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Media chains POC artists to cultural narratives

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DECEMBER 29, 2016

Spotting the few POC artists in the relatively homogenous pool of American media may be the easiest “Where’s Waldo?” yet. We tokenize them, celebrating their successes as if they singlehandedly solve the lack of diversity plaguing the entertainment industry. We force their cultural narratives upon them, demanding their roots to come alive in every song and every scene. And while culture should be celebrated, our need to constantly emphasize it in the media perpetuates the very barriers we try to break.

POC artists in American media are automatically fenced into their cultural narrative the minute they enter the scene. Regardless of the cast’s demographic or the album’s intention, critics will always associate them with their ethnicities.

Mindy Kaling, one of the few Indian-American actresses to earn a substantial role in American media, is heavily criticized for not exploring her ‘otherness,’ as she stated in an interview with NPR. Without her consent, fans push Kaling to delve into the immigrant identity and are significantly upset by her hesitancy to do so. Her rare role as an Indian-American actress makes her the ideal spokesperson solely because she is one of the few; but it seems as though Kaling never intended to use her career as this platform. Fans chastise Kaling’s character in “The Mindy Project” for never addressing her ethnic identity or dating a POC on the show. Audience members claim she is ignoring important parts of herself to level the playing field with her white coworkers, which is sadly a reality for many immigrants — celebrity or not.

While it’s true that pure art will inevitably reflect a person’s values, it’s unfair to constrain artists to this role. Kaling never mentioned any intention of making “The Mindy Project” a cultural manifesto and is unfairly judged for it. People need to look beyond Kaling’s cultural contributions and critique her as an actress on a broader spectrum, if that’s how she chooses to be identified. It’s unfair for critics to judge her as an Indian-American actress when the job only calls for her to be an actress in general. Instead, she’s faced with the moral dilemma of having to explore cultural identities solely because there is a need to do so. While this may help dispel racial prejudices, it is not her obligation.

There is a difference between admiring a culture and needing a culture’s representation. Sadly, we are still stuck in the latter, consequently narrowing the focus to only emphasize these narratives until they, too, become the norm.

When discussing his hit show “Atlanta” with Vulture, Donald Glover stated, “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” But even with that, he went on to say: “I never wanted this shit to be important. I never wanted this show to be about diversity; all that shit is wack to me.”

Even Glover realizes that he holds a responsibility beyond simply creating a brilliant show, solely because of his ethnic identity and the struggles his community faces. “Atlanta” will never just be ‘a great show.’ It will always be ‘a great black show’ until Hollywood actually diversifies itself. Despite the show’s acclaim, the fact that Glover never intended for the show to be the social justice warrior people make it out to be exhibits the true cultural dearth in the industry. That’s the problem we should be attacking, not the artists themselves.

“Atlanta” isn’t just a good black show. It’s a good show in general that depicts black culture. We need to reward the artists with full approval instead of just giving them a slice of the cake as a gold star for showing cultural representation. We shouldn’t brush over the cultural aspects of important shows like “Insecure” or “Master of None” that raise awareness to issues often swept under the rug. It is important, however, to note that this could sometimes limit the range of an artist, constantly tying their talents to their cultural value as opposed to admiring the talent as a whole. Their talent is more than a representation. Their talent should be able to stand alongside the homogenous pool and still be worthy of applause in all spectrums. It would be wrong to criticize them for a role that was never mentioned in the job description.

A POC artist can create art without having to emphasize a POC component if they choose to.   Actors and actresses are galvanized to play roles representing their heritage while musicians are encouraged to water down theirs in an attempt to assimilate and have a chance at the Grammy’s. Even Beyonce, who managed to earn the most Grammy award nominations this year, has often been relegated to R&B categories despite the fact that her talent surpasses those boundaries. The industry keeps confining POC artists to their POC narratives without ever giving them the chance to be great on the whole.

If an artist chooses to be acknowledged for their cultural contributions, then they are better for it. But if they choose not to, audiences must respect that. The film and music industries need to emphasize cultural values when appropriate while also emphasizing the artistic value in general. It’s not two different categories; an artist can be talented on the whole and still be a frontrunner to destabilize racism in the industry.  

We need to find a way to celebrate culture without confining artists to their culture.

“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.

Contact Ilaf Esuf at [email protected].

DECEMBER 28, 2016

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