Another Internet Thinky Post! When the People Speaking for a Community, Drown Out the Voices of the Actual Community

I just have so much to say about internet dialogue! And the Gunjan Saxena debate that I am listening to second hand thanks to y’all has given me a new thing to think about. Also, once again, NO POLITICS. We have been doing fabulously with productive conversations about communication and internet culture without political specifics, let’s keep that up!

I’m gonna start this with the example that was clearest to me, and which I got to see firsthand. It is also not Indian film related, so hopefully none of you will have an established deeply held belief about it.

In 2015, Tina Fey’s Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt threw in an absurd comic twist revealing that Jane Krakowski’s super WASP rich New York character had Native American heritage and was raised on a reservation. To play this twist out, they added to Native actors to play her parents, included multiple scenes set on the reservation, and various Lakota traditions as part of her background.

Jacqueline White | Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Wiki | Fandom

I watched this live, without any preconceptions, and I found the initial absurd twist unobjectionable, along the same lines as all the other random jokes, not the funniest thing in the show, but fine. Once the reservation scenes began, I was fascinated and delighted, this was a part of American life I didn’t usually get to see, and the jokes were specific to a degree that it made me do additional research to learn the background behind them. I was also very happy with the actors playing her parents who I had seen in a few other things before, but never so prominantly.

And then I went online and read reviews, which pointed out the appropriation of using a white actress to play a Native heritage character. This bothered me. Just the basic assumption that if you appear white, you cannot be Native immediately felt wrong to me. And then I did research, and yes, it is wrong. There are accepted members of the Native American communities who don’t look “Native” the way we think they should. Do we really want to say “Native Americans all have dark skin, high cheekbones, and long black hair”? That feels wrong.

I Have a First Nations Background and Didn't Think Kimmy Schmidt ...
The show has a throw away line about a white grandparent which easily explains Jane Krakowski’s appearance. In a larger sense, saying she did not “look Native American” to me says “Native Americans cannot look white” which says “Native Americans do not have white blood” which says “White people would/did never intermarry with/rape Native Americans”. And that is a really dangerous conclusion.

But what really felt wrong was when in the comments on the post someone mentioned, first of all, the entire idea and all the scenes were written by a member of the writing staff who is Native American. And second, in the comments, someone identified themselves as Native American, said they were thrilled by the story line and seeing their culture so beautiful represented in a mainstream product. And then that person was ignored and drowned out in the comments, finally giving up on commenting. And the member of the writing staff was never discussed, only the idea of a white showrunner and a white actress mattered.

Here’s an article by someone with a Native American background struggling with guilt because they don’t find the show racist. The thing the article does not address, which is what I find most interesting, is that the guilt is induced because this person believes their feelings about their own culture are less legitimate than the vocal majority telling them how to feel:

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5gqpyz/i-have-a-first-nations-background-and-didnt-think-kimmy-schmidt-was-racist

Here’s an article from a Native American source:

https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/why-kimmy-schmidt-s-native-subplot-is-great-a-native-fan-s-opinion-FYkAqhObKEadtbPYrOCO6A

Here’s another article from the same Native American source which is against the show, based on quotes from non-Native reviewers, which again seems so strange to me, this is an article written by a Native for a Native American source that feels their own opinions must step behind those of outsiders:

https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-has-two-native-american-actors-it-needed-three-6Bk748P-uUKGW5QTg4EleQ

In the end, the storyline was cut from future seasons in response to the backlash, the Native actors were put out of work, and I stopped learning cool things about Lakota culture. Not because actual Native Americans objected to their representation, but because other people objected on their behalf.

What is this? We see it all the time, in the Indian film context often in terms of “protecting” the armed forces. They don’t need protecting! They are ARMED!!!!! More than that, they have the ability to speak for themselves. If you think there is a problem with the representation of the Indian armed forces in a film, you can talk to them directly, you don’t have to guess how they feel.

I think maybe it is a strange form of identity stealing? In the Western/American context, for sure there is a lot of joy in a member of a group in power (on the whiter side of things, on the richer side of things) taking up an issue on behalf of another group, gaining victimization credit by contagion. And it looks less odd online. If I were in a room of 50 white people and one native person, and the one native person stood up and said “I like this thing” and the 50 white people said “No, you are wrong, I know more than you”, that would look really really bad. But when it is a bunch of words on a screen it’s easier to ignore the reality of who is a true member of the community versus who is not, and whose opinion therefore has more value. Easy even for the actual members of the community, who are convinced they have less of a right to their opinions than the people around them.

I gave one example, but I know there are others. Especially in the pop culture/representation realm. For example, The Big Bang Theory, I have read so many people talking about how “as an actual nerd, I find it offensive blah blah blah”. Really? Because the people I know, the research scientists at the university level, all adore it. And obviously the many many science rockstars who volunteered to do unpaid cameos also adore it. So maybe you are speaking for a community you wish you could identify with, but don’t actually represent.

The Big Bang Theory is over but what does the future hold for the ...
I’m not a scientist, but I am a woman, and the smaller criticisms of BBT as being against women really puzzle me. As a woman, I love this show. The female characters have complicated layered friendships, they talk about career, and research, and family issues, and appearances. Heck, they each have different appearances! Do you know how rare that is? For the costume/make-up/hair people on a show to craft separate looks for each female lead, just like women have in the real world?

(I should acknowledge that I am a white woman who writes about Indian film. This issue up here is the reason I try very VERY hard not to speak for a community, but instead for myself as a fan of a particular cultural artifact/human person in the world. I don’t want to be that white woman saying “these films are offensive to Indian culture”, but I do want to be that white woman saying “Slumdog Millionaire was a bad interpretation of Deewar“)

16 thoughts on “Another Internet Thinky Post! When the People Speaking for a Community, Drown Out the Voices of the Actual Community

    • Hmm. No, I guess not. But you can speak for yourself as a member of that community.

      On Wed, Aug 19, 2020 at 6:33 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • This is such a good question I have continued to think about it. And I think generally yes, because that is what representative democracy/society relies upon. If there is something about Aspergers, for instance, I am not going to give more weight to what the spokesperson for the Autism Society says than what a single person with Aspergers says. If you speak for an organization that the community has chosen to endorse in large numbers, than I will assume what you have to say is something the community in general agrees upon. Not that everyone will agree with you, but you are more than just an individual.

      But what is happening in the case of internet discourse is that instead of reaching out to leaders in the community, outsiders from the community are making up their own minds and speaking for them. Perhaps it is also related to the topics this discourse embraces? When you are talking Pop Culture, I doubt that the officials of the various American Indian organizations are going to waste their time considering and issuing a formal opinion, they have far FAR more important things to do. So in that gap, people outside the community who do not speak for it as a whole will be able to fill the silence.

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  1. Something I recently came across because of a paper I had to write. The term Native American has fallen out of favor and the preferred term now is American Indian or the name of the specific tribe. How does that translate to this blog? Do you continue to use Native American or use the term that the people actually prefer?

    Here is a Q and A from the Smithsonian: https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/didyouknow

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    • Generally I use American Indian, but in this post I got a bit tied up because “Native American” was the terminology used by others who I was quoting/referring to. If I had been more aware, I would have translated it to American Indian, but I got confused and lost track.

      For me, I like American Indian, Black (with a capital), Desi, and Queer. All of them feel kind of similar to me in that they are acknowledging the community as it exists in the world today as part of a larger culture, they are inclusive of everyone who has been stereotyped and identified by others in a particular way without worrying about the details of each individual origin, and they are proudly creating a new identity.

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      • I am not sure why I came across as Anonymous the original comment was from me BTW.

        I agree that everyone has the responsibility of using terms the people in that group prefer when referring to them – as you mentioned American Indian (except for Alaskan Natives who prefer the aforementioned term), Black, Queer. Practically though, I have realized that as an American of Indian heritage who was also born in India, I just have to find creative ways to distinguish the two groups when writing about both at the same time. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can use the term Desi in formal writing.

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        • Kind of related, I started using Black-with-a-capital more after I moved to my current neighborhood, which has a large number of Ethiopian immigrants and a smaller number from other African states. Using “African-American” suddenly felt strange to me as a way to refer to descendants of slaves who had been ripped from their culture and forced into a new American subculture, when I was surrounded by people who were “African American” in the same way I was “German American”, it was their cultural/national heritage before immigration. Actually, exactly like I am German American, because my ancestors came from a bunch of countries that don’t exist any more but were all part of a greater German identity/geographic space.

          And then when I am doing more complicated writing, I have to keep mixing and matching in a way that makes sense to me but might be confusing to read. For instance, “Desi” for the great global community, “Indian American” when referring to specific American immigration patterns, “Punjabi” for specific holidays, and so on and so forth. Might sound to an outsider like I can’t make up my mind, but there is usually a logic to it.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I have 2 thoughts on this.

    I’m not gonna talk politics, but when political stuff gets controversial and anger inducing, my dad always says “Consider the source.” I’ve seen all of UKS, so I know that the series is designed to be dry humor and a little surreal and a little dark. It’s great that they had Native American/American Indian writers who crafted Jacqueline’s storyline, but I feel like her presenting white was kind of the point. If anyone’s played the game Cards Against Humanity, I feel like it’s kind of like that, where the whole thing is designed to be funny but in a really dark and messed up way so you can’t get mad at it for being offensive. I was judging once and the question was “What gives me uncontrollable gas?” and someone played “Auchwitz” and especially as a Jewish woman, in any other context I would find that extremely offensive, but because it was Cards Against Humanity it was hilarious. I feel like UKS is a toned down version of that.

    Second, I feel like this goes back to internet culture in general. Obviously certain communities do not feel it’s okay for someone outside their community to speak for them. That’s a given, and I understand that. The thing is that every person in the community has a different experience of being in said community, but when they try to speak about their experience the collective internet, or people outside the community, see it as them speaking for the community, but then other people contradict their statements and it’s a back and forth of what’s okay versus what’s not that people outside the community can’t comprehend because they’re trying to get a grasp on a whole community by going off of multiple people’s individual experiences.

    I’ll give an example. I’m Jewish, as I mentioned before, and as long as the word is not used in a derogatory or negative context, I am not bothered by someone calling me a “Jew”. On the other hand, my coworker’s husband is Jewish, and he thinks the word “Jew” is extremely offensive. As far as I know, there is no consensus on whether this word is a slur like other words in other communities are. So the non-Jewish people are left with conflicting statements on how to best interact with the Jewish community because they are interpreting these things to be representative of the community as a whole rather than two different people’s experiences and speaking for themselves and NOT a community.

    I’m not sure if any of that makes sense but that’s what I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are really great thoughts.

      Your feeling about UKS is mine as well. The joke is how inappropriate/unexpected it is to have this white woman/white actress reveal an American Indian heritage. And then they compound the joke by giving the context of American Indian actors around her, and accurate Lakota backstory and traditions and so on.

      Excellent point about internet culture. In some ways it is like being in a discussion group at a party, you may have three people from the same background with different feelings on an issue. There is no consensus available, it’s just a conversation. But when you have thousands of people listening in on this conversation it starts to feel weightier than it really is. Does that make sense?

      Additional point, when you are at a party having this conversation, for someone to leap in and try to join the conversation when they are not of that background would be very rude and odd. But somehow online these conversations can be hijacked by folks from outside the community leaving the community to fade out of the conversation they started. Kind of like mainsplaining maybe? 5 women talking about periods, and then 5 men arrive and start talking so much more loudly and confidently that the women just shut up and it turns into an all male conversation despite it not actually being their issue to discuss.

      On Thu, Aug 20, 2020 at 12:27 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 2 people

  3. This strikes a hard nerve for me. I was raised by a Hispanic mom who pretended she was white, and a white dad who probably only married my mom ‘cause she was Hispanic. I never knew my dad’s side of the family – there really wasn’t any to know. I was brought up culturally surrounded by all things Hispanic. My grandma spoke Spanish, all my relatives are brown, sing songs in Spanish with a guitar at family gatherings, make tamales for the New Year dinner, and drink too much cheap beer and tell fun stories at wakes.
    However, I don’t “look” Hispanic. In fact, several years ago, secretary at my kids’ school informed me that she had “corrected” their bio data for them because she assumed I just didn’t know what the term “Hispanic” meant. I was truly horrified. My family has always referred to me as the “guerita” of the family (meaning light-skinned). And, I don’t care who tells you otherwise, when directed at someone, it is nearly always derogatory- meaning “you aren’t part of the group.”
    When we lived in SoCal, I felt very Hispanic. In San Antonio, I am very white. Even though I don’t really identify and/or actually fit in with that crowd at all.
    My issue has always been, “What does it mean to be xx race?”
    My dna says I’m 25% Native American, but, I didn’t grow up on a reservation, I’m not dirt poor, and although alcoholism runs rampant in the family, I’m assuming it doesn’t count because I didn’t grow up in a teepee on a reservation. I’m not sure how one “defines” someone’s race/ethnicity beyond the color of their skin. Any way you look at it, it’s all skin deep and racist as hell.

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    • Thank you for sharing your story. This is what bothered me about the anger over casting in this case. Yes, the actress herself has no American Indian heritage and was not pretending otherwise. But the appearance of her character should certainly not have been an issue in the conversation, it’s dangerous to make those kinds of assumptions based on appearance. Something similar came up with Argo, I don’t know if you remember this, but the real person that Ben Affleck’s character is based on is named “Tony Mendez” and there was some minor discussion about Affleck taking the part. But the real person was Hispanic only on his father’s side, never knew his father, and identified with his mother’s miscellaneous European mutt heritage. Do you need to cast a Hispanic actor to play someone who themselves did not even identify as Hispanic? Changing the name in that case would have really bothered me, because here is a person who did great things and succeeded in a tough field while hampered by a non-WASP name. But so long as the character had that name still, the ethnicity of the actor playing them felt unimportant to me.

      On Fri, Aug 21, 2020 at 10:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      • I think more discussion needs to be had about what “defines” a person’s ethnicity. Cultural experience generally has less to do with the color of your skin or your DNA, and more to do with how and where you are raised.

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