Navigating the White Gaze

I’ve been thinking about the representation of marginalized communities in the arts a lot lately. My thoughts on the underrepresentation of POCs in American popular culture is slowly turning into an understanding of the misrepresentation of POCs in the little space we do get in the creative sphere. People with any understanding of popular “liberal” discourse are always pushing for more strong, leading, and nuanced characters on the big screen and in the bestselling novels– and so we get a black lead in Star Wars, a half-Korean teanager in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and all-Asian cast in Crazy Rich Asians, a way to offset Islamophobia with a relatable Arab f-boy in Ramy. But something about this all still feels grossly unsatisfactory to me. Something is essentially off about these representations of POCs. 

To me, they still seem to be obviously whitewashed, catered to suit the image of POCs that white people are comfortable seeing, an image that sinks down to the level of a white audience and lays identity out on the table: this is what it means to be in an interracial relationship, this is what this foreign word means, this is how benign POCs are– see! They’re just like us! In an effort to be palatable, I think artists of color often water down their work and cater it to the whims of a white gaze. 

I think, of course, that it is important that we’re getting narratives about people of color made by people of color, of course– I cannot belittle the importance of all the works I’ve mentioned and they are continuing to complexify our politics of representation. We need a multiplicity of representation, so many that it mirrors our own complex and diverse experience, and dispels our monolithic perception– we need good, bad, poor, rich, suburban, inner-city, gendered, intersectional stories. Not one work of art can possibly do all the work to end racism or discrimination, because not one person of color is perfect. 

But sometimes, I think even artists of color have a hard time making their work authentic. I think they often perform authenticity as a way to prove to a white audience that they are equals to the WASP. For instance, Ramy, a show about a confused, hilarious, and relatable Egyptian-American Muslim in New Jersey tracks the highs and lows of his love life and his relationship with himself and his faith. But for a show that was so widely well-received, it made me cringe with annoyance. It was trying so hard to appease a white audience, trying to make Muslims seems “human” and “normal”– both of which de facto meant whitewashed. In the first episode, we see Ramy on a date with a girl who his mother set him up with, and he says, flirting, as they walk through the city sharing ice creams, her laughter interspersed throughout the monologue: 

Look, I know it was terrible, but the day the Muslim ban happened, I had a really good day. Like, personally, you know? It was just, like, one of the those days. Remember– the weather was great. I killed it at this meeting. I found a Metro Card that had $120 on it. That doesn’t happen! It was wierd, ‘cause I’m watching the news and this guy on TV is like, ‘this is a terrible day for all Muslim.’ I’m like, ‘well… not all Muslims.’

It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that a Muslim would say this, and it’s certainly not unfathomable that this is a likely scenario. But what makes it so lauded is that it seems to normalize Muslims, when in fact it just whitewashes them. 

I think we may have set the bar too low by being satisfied with POCs creating works of art. Though I don’t personally like Ramy and I think it actually damages perceptions of Muslims, I also think it needs to exist– but I believe ardently that it’s not enough to just have POCs make works of art and call it good. The white gaze is ever-present, even in works by artists of color, and it’s exactly the kind of work that gets picked up. There are so many movies, books, poems, songs that don’t get recognition, and that’s because those artists are entering their spaces as their own rather than formulating them based on the perception of white people. I think we should actively seek those out as a way of undermining the system from within.

The Book of Mormon Is Really Problematic

I spent last weekend in New York City with a few of my friends, reveling in the much-needed break from the routine of classes and work and extracurriculars. In the last night of our trip, my friend and I found ourselves rushing through the baffling, disorienting, punchy landscape of Times Square, laughing and delirious, to secure a seat for The Book of Mormon eight minutes before the show started, got standing tickets, and waited eagerly to be beset with raucous laughter. 

I was laughing throughout the show. And so did the majority white audience, as well. The show is a raging satire about the incoherence of Mormon beliefs and practices, with songs ranging from critiques about their missionary quest and suppressed desires (“Turn it off/ Like a light switch/ Just go flick/ It’s our nifty little Mormon trick”) to Spooky Mormon Hell Dream and All-American Prophet. This musical is a hilarious and unflinching caricature of Mormons in America, digging deep into some of the inconsistent and disturbing consequences of the religion’s practices. The story follows two young missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. To their dismay, they get placed in Uganda (hilariously contrasting Price’s ardent dream for Orlando, Florida). When they get there, they find a highly caricatured and stereotyped African city with people who say “fuck you” to god, where the only town doctor also has– as we’re always reminded to cue laughter– “maggots in his scrotum”, and where General Butt-Fucking-Naked wants to mutilate the genitals of the women in the town. Elder Price is appalled, tries to civilize the town, but leaves and loses faith in God, while Elder Cunningham (the dumb one) teaches them Mormonism all wrong, mingling it with Star Wars and fantasy worlds. The Ugandans believe they are true Mormons and to share their excitement, they put on a huge play to demonstrate their understanding of Mormon history, but because they were taught it incorrectly, we have a painful ten-minute song with All-American Joseph Smith jerking off to frogs, unsettling sexual innuendos, and something that resembles a minstrel show– but not to be feared! By the end of the musical, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham start their own form of Mormonism, and all the black people are Mormons in the end, again reinforcing the incoherence of the faith. 

But this musical also reinforces something else, and that is anti-black racism. It was hard for me to tell in the moment if the jokes were appropriate to laugh at– they were smart, raunchy, and it seemed to be in the position that we were laughing at everyone. Nothing was safe in the musical. The white people, the black people, the Mormons, the atheists. It was highly irreverent, and drove home its purpose: to show how silly not only Mormon practices were, but how generally blind religious practices that were pursued for ego and fame, and that strove to “civilize” others always backfired in the end. 

But The Book of Mormon only complexifies the white narrative, not the black one. By the end of the musical, we get a progressive critique about Mormonism– but they had to use African people in order to achieve that. They had to caricature Africa, reduce it down to the most obvious stereotypes: uneducated, gullible, oversexualized, impoverished. Against this setting, our understanding of Mormonism complexified and were challenged, even through the satire: we see that Elder Price is narcissistic, that Elder Cunningham is ignorant, that there are problems with repression and self-righteousness. But this wasn’t the case for the Africans in the musical. Their narrative remained caricatured and degraded, all the way until the end. There is no growth to our understanding of their existence in the play– they are there simply as a plot device to support the complexity of the white characters’. 

Image result for joseph smith american moses

A popular clapback is that it’s not only the black people that are caricatured, but also the whites! However, this doesn’t hold water– the musical literally reinforces the white savior complex because by the end, the Ugandans convert to the disformed form of Mormonism anyway. The white characters achieve some level of success in their attempt to “civilize” the Africans; and even though the musical makes fun of this success, it still seems to me like The Book of Mormon desperately wants to maintain the power balance from the white savior complex. 

I don’t regret watching the show, but after thinking about it for a week, I realized how uncomfortable I had been in the theatre as one of the only people of color there. This is a musical that white people can heartily laugh to– it’s the only time they get a pass for laughing at jokes about Africa because they are thinly veiled in the form of satire. But if you look any closer, the musical only reinforces the stereotypes it purports to repudiate.

(Image from Google Images.)

Being Moved By Art

There are periods in my life where I completely fall out of love with fiction. I’m not entirely sure why it happens, but suddenly there’s a switch that goes off in my brain, and I hate even the concept of fiction and media– the falsity of it, the mere entertainment, the meaningless indulgence in the aesthetic, as we all slink closer and closer to our deaths, and the earth keeps turning, and we watch a movie or turn the pages of a magazine or forget a poem. 

For example, at some point in sophomore year of high school, I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a coming-of-age novel about the unparalleled bond between two boys. I still remember crying on the floor of my bedroom past midnight when I was supposed to be doing homework, and just let the book completely wreck me (it’s a very good book, you should read it), and when my mom walked into the room, I had nothing for defense except “It was a good book.” I realized that I couldn’t invest my time into a book without getting so attached and emotionally invested. It controlled me. After that, I went for months without reading anything– I got too invested, it hurt me too much, it surprised me with the pliability of my own emotions. I wanted to dominate my emotions, not let fiction dominate them. 

I got over that, of course– it’s silly to have such powerful connections to books and movies and take it so innocently for reality. I developed a crucial distance from literature, almost as a defense mechanism to not let to get it to me too much, not allow it to break me and tear me apart, scare me or enthrall me. I started to see it from an “intellectually” distanced standpoint, observing it from the superior perch of examining craft and theme and symbolism, stroking my monocle and saying things like, “Ah yes, the intertextuality…”, or, “The symbolism of this hat demonstrates that…” And that helped me understand art, helped me tame the wild and crazy and unexplainable forces of literature. 

Coming to college, things started to feel too crystallized. I stopped connecting to the things I was reading as much, and that may have just been because even though we were reading “diverse literature” in my English classes, it was still taught by white professors to a mostly white student body, creating a strange dissonance with the work. And more than that– the Western-centric perspective of everything I read was so glaringly obvious to me, I couldn’t connect to it at a personal level. The emotional connection I’d once had to art– the kind of cosmic, universe-warping feelings that had made me cry in my childhood bedroom– had all gone. They were replaced with terms and definitions and critical theory. Wasn’t it supposed to move me? 

I can’t say I’ve found conclusions to my constantly fluctuating relationship with literature. But I have found a little reminder of why I love what I love. Columbus is a movie about the unexpected friendship between a homebody architect-enthusiast and the son of a renowned architect set in the town of Columbus, Indiana, known for its modernist buildings. In one of the lines in which the main character is trying to explain to Jin why she likes a building, he stops her and asks if she likes the building intellectually. 

“I’m also moved by it,” she admits. 

“Yes!” He says. “Yes, tell me about that: What moves you?”

“I thought you hated architecture.”

“I do. But I’m interested in what moves you.”

As I most likely move towards a career that intellectualizes art, I must ground myself to my own heart, and remind myself to stay true to the contents of my mind. I want to be committed to that which moves me.

Having Too Many Opinions Isn’t That Great

I’ve been thinking a lot more deeply about how I think about art, and a sad realization I’ve come to is that I categorize the works I love by whether they are good or bad. At some basic level, this doesn’t seem too bad, but it’s throwing me back to a time in my elementary school journal where I would make T-diagrams for all the binaries in my life, splitting things into good and bad categories: friends, school subjects, books, TV shows. It helped me crystallize my thoughts and make a definitive opinion about a wide range of things in my life. 

I think I carried this habit into my high school years, determinately debating why I fiercely loved some books and hated others in Enlglish class, my beliefs settled in their ways. I wanted to have an opinion about everything, and in order to do that, you either have to truly know a lot about a lot of things, or simply scam your way through arguments and loopholes and binaries in order to appear to know things. I’ve seen this happen in many classes at Michigan (specifically political science classes, though you didn’t hear it from me) where people label themselves in a way which shuts many doors to other possibilities of thought. Students label themselves “communists” or “marxists” or “democratic socialists” (which I think… I might be–); they say they only listen to Indie music, that pop songs are trash, some Kpop music is okay; we “cancel” each other, call each other out, try to stay “woke” about anything and everything, interjecting ourselves in conversations about climate change and intersectional feminism and genocides and the perils of capitalism and sustainable fashion with our Twitter-fed knowledge. We have watered down the meaning of knowledge in order to appear informed. In so many college spaces, I’ve seen the performance of global understanding. In reality, most students have a superficial understanding of the world’s problems, though a robust set of unshakable opinions. 

The more I learn, the less I realize I know. This has grounded in me a deep humility, and also a sense of inadequacy. I am not good enough, I don’t know enough, I don’t deserve to be here– and yet, we all keep faking it. Why? Why can’t we accept the fact that the search for knowledge is a continual journey, one that never settles, and that is constantly reaching for the higher ideal? I want to have good opinions, well-informed opinions, that can be subject to change– not opinions that I will debate until I’ve won over those that disagree with me. That undermines the entire process of acquiring knowledge, of developing ideas. 

More specifically to art: I’ve realized I’ve been doing this same thing with TV shows, books, movies, poetry. I often cannot recall moments that touched me in particular and I sometimes forget the feeling the narrative left me with– but I remember, for some absurd reason, whether it is “bad” or “good” and I materialize an opinion for it. I am tired of my own lazy systems of developing opinions to rack up my intelligence points. I want to stop looking at the world as good or bad, and simply look.

Poetry That Sings: Sharon Olds

My first experience with poetry is usually on the page, but with Sharon Olds’ poetry, it was through performance. Her work reveals a versatility to the stage and the page that is phenomenal and exciting. Unlike poems like “Blues in Yellow”, a poem about the marginalization of Asians in America– some of the powerful metaphors– very intricately constructed, so delicate– almost become watered down when performed. Emily Dickinson’s poems are fun to read out loud, but I don’t think they do well in that medium. However, there was something deeply touching about hearing Olds’ work read out loud. It shimmers. I love it. If you get a chance sometimes between classes or before bed– listen to her recite her poetry. It’ll give you an appreciation for language that is like learning to see a new color. 

Her images are so ordinary, as she says, “just ordinary things in an ordinary life”, and follow a mostly narrative structure– again, as she claims, she is an autobiographical storyteller– that it becomes striking and interesting to hear them performed. There are so many parts of her reading (linked above) that strike me– parts of her poems that are funny and feminine and smart without being sentimental.

Olds says she is not a confessional poet. I believe her. Something about her poetry is markedly different from Sylvia Plath’s, which is slightly less narrative, more declarative, more description-based. Olds is here to tell a story, and I love that. I love her sense of humor, as well– “Douchebag Ode” got many laughs from the audience, as did “Rite of Passage” about her six-year-old son’s birthday party, and the first poem she read, about her sense of humor. It seems more funny and comical when it is read in her voice with her tone with her slight pauses and microcosmic built-up drama that she creates.

I found it interesting as well that while Olds was reading “Wonder to Wander”, she actually sings the song mentioned in the poem, which is simply impossible when when reading it. All of these performative elements give her poetry a sense of life and character, a keen understanding of the author and her life. 

How I Listen To Music

The closest thing to music in my young life was the recitation of the Holy Quran. My family was not particularly inclined to art or music or performance in the conventional sense, but we relished the joy of listening to what we believed uplifted the soul and the mind. We knew, listening to those words, that they held meanings and messages far beyond what our thoughts could conceive; we didn’t understand the Arabic, but trusting that the melodic recitation held more than mere pleasantry gave it a feeling of earth-shattering importance.

Growing up in a religious household, I was also taught what was beautiful was inherently meaningful– art which held only carnal delight was wasted in frivolity and irrelevance. The most powerful and beautiful things hold messages, meaning, morality; they transcend time and place and people and belong to a narrative greater than ourselves, and reveal truths delicate, yet universal. This definition fit perfectly into our conception of Quran recitation, as we believe it was speech ordained from God himself.

All the other music we listened to– old Indian songs my dad would play nostalgically, reality singing competitions my mom sometimes watched, or the fad pop music that weaved in and out of our lives– was hardly relevant. It was mindless entertainment.

Only a few years ago did I really challenge the notion that what I heard was mindless or meaningless. Of course, the Quran kept its pedestal, but all manmade art begged me to reconsider its value. I have always loved stories, and storytelling, and writing– I believe it is as embedded into my identity as the blood in my veins. And for the first time, I discovered musical theatre and learned that music could tell stories. I learned it could fill me up with anticipation, deflate my senses in sadness, burst sporadically into joy and fear and anger. I learned it, too, could tell a form of the truth.

I think it was sort of destined for me to fall in love with an art form that breathed words to life and life to stage. I had read more books than I could remember, befriended more characters than friends in real life, and so the theatre felt real to me. I also couldn’t help but marvel in the multifaceted art forms that clashed in its creation, to give it meaning and depth beyond which could have ever been conveyed in a single medium. Even just the musical aspect of it was indivisible from all the other elements: acting, lyrics, stage design, costumes, plot, characterization. The music was literature personified wordlessly.

Who I am as an individual strongly affects my relationship with art and music. I am a writer of poetry, of novels, of spoken words, of short stories, and music and cadence affect and enliven my written experience. I love musical theatre, and that deepens my appreciation of music as storyteller. And in my personal definition, the greatest music tells a story– it is threaded in a larger narrative and reveals a truth about our shared existence. I realize now that all art and performance must be held in a revered position. We must believe in its holiness, as my family did with the Quran, and trust that it shows us, above all, what it means to be human.