Monday, February 22, 2010

Minstrel Shows

("Drinking melted snow water in Richmond, Vermont", photo by Oak LoGalbo)

A day with physical limits at the forefront, so I will push elsewhere.

The whole question of "should white people do art based on/coopted from POC culture" is on folks' minds today. It's a big question with a complicated answer. As a writer myself who creates nonwhite characters (main characters), I constantly revisit my assumptions, my sense of entitlement, my intentions. Who am I writing for? What would (insert various friends) think or say about this scene? Am I challenging the status quo, raising the energy, or simply perpetuating existential hopelessness? Can I find a similar lesson from my OWN culture and use that instead, with more integrity?

After watching the first episode of White Teeth this weekend, I assumed Zadie Smith was Jamaican, i.e., the character Clara. Turns out, she is more or less Irie, the daughter of Jamaican Clara and white working class British Archie. I haven't finished the series, but it has thus far gone off into Pakistani culture as experienced by Irie's family friends Magid and Mallat. The writer clearly knows it inside out, and thus far I'm willling to trust her as the voice bringing us this other world.

But is that because I'm white and my ability to experience "the other" is most comfortably brought to my doorstep by border crossers?

I have noticed that Archie's character is rather one-dimensional, and benevolently dim despite his early suicide attempt and history of a war crime.

In my scifi world, I slice through the Gordian knots of gender, race and class by constructing a post-cataclyscmic, isolated culture where values attached to physical differences have been eliminated. The productive tension of diversity comes from elsewhere. The feedback I'm getting is that it works. But it is serious internal work to give authentic voices to these characters, and I'm well aware they may be off in ways I cannot imagine. The fear of all writers.

In Ginny Bates, my POC characters are frank border-crossers who have picked some "good white folks" to make family with but never entirely lose their irritation with the conditioned whiteness of Myra, the character based on me. I modeled this after how I approach gender, how the men I love and trust must still occasionally encounter in me a wall put there by our different gender upbringing and I expect them to do at least half the work of scaling that wall. At LEAST. It's the lesbian-feminist in me that won't make excuses or cut extra slack. I find it an ethical, if challenging, way to live, and I respect that mirrored choice in the POC I know.

I agree with Jill Cozzi that the ice dance pair doing a traditional Indian dance showed smarts and ethics by having it choreographed by an Indian expert. But the show itself, especially the judging, is overwhelmingly white -- how does that not make it a sophisticated minstrel show? My gut rebels, in the same way that watching middle-class drag kings portraying their take on the brutish masculinity of working class males for sexual arousal of screaming mostly middle class (or aspiring thereto) women struck me as sick-making cooptation.

"Queering" or "subverting" in contexts where permits have been issued and "we're all the same really" is the mandatory message is not contradiction enough, and almost always tends to reassure the imagined liberal default, instead of fomenting actual thought-provoking discomfort.

The route to actual parity of voice will not be found by white folks going on travel adventures or Avatar-like saviors who become Lakota because they can't bear their own culture any longer. It will mean ripping out at the root (i.e., radical) all the gender, race, and class-based constructs of our current "reality" and shivering naked in the floodwaters that come to reshape our social terrain.

Some art takes us in that direction. Some does not. I can only tell you what works for me, and share it with you here.