On Power and History: Five False Equivalencies

Originally published at Opine Season

I met a college student last month who didn’t understand why so many people were angry about blackface (as part of a Halloween costume). Like a lot of people, he just saw it as “dress-up,” not as any kind of provocative or political statement. After we had a conversation about the history of blackface, however, he got it. The problem was that a lack of historical perspective resulted in an incomplete picture.

Without an understanding of how power works, both in the present and historically, of course people are going to set up false equivalencies, push back against discussions of privilege, and refuse to engage with social justice issues. Frequently, if conversations about offensiveness and privilege aren’t also conversations about history and power, they don’t go anywhere.

In my work, I come across the false equivalencies that result from this lack of historical context with alarming regularity. A few common ones:

“If you think ‘Redskins’ is so offensive, why aren’t you also protesting the Vikings?”
Well, “Viking” isn’t a racial slur, first of all. But this also relates to any Indian-themed mascot—Chiefs, Indians, Braves, etc. The larger issue is that Scandinavian people don’t carry with them a centuries-long history of betrayal, oppression and genocide. Scandinavian people aren’t economically, politically and socially marginalized. And Scandinavian people aren’t currently protesting or speaking out about how Viking mascots/logos perpetuate harmful stereotypes and reflect the silencing of Scandinavian voices in other realms.

“How come Johnny Depp shouldn’t play Tonto but it’s okay for Idris Elba to play Heimdall, a Norse god?”
First, there’s the simple matter of numbers. “Whitewashing” characters happens a lot more than the opposite, especially when we’re talking about lead characters (as opposed to extras, comic relief, sidekicks, etc.). Second, the practice of casting white actors over actors of color is connected to a long, painful history of silencing the voices and experiences of people of color, normalizing whiteness and centering our collective mythology around heroes who are white.

I’d be fine (well, fine-ish) with a white Kaneda (in the proposed “Akira” adaptation) or a white Katara (in “The Last Airbender”) if there were a ton of other opportunities for Asian or Indigenous actors to get good work in Hollywood. But there aren’t. There are hardly any. “Colorblind casting” or “just trying to get the best actor for the role” are fine concepts in theory, but they almost always play out in harmful, status-quo-supporting ways.

“Why do people complain about women being objectified in media when men are too?”
Let’s use comics as an example. Yes, Batman has perfect abs. Namor wears some very revealing clothing. Most male superheroes have sculpted, sexy physiques too, just like the women.

But the objectification of women in comics is tied to the objectification of women in real life. Here’s a video game example: Liu Kang and Kitana might both have perfect bodies, lots of exposed flesh and non-existent personalities, but if they were real people, one of them would be making less money for performing the same fatalities.

There are many reasons why men outnumber women by such wide margins in politics, business and positions of power and authority in general. One of them is because women have had to deal with discrimination, paternalism, lack of representation and harmful stereotypes (less capable, too emotional, etc) for thousands of years. They’re also viewed as objects, in part because of how they’re represented in media.

“Why are so many artists speaking out against ‘Miss Saigon’ at the Ordway? That’s just censorship.”
Censorship is about power. A group of concerned citizens trying to convince a multi-million dollar institution to change, or trying to spread the word about the problems with the musical, or protesting outside the theater—none of this is “censorship.” (Be sure to read David Mura’s piece on this here).

Compare this to an educational institution reprimanding an educator who dared to have a discussion about racism in her class. Whether or not you use the word “censorship,” the power dynamics are simply different—and those power dynamics matter.

“I know what it’s like to be oppressed too because one time I was the only white kid in an African-American studies class!”
As all of these examples illustrate, oppression is bigger than “feeling uncomfortable.” It’s about representation, money, and power. It’s about how institutions are structured. It’s about history, and how historical events, trends and attitudes continue to affect the present. Without this larger perspective, conversations about social justice are likely to remain just that: conversations.