When I was a kid, I used to watch this show called The Parent ‘Hood, which was a family comedy, about a black family. I honestly don’t remember much about the show now, but one thing that I remember is being really upset, when one episode depicted a white adult (of which I don’t remember there being any others) as a racist and a bully. I was upset, because it felt as if the only white character on the show was a bad guy, and that seemed really unfair, unrealistic, and I didn’t like thinking that maybe black people thought of white people as ‘the bad guys.’
The show has been off the air for about 18 years, and if I’m remembering correctly, I was probably only about 11 or 12 when I saw that episode. In the years that have passed, I’ve been able to see that characterization from a different perspective, and I’ve had so many other experiences watching white characters, that it has pretty much been diluted in my brain. It’s not a big deal anymore.
Yesterday, I listened to The Nerdist Podcast, in which Chris Hardwick interviewed Hari Kondabolu (whom I think is a great comedian). Kondabolu has a documentary coming out that he made about Apu from The Simpsons, and the impact of the character, as well as the social responsibility. Now, I haven’t seen the documentary, and I’ve never been a Simpsons fan (I think I’ve seen maybe 3 episodes ever), but the interview still interested me.
Kondabolu, talks about the fact that Apu is a stereotype, and he’s voiced by a non-white actor (Hank Azaria), and how growing up as a fan of the show, he had a hard time reconciling Apu within the show that he thought was otherwise so important/amazing.
As I listened to Kondabolu talk about the idea of how it made him feel as a young Indian boy, to see a character which was a caricature of the culture and heritage of his people, I thought about that white guy on The Parent ‘Hood. There isn’t really a comparison that is fair in here, because at the end of the day, I was able to watch a million other things with good white characters, but I remember thinking about the lack of other white people, and how it seemed as if the people making the show, must think all white people are that guy. Then I imagined, if I hadn’t had 20 years of constant representation of how great white people are, to counteract what amounted to less than 22 minutes of screen time.
Imagine, that a show ran for 28 years with that racist white guy, and that was 1 of less than a handful of white characters on TV. That would be pretty fucked up, and it could really screw up little white kids watching the show, and it could screw up non-white people watching the show thinking that was what all white people were. That would be a pretty big mess right?
The reason I wanted to write about this today, is because I think there is still a lot of misunderstanding about representation in art/literature/television/film. There are a lot of people, whom I don’t think are being purposefully ignorant, but aren’t getting the point about why it’s important that we have good characters who are black, Asian, Indian, hispanic, gay, trans, lesbian, etc. I’ve kind of understood that for a while, but yesterday, when I was listening to Hari Kondabolu, and I remembered that episode of The Parent ‘Hood, and it really clicked in a way it hadn’t before.
So if you don’t think of representation as being important, try to think about sometime when you watched a show and thought “we’re not like that” or “we’re not ALL like that” and how that made you feel. Now realize that if you’re not white and straight, there’s a good chance you have that feeling exponentially more times. Sucks right?