“Every [person] of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits [his or her] convictions, but we must all protest.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Every third Monday in January, we celebrate civil rights chief spokesperson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday (which actually falls on Jan. 15). Since 2000, all fifty states now uniformly observe the federal holiday.
I only recently learned about the background of the holiday, which includes a tumultuous start: presented as a Congressional bill, the holiday almost didn’t pass an initial vote. Eventually, a larger campaign and the largest national petition (six million signatures gathered) swayed opinions and the holiday was first celebrated in 1986, almost two decades after King’s assassination.
Though we are not a political blog, Chebk and I do our best to stay apprised of the news, particularly the racial conflicts across the nation in recent months. OKPotato was created to create a discussion with others on media representation and diversity, not just for its own sake, but to push the fact that this representation matters. It not only allows PoC actors and actresses to step into the spotlight, it also humanizes people of color to audiences conditioned to accept and expect primarily white protagonists and stories.
Our posts on diversity in media may seem largely benign compared to the real life police brutality happening in America’s black communities (as well as Muslim, Asian, and other minorities), so I thought today would be a good time to reiterate some of our points:
- We exist. While I’m sure everyone knows that other races are out there, living their lives, but this can be easy to forget when indulging in American TV, movies, and even books. This easily applies to other representation, including but not limited to women, sexuality, religion, disabilities, and other minorities.
More importantly, we exist as more than stereotypes, whether it is the Angry Black Man or Woman, the Geeky Asian/Engrish Asian/Geisha Asian, the flamboyant gay man or the terroristic Muslims (looking at you Homeland). Sometimes even when diverse characters actually do exist, they end up being whitewashed for public consumption: the protagonists in Argo, 21, and other biopics based on PoC, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, the Asians in Cloud Atlas, the entire Biblical cast in Exodus: Gods and Kings and other religious films.
- We matter. Whether our stories are told from a cultural or universal point-of-view, diverse characters present different realities than the tropes we see every day in movies and TV shows. The nuclear heteronormative white family is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm. Showcasing diverse characters brings relevance to our different stories, informing new audiences and normalizing diversity for people sharing this diversity. For the little girl used to seeing stick-thin female protagonists, a plus-size main character can change the way she views her own life. For the only Native American in an all-white school, it can be easier to talk about differences without having to educate an entire population on cultural differences if the people around them having a reference point to build on.Our stories matter because we exist and we deserve to be seen, heard, and understood.
- Representation matters. A big reason media representation matters, especially in fictionalized media, is that people interact with stories in different ways than they do with reality. Audiences who empathize with diverse characters are better able to empathize with their real-life counterparts. I hate to drive home the point that representation matters to non-diverse audiences, but the fact that a #BlackLivesMatter campaign is even necessary is frankly frightening.
Recently the 2015 Academy Awards nominations came out and there has been justifiable outrage over the lack of PoC and/or female nominees. All actors nominated for Lead or Supporting roles (20 in all) are white. Every nominated director and screenwriter is male. Most importantly, every Best Picture up for an award this year is about a man (or men). Seven of the eight nominees are about white men.
It is time for change in our media.
OKPotato exists not only to inform but to protest the system that continues to churn out whitewashed or sexist or racist or bigoted media, the same system that refuses to acknowledge diverse characters as complex, important, and, above all else, necessary. In the words of Dr. King, we must all protest.
Please remember to spend a moment in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today. Happy MLK Day, everyone.