Amina Harper on Race and Representation in Storytelling

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This week my guest is writer, artist and Tangential contributor Amina Harper. She and I have had some great conversations lately about how Hollywood handles (or fails to handle) the subject of race. I invited her on to share her wisdom, and give us a sneak peek into the novel she’s writing.

Read up below and listen. (Oh and make sure to subscribe on the iTunes Store and on Sound Cloud!)

What’s the status of representation in Hollywood, or even in storytelling in general? Is it anywhere near where it should be in 2015?

On average, people of color (of any race or ethnicity) are out numbered by a ratio of 2 to 1 on any cable or broadcast TV show. Shows like How To Get Away with Murder and Fresh off the Boat (shows where the cast is comprised mostly of people of color) are themselves a minority in the same vein.

It’s rare to get a find mix of diverse characters because, to the people in charge of these shows, diversity means one, and only one, person of color without that disparity being addressed.

Now there are exceptions. The show The Knick, for example, features main character Algernon Edwards, who is the only black doctor at an entirely white hospital in turn-of-the-century New York. He faces blatant racism, microaggressions and violence on a daily basis, despite being the most competent and forward-thinking physician onsite. Yes, he is the only black main character on a predominantly white television show, but that fact is by no means ignored or overlooked. It is given the most visceral detail of any depiction of race I’ve ever seen on American television. It’s extremely rare for something regarding race to be that unflinching.

We are getting closer. I feel like television will be that next frontier. Movies seem to be struggling, but the film industry is built on an appreciation of glamorous and wealthy whiteness, moreso than television, and I don’t see that industry relinquishing that power anytime soon (because it is extremely powerful).

Television is more flexible. There is so much room for dynamic and diverse storytelling. Now that we view most of our television online, that frontier has become even wider and more accessible with YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and the advent of the web series. Because of this, we will see more people of color turning into content creaters themselves and telling their own stories with characters who represent them. The opportunity wasn’t as readily available as it is now that television viewing has moved online.

What are harmful ways that race has been tackled, misconstrued or ignored in T.V. or movies lately?

It seems that Hollywood can’t wait to whitewash something, and on a creative level I don’t understand this (which is probably why those films and tv shows aren’t very creative). Whitewashing is probably my biggest pet peeve at the moment.

I’ve said before that I’d rather my representation not be present in someone’s work than be presented in a harmful way, but that’s not the same as being completely erased when said representation once played a prominant role.

When white media replaces a person of color with another white person, the message being projected is “I control this story. I’m the protagonist, the hero, and the main focus. I have the power. I don’t want to lose that power to you, so I will prevent you from being seen as an equal to me by erasing you all together. That way, your image cannot inspire others like you and I won’t have to fight more of you for power.”

Whitewashing is done shamelessly in Hollywood, because that glamorous, wealthy white power has to be maintained and protected and never challenged. The ones who control the stories control the world.

How can writers work harder to include and represent more types of people in storytelling in authentic ways?

By giving people of color the chance and safe space to represent ourselves in our own works. Stop expecting us to be the backdrops to lily white worlds, stop asking us to give ourselves to your need to feel more racially progressive and forward-thinking, when you’re really only using us to prop you up.

And if you want to create characters of color with honest lives and experiences DO YOUR RESEARCH. Talk to people of color and listen when we tell you our truths, even if it makes you uncomfortable about your own whiteness (I promise you, being uncomfortable for a bit is all you’ll risk in that endeavour).

Be sure to avoid stereotypes by knowing what those stereotypes are beforehand, and cut it out with that Magical Negro shit. People of color do not exist to make white people feel less shitty about their lives by dispensing wisdom to them whenever they want to bother us. We have jobs and bills and shit.

Work with us as equals, because it becomes our story when you involve us in it. Stories are always a group effort, especially when you’re trying to tell us our own story.

Here, maybe this Writing with Color Tumlr will help. It addresses these things perfectly. Don’t say I never gave ya’ll anything.

If a writer screws up when it comes to approaching race, what should they do as a means of making things right?

Do it right the first time and that won’t be a problem. If you can’t be bothered to do your research, engage in a dialogue and give your characters of color a relatable voice before you publish, then maybe you shouldn’t do it at all. There are already plenty stories about people of color from the perspectives of white people, if you don’t care enough to tell it well, then let us tell it.

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