of racism, there are still a plethora of other more soft but equally hurtful forms. Those that you have attested to and commented on in this Hyphen Blog. Your calls and criticism are a strong and important reminder that the problem still exists.
Look at it this way: you would only have a few viable choices for a black voice on a historical documentary that could really add value and authority, such as James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington. There's probably a handful of other well-known TV personalities that could work, but the voice nonetheless needs to be an older, patriarchal, and "articulate" one.Maybe your problem in your company is the way you're presenting everything, since you seem to be laying out your personal and political agenda as your main argument to your colleagues and bosses. Sorry if I'm using stereotypes myself, but you really shouldn't be bringing up the race issue yourself so much as "this film would rock if we could get Morgan Freeman to narrate!" Talk in terms of bottom-line value and profits. Learn to be a little more subtle.
when it comes to history, I want facts and most of all the truth."Talk in terms of bottom-line value and profits". This is were i disagree with you. Sometimes race plays a factor when it comes to history.
Sorry, but racially-unaware white people will resent that agenda being shoved down their throats.
"The only way for whites to understand is to have them experience it themselves in about 100 years when they're 10% of the American population. Then, hopefully, people of color will care enough to even listen to them."Comment: If people like RELAX have their way, based on their past postings this day will never come and whites would always be a majority.
Militancy RELAX-style will get you nowhere. Since you're in the company and you indicated you have some voice, you are in a powerful position of influence. But your co-workers expect you to be one of them, instead of being an outsider with an uncomfortable agenda.As I've said, "dude, we need someone who sounds like Morgan Freeman!" sounds more convincing than, "we should hire a black voice as a show of our greater consciousness of the great Black struggle."Here's the thing: we've been schooled over the past 30 years on racism, civil rights, political correctness, and multiculturalism. We're sick of it.
To stand up for rightiousness is not being militant. Its those who stand for nothing that never get anywhere. Those people that take the bumps and bruises of unfairness and injustice then remain silent, praying and hoping with time the higher ups will see things their way. I learned a long time ago respect sometimes has to be demanded. This is a cruel world and America is cruel place. People will walk over you, take advantage of you, prey on your kindness for what ever reasons. Im not implying that you have to be undiplomatic and raise hell. I just admire Jennifer because she felt something in her heart wasnt right and took a stand. How can you not respect that. G. CHELL, its obvious that we disagree on some issues. Ill make the assumption that you hate my previous post on immigration. If white people were the minority do you honostly think all the other races would get along. America is a country with multi-ethnic populations that look out for the betterment of their own. Frankly, my goal is to get out of America, I liked it better when I lived in Asia.
Amen! Yet, there is no "soft" racism. Whether or not it is covert, it still is damaging, so we all need to recognise it in any existent form.
Jen, it's true that some would call your working where you work, for whom you work, "selling out." but looked at another way, it's working on the front lines of a low-artillery battle, and it takes a courage i haven't called on myself to have. cloistered in an Asian American Studies world, well within the protected territories of my People of Color friends, i forget some days. and i live in this bubble by choice, precisely because i do not want to fight everyday, small-scale battles with people who do not have the faintest inkling when what they are doing is horrible--and for these to be people i will still have to talk to tomorrow and the next day. it would make me so my dear, what you are doing is hard. i wish i had a phrase for you to use, magic words for you to say, that like "Open Sesame" would open eyes. but then, i wouldn't be in here, would i.if i did find myself in your shoes, though, and had to hazard a guess at what to do, i might try to place the burden of proof on him. pose scenarios where he'd have to defend his own decision. would he say the same thing if the person making the request were a black male coworker? (sometimes, i suspect, it is easier for people to dismiss race when faced with an Asian woman.) what would he say to a black viewer who wrote in and said this is a history lesson about black people by white people for white people? even if his response were "yes, it is; nothing wrong with that", it might be a way for him to see what-all the film is refusing to do.or maybe that's just wishful thinking.
Well, I hope people in this forum are open to an alternative viewpoint. I think these "racist-corporate-america" stories need to be taken with a grain of salt. Remember, we're only getting one side of it. To me, it seems likely that Jennifer was digging in her heels a bit, and she was met with heel-digging on the other side. When someone insists that you must do such-and-such lest you offend their delicate sensibilities, it's just human nature to resist that. The crying is the tip-off. I see that often, where women feel that once they've shed a few tears everyone will yield -- and they're outraged when they don't. The incident with Shilpa (sp?) on Celebrity Big Brother in the UK is a good example. The woman cries to obtain compliance -- but there aren't any tears. She just goes through the crying motions: she wipes her dry eyes, dabs at her non-runny nose, and then thirty seconds later she's smiling and perky. I hope people can see how it's not racist to refuse to play into that kind of behavior.
Jen,It's important to understand that the resistance you're encountering has a very long history in America. I've written about its beginnings in an essay titled "Staying Alive." It's about the way white privilege has used race relations among Asians and blacks as a playground for their discretions and indiscretions; a pattern of insensitivity that is one hundred and fifty years old. Stay strong in what you believe, while also conserving energy for the future. Change comes when we all work together. Thank you for standing up for the folks.Best wishes,Lama Choyin RangdrolAfrican American Buddhist
Lama, I'm not sure how relations among Asians and blacks could operate as a playground for my discretions and indiscretions. Maybe an example is in order.
Precisely because of opinions like "Sam Spade's" I ALWAYS work very hard to NOT cry at work. I have not shed a tear in front of any of my colleagues about this. BUT it makes me angry and sad that simply because someone has an emotional reaction they are labeled by some as manipulative. I find that a thinly veiled form of misogyny. Yes, some women do cry to get what they want, but please have the discernment to know that not all of them do.An update: I am basically going to continue searching for an African American narrator until I find one that is so great my boss can't say no. Morgan Freeman, James Earle Jones, you out there? Denzel, Will Smith?
It's not misogynistic -- I'm sure men would use the tactic if it weren't so stigmatized. Anyway, one question I have, do the producers already have another narrator lined up? If so, remember, there's two sides to this coin. You view it as "getting a black narrator," but it's also "getting rid of the current narrator" if they've got someone else in mind.
Even when you are right, politics, ego, and ignorance often gets in the way.Good luck to you, Jen.
Jennifer, this post was so moving to me. It's so well written and NOT hysterical; just telling the painful truth. I wish you could print it out and show it to your boss. Or better yet send it to Denzel or Morgan or Will Smith and have THEM approach your boss, telling them they're interested in the project.
Its great that you are sticking up for this very important issue. This state of affairs is unfortunately not surprising. I am a grad student in a big ten university and I have seen and experienced similar stories of "soft racism" in my department.Remember, one has to fight from within the system. Quitting your job over this issue, though probably very tempting at this time, is not the answer. This is not "selling out", this is an act of resistance. Pick up a copy of Chela Sandoval's "Methodology of the Oppressed".Hang in there Sister. One day you will be in a decision-making position and you will be able to set this right.Warmest regards and best wishes,Pritika.
Welcome to a lil bit of black life. It's not all white people it's just that some don't have any black friends(by friends I don't mean some1 u say hi to or just work with). They live in a world where there is no racism to them. They don't do it to be mean there just ignorant to the issue. So there for they lack the sensitivity for other races. It's sad but trust me I've learned to deal with it Jenn. I'm a 6'2 Blk male as a network Engineer in my company I was the only blk male so i know how it is. I'll tell u to drop it but I agree with your fight.
jen, i had a fruitless argument in a writing workshop once, in which one of the other writers (white, male) wrote a fantasy piece in an entirely offensive "imperial china" which was a pastiche of every horrible cliche that has ever tortured my life.i couldn't sleep the night after i read it, i cried in class when trying to express how offensive it was, and i got no support in the workshop from the three other people of color in the class (none of them asian).the instructor, who was otherwise a great teacher, tried to turn the conversation away from this with the attitude that i had had my say and my opinion was no more important than anyone else's.the two things that made this whole incident tolerable in my memory were that:1. I interrupted the teacher and said distinctly (if tearfully), that no, no other opinion on this was acceptable. there was a position on this piece that had a certain absolute truth to it and offending someone of the ethnicity that was being exploited was something that required absolute respect. no one agree with me, but i said it.2. afterwards two white male students, who had just been conferring with each other, came up to me of their own accord and said, "we just don't get it, do we?" they said it humbly, and without irony. they got the fact that they didn't get it. I agreed and that was that.jen, i don't think you're going to get through this time, but maybe you can get just these two things across and let them sink in (it may take years):1. you have a perspective that, in its small way, is of absolute truth and must absolutely be respected. there is a nugget of truth here that is not subject to relativity.2. your producer simply does not get it. and because he doesn't get it, he's not going to get that he doesn't get it.just say these things, have a good cry (in front of everybody) and then let it go.
Jennifer: I think that the director sounds f***ed up, I think you raised a valid point and that the process is, in fact, very important, and that while you may not be able to change the mind of the people in charge this time, you have to bring up these issues.Because every moment at which we say "wait, this isn't right" that deals with issues of marginalization, invisibility, and just plain old-fashioned passive racism is still a front in which we have to raise our voices and take an anti-racist stand.Stay strong!
What do you expect from whitey? What whitey deserves the most is to have his face slashed with boxcutters.
As an African-American woman, I can say this...leave this fight alone. Your boss will NEVER, and I repeat NEVER "get it", unless another white person brings the issue to the table, at which time the idea will sound brilliant.Most white people are simply clueless about racism, which tells me that collectively they just. don't. give. a. DAMN!
I applaud you for your stance. This is why its important to have such medians as Hyphen because, it offers a brand of media that comes straight from the heart of the community. You get history, not always his story, which is a good reason why theres a need for more minority writers with these companies. I think your approach was correct and do not feel sad, but hold your head up high. I hope you take your experience and open up your own company. I pray that if you are successful you will employ the right people and kill the stereotypes your present company chooses to ignore. Only people like you can change the media we so hate today. Since we are in the midst of DR. Kings B. Day, keep his dream alive
It is absolutely important to have a black narrator (whether it sounds 'black' or not), for the very reason you note. I wish I knew what would wake this guy up. As a person who NOTICES these things (and would certainly notice if a white narrator were the voice here), I am glad you are there and brought it up. I say keep up the good fight and make it known. Don't ever believe it doesn't matter (even if he never 'sees the light') It's not insignificant, it really means something. I wish you the best.
I think you are right to feel upset. There is a big difference between ingnorance and arrogance though. They are the same except, the latter has pride. Whites think there is no such thing as racism..if you are a minority it is a different thing. I knew this white woman who was astonished when she went to Japan. She said that this lady was being mean to her because she was white. It almost seemed surprising to her..after all isn't everyone just supposed to LOVE white Anyway I say give it a try and try to persuade them. If all doesn't work out...I would like to extend my thanks to you. I think we can crush ignorance with more intelligent people that are willing to try. Good luck honey^_^
Hi, thank you so much for your stance and passion it is greatly needed in this day of division of the minorities. More of us minorities need to not only defend one another, but learn about the struggles of the other minorities and offer support. One of the posters stated that they needed back up and none of the other minorities in the class supported her which to me is a shame because it shows how successful the divide is. Again thank you for not being a part of this atrocity and please continue to educate all those around you the need for solidarity amongst ppl of color.
Thanks to everyone for your comments --it makes me realize I'm not completely alone. I heard another interesting story about this company. In another department, someone was developing an old Chinese fable and wanted to make it into a feature film. He was told he couldn't do it, because this company has gotten in trouble in the past for creating grossly stereotypical "ethnic" characters. So basically now the company won't make any story that isn't straight up, conventional white-bread white. Issues of ethnicity are just too messy and complicated and the powers that be don't want to deal with them. It's amazing to see all of this at work, in front of your eyes.
Im not surprised at all
Remain strong, this is a difficult time now that racism is so subtle and difficult at times to identify and point out. Nevertheless in the words of Dr. King. "To Ignore Evil is to Become and Accomplice to It". You have to keep asserting yourself and educating ignorant and racist individuals. It is hard and even annoying but for whatever reason, the burden of educating and opening our countrymen's thinking has fallen on our shoulders. We minorities need to stick together and support each other. This example is a testament to Hyphen's diversity and solidarity with other disenfranchised groups. Thank you for keeping the fight alive, i respect your bravery and sympathize with your frustrations. Thank god for avenues such as Hyphen.
I applaud your stance on this but would have to agree with the African American woman above. Unfortunately, what lends credibility is another "white" person bringing the idea to the forefront. I find it appalling that another minority would be blatantly accused of "tokenism". The interesting thing about the white folk is that for all the fake liberalism and championing of "causes" they still will always take the "popular" road and not the more difficult one. Funny, how they stick together. Good luck.
Whites claim to know everything..I also know the whites and their bigotry.
People always shy away from making stands like this about race, about feminism, about queer rights, hell about voting, because making a stand is hard and risky and a little passe.we need to keep doing it anyway, on all levels. Fights that are small are no less important - they are *more* important, because they are most often the ones that can be one.and if anyone tries to slash my face with a boxcutter I will be very pissed.
The problem is that you have to explain it to white people and, frankly, I'm tired of it and I don't want to spend the rest of my life explaining things to others.The only way for whites to understand is to have them experience it themselves in about 100 years when they're 10% of the American population. Then, hopefully, people of color will care enough to even listen to them.Minorities need to create their own media companies because the effort spent explaining racial issues to whites could be spent finding minority investors to invest in minority owned studios designed to cater to minorities.Is it self segregation? You betcha but it's not because we refuse to join white society but rather white society doesn't wish for us to participate with them.