I should have the right to be average, or great, or sub-par. I should have the right to have an infinite amount of stories told about me, an eternal range of nuanced, kaleidoscopic representations of my life and my identity. I should have the right to not be limited to one narrative.
But perhaps these rights only exist in an ideal world where people of color– especially those who are artists of color– don’t have to labor twice as hard to get our stories told.
In an op-ed written by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, he posits the idea that we live in a culture of “narrative scarcity” in which “we feel deprived and must fight to tell our own stories and fight against the stories that distort or erase us.” In a culture of narrative scarcity, every story told about or featuring people of color or other marginalized groups will automatically define those people. In a culture of narrative scarcity, people like me– immigrant, Muslim, Indian, hijabi– or people with similarly unrecognized or misconceived identities, simply cannot afford to tell bad stories. Our stories have to be good, captivating, enthralling, so our privileged counterparts can see us as human. Otherwise, we become the quirky black sidekick who occasionally blurts out, “DAMN!”, or the strange Indian foreigner who can’t pick up any social cues, or the Latina maid working late into the night, or the Native American woman depicted as being “exotically beautiful”. We become stock characters pulled out of some dusty corner of the white writer’s shelf to satisfy their diversity quota.
Few artists of color achieve widespread recognition in America– like Oprah, or Hasan Minhaj, or the up-and-coming Lana Condor to name a few– and most are just lay citizens trying to get by. In either case, though, people of color have to work twice as hard to achieve what any privileged person takes for granted: visibility in media, an assumption of ownership over the national culture, and the idea that they aren’t defined by a single narrative. Not only do artists of color and other marginalized people need to fight to be seen and heard, we have to create a place from scratch for ourselves in a narrative framework that for centuries hasn’t included us except as sidekicks, villains, inferiors, or foreigners in the margins of a larger, whiter, more christian narrative. We have to fight, all the time, and if we make a mistake, or write a bad story, or film a bad movie, we take on the risk that our nation views us as that single monolithic mistake.
We need to come to a point where artists of color don’t have to work as hard to have the same visibility as more privileged artists. We have to come to a point where a bad story about an Asian American is just a bad story about an Asian American, and won’t define all Asian Americans. As Nguyen eloquently writes, “The real test of narrative plenitude is when we have the luxury of making mediocre movies. And after having made mediocre movies, we would be rewarded with the opportunity to make even more mediocre movies, just as Hollywood continues to make enormous numbers of mediocre movies about white people, and specifically white men.”
I have the right to be mediocre. The paradox is that I’m just going to have to work twice as hard to get that opportunity.
(Read the New York Times article by Nguyen here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/opinion/crazy-rich-asians-movie.html)