The “Ethnic” Trap
Posted on: April 30, 2012 in category: Steve's Blog
It happened again. I was reading a breakdown for a movie that's casting right now and one of the roles they were looking to fill was described as, "Lisa, 25, ethnic." Just like always the anger flared up and I shook my head. This kind of thing happens a lot in this town.
Writing about race in America makes me wildly uncomfortable. Landmines everywhere. Plus, I can think of very few people less qualified to offer an opinion on race in America than a Canadian-born, white man like me. My understanding of the topic will always be very limited. I will never have an understanding of what it's like to be anything other than a Canadian-born, white man. Beyond that lack of racial understanding, I am still discovering what race means in America. Even though I had seen all of Spike Lee and Robert Rodrigues' movies and know most Lyrics Born and Dead Prez songs by heart, when I came to America I was shocked and amazed at how the issue of race permeates so many aspects of American culture. I was oblivious to the extent of it all. In America race affects everything. Our business, too.
Most people you see on TV and in movies are white. Heck, most people you meet in the business- actors, agents, casting directors, directors, producers, studio and network executives, acting coaches and everyone else- are white. That seems to be the default setting of the industry. So, when they're looking for an actor who is not white they call that actor ethnic, as if white is their assumed norm and everything else besides that is ethnic (read: non-white). "They're going ethnic", the agent will say, rolling her eyes at the fact that her white clients were just discounted from that role. It's the expression of a level of race-entitlement and ignorance that is staggering and certainly not worthy of actors who must, by definition, be hyper-sensitive and aware of themselves and the world around them.
Maybe the recent success of THINK LIKE A MAN represents a course change for the industry regarding African American casts at least. And it seems to me that things have gotten better in the last twenty years (I could be wrong on that). But there are still fewer opportunities for non-white actors and the opportunities they get are often written by white writers and directed by white directors. That means, that often times the opportunities available to Asian, Black, Indian, Latino, and Native American actors represent their place in the world as seen by a white dude. And, a white dude- cause he's white- cannot have a full understanding of the experience of people of color and he probably won't ever think of the hero of his story as being anything other than white and male. Ergo, the roles offered to actors of color are the convenience store owner, the math nerd, the gangsta, the angry baby-mama, the maid, the savage, etc.
And when that breakdown goes out, actors of color face a choice that non-white actors don't. They have to decide whether they want to work and make money, on the one hand, or represent their culture in a way that might negatively affect the perception and self esteem of a little kid in the Midwest who looks like you, on the other. With white as the default setting and prevailing image on TV and film, actors of color always end up carrying the flag for their race. With exposure to different races limited on TV and film, all of a sudden how you portray that "bungling, Indian convenience store owner with the thick accent" will affect how Indians are perceived in America. So, if you take the role you might be letting your community down and if you don't you'll struggle to pay the rent that month. There's no great choice. It's a trap. The only way out is to be totally self sufficient and write, shoot and distribute your own content. Which you should do. But it's not always realistic or possible.
I appreciate when my Asian, Black, Indian, Latino and Native American clients decide that they can't go in for a certain role. Their gut just tells them that it's not OK. But at the same time no one can tell you that you have to take a stand for your community and turn down every role that isn't written for your community, by your community, or that doesn't portray your race in a positive way. It's good to work. And this is the industry that you've chosen. Most of the actors I work with, take it one audition at a time. Some take a hard line on "doing the accent", others choose based on where they're at financially that month. But the choice is always yours and yours alone.
But if you do decide to audition for the role of the stereotype, our work is such that often times you can do so without giving them the stereotype. You can fulfill their their ignorant perception while at the same time bringing so much of your truthful feeling to the world of your play that the maid, or the thug, or the Mathlete, is imbued with such deep humanity- as much humanity as your training has allowed you to discover and express- that it becomes less of a stereotype and more of an actual human being. And individual human beings can transcend stereotype. On the individual level, stereotypes can break down. Because we are all far too unique to fit templates. If we're expressing our unique qualities within the world of our play, the stereotype can die. Even when we're in that movie speaking with an accent, working at the Quickie Mart.
A stereotype by definition is a preconceived notion. Preconceived notions exist in our mind, before the interaction with that which we are conceiving. In my mind I can think about how I'm going to say a line in the waiting room before the audition. That's a preconceived notion of that line that may not allow for the truth of the moment in which that line will be spoken later on in the audition. In his mind, well before killing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman had an idea of how young black men behave. That is a preconceived notion of black men. But preconceived notions don't allow for the beauty and discovery of each moment and how we human beings each truthfully feel and react in any given moment. Our humanity is in those moments, and our unique set of experiences that inform how we react to those moments. In fact, stereotypes remove us of our humanity by assuming that we aren't unique and that we don't react differently in different moments. Notwithstanding hard-headed people who won't allow themselves to really see you, when we're truthful in those moments, stereotypes can evaporate- if only for a moment. Moreover, it is your truthful feelings in each moment that make you, a Mexican American actor tending to the lead actor's rose bush in that TV show, relatable not just to one community. But to everyone. The more personal, the more universal. Humanity is universal.
Now, I'm not saying that our work as actors can end racism in America, or the industry or even our own minds. Sometimes it feels like that's not even possible. But if you do the work, you can walk away knowing that it was your anger, your sadness, your joy and heartbreak, not that of the white writer's, born of his perception of who and what you should be. You can walk away knowing that you gave them you. And you are unique.
There. I just wrote a blog post- complete with helpful tips!- about a topic I don't understand. Even though when a breakdown calls for "All American Guy", they mean someone who looks like me, I offered suggestions for actors of color. That might not have been wise. That said, I think we- even white people like me who would be horrified at the notion of offending anyone by raising such a topic- need to talk about race and how it affects our industry. Cause, A, let's call it how we see it. And B, when we artists are exposed to a limited portion of the human experience, we all lose.
No matter what you look like, everyone's voice is unique as a result of the set of experiences they possess, the totality of which, no one else possesses. Whether you're a woman who's supposed to put on a bikini and stand down stage, a gay man who's supposed to do your best Paul Lind impression, a white man who's supposed to be the entitled oppressor, or an actor of color who is being asked to reflect a multitude of ignorant stereotypes...do the work of bringing your voice to the world of the play. Your unique humanity. It's what is most interesting about you. And it makes you human.
Don't know how? Come audit a class.