“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.”
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