Buzzfeed is known for their funny videos, probing journalism, and their unique ability to tap into pop culture converations. They have become an authority on the “digital streets” and because of this, their presence matters.
They added their voice to a cultural conversation about the prevailing whiteness in Hollywood by crafting a video featuring people of color re-creating iconic movie posters. The video went viral [as all of their videos do] and people loved it.
In the video, people of color re-created the covers for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Titanic, Mean Girls, Blue is the Warmest Color, and The Breakfast Club. The video was somewhat funny, not because folks of color playing dominant roles is a joke, but because we all know that if we were to play those leads in “real” life, most of these films wouldn’t be labeled as “classics” or wouldn’t become part of our cultural imagination.
However, as a person super interested in decolonial theory and critical thinking, I couldn’t help but cringe when I re-examined the video. Buzzfeed had the opportunity to highlight movies and story lines that already featured people of color [that really could have used the exposure], but instead, took storylines written by white people and stuck brown people on the covers.
Isn’t that the crux of the issue with diversity?: The framework is still white, but the faces are brown.
I will admit that the video is successful to a certain extent because it taps into an anger that folks of color already feel, and adequately points to how absurd our obsession with whiteness is such that every “classic” film just happens to feature a cast of all white folks. But, doesn’t this campaign also prize whiteness to a certain extent?
Some of the folks featured in the video were interviewed and sounded pretty post-racial. Freddie Ransome stated:
“The qualities and characteristics of Molly Ringwald’s character can cross color lines and be relevant to anyone, regardless of race. I could totally kill the role of Claire.”
However, race does matter. This doesn’t mean that if Claire was a person of color that her role would or should be saturated in race politics and racism, but as folks of color, we do have different stories to tell than white folks because we have different experiences in this culture. While we are certainly not a monolith, our exclusion from the dominant culture rears its head in a lot of our daily lives and interactions with people. White people are not the standard, their perspectives and stories shouldn’t be universalized as the norm. [In fact, I actually have to labor harder when I watch a film that doesn’t feature any folks of color because my experience isn’t completely reflected.] Just because white folks are not explicitly talking about whiteness in their films doesn’t mean whiteness isn’t embedded into the storyline.
In the video, Noor perhaps demonstrates my issue with the video the most by stating:
“We have a long history of white actors playing ethnic roles and have almost no history of the other way around. The only way to remedy this is by casting actors of color for traditionally white roles all the time. Hopefully in the future we won’t need a reason to cast people of color. We just will.”
If the foundation for each role is “white” and they just simply cast a person of color instead, then it’s still a white role…just played by a brown body. This is my issue with “diversity” that oftentimes brown people unfortunately subscribe to, to their detriment. It’s really simple to get seduced by this form of diversity because it operates solely on representation and inclusion, but doesn’t change the framework. As brown folks, in subscribing to “diversity” rhetoric, we start to erase ourselves and our own contributions in favor of being “visible” in a white space, as Noor accidentally pointed to. As long as we can be in the “limelight” in a white media circuit, then that’s seemingly good enough, even if we are aren’t writing the stories.
This is what my sister Syl and I called “cosmetic diversity” in our piece Black Lives, Black Life:
“It seems that cosmetic diversity is itself lending to the problem of disappearing black lives given this flawed understanding of diversity seeks to reject genuine contributions from black people for the sake of upholding and glorifying white ones. If physical erasure of black people is made possible by our cultural or symbolic erasure, and ‘diversity’ functions to include our black bodies in white spaces but reject our unique perspectives, then ‘diversity’ is not on our side.”
Cosmetic diveristy isn’t revolutionary because it only gives us brown folks access to representation in white stories, but it doesn’t give us the power to actually contribute our unique narratives.
We need to get to a point where we’re not just bodies and props in white stories and white imaginations, but also the story-makers and story-tellers. Our imaginations matter!