identity

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses Blerd Chat with Monique and Ramp Your Voice’s Vilissa Thompson

BBC

A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, and while there were great moments in the miniseries, there were some not so great moments, chief of which being Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III.

I recently held a Google Hangout chat with Ramp Your Voice! founder Vilissa Thompson about the miniseries. As you’ll read below, we discuss the problematic portrayal of Richard, including how his outward appearance (due to a kpyhosis) became linked to villainy, and how King Henry’s (Tom Sturridge) exhibition of Highly Sensitive traits go unrecognized or looked down upon by other characters. We also talk about how Sophie Okonedo stole the show.

Vilissa Thompson (VT):  Richard III is truly something else. I finished the rewatch of Part 3 today, and I wrote down some of the ableist things he said about himself, & what others said/referred to him as.

Monique Jones (MJ): Where do you want to start? I suppose we could start with his big speech at the end of Part 2. His first monologue was the beginning of the end for me.

VT: It was. To hear him call himself cursed, and describe the occurrences of his birth was troubling for me.

MJ: I found it fascinating in a macabre way how the same ableist sentiments he said about himself—about how no one loved him because of his appearance is why he’s evil, for instance—are the same tropes repeated today. I don’t know why I thought things would have been different back in the day, but I was shocked at how 21st century Richard’s speech still sounded, esp. when you compare it to movies like Split and Don’t Breathe.

VT: The ableism didn’t surprise me, but the fact that he became the evil he was seen as was like a self-fulfilling prophesy. And his fascination to acquire the crown was his means of obtaining “heaven,” which meant that people had to respect him, and he goes beyond the disdain reputation he has and internalized. The ableism of viewing oneself and disabled body as curses/inconveniences are real. That kind of internalization is so common in our community, and even harder to unlearn. It makes you wonder how many times Richard heard about the circumstances of his birth, and how that transformed him into the “monster” he was, in both body and brutality of violence.

MJ: Yeah. I did feel sympathy for him because his internal dialogue seemed like something that was internalized from what he’s heard from everyone else. He was actually a sad, broken soul who just decided to become what he felt everyone else viewed him as. His ambition is understandable—he wants the respect he’s never gotten from people, including his family–but I just wish there was 1) a character who actually wanted to get to know him 2) if Shakespeare had delved more into Richard’s character with more sympathy. What I hated was that there was no serious investigation into Richard as a person. He was just a plot device.

VT:  I agree with you. I think the myths/superstitions surrounding the disabled prevented that closeness to occur. I think having a genuine and meaningful human relationship, even if platonic, would’ve changed things tremendously for him. He was. He was the misshapen being who was blood and power thirsty. There was no depth to his character besides what he desired.

MJ: I don’t know how you feel about Tyler Perry, but to me, Shakespeare is the Tyler Perry of the 1600s. He’s almost always comically broad with his characterizations. Benedict Cumberbatch’s broad acting didn’t help matters.

VT: I can see that comparison. The depiction does nothing to expand understanding of how complicated people are, or dispel stereotypes about people who are underrepresented on the stage (or big or small screen, in Perry’s art).
And the cripping up of the role by allowing Benedict to play Richard definitely doesn’t help at all.

MJ: Yeah. That reminds me: I really didn’t like how in an early part in Part 3 portrayed Richard as body horror. Like, how the camera was revolving around his naked torso in near darkness. Didn’t like that at all.

VT: That was a gross display of his body. That scene was solely to shock at his form; to pair with how you feel about his schemes for power. That scene was hard to look at – it made the disabled body look grotesque, when it’s not.
There is nothing sensational or horrifying about the disabled body.

MJ: Right. I was really turned off by the whole thing; I wish the director hadn’t gone that route. But the whole thing made me feel more sympathy for Richard; that’s the gaze the world has probably had on him his whole life.

VT: It does make you sympathize with him. I did feel for him; you can tell he hated himself and how that kind of hate manifested to hating people who had what he wanted – power, respect, love, a family – things that seemed unattainable to him.

MJ: Yep. What was the nail in the coffin for me was when everyone started calling him “The Dog.” It was much more about his appearance than his actual evil deeds as to why they were calling him that, and at that point, I was just like, “OKAY, SHOW, I GET IT.”

VT: They also called him a bunchbacked toad, a beast – all of these names stripped him of his mere humanness. The dehumanization of Richard with the name-calling was more disturbing than his actual plots.
All of the names we didn’t need to see how they saw him as a “thing” and not as a person.

MJ: Yep. What’s so aggravating is that everyone in the entire story are awful people (save for the kids), but he’s the only one put on a sub-human level. If he didn’t have his condition, he’d be accepted just like everyone else, despite the fact that he’s a killer. Case in point is how Margaret becomes allies with the new queen and the Queen Mother, even though Margaret killed the Queen Mother’s son and husband. But the past gripes go out the window just to get rid of “The Dog.”

VT: I agree. Focusing on Richard’s disability allowed them to separate their evil actions & doings from his – he’s evil because his body is deformed, & I’m better than him… though I’m not. The hypocrisy of all the characters was stark.
Honestly, that mentality about thinking you’re better than a disabled person, regardless of whether they’re a good person or not, is real. The “I may be this, but at least I’m not crippled/disfigured” thinking is common.
I think that Shakespeare perfectly illustrated ableism before the term existed.

MJ: Yep. I know we talked a little bit about Cumberbatch’s acting, but what did you think of his performance overall? I was a little let down, honestly. He’s much better in “Sherlock.”

VT: I wasn’t impressed at all. I think he was as evil in the role as he needed to be, but the cripping up factor made it more offensive and underwhelming for me. The fact that there is no true substance for Richard, & all you feel is pity/sympathy for him instead, makes the character very bad for disability representation. I’m not against disabled characters being evil or vicious, but I am against characters not having depth and relying solely on stereotypes/misconceptions about what having a disability is.

MJ: Yeah. The whole “putting on a disability as a costume” was bad, and Cumberbatch’s acting as a whole was Snidely Whiplash. I had expected him to at least add another layer of depth to the character, which is what a lot of actors do when they get 1D characters. But no, not him. He was just evil. The glimmers of another aspect to Richard weren’t explored nearly enough. And again, the “Creature Feature” aspect of the direction was gross.

VT: It was profoundly gross. To see that driven home by almost every character was hard to watch. Shakespeare’s embodied exactly why non-disabled writers/playwrights shouldn’t write disabled actors – their inability to add depth, humanness, and realism are deep. These depictions end up doing more harm to better seeing disabled people as equal and not curses or sub-human.

MJ: Indeed. The fact that this is supposed to be one of Shakespeare’s “greatest plays” makes me even more suspect of Shakespeare’s supposed mastery of the art of writing than I was before. I already side-eyed Shakespeare just because we are always taught literature from a Eurocentric point of view, but now I’m even more secure in my belief that Shakespeare isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. I do like Othello and Hamlet, but that’s about it.

VT: I feel the same. I think if we were to analyze his plays, we’d see a lot of problematic depictions, themes, and lack of masterful writing. Those are the two plays I like as well.

MJ: Is there anything we haven’t covered? I guess I do want to touch on King Henry a little bit; Henry’s arc was a lot more subtle than Richard’s, but it seemed like Henry was Richard’s foil in many ways–in temperament, but also in disability or perceived disability. Henry’s delicate mental state was often showcased as a detriment to his ability to rule, which could be some kind of commentary on mental disability or just a difference in thinking. Like, I read Henry as being Highly Sensitive (like me), which some people might perceive as a type of disability. I don’t think so, but a study is trying to place it on the autism spectrum [a 2011 theory on introversion also links it to the autism spectrum]. In any case, a big deal was made about the fact that he took things to heart more deeply than other people.

VT: Henry’s mental state and the criticism of how sensitive he was stood out to me too. I think his sensitivity made him more human than the rest of the characters – he held up a moral mirror of sorts to the evils they wanted to enact and justify. I think depicting him as weak because of his sensitive nature allowed for ableism to exist regarding his capabilities to lead. I think his attachment to religion compounded the ableism with his sensitive nature. Henry wasn’t perfect, but he did have a heart, moreso than the others.

MJ: Right. And also, women like Joan of Arc, who are in the same mental ballpark as Henry (Joan’s a little extreme, though) were seen as villains because of ableism and just because they were women.

VT: Exactly. Joan represented resistance to male power, & her religiosity was used against her to declare her mental state unstable. Sexism in Shakespeare’s plays are prevalent, and the status of women and those who are considered too strong or weak are well seen.

MJ: Yep. In a way, France comes out looking good because they actually allowed themselves to be led by Joan. But I wonder if that’s also some sly propagandized statement about what England thought about France—as weak-willed, frilly people.

VT: I think that’s an accurate guess. France, like women, got in their way of things, & needed to know their place.

MJ: To go back to Henry a bit, it’s unfortunate that Henry’s mindset is viewed as a detriment, esp. since that Henry’s way of thinking is still ridiculed today—Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are often told by Western societies specifically that they’re too weak, when our way of being is actually hardwired into us–our nervous systems that take in information a completely different way than non-HSPs. To write HSPs off in that way is completely erasing an entire population of people just because they feel things more intently. And often, folks who are sensitive make great leaders, so Henry had all the tools to be a terrific king.

VT: As someone who is sensitive, I think I had more sympathy for Henry than I did for Richard. I know for me, I try to hide how sensitive I can be to matters because of the fear of being misperceived incorrectly. To have the ability to see beyond yourself and to empathize with the world you live in is a powerful ability. My sensitivity makes me more conscious of suffering, pain, and how to support people who need it. I think Henry’s sensitivity was a gift that he wasn’t given the safe space to nurture in his role as King, and was chastised severely.

MJ: Yep. In many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. He existed in the wrong time period, to me. I mean, 2017 isn’t that equal for sensitive folks, either, but at least there’s more knowledge about sensitivity out there and more of a community and scientific study.

VT: I agree. Our society still isn’t safe to care for sensitive people, but is way better than the times Henry lived in, for sure. I think the hesitation to value sensitivity rests on the idea that if we’re in touch with our feelings, that relinquishes power and makes us vulnerable. I find that a lot of people who are anti-sensitivity are the main ones not comfortable with expressing themselves and allowing vulnerability to be seen by others.

MJ: Yeah. And in turn, that can make sensitive people internalize anti-vulnerability attitudes since (at least with some of my experiences) you feel like you’re going to get shunned anyway. I guess it goes back to Richard, too–if the world sees you in a certain way, then you’re going to start believing it’s true until someone else tells you otherwise or you yourself start realizing the world is full of BS.

VT: Preach it. I know that the fear of being shunned if I display my sensitivity is something I’m working on (esp when it comes opposite sex interactions). The internalization, whether due to disability, sensitivity, or both, can be detrimental to us in so many ways. Richard represented what that looked like regarding disability, & Henry represented what external forces look like for sensitive individuals.

MJ: Yeah, definitely. I can identify with Henry’s wish to just be left alone and study the Bible; I’ve actually thought “Maybe I should just become a nun” several times. At least my solitude would be seen as a noble thing and not a weird/hermit thing.The world gets too overwhelming sometimes, especially if you’re a sensitive person. But the world doesn’t respect the sensitive person’s boundaries or the fact that they’re just as capable of the loud extrovert.
Not that all extroverts are loud, but you get what I’m saying—it’s those qualities that are lauded more than contemplation.

VT: I agree. I go back and forth with being introverted and extroverted, but I do crave my alone time, especially when I’m feeling down. I need the space to vent feelings/emotions, but working it out in my head alone is how I cope with things. For me, because I’m a social person, it’s sometimes hard to tell people to back off & let me be. Being an only child, I’m used to being alone and it doesn’t bother me. There are times when I need a lot of noise & people, but when I need quiet & solitude, I have to have it or I can’t function.

MJ: I’ve always been introverted, some of it by my environment, but most of it is my personality. I’d rather be alone, writing or drawing, only choosing to be around people when I feel like it. People really drain me a lot. Henry looked pretty weary through most of the show, and I understand why—dealing with the demands of society is tough.

VT: It is. I could relate to that draining feeling he displayed. Though I love people, the older I’ve gotten, the more I can see myself drained. For someone who is a social worker, that’s part of the reason I’m not a traditional one – having to deal with people with such intensity would be too much emotionally (this is why I could never work with kids or the elderly, their needs are so great and I’d fear not saving them all). With Henry, he didn’t have the support he needed to be King effectively to his liking, or to his country. That added extra strain to an already stressful predicament.

MJ: And the one person who was there to help him, who seemed to realize he needed an extra arm, so to speak, to deal with the world was his uncle, who those scheming factions had killed. That left Henry even more defenseless.

VT: Exactly. Who knew that the Hollow Crown would have so many problematic layers?

MJ: Yep. It was even more problematic than I realized at first!

VT: I know!

MJ: I think we’ve about covered everything. Is there anything you think we left out of the conversation?

VT: I think we covered it all.

MJ: The reason it caught my interest was for the actress playing Queen Margaret, a Black woman in that role intrigued me greatly. She played her role well.

VT: I know it may sound scandalous, but I’m sure Somerset was the father of her son.

MJ: I totally think Somerset is the father, too!

VT: I don’t see her willingly engaging with Henry to give him a heir

MJ: Yeah, me neither!

VT: I wished something about the paternity of the son would’ve came up… Henry couldn’t have been that naive.

MJ: Right. There should have been a non-canonical thing thrown in there just to let us know that Henry knew. He had to have known.

VT: I think we got that inkling when Somerset was beheaded that he knew she wouldn’t have grieved for him as she did for Somerset… but that could’ve been easily missed if you weren’t paying attention. But I think not allowing that knowledge to be made public goes back to Henry being perceived as weak and not catching on to things. But Henry had to know, as we both indicated.

MJ: Yeah. I wish that line or Margaret’s reaction to that line were amplified in some way. Something just wasn’t explored like it needed to be. But I do have to say that Sophie Okonedo was the GOAT in that role. She really put her foot in it.

VT: She really did. You loved her, you hated her… perfect portrayal. But I agree—that scene should’ve been explored further, that could’ve given us that hint.

MJ: It seemed like she was the only one who got the right tone for Shakespearean play. She was broad/campy enough without going overboard, and she was just serious enough to make Margaret believable.

VT: And near the end, the haunting of Margaret as the prophetess was perfect.

MJ: Yeah, that was so good. Such a good role. I’d say Hugh Bonneville was great too. He’s always kinda Shakespearean in his acting. He really knows how to chew scenery.

VT: I agree. If it wasn’t for Queen Margaret/Sophie O playing that role, I don’t think the series would’ve held my attention as well as it did.

MJ: Yep. That was the only reason I kept tuning in, to see what she was going to do.

VT: Lol… me too girl. Glad it wasn’t just me!

MJ: Nope, definitely not! I could have just tuned out after the first episode once Hugh Bonneville died. But I remembered Sophie was going to be in all three parts, so I stuck with it.

VT: Thank god for Margaret, the real MVP of the Hollow Crown

MJ: When she killed Plantagenet, she was so amazingly cruel. Loved it.

VT: The villainess we needed. So unapologetic about it, too

MJ: The villainess who would have had all of England on lock if she had a chance to rule.

VT: Oh yes, Queen Margaret would’ve been legendary. Imagine her rule… goodness.

MJ: There needs to be a show like this! Someone needs to make a Queen Margaret show. I’d watch that every day.

VT: YAS!!!

MJ: I’ll have to put a pin in that–another idea I need to utilize my screenwriting abilities for.

VT: DO IT!!!! I need this in my life.

MJ: Maybe that’ll be my claim to fame! I’m totally getting some ideas now. WGA, here I come!

VT: Girl, go get that fame, & write!

MJ: YES! Well, with that, I think we’ve covered every inch of The Hollow Crown. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this! It was a lot of fun!

VT: It was! I had a true blast!

Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)
(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)

Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.

JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.

This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:

Whiteness as the default

IMDB
IMDB

Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.

The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.

“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”

Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”

“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”

“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.

“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”

“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”

Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”

Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”

Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)
Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)

Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”

“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience.  It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries.  With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”

“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”

Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”

Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)

Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”

“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”

Next: The pain of exoticism

Melissa Villaseñor and the Importance of Latinx Intersectionality

FIRST IMPRESSIONS -- Season:1 -- Pictured: Melissa Villasenor -- (Photo by: Joseph Viles/USA Network)
FIRST IMPRESSIONS — Season:1 — Pictured: Melissa Villasenor — (Photo by: Joseph Viles/USA Network)

We just got finished praising Melissa Villaseñor for breaking the glass ceiling for Latinas on Saturday Night Live, and not nearly a week later, we’re already going onto the next with Villaseñor in our rear-view mirrors because of some tweets she made on her now-private Twitter page.

I had just written about Villaseñor exactly eight days ago as of the time of this post. And before my post could even become old news, Buzzfeed along with other outlets, had broken the news that Villaseñor has had a long history of tweeting insensitive, racist statements. Not even real jokes per se; there was literally no way to find what she wrote amusing in any form.

What am I talking about, you might ask? Here you go:

Villaseñor’s tweets make me reflect on something we should stay cognizant of at all times; that there’s more than just one type of Latinx identity and that Afro-Latinx face a multi-layered form of discrimination and racism, some of which us Americans, black white or otherwise, don’t even know about.

America typically denies the multi-layered experiences of Afro-Latinx people, opting for the idea America usually adopts when thinking of Latinx and/or Hispanic people; a person who is either European-looking or tan-skinned. This denial is clearly an undercurrent in Villaseñor’s tweets, but it’s also an undercurrent in other Latin-American and South American countries as well. In many ways, the discrimination black diasporic people face in these countries are linked to America’s own issues with race-based colonialism.

Take for instance Mexico. Americans typically don’t think of “black people” when they think of Mexico, but they are there. Black Mexicans have never fully been integrated; you don’t see many (or any) black Mexican actors and actresses in the telenovelas that make it to American shores. We also don’t hear of black Mexican singers or painters or leaders. Mexico itself hasn’t come to terms with its own history, in many cases refusing to believe black Mexican citizens about their own heritage. Clemente Jesus Lopez, head of the Oaxaca state office for black Mexicans, told the BBC that he can remember two instances in which the Mexican government didn’t believe black people were a part of Mexico, both instances involving women.

“One was deported to Honduras and the other to Haiti because the police insisted that in Mexico there are no black people. Despite having Mexican ID, they were deported.” Lopez said that Mexican consulates were able to bring the women back, but the Mexican government itself offered no apology or compensation. However, for the first time in 2015, citizens were able to check “black” on the Mexican interim census, so Mexico is showing some subtle movement of the needle, but that’s only the starting point.

Related: #DifferenceMakers: Janel Martinez’s “Ain’t I Latina” Reps for Afro-Latinas Left Out of the Conversation

It’s also worth pointing out that there are also Asian Latinx and Asian South Americans as well. Asian Mexicans make up a small percentage of Mexico’s population, for example. And Brazil has the largest percentage of Japanese citizens outside of Japan itself; many of whom we saw during this past Olympics winning for Brazil. There are also quite a few Asian-Hispanic/Asian Latinx American actors in Hollywood, including Kirk Acevedo, Harry Shum, Jr., Tatyana Ali, Tyson Beckford (both of whom are also Afro-Latinx as well), Enrique Iglesias, Bruno Mars (who is also Ashkenazi Jewish), Kelis (who also has African American heritage), and many more. 

While Latin America and South America have their own work to do, America has some things it needs to suss out for itself, and Villaseñor’s mistakes can be used a learning point for most of us.

The fact that we, as a melting pot nation, don’t generally recognize part of the black diaspora as part of the Latinx identity, is something that speaks directly to our ideas about race, ideas that are reflected squarely in Villaseñor’s now-deleted tweets. We, and I guess Mexico and other countries as well, expect for blackness to be a self-contained, monolithic identity. Blackness doesn’t just equal one thing; blackness can be multilayered. You can be Afro-Latinx, just as much as you can be a black Native American, blasian, and of white and black heritage. So when we (and Villaseñor) label “black” as just being one thing, we’re erasing entire groups of people. The erasure is doubly so when blackness is equated with being ugly and subhuman.

Thankfully, there are people out there doing the hard work of providing a space for Afro-Latinx to feel included, such as Janel Martinez’ Ain’t I Latina?, which focuses on news and entertainment centered around the African diaspora throughout Latin and South America. But each of us can do our part to end this discrimination. First, we can start with addressing our own ideas about what constitutes blackness. Second, we can demand those who are figures in society to think outside of themselves and think of those they’ll impact the most with their words. For some like Villaseñor, if you’re going to become a role model for other Latinx coming up after you, shouldn’t you make sure you’re inclusive and represent all Latinx?

Third, With those of us who are championing diversity or getting more diversity on the screen, we need to ask ourselves if we are inviting all voices to the table, and not just the voices we think represent the whole of a people. When we fight for diversity, we need to make sure all racial and cultural experiences are accounted for. When those of us in power to cast actors in an inclusive way, we need to make sure that our idea of “Latinx character” includes all races and ethnicities, since Latin America is multicultural as well. Those of us who are media creators need to make sure that we think outside of what we’ve been told a Latinx character should look like.

Ultimately, though, while we can all learn lessons from Villaseñor’s transgressions, the biggest lesson should be for Villaseñor herself; now that she’s in the public eye, she’d better what she says as well as what she tweets.

What do you think about Villaseñor? Give your opinions in the comments section below.

#DifferenceMakers: Janel Martinez’s “Ain’t I Latina” Reps for Afro-Latinas Left Out of the Conversation

There is not enough focus on the people who live at the intersections of cultures and ethnicities. The Afro-Latina identity is one such group that seems to go under the radar in the media, and for no good reason. In the media, the idea of the Latina is that of a light-skinned, European or mestizo looking woman. Even in popular magazines geared towards the Latinx community and Latinas in particular, the diverse range of Latinas aren’t routinely showcased, Afro-Latinas in particular. The stereotype of what a Latina should look like isn’t capturing the full scope of those who are, in fact, Latina. Enter the much-needed site, Ain’t I Latina? to work to correct that oversight.

Ain’t I Latina was created by Honduran-American multimedia journalist Janel Martinez, who sought to give Afro-Latinas the coverage they’ve been missing in the media. Her Twitter page gives a quick summary of what you can expect:

Her bio page gives a more in-depth explanation of her site.

Ain’t I Latina? is an online destination created by an Afro-Latina for Afro-Latinas. Inspired by the lack of representation in mainstream media, as well as Spanish-language media, Janel Martinez, a 20-something journalist and New York native, wanted to create a space where millennial Latinas can celebrate their diversity. In addition to offering celebrity news, career advice, lifestyle coverage and exclusive interviews with today’s hottest Latinas, Ain’t I Latina? offers you, the reader, an opportunity to share your story.

There is a lot to take in on Ain’t I Latina, including the site’s latest interview with Evelyn Lozada and daughter Shaniece Hairston, Afro-Latina musicians and authors to look out for, theatrical portrayals of the Afro-Latina identity, etc. Most important of all, it fosters community and an outlet for women who haven’t seen themselves celebrated on the whole in media. I recommend you give Ain’t I Latina a shot.

Are you a fan of Ain’t I Latina? What do you love about the site? Give your opinions below!

Zendaya’s Mary Jane Watson could be the biracial heroine you’ve been looking for

K.C. UNDERCOVER - Disney Channel's "K.C. Undercover" stars Zendaya as K.C. Cooper. (Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin)
K.C. UNDERCOVER – Disney Channel’s “K.C. Undercover” stars Zendaya as K.C. Cooper. (Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin)

It’s official: Zendaya is playing Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Marvel film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. But why is everyone quick to assume that Mary Jane is black? What if it turns out that Mary Jane is biracial, like the actress playing her? And if this is true, how will this positively affect other biracial girls of African-American and Caucasian heritage that see her on-screen?

There has been plenty of talk about the lack of mono-racial people of color (for lack of a better word) for a while now. But it seems like most people don’t turn that conversation to a group of people of color who have been unrepresented, sometimes twice or many times over: biracial and multiracial people of color.

Technically, most of us in the U.S. have at least one other ethnicity in our heritage. But most of us claim just one. In many respects, the “one drop rule” still applies, even in the mouths of people who state that they don’t believe it. If you look black, you’re black. If you look Asian, you’re Asian, etc. Halle Berry famously said that her mother, who is white, told her to accept that she’s black, because that’s all anyone would see. Even President Barack Obama, who is biracial, is constantly called the first black president, even though that title negates the other half of his heritage. The same is happening with Zendaya’s Mary Jane; most people assume she’s playing a black Mary Jane, when it could be that she’s playing a biracial Mary Jane, a character that could draw on Zendaya’s own experiences as a biracial woman.

I should stress that I’m putting asterisks and air-quotes around the word “could.” Knowing how Marvel is at representation sometimes, there’s the overwhelming possibility that Zendaya is playing a black character. However, this particular film has the most inclusive casting of a Marvel film, and none of it seems like stunt casting. This film, as far as I’m concerned, is a watershed moment for Marvel and could signal a higher degree of focus and sensitivity towards casting. This sensitivity might also be applied to characterization. If it is, that would be a boon for biracial people, specifically those of African-American and Caucasian heritage, because biracial and multiracial people are hardly ever showcased in the media, and when they are, they are usually shown in an objectifying and dehumanizing light.

According to The Critical Media Project, the 19th and 20th centuries generally showcased biracial people as the “tragic mulatto,” the byproduct of a sordid relationship between a white and black couple. These characters were usually seen in a binary light, being tragic figures because they couldn’t fit into either the white or black worlds. The context in which these characters were viewed was from a white point of view; the only value these characters had were if they could pass as white, and if they couldn’t then their supposed tragedy made them unfit to exist in a world that only viewed race in terms of “undesirable” blackness and “exceptional” whiteness. There are several films like this that have been shown on TCM, but the most popular one has to be Imitation of Life, in which the biracial woman rejects her black mother, passes as white, and remains as such until her boyfriend leaves her because of her black heritage. (Spoiler alert: Her mother dies of a broken heart after her daughter tells her she hates her; the daughter only comes to her senses after her mother has died and she flings herself onto her mother’s casket during her funeral procession.)

Today though, biracial and multiracial people are now thought of as the product of an exotic, idealized future. This sounds like it should be positive, but it still puts biracial and multiracial people in terms of theory, not reality. To quote The Critical Media Project:

“…[T]he increasingly globalized nature of identity means that the conversation around mixed race tends to move beyond an isolated focus on black/white issues to incorporate other racial and ethnic identities. Mixed race individuals are often talked about in futuristic terms, conceptualized as modern hybrid beings that signal a faster, stronger and better world ahead. They are also often sexualized and fetishized as mysterious, exotic, sexy and extraordinary looking.”

Even though the tone of the conversation has shifted, biracial and multiracial people are still afflicted with stereotyping and objectification. Maybe one reason we rarely see biracial and multiracial people represented in the media is because too many people still view the idea of a multiracial society as a futuristic, sci-fi world that isn’t here yet, when in fact, it is here. It’s been here for centuries. In short, things have got to get out of the theoretical and into the practical when it comes to representing biracial and multiracial people as people, people who live in the now. Zendaya’s Mary Jane could go a long way in beginning to right that wrong.

The biggest film featuring an interracial family in recent memory is Infinitely Polar Bear, starring Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo. Mirren Lyell for Mixed Nation also cites Nickelodeon shows Sanjay and Craig and The Haunted Hathaways as recent TV shows depicting interracial families. But there should be more films like this. Indeed, there should be more media of all types about multiracial and biracial people. As John Paul Brammer of Blue Nation Review wrote:

In the context of the media diversity debate, multiracial people exist in a precarious place. On the one hand, they seem to be left out for the sake of a more direct approach to criticism of media representation of minorities. “We need more black characters” or “We need more Asian characters” are strong demands with a history of mischaracterization and discrimination behind them. “We need more multiracial people of color” is seen as a level of intersectionality that Hollywood simply can’t process.

On the other hand, multiracial characters are often employed as copouts in the media, used to represent ethnic minorities in a more “palatable” way for mainstream audiences. Multiracial black actors with light skin are hired over black actors with darker skin. White Latinos are hired over Latinos with ethnic features.

Even films with progressive racial themes have come under fire for this. The film Dear White People, a film created to represent black people and discuss white racism, was criticized for casting as its protagonist a biracial, light-skinned black woman.

More representations of biracial and multiracial characters could help quell Hollywood’s usage of actors and actresses of mixed heritage as social and political wedges. More representations would also help build the self-esteem of many kids who don’t see characters who represent all of their heritage on screen. According to this article by Astrea Greig, MA for the American Psychological Association:

“Despite large growth, the multiracial population still comprises a very small fraction of the U.S. population (Humes, Jones, & Ramirez, 2011). Moreover, multiracial people in the media are often depicted as monoracial (CNPAAEMI, 2009; Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). As a result of the small population and lack of media representation, multiracial youth may feel that they do not have a multiracial community and lack role models to help them understand their mixed identity (Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Multiracial role models are thus extremely helpful for mixed children and teens (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Moreover, having a community of others with a mixed racial and/or ethnic background has shown to help improve psychological well-being (Iijima Hall, 2004; Sanchez & Garcia, 2009).”

If Marvel allowed it, Mary Jane Watson could be one such role model for biracial children. Her story, which as many have said is independent of race, would go a long way to represent biracial and multiracial people not as an ideal or as a tragedy, but as an ordinary person who faces personal and social issues big and small. A biracial Mary Jane would be yet a further stepping stone towards true identity equality in Hollywood and in society.

What do you think about a biracial Mary Jane? Write about it in the comments section below!

My Journey with AncestryDNA, Part 1: Why I’m Taking the Test

AncestryDNA/screengrab
AncestryDNA/screengrab

“Are you Indian?” “Are you French?” “Are you Filipina?” “Are you from the islands? You’re from the islands, right?” How many of you out there have come up against questions like these? I have, and it’s annoying. However, this aggravation is also the start of a journey that I have wanted to take for years. I’m getting the AncestryDNA test.

Why am I doing the test? Well, I’m tired of not knowing my history. More importantly, I’m tired of carrying around the baggage of being seen as an “exotic” object, something that’s affected me since childhood. I want to officially arm myself with the knowledge of my cultural heritage so I can feel a lot more confident in my own identity.

I’ve already talked about my personal difficulties coming to terms with identity, which you can hear on the No, Totally podcast. But just to be brief: I have often been made to feel like I’m in the middle of blackness and…something else.   Dealing with that is tiring, especially when you don’t have knowledge of your own background apart from what your skin can tell you. In short, I’ve let other people control my identity; because I’ve practiced not being in total control of knowing my own identity, I’ve basically become a mystery to myself. That’s a problem, and it’s a problem I intend to fix.

Keep in mind: none of this is about escaping blackness. As I’ve said in my podcast episode, I love being black, and I strongly identify with my blackness. With that said, it would be nice to have some closure about my complete identity. Throughout my childhood, especially when I was wearing chemically relaxed hair, people would always assume I was something else other than a black girl from the south, which is what I have always been. However, I don’t want to have my identity decided for me by some random people who feel like I can’t be black just because I don’t look like how they think blackness should look. On the flip side, I don’t want to deny myself the opportunity to learn more about myself, including what’s in my bloodline.  It’d be nice to be able to feel in control of my own identity, regardless of what that identity entails. I want to be able to celebrate all of me and defend all of me from persecution and ignorant “exotic” comments. If I have a varied ancestral background, I want to feel whole in that knowledge and honor all of those parts of myself. That’s what’s really at the root of this: this is a getting-to-know-me process on my own terms, not terms set by other people. I no longer want to carry shame for looking some way that others view as “acceptable blackness” or “exoticized blackness”. I want to be proud of myself and the group (or groups) I represent.

Regardless of that issue, though, I’ve often personally been curious about tracing my ancestry, and I feel a DNA test is the start of that, since I’ll know what ballpark I should be looking in for my ancestors. Tracing my ancestry has been a project that I’ve never fully had the time or money to engage in. I have always imagined myself to one day be like Alex Haley, having full knowledge of my lineage and the people who have shaped my history. I’ve always wanted to know how my experiences reflect those whose blood run through my veins. Knowing my personal history is something I’ve always felt needed to be done.

As a late birthday present to myself, I decided it was time to take the first step towards tracking my ancestry and ordered the AncestryDNA kit. The kit itself is simple; according to the instructions, you just provide a saliva sample and send it back. In six to eight weeks, you are sent an email linking you to your results page. Also, it’s $99, which is far cheaper than my first choice 23andMe. It also doesn’t check for stuff you don’t want, unlike 23andMe, which provides you with information on what health factors and health risks you could have. That information is useful in another setting, but it’s not particularly useful to me, who just wants to know what ethnic makeup is in my DNA.

The thing that sold me on AncestryDNA was this testimony from their site:

ancestrydna-who are you

Look, this is not a sponsored article for AncestryDNA, so I have full rights to say that I don’t know if this woman is a real case study and if her testimony wasn’t just something made up by Ancestry’s PR to attract people like me, who are tired of being told they look like “something.” But regardless, it worked. I saw myself in that woman, and thought to myself that if she could find some answers, I sure could too.

For now, this post will act as the first in a series of posts about my identity journey. We’ll see what I find together! If you’ve been thinking about taking the AncestryDNA test or some other heritage DNA test, discuss in the comments section. If you’ve felt like you’ve been labeled “exotic” by others and are sick of that title, talk about that too. I’d like to read what you have to say about your own experiences with identity, identity questions, etc.