Given that white people hold the majority of power in society, it should come as no surprise that whiteness has become the default standard for excellence. Many people are not even aware of how center it is in our everyday lives. The basic definition of whiteness are the traits and qualities which pertain to white people. It’s possible to find a multitude of instances of those traits being the status quo in various communities and organizations throughout the world. For example, in many world environments, the natural hair of black people, particularly black women, is considered “unprofessional” as it doesn’t meet the same criteria set by white women. Another example is the dialect of various poc communities being looked down upon, due to them not being “proper” english.
These ideals have spread to and are consistently perpetuated by our sources of entertainment. As a result, white actors and actress are given more roles than people of color. Then, most of the time, when a person of color is allowed to exist in a movie or tv show, they are usually just a by product of the tale of a white protagonist. There are more black best friends so the white protagonist does not seem racist than there are black leading role. There are more asian women who are the love interests of white male heroes, then there are asian women in leading roles. Tokenism, when it comes to a person of color, is nothing new in many aspects of the world, least of all in creative media.
Even stories which are supposed to center around people of color still often center around whiteness. An example of this is the film, Hidden Figures. The Oscar nominated film tells the real life story of three black female mathematicians (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn) who help put a man on the moon. Kevin Costner has a role in the movie as Al Harrison, the director of the space program. Harrison is essentially that one white guy who is down with the movement. He defends these black women against racism throughout the movie. One scene, in particular, that stands out is when he destroys the colored woman’s bathroom sign, and announces that there will be no more segregated bathrooms in the building. It sounds like a fairly heartwarming story. It is a pity that none of that happened. Al Harrison did not exist. There was no friendly white person to keep guard over Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn. Here is what the director of Hidden Figures had to say about it in an interview with the Vice.
“There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing,” Melfi said. “And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”
Al Harrison was created for the sole purpose of easing and coddling white feelings. He was the white person who told a white audience not to feel too bad about the racism of the 1960’s. A story about the struggles and victories of black women was altered for the sake of whiteness. Not only is that an insult to the real life black women who lived this story but it also sends the message that blackness is only acceptable if affirmed by whiteness.
For people of color to have our stories properly told, whiteness needs to be decentered in them. As long as it remains there, our stories will still be defined by it. Without this, our voices will never be heard as equally as a white voice. We will continue to be static underneath the cadence of white supremacy. There is no middle ground or bargaining when it comes to this. Whiteness must be decentered for people of color to have equal voices.
People of color deserve to have our stories told unapologetically and unedited. Whiteness has been at steering the direction of our tales for too long. It is time that we say, no more. We deserve to tell our stories our way.
Author: Jaylen Pearce
Editor: Precious Mayowa Agbabiaka
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.