Shattering Ceilings: Default Whiteness

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All-white characters; Cast of 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film adaptation

In early September, Huffington Post broke the story that the main character of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Charlie Bucket – was originally imagined by the author as a ‘little black boy’, but was persuaded by publishers to scrap the idea. Donald Sturrock, Dahl’s biographer, informed readers that Dahl’s agents at the time persuaded him Charlie being black did not serve to the purpose of the plot. Huffington Post went on to explain this reason further:

‘Publishers have long considered whiteness to be the default and expect that a character will only be non-white if their race serves a specific purpose in the story. Until recently, diverse representation in books was not deemed inherently valuable by the literary establishment’ – Huffington Post

‘Until recently’? Does that mean attitudes toward ‘default whiteness’ are changing?

Since this story broke, I couldn’t help but notice default whiteness at large in today’s culture, one of the most famous examples being the race debate over one of J.K. Rowling’s leading characters, Hermione Granger. In the West End’s Cursed Child production, a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, was cast to play the character, sparking widespread discussion as to what Hermione Granger’s racial background is. Like The Rowling Library, many turned to disseminating the books in search of evidence, only to conclude Hermione’s race was open to interpretation, confirmed by Rowling who did not see an issue in the casting decision, denouncing the racists who did, adding ‘Hermione can be a black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm.’ (Shoutout Rowling)

Despite Rowling’s humbling reaction, isn’t the fact that Hermione’s race is never mentioned in the books, yet sparked controversy when Dumezweni was cast, conclusive of default whiteness in action? The idea that most readers and even the book’s filmmakers assumed Hermione was white, because a physical description did not explicitly tell us otherwise?

How do we go about rectifying this assumption?

As always, before the ‘how’, let’s talk about the ‘why’. In the publishing world, organisations like ‘We need diverse books’ are proving powerful sources for mobilising change to default whiteness by campaigning for greater representation. They cite a host of reasons for increasing diverse representation, two of the standout ones to me being:

  • allowing young black and ethnic minorities to be given a sense of identity and belonging in reading characters like them
  • stories from diverse perspectives facilitate the narratives of complex racial and cultural issues, which allows a better understanding of such issues to an otherwise uneducated audience

Indeed, this call for greater representation is reflected in publishers enlisting writers who pen characters and even personal experiences from a perspective other than white – one of my favourites being Roxane Gay with her Haitian family in ‘An Untamed State’ and her work with the ‘World of Wakanda’ comics.

But what about default whiteness on other platforms?

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Disney’s ‘Cory in the House’ character Meena 

Whilst I can’t argue with the fact that we are beginning to see more black and ethnic characters, it’s clear that just seeing them isn’t enough. From children’s shows to adult sitcoms, it is clear the non-white characters are remaining true to the idea of being present to serve a specific purpose – and it’s becoming even clearer, this purpose is to serve as a source of comedy. Growing up with characters like Cory in the House’s Meena Paroom and Disney’s more recent take on ethnic minority Ravi Ross in it’s hit show Jessie, it’s clear Disney’s purpose with these narratives is humour, at the expense of  ‘funny’ accents derivative of cultural identities. In short, I can’t help but wonder when Disney is going to wake TF up.

Meena is hardly representative of a minority, purely because Bhavaria – the country she is from – is fictional, with her portrayer Maiara Walsh admitting her accent is a take on a ‘mixed Arabic and Brazilian’. Not to mention, the character culturally appropriates Asian and Eastern European countries to build Bhavarian customs. How hard is it to pick a real country, and represent it accurately?

For Disney, their character Ravi Ross proves it is almost impossible. Despite being adopted into an American family from a young age, Ravi’s accent says otherwise, and there is limited mention of his origin other than when it is made fun of, even by himself, as he jokingly calls himself a ‘human samosa’ in one episode and is made fun of for playing an indian instrument in another. If Disney can’t get it right, what hope is there for other television networks?

How do we combat default whiteness, whilst giving diverse characters fair representation?

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Mindy Kaling 

While getting networks to provide accurate representations of ethnic minorities – particularly considering second generation characters – by doing some research before constructing a stereotype may seem like a mighty ask, in reality, this goal is achievable through small steps, and one which has been done before. Though Meena, Ravi and Rajesh are examples of distasteful comedy at the expense of ethnic backgrounds, Mindy Kaling has successfully facilitated the narrative of second generation Indian women in her book ‘Is everyone hanging out without me’ and perhaps more famously in her TV show ‘The Mindy Project’.

Dev Patel has also showcased success in bringing stories to the big screen that facilitate an entirely different narrative to that of second generation ethnic minorities, with his portrayal of Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire and more recently, the true story of the little lost boy, Saroo Brierly in Lion. In an interview with the Guardian he recently revealed his experience with the perception he plays the token ethnic minority and how this translates in the face of default whiteness:

‘You used to worry that the roles on offer for you were limited – do you still?

Yes and no. There should not be any limitation to playing my culture. I’m a British Asian, it is part of the fabric of who I am. My grandparents are from India and Nairobi. So what I’m trying to say is that Lion and Marigold and The Man Who Knew Infinity are completely different. Journalists sometimes label them as “Indian guys” as if this were an umbrella term.’

Furthermore, the growth in shows with predominantly black casts successfully facilitating black narratives, include ‘Being Mary Jane’ starring Gabrielle Union and Netflix’s infamous ‘Dear White People’. Along with others, these shows illustrate it is possible to get it right; when black and ethnic minorities are put in the drivers seat. The driver’s seat isn’t necessarily getting these individuals to lead on creation, writing or starring in these shows, but is simply just the principle of listening to what they have to say.

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A scene from Netflix original show, Dear White People 

How?

  • By pressing script writers and authors to accurately research the backgrounds they intend to portray
  • By pressuring publishers or networks who choose to give these stories an audience to do their own research; testing pilots or chapters with the groups they are representing to ensure these are both accurate portrayals, and not solely used for the purpose of throwing in a face that isn’t white
  • Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, pressuring black and ethnic actors to ask the right questions before taking a role: has this character been well researched? does an accent serve a purpose other than humour? are aspects of this characters heritage going to be represented throughout the show? the list goes on. Actors need to understand the power they are being given; they are using their gift to represent an entire people, and getting it wrong for the sake of 15 seconds of success, will surely mean their success will only last 15 seconds.

If we make these principles the norm, this eliminates the powerlessness in one actor walking away from a script, only to have it picked up by an all-too-eager 15 second success searcher later. For the very reasons ‘We need more diverse books’ point out, we need greater representation across every platform. Allowing another generation to grow up seeing characters that look and sound like them being nothing other than a token face, or the butt of the joke – and willingly accepting to play these roles – is inaccurate, demeaning, and most of all, insensitive. In a world full of Meenas and Ravis, be a Mindy, Dev or Rowling.

KG

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Shattering Ceilings: Mind the Gap

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Image Source: The Telegraph

Despite the progress women have made since World War II to mark not only their importance, but their capabilities in professional capacities, the way women are treated as managers as well as under-links echoes the idea that the world of work is essentially male territory. Though efforts to break the barriers preventing us from closing the gender pay gap reached a high with Equal Pay Day earlier this month, and recent legislation requiring companies to publicly disclose their gender pay gaps, an article published by the Independent illustrates that we still have a long way to go in shattering this ceiling.

Following legislation which gives employers of over 250 staff 12 months to publish their their gender pay gaps, companies have highlighted differences of up to 36% between the earnings of men and women, with London being the leading city in such disparity. Whilst public disclosure of such figures is argued to increase transparency and accountability of the long-standing issue, critics such as Sophie Walker (Leader of the Women’s Equality Party) and Sam Smethers (Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society) argue the legislation will fail to tackle the greater inequalities of women in the workplace that the gender pay gap is a symptom of.

What exactly are these greater inequalities the pay gap is a symptom of?

The disparity lies in the ‘social cost of negotiation’ where women recognise they will be creating a socially difficult situation in self-advocating for higher pay.  As Nicki Minaj has highlighted, when a female in a position of power puts her foot down, or asks to be paid more, she is referred to as a ‘Bitch’ – a dragon who is difficult to work with; but when men do the same thing, they are respected for their authority. Similarly, recent studies show that male MBA graduates are four times more likely to negotiate their job offers than female MBA graduates. These issues range from economic to social to political, as highlighted by the Fawcett Society, where four interlinked categories contributing to the pay gap, and wider poor treatment of women at work are explained.

First, unequal gendered caring responsibilities, where women are more likely than men to undertake part-time positions to allow for greater time to care for ageing family members or children. These positions are not only paid lower than similar full-time positions, but often lead to discrimination if women return to full-time positions once they are no longer undertaking such responsibility. For example, women who return from maternity leave are more likely to experience poor treatment at work, (such as male colleagues being promoted ahead of them, or male colleagues being paid more for the same role), resulting in earlier resignation than they had intended.

The gender divided nature of the labour market is also a contributor for sectors dominated by women tend to be less valued and less well paid despite their contributions to society: ‘80% of those working in the low paid care and leisure sector are women’. Local authorities employ women in every three of four positions, and women are the group which benefit most from the services these authorities provide – ranging from employment to domestic violence support – meaning cuts to this sector affect women more than any other group. Furthermore, almost as a result of the above categories combined, men are more likely to be appointed to the most senior roles: ‘Out of the FTSE 100 Chief Executives, women make up just five’.

Where do we go from here?

In a post-Brexit Britain, the need for gender pay gaps to be on the policy agenda is more than pressing. Whilst membership of the European Union was vital in securing a regional standard for equal pay; improving the treatment of women on maternity leave and mitigating spaces for sexual harassment, details of how policies will now be shaped now hang with the next government. With an upcoming election in a time of increased marginal seats pushing for a more local focus, there couldn’t be a greater time to demand action from public officials in the following ways:

  1. Whilst the current legislation will provide greater transparency from the bigger employers, the measure needs to be inclusive of smaller ones, too; Walker suggests an extension of the policy from employers of 250+ staff to employers of 50+ staff.
  2. Pressing MPs about joint working with local authorities in their constituencies to combat issues affecting women, including pressuring the government to prevent further cuts to local tiers
  3. Raising awareness of women’s equal value in the workplace by taking part in Equal Pay campaigns, such as that of the Fawcett society’s by using #EqualValue when sharing personal experiences of why closing the gap is important
  4. Emphasising the wider implications of a lack of microcosmic representation of women and girls in leading positions in the workplace (details coming soon in separate blog post)

If we have learned anything of the capabilities of women in the workforce, it is that creating a society where women don’t have to ‘mind the gap’ is not only something we should do, but something that we must do, and in the words of Millar, is something that we can do.

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Image Source: J. Howard Millar

KG

Shattering Ceilings: The Stigmatism of Menstruation

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Image Source: World Vision Canada

A recent piece by Meghan Markle: ‘How Periods Affect Potential‘ in TIME magazine highlighted the affects of the stigmatism of menstruation within several cultures that govern developing countries. This stigmatism not only prevents young girls from receiving access to proper sanitation devices to manage their periods, but also prevents young girls from leaving the confines of their homes; the biggest repercussion of which being girls having to abandon their education at the average age of thirteen. Whilst I am baffled as to how a natural bodily function experienced by almost every female warrants attitudes of shame associated with weakness and uncleanliness, Markle interrogates how and why this stigmatism resonates so deeply within so many cultures.

The article not only presents compelling arguments in favour of Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), but also highlights how the issue has failed to make regional and global agendas, despite the likes of Michelle Obama and various NGOs speaking on the topic. Contrary to popular belief, the MHM conversation is not another ‘feminist rant’ to change attitude toward an isolated issue, but is a conversation which serves as a catalyst for educating the girls who so rightfully deserve an education, but are being denied one because of a biological function that they have no control over. Together with initiatives such as India’s ‘Save the girl, educate the girl’ and ‘#Let Girls Learn’ the conversation needs to be steered in the direction of MHM.

How do we do this, and where do we go from here? Lucky for us, WASH united has come to the rescue with Menstrual Hygiene Day, which looks to take place on the 28th May, in effort to ‘break the silence’ surrounding MHM by raising awareness and educating globally on the issues which surround it.

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Image Source: WASH United

Markle’s efforts in highlighting the importance of MHM speaks volumes to not only the commitment we should all have to the MHM conversation, but teaches us that without investing in such initiatives, generations of girls will suffer from this ill-founded stigmatism. In the words of Markle:

‘To break the cycle of poverty, and to achieve economic growth and sustainability in developing countries, young women need access to education. When we empower girls hungry for education, we cultivate women who are emboldened to effect change within their communities and globally. If that is our dream for them, then the promise of it must begin with us. Period.’

KG

 

How did we get here? An essay on gender inequality

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Image Source: The Express Tribune

With gender inequality penetrating every community, and the dominant ‘norm’ being overwhelmingly comprised of middle aged men, it is easy to point toward this patriarchal establishment as the reason for gender inequality running wide, as well as deep. But how many of us have actually stopped to consider how we got here? How did this small, hardly representative group, become the dominant group? The privileged group?

Whilst an array of answers are offered up by the scholars, feminist thinkers and (unfortunately) Sarah Palins of the world, I find the most compelling justification in Carole Pateman’s 1988 publication ‘The Sexual Contract’. Pateman explains the idea for her book originated from taking a feminist reading of existing texts, which led her to develop an extensive critique of the contracts relationality is derivative of. Where most thinkers swept the construct of the patriarchy aside as ‘ahistorical and timeless’, Pateman argued the employment, marital and sexual contracts lacked diversity when they were formulated; they were designed by the dominant group, for the dominant group.

Every contract stated for an individual to relinquish their autonomy and serve as labourers, wives or prostitutes was justified, because such individuals are free to decide do so. Pateman, however, suggests such autonomy in relation to women, ethnic minorities and the lower classes never existed, as they were excluded from formulating the very contracts the concept of freedom is detailed within.  It is illogical that women and labourers can freely make the decision to labour, be married, or prostituted, because these contracts were designed to exploit them in these capacities. Furthermore, without such demand from the dominant group for these services, they cannot freely ‘supply’ them.

As well as highlighting a key underlying factor contributing to the oppression of women throughout history, Pateman’s criticisms identify a key component in which change must be mobilised, to be sustained. In order for women to be afforded the same rights as men in the private and public setting, they must be afforded a seat at the table. The international pools of public officials formulating policy can no longer be restricted to the dominant group – they can no longer be restricted to men. However, as modern democracies highlight, it’s not enough to give a woman a seat at the table (or much less your daughter one, paired with no official title); women need progressive, proactive, reliable and accountable figures to influence in visible spaces of influence.

As much as I would like to sit around and blame the patriarchy for the host of issues plaguing women today, instead, I am choosing to invest my time in the women and stories that are changing the game. The women who are progressive, proactive, reliable and view themselves as accountable to every woman in the world. In doing so, I can only hope it inspires you to do the same, because there is a need, if not a duty, for us empowered women, to empower other women.

KG