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About Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton’s Race Disagreement

“Hey, do you mind if I pick your brain a second? I just did [fill in the blank]. That’s not racist, right?”

As anyone who has tried to answer someone else’s question about race knows, there is always a moment, one terrible moment, when things go off the rails. And it’s the moment you’re about to tell someone that yes, what they just did was racist.

That moment happened for comedian Margaret Cho and actress Tilda Swinton recently, after a private conversation in which Swinton attempted to pick Cho’s brain about race went public.

The question involved the new Doctor Strange movie from Marvel, which had been criticized for casting Swinton as “The Ancient One,” a part which was originally supposed to be an elderly Tibetan man. Swinton reached out because Cho is known to publicly talk about race and identity. “I am told that you are aware of this,” wrote Swinton in an email. “But since I am that extinct beast that does no social media, I am unaware of what exactly anybody has said about any of it. I believe there are some ironies about this particular film being a target, but I’m frankly much more interested in listening than saying anything much,” she said.

Cho gamely responded:

“The character you played in Dr Strange was originally written as a Tibetan man and so there’s a frustrated population of Asian Americans who feel the role should have gone to a person of Asian descent. The larger part of the debate has to do with the ‘whitewashing’ of Asian and Asian Americans in film. Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it. Protest seems to be the only solution- we just want more representative images of ourselves in film. TV is getting better in terms of diversity but film is lagging behind.”

But later as a guest on the TigerBelly Podcast, Cho shared her decidedly mixed feelings about the exchange. She’d been tapped out of the blue to help Swinton, a famous and fascinating stranger, prepare for the backlash she was sure to receive for taking the role. “I felt like her house Asian…like I’m her servant…like I was following her with an umbrella,” she said.

After Jezebel reported on Cho’s comments, Swinton’s representative released the entire email exchange, as proof that nothing had happened to make Cho feel that way. As it turned out, Swinton had gone on to defend her casting to Cho, a person who did not ask to have this conversation, by adding that as an older woman, she was in fact, the diversity choice. “The Ancient One may have been written as a Tibetan man in the comics, but Marvel, in a conscious effort to shake up stereotypes, wanted to avoid tired cliché,” she said.

But the math here is simple: When someone says, “Hey, that thing I did wasn’t racist, right?” and you politely say, “I know you meant well, but here’s why people think that it was,” and your response is, “Well, actually you’re wrong, it’s not racist,” people are going to respond badly. Particularly when your defense falls flat.

And it happens all the time. Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, took to Twitter to break it down further: “[E]mails like Swinton’s — with their implied request for absolution — are a thing a lot of us deal with!”

One problem is that the person on the other end of the critique feels attacked – suddenly they’re a terrible racist. And that’s when the conversation goes off the rails for good. In business, the person who is asked to deliver the difficult feedback, usually to a person of greater position power, often pays a high price in reputation and relationships.

You can mitigate the risk by taking a breath, particularly if you’re on the receiving end. The best advice I’ve found in broaching this “you did a racist thing but you’re not a bad person” conversation is this TEDx Talk by Jay Smooth, called How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Talking About Race. “You’re not supposed to be perfect when navigating race,” he says. The social construct of race has been shaped over centuries to defend indefensible acts. The only way forward is by talking. “Most Americans tend to avoid race conversations like the plague,” he says. “We take our ability to avoid it and use it as a measure of our progress and enlightenment which is kind of telling in and of itself.”

On Point

How newsrooms can stop being so whiteIn response to the column published by New York Times public editor Liz Spayd, CNN’s Tanzina Vega – she’s also a New York Times alum – offers a ten-point plan on increasing newsroom diversity. Among her excellent points: Think intersectionally, don’t forget class diversity, make diversity part of your core editorial mission and don’t turn your quest into a checklist. But she hits home with her investment advice: Don’t chase the big media stars, invest in the people you already have, give them big projects and support them. “People don’t want to work where they can’t grow. And limiting who gets access to high profile assignments perpetuates the diversity problem,” she says.CNN Money

Problems arise as documentary filmmakers flock to Standing Rock
According to a tribal database, some 34 documentary film crews have registered at the protest site; their presence is causing friction as tribal members work to manage the expectations and activities of the eager filmmakers. But at the heart of the friction is cultural appropriation and funding. Without access to real project support, Native Americans are unable to afford to tell their own stories. And then there’s respect. The protest itself is a form of prayer. “It might seem cool to take a photograph of the chief in his headdress, but it’s so freaking disrespectful,” said one tribal representative. “Respect the feathers, you know?”
Star Tribune

Five ways to diversify your leadership
People leave organizations because of culture, say talent experts Steve Frost and Danny Kalman. Does your culture allow diverse talent to thrive? Their main point: One size fits all leadership development strategies tend to favor the dominant group, to the detriment of diverse candidate pools. Their best tips involve supporting strong candidates who are either uncomfortable working the room to sing their own praises, like introverts, or those overlooked future stars who are already actively enhancing the business, like those in employee resource groups.
DDI World Blog

NYC: Hospitals with predominantly black patients provide lower quality of care for pregnant women
There have long been alarming disparities in treatment and outcomes for white and black pregnant women, and a new research report seems to confirm that the disparities spring from a history of segregated medical care and facilities. In NYC, black women are twelve times more likely to die in childbirth as white women; nationally, black women are four times as likely to die in childbirth, a statistic that hasn’t changed since 1915.
Rewire

Teen Vogue blows minds with its coverage, which is insulting to women
Teen Vogue has been garnering bemused praise for its sophisticated coverage of civic issues, thanks largely to the top editors, Elaine Welteroth, and digital editorial director, Phillip Picardi, who took the helm earlier this year. Subjects like gun control, abortion, police violence and race have all been on the table. As they should always have been, argues Quartz’s Sady Doyle. She digs into the legacy of women’s magazines and their long history of being left to tackle soft, girly subjects, a bias that still exists to this day. “Thus it is that, when liberal pundit Keith Olbermann takes a job at GQ no one blinks an eye; but when Teen Vogue turns out a solid explainer on vice president-to-be Mike Pence’s stance on reproductive and LGBTQ rights, minds are blown.”
Quartz

Dolls with disabilities go mainstream
Two decades ago, Mattel had to scramble after Barbie’s disabled pal, “Share a Smile Becky” – the first fashion doll that came with a wheelchair – couldn’t fit into the elevator of Barbie’s tony Dream House. Things have come a long way, as popular dolls nowadays come with a wide variety of supportive devices like hearing aids, crutches and insulin pumps. Since one in four people will experience a disability at some point in their lives, it’s good business. “This isn’t a niche market,” says one expert. “Everyone has a family member with a disability,” she said. “Everyone knows someone with a disability.”
NPR

The Woke Leader

Young Asian Americans come face to face with their parents
“Jubilee Project: The Bridge” is a five-part series found on NBC Asian America Presents, a digital channel offering original video content for Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Their most recent short film is an exercise called “Face to Face,” in which Asian American young adults and their parents were asked to share four minutes of uninterrupted silence together. Bring tissues.
NBC Asian America Presents

California’s grim history of forced sterilizations
Eugenics is a technical term for an ugly idea: Programs designed to “eradicate certain genes from the population.” Eugenics programs such as forced sterilization were legal in many parts of the US. In California, particularly aggressive versions of the programs were carried out through the 1950s. People with Hispanic surnames, people with mental “disease,” and certain women were all sterilized mostly as teens, though many were as young as seven. University of Michigan professor Alex Jones has compiled a database of 20,000 victims and is calling for the state to compensate the survivors or the relatives of those who are now deceased.
NPR

A transgender writer struggles to tell her own story
Juliet Jacques spent two years documenting her gender reassignment process in a personal blog published by the Guardian. When approached to write a book on her life, she was confronted with several conundrums of form. Should she write a confessional memoir? A theory tract? A history of transgender culture? The exercise of linking gender theory to stories about her early life, which were filled with intimate details, seemed overwhelming. In this essay, which includes links to reviews of the new book, she talks about the unique difficulty of writing about oneself in the context of a bigger and evolving movement.
The Guardian

Quote

When you don’t have self-esteem you will hesitate before you do anything in your life. You will hesitate to go for the job you really wanna go for, you will hesitate to ask for a raise, you will hesitate to call yourself an American, you will hesitate to report a rape, you will hesitate to defend yourself when you are discriminated against because of your race, your sexuality, your size, your gender. You will hesitate to vote, you will hesitate to dream. For us to have self-esteem is truly an act of revolution and our revolution is long overdue.
—Margaret Cho