If You Can’t Say Anything Nice . . .

After my article yesterday gushing about In the Heights, I was taken aback to read about some of the blow back the film has been suffering from in certain circles. Not because it’s too diverse or too woke (which I cynically expected), but rather because it isn’t diverse enough. Specifically, that it doesn’t adequately represent the Afro Latinx community. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon Chu have both publicly apologized for this now, and when I read about it, my reactions were mixed. I wanted to parse those reactions out a bit to see what I’m thinking, why I’m thinking it, and if those thoughts were justified.

A warning in advance: I’m going to be blunt, to try and show both where I started and where I ended up. Please read to the end, and please keep the whole of the post in mind.

My knee-jerk response was an eye roll, to be honest. Come on. Not diverse enough? One of the things I found so encouraging about the movie was its diversity. It made a point to show how people in the neighborhood came from all over: Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, and so on. There’s even a song and dance number about it. If a movie like In the Heights is getting yelled at for not being diverse enough, then it feels like there’s just no pleasing some people. They should be happy with the progress that’s being made, and quit being so impatient all the time to have every single teeny tiny group represented. What are film makers supposed to do? Run a statistical analysis of their work to make sure it accurately portrays the actual racial and socio-economical make up of the setting of their work? Stories are about different people. It doesn’t make sense that the story should need to come second to the race or gender or whatever of the characters involved.

So. Once I got that initial thought out of my system, I took some time to think about what’s going on, and why it might be upsetting to some. In this case, there’s a film being made that’s supposedly celebrating diversity. Where everyone’s going to have a place at the table. And so members of that community head into it expecting to find themselves in there somewhere, only to walk away feeling excluded yet again.

How are they not supposed to feel disappointed? Back pre-Fellowship of the Ring, I was typically disappointed whenever a fantasy movie came out, because they generally stunk. Was I supposed to just suck it up and be happy they were making any fantasy movies at all? If I was upset back then over something as frivolous as “is this fantasy movie any good?” then how can I begrudge someone for feeling like they’ve been left out of a movie that, when you think about it, really doesn’t have many dark-skinned actors in it?

But then I waffled once again. “Criticism like this is exactly what’s keeping people from speaking up online about anything remotely related to race or any potentially sensitive topic,” I thought. If you say one thing out of line, then the twitterati will show up to yell at you and tell you all about how you’re wrong and how dare you. And indeed, I’ve talked to numerous people who have expressed just that sentiment. They don’t express any opinions online for fear of saying the wrong thing.

That’s clearly not something that’s held me back over the years, for better or for worse. But at the same time, it has kept me from doing some things that I’ve wanted to do or say. I recognize that I don’t fully understand the meaning of some words or some causes or some ideas, no matter how much I may try to. And so I’ve been hesitant to wade into those waters, for fear of saying the wrong thing. For example, I wasn’t going to write this post today, because I was unsure how it would be received, and I didn’t really feel like it was my place to speak up on the topic. In the end, I decided to write it, mainly to illustrate how I’m trying to navigate issues like it. (The biggest issue being my ignorance, and the fact that I consistently want to default to a “what’s the big deal” mindset that’s so dismissive and potentially hurtful to minorities.)

What else have I shied away from? Another example would be putting up a rainbow around my picture on social media in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. I worry that I don’t fully understand the statement I’d be making with that, and so I do nothing out of fear of making the wrong statement. This despite the fact that I believe members of that community deserve protection, support, and love. Despite the fact that I voted in favor of gay marriage and consider myself very sympathetic to their cause. But am I sympathetic enough? I don’t know the answer to that, and so it feels duplicitous to try and interject myself into the conversation.

Where am I trying to go with this? I suppose I’m trying to say to all the people who roll their eyes at some of these issues, “I see you. I get it. I understand why you might feel that way.” But at the same time, I’m trying to explain why it’s important to get over yourself and understand it’s not all about you and the way you feel. That just because things have changed from how they used to be doesn’t mean that they’ve changed enough, and people in the majority don’t get to tell people in the minority when it’s time for them to shut up and stop being heard. Not if people in the majority really think of themselves as compassionate allies.

If there’s one thing I know about feelings, it’s that no one gets to tell you how you feel. If you tell me you’re upset, I can’t say, “No you’re not.” Only you know how you feel. And if I care about you at all, telling you to suck it up or stop being so sensitive or insisting that there’s no real reason for you to be upset is pretty cold-hearted.

So where do I end up after I go through all those thoughts sparked by one simple article? I conclude that the people have a right to feel upset, and that the creators of In the Heights were right to apologize and express a desire to keep improving. If you’ve been failing a subject for year (centuries!), and you finally get your average up to a C or a B, you can be congratulated, even as you can also recognize you still have work to do to really master the material. Sure, you might feel like those are laurels you’re resting on, but if you find out they’re really just dandelions, stomping your foot and insisting they’re not won’t really help anything.

When it comes to these sensitive issues, I try my hardest to listen to the people who are actually being hurt, and then adjust my actions accordingly. Those knee-jerk reactions are my own shortcomings in action, and demanding the world conform to them is short-sighted, egotistical, and kind of a jerk move.


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