#28DaysofBlackCosplay: Nerds, Black History Month, and Pure Joy Collide

Alanna Mode, Sean’s PhotographyWhen some people think of cosplayers—the enthusiastic fans of comics, movies, and TV shows who show up at conventions decked out in incredibly detailed recreations of their favorite characters’ looks—they tend to think of nerdy white guys in haphazardly put together ensembles. As anyone who’s ever spent any time at a large…

via #28DaysOfBlackCosplay is the intersection of Black History Month, nerdiness, and high fashion — Fusion

“What Are You?”: Let’s Talk About Asian-American Encounters

This is a bit of an anomalous situation, but once…my sister and I were on a horseback riding tour in Wyoming, and somehow it was just the two of us with the guide. He was a typical white cowboy-type, kind of dashing in his way, until he opened his mouth to say, ‘What are you guys?’ (Humans?) In this situation, where we were literally in the mountain wilderness alone with him, how sassy could I afford to be? So I just replied, ‘We’re Chinese-American.’ He seemed perplexed for a second before relaxing. ‘Cool,’ he replied. ‘I love sweet and sour chicken, I eat that all the time at this place in town.’ Was this a strange flirtation attempt couched in the language of…food? What was I supposed to say, ‘I’ve eaten mayonnaise before and it’s pretty good?’ Here’s a hot tip: don’t treat someone’s ethnicity as something edible. If you have to reach that hard to find something with which to connect, just use, you know, your shared humanity.

by B.C.

[to] customer service guy, fun fact: my race is not a conversation starter and I don’t care that your ‘best mate’ is getting married to an asian girl.

When I posted this status on Facebook about how a customer service rep unnecessarily remarked on my race, I was kind of surprised by how it blew up with ‘likes’ and comments — but also not that surprised. 

Among my friends, including those on social media, it’s pretty common knowledge that these types of comments are unwarranted. But I was reminded that it’s not common knowledge for everyone.

To backtrack, I was at a Verizon store getting a phone upgrade. This guy was helping me along and we were making typical small talk. Then, out of nowhere, he asked if both of my parents were Asian. I was unsure of where he was going with this but answered, yes, only to have him tell me he was surprised I didn’t have an accent.

As those words left his mouth, I felt myself cringing. Really? Did you really say that? I told him, politely, that there are lots of Asian-Americans like me without accents and that his comment was a little offensive.

He seemed taken aback, shocked, even; he immediately apologized and said he didn’t mean offense. Okay, I thought, well good. Glad that’s over. But then he continued the conversation by telling me that his best friend was marrying an Asian girl, as if that were a way to redeem himself.

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As it to convey, hey, I’m a nice guy. I didn’t mean any harm. My best friend likes your people, so I can relate and it was okay of me to say what I said. I wasn’t so much upset as I was flummoxed by his cluelessness. He was only making things worse without even realizing it. Continue reading ““What Are You?”: Let’s Talk About Asian-American Encounters”

Lunch with Audie Cornish: Women of Color in Public Radio

NPR’s All Things Considered Host Audie Cornish addresses her career, the media’s ever-changing role, the importance of diversity and reporting on racial tensions in this country during a luncheon for member station WVXU.

On our way to a luncheon two weeks ago to hear Audie Cornish speak, my parents and I walked past her on our third flight of stairs. We were going up, and she was going down. I only caught a glimpse of her.

“Oh, that’s her,” I whispered to my unsuspecting parents. We were in The Phoenix, a historic events venue, going up to the ballroom. The event promised to feed us and enlighten us with a questions and answers session from Ms. Cornish, who co-hosts the 4 p.m. news program All Things Considered, along with Robert Siegel and Melissa Block. 

“Really? That’s not how I imagined her,” my dad responded, walking up a few more stairs. He listens to All Things Considered almost every day, on his commute back from work. “I don’t know why. I guess she’s younger than I thought she would be.” 

Many others at the event, which was a luncheon for supporters of WVXU — the NPR member station in Cincinnati where I work — had similar remarks. They had no idea what to expect. People were excited to finally see the face that matched the voice they hear every day on the radio.

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Photo from Twitter @nprAudie

But I instantly recognized Audie because, as a fan, I had come across her photo a few times on NPR’s website or from reading about her online. I low-key check out all of my favorite radio people, because I like associating an image with the voice. While I knew what to expect appearance-wise, I was almost caught off guard by her personality.

It’s not that I didn’t expect her to be funny and candid. I most certainly did. But it’s just as an NPR host and reporter, I could never really get a good feel for her personality. Sure, All Things Considered, like the title suggests, presents a slew of thoughtful, sound-rich commentary beyond just the basic news of the day. But it’s still a professional, scripted program.

More than anything, I could tell her Q&A session that day wasn’t very scripted. Her voice really came through in a way that it doesn’t when she hosts. And the answers felt much more like a conversation, with her even engaging an anonymous question-asker (we submitted questions via note cards) by having him “out” himself so she could better respond.

When addressing how she landed such a ‘cool gig,’ Audie talked about her early days working at the campus radio station at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She joked about how she wanted to work for the paper, but they were all jerks; she found her niche with the radio kids. And then she mentioned something that I’m sure resonates with a lot of young journalists: that she has a mean case of Imposter Syndrome — which is when successful people have a difficult time internalizing that success — and that she’s waiting for someone to tell her, “That’s enough, dear,” at any given moment.

Of course, we know this will never happen, but it’s comforting to think that someone as well-respected as Audie can feel this way. Regardless, Audie has an enormous sense of pride about what she does. She said that one of her first stories at the student station was covering a small protest with a few hundred people. She muscled her way to the front of that protest, got the sound she needed and spent the night putting the piece together. She was proud of the finished product, and it’s a high she’s been chasing since.

“There is something incredibly intoxicating about walking into the center of history each and every time and having the door open, and actually getting to talk to people and having them talk to you,” she says. “What’s it like for this to happen? What’s it like for that to happen? You can ask the dumbest question in the world to the smartest person in the world; to the most famous person in the world; to the most serious person in the world. You get to do that! People pay you to do that.”

She talked about about some more relatively light-hearted topics: her love for almost all of the sources she gets to interview, how intimate radio is as a medium because there are no lights and cameras — just her and her source, how she can’t pick a favorite story, how she has recently enjoyed working on the stories with the Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner, how nowadays training to moderate a presidential debate or work on the campaign trail is almost like training for combat and she doesn’t think it’s her cup of tea even though she’s reported on Congress for NPR and so on.

And then the questions got slightly more real, but Audie kept her composure and gave equally real responses. Someone asked, as the country becomes more absurd and politically divided, how do you maintain your impartiality? This is when Audie called out the audience member.

“Do you feel like you were impartial in writing that question?” she asked.

“It was difficult,” he responded, to some laughs. Audie said the word ‘absurd’ gave it away.

“The way I look at it is, I was hired basically because of my capacity for curiosity and to ask one extra… or five extra… questions where there should be one or two. And so, I don’t see it so much as the monkhood of objectivity… I come to it from a place of inquiry,” she responded.

Like any good journalist, she wants to know how she can conduct a conversation in which actual meaningful information is elicited. That’s the point of journalism, after all: to disseminate information. She spends a lot of her time trying to do that instead of working to insert her own opinions.

“I’m not a commentator. I’m not an analyst. I think there are amazing, smart people who do those jobs but I don’t think I want to do that work. I don’t go to bed at night thinking, ‘I’m really going to stick it to so-and-so.’ I’m just glad I made it home and I actually changed out of my work clothes,” she said. “But I understand why this question is coming up.”

She expressed that, nowadays, people are so distrustful of those conveying information. The idea is they can’t just be asking questions and doing an impartial story. It must come from a deep place of advocacy. And readers get frustrated with you if you do something “unbiased” that they believe should come from a deep place of advocacy. But impartiality is what fuels NPR and makes it a fair, well-rounded news source. She admits it’s a tricky line to walk.

She eventually addressed my question about why it’s important to have women of color and other diverse voices in NPR and any newsroom. Lakshmi Singh. Mandalit del Barco. Korva Korman. Shereen Marisol Meraji. Audie Cornish. These names are not unfamiliar to NPR listeners; they’re names I hear regularly despite the media’s continuing domination by white men. 

She responded that, over time, people recognized that there was a certain type of person who was dominant in the news room, who came from a certain kind of schooling, who had a certain financial background — who was essentially privileged enough to do the job. She mentioned how internships were unpaid and that she wouldn’t have been able to work essentially for free in a city like NYC or DC. She was a scholarship kid the entire way, and that carried her through.

“When you have a number of voices who sit around the table, they bring ideas from different parts of the world. So it’s not a bad thing to raise your hand as a veteran and say, “I was reading The Army Times and there was a great story about X” because no one else is going to pitch that story,” she said. “And similarly, there are people who come from Latino backgrounds, or are black or are Asian, and say, “I saw this really interesting protest in this corner of the world…” We had a man who worked with us for a very long time who was of Pakistani origin. Without fail, he kept us on top of news in India and Pakistan.”

She said a newsroom really thrives on the diversity of the cast at hand; different voices and stories and knowledge. She contrasted it with a movie, where everyone is working to tell the same story. A newsroom requires an endless flow of different stories from different perspectives, especially with All Things Considered, which runs two hours of diverse content a day.

“I think that’s one thing that’s always been admirable about NPR,” Audie said. “They are trying to sound like America.”

She was then asked about the role she thinks the media plays in fueling racial tension. Audie responded that the media is like a funhouse mirror for what is going on in America. Right now, it may be “in vogue” to say we are at a point in racial tension that is at the worst it’s ever been. But she comes at it from a different point of view.

“I think that the American people are having a conversion in an explicit way that they did not have with this kind of explicitness before. There is some value to that,” she said. “To give an example, there’s a term that millennials use, which is ‘microaggression.’ The idea behind a microaggression is that this is not your sitting-at-a-lunch-counter bigotry racism. This is not being chased out of a place or being fired for who you are. This is what you have in every day interaction.”

She mentioned that, before, it was about marching and really basic, basic rights. And that’s still something that has to happen. But for this new generation, we are on a whole other level of conversation — one that does not allow people to back away. One that can feel pushy and call out small annoyances.

“Because in the macro level, we can say, “Uh, sexism and racism seem like a problem? Not in my house. I’m awesome.” We can absolve ourselves of things that go on in our culture. I think the media is putting a spotlight on situations when these happen [on a macro or micro scale]. All these stories you hear now are things you wouldn’t hear ten years ago.”

She mentioned that stories about the refugee crisis affect her, but maybe fifty years ago, news of a refugee boat going down in the Mediterranean, for example, wouldn’t have reached us.

“American broadcasters may not have thought it mattered to Americans, and you might not have known it. But now you do. And it’s the same thing with racial incidents,” she said.

There wasn’t time for too many more questions, though a few more frivolous ones were tossed in. It was obvious that Audie had a lot to say and would’ve had a lot more insight to offer had there been more time. I was definitely impressed with the way she presented herself overall. I like her, I thought to myself. She’s as great as I thought she would be. 

But I should have known I’d like her because before she took the stage, I got to briefly speak with her, and she was nothing but friendly. A fellow employee introduced me as the assistant producer for WVXU’s “Cincinnati Edition,” a live, local program. I asked her if it was okay for me to record her so I can write a piece about the luncheon; she said that of course it was okay, as long as it was okay with my station.

I tried to stay away from this, knowing she probably hears it far too much, but I slipped in a, “It’s so exciting to see you in person when I hear you on the radio… I know you must get that a lot.” She laughed, and said, “You must be starting to get some of that too.” And it’s funny, because I do, even though you only hear my name announced at the end of the program.

I asked if she remembered my friend Casey Morell from Missouri’s Global Journalist, who interviewed her a few years back, and she said she did. Later, when I let him know, he said it made his day. Before Audie had to hurry off and get ready, I asked if I could get a picture with her, and she willingly agreed. So now I have a piece of memorabilia that inspires me to keep at it no matter how much Imposter Syndrome I have.

Audie Cornish Belinda.jpg
The author B.C. and Audie Cornish at the event

Read more about Audie here: http://www.npr.org/people/4986687/audie-cornish

“Zootopia” Encourages Us to Examine Our Prejudice

**This post contains some spoilers**

Zootopia continues Disney’s time-honored tradition of using animated creatures to talk about something else, whether it’s covering….Hamlet with lions or depression with walking, talking emojis (I’m talking Lion King and Inside Out here, in case you couldn’t tell). But Zootopia manages to do a little more, by drawing a charmingly insightful view of the world that still manages to talk about the prejudice and stereotypes that plague us.

Are you in it for the animal puns and inventive world-building? Sure. There are little sparks of pleasure throughout the entire movie, as the animators recreate familiar technology in an “evolved” world where animals, predators and prey, live together in a modern metropolis. How would subways accommodate both giraffes and hamsters? Do rabbits facetime? Are leopards pop-star fanboys who know how to use apps? All of your questions will be answered. (Bonus: this makes the film’s address of bigotry, racism, and prejudice even more compelling, as there’s a clear parallel drawn between Zootopia’s world and ours).

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Photo from Zootopia \\ Twitter @DisneyZootopia

Its main character, Judy Hopps, is an amibitious young bunny bent on becoming the first police officer of her species. To do so, she works twice as hard as anyone else, insisting that she’s not just a “token.” She is a creative problem-solver who works collaboratively, respects her friendships, and knows when to acknowledge her own mistakes and shortcomings. She’s a great cop who got there mostly by the dint of her own hard work, but also through the love and support of her community. She is defined more by her ambitions than anything else (and thank god there was no love story in this movie, because how would that even work…?). My cynical heart swells thinking of the young girls watching this movie who will absorb this film’s subtle, but strong message about the potential and abilities of the underestimated.

But Zootopia is more than a girl-can-do film, and its address of bigotry is what makes it one of the best and most important movies Disney has put out yet. In the beginning, Judy’s naive worldview presents Zootopia as the harmonious, “race-blind” melding of two distinct classes of animal: predator and prey. Part of her journey is through the disillusionment of that idea, and toward a concrete plan of action to remedy it. There are forces at work in the city who feed off of the distrust and prejudice that still surround “predators” and their unavoidable “biological instinct”—an early lesson for young viewers in the insidious power of coded language to shape public opinion, as Judy also learns. Through Judy’s friendship with the street-hustler fox Nick Wilde, she learns what it means to confront the lingering animosity between “predator” and “prey,” and how to forge a strong friendship from this unlikely, but very effective, partnership.

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Image from Twitter @DisneyZootopia

The film is also seeded with references for the adults or particularly savvy kids—like how the “nighthowlers” drug can be seen as a parallel to the crack epidemic, or how Judy tells another animal that bunnies can call other bunnies “cute,” but if another species does it….(you can almost hear the n-word echoing in the background). Zootopia depicts how quickly people (or animals) can fall into the traps of fear-motivated thinking, how bigotry and racism feed off of misinformation and fear. It also shows how much is lost when one’s world is circumscribed by these prejudices. And it does so in terms that both children and adults can understand and use to discuss racism, bigotry, and prejudice in the real world. That is a refreshing antidote to the hate-mongering and racism being peddled by election frontrunners—and the positive reaction to Zootopia bespeaks more than just our love for cuddly animals. Is it perfect? Probably not. But it brings the problems of bigotry right to the front and center. That’s a hell of a lot more than Disney movies used to do. We need more children’s movies like this, which are driven by interesting storylines and use world-building to open up discussions about the pressing problems of our own world.

 

Plus, this movie is just really freaking cute.

 

 

Women of Color in Ballet

I’m a former ballerina, and I was one of the only minorities in a studio that was predominantly, overwhelmingly, white. Ballet, as a cultural sphere, is particularly exclusionary in a way that is both obvious (the high price of this hobby) and hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s the subtle, often insidious atmosphere of a discipline that prizes certain bodies and certain aesthetics above all others. In a medium so focused on the visual body, the importance of seeing role models who look like you cannot be overstated. Small wonder, then, that seeing Misty Copeland as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake has lit a fire in young ballerinas of color everywhere. Misty’s success is a vivid reminder of black excellence in a field that hasn’t quite been welcoming to women of color.

The ballet world and beyond has been dazzled by Misty Copeland’s rise to fame—from the cover of dance magazines to a giant ad in my local Dick’s Sporting Goods, her face is everywhere.

Misty Copeland in one of her ads for Under Armour---simultaneously inspiring young dancers of color and reminding us what a strenuous sport ballet truly is.
Misty Copeland in one of her ads for Under Armour—simultaneously inspiring young dancers of color and reminding us what a strenuous sport ballet truly is.

I’m a former ballerina, and I was one of the only minorities in a studio that was predominantly, overwhelmingly, white. Ballet, as a cultural sphere, is particularly exclusionary in a way that is both obvious (the high price of this “hobby”) and hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s the subtle, often insidious atmosphere of a discipline that prizes certain bodies and certain aesthetics above all others. In a medium so focused on the visual body, the importance of seeing role models who look like you cannot be overstated. Small wonder, then, that seeing Misty Copeland as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake has lit a fire in young ballerinas of color everywhere. Misty’s success is a vivid reminder of black excellence in a field that hasn’t quite been welcoming to women of color.

Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack in Swan Lake | Photo from the New York Times
Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack in Swan Lake | Photo from the New York Times

But she’s not the only one. As Theresa Ruth Howard argues in her piece “The Misty-Rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color: Where Have All the Others Gone?“, an overwhelming focus on Misty as “the first one,” “the only one,” the “ultimate” trailblazer actually erases and diminishes the many dancers who helped shape the path that Misty now dances. To elevate Misty and forget her predecessors (and peers) would be to commit the fallacy of the “only one”—the flawed assumption that, for women of color and black women in particular, there can only be one in the top spot. It’s time for classical ballet, an art form with diminishing mainstream cultural resonance, to open itself wider to the passionate dancers of all backgrounds waiting in its wings.

Ballet is an especially interesting cultural arena because of the conversations surrounding black women’s bodies. Black women, like most groups of women of color in the history of the United States, have been both oversexualized and instrumentalized. Mainstream pop culture’s appropriation of black dancing (see: twerking) while simultaneously denigrating the same black women who originated this facet of culture—that’s a telling example of the double standard to which black women’s bodies are held, isnt it? Ballet, despite its claim to artistic purity that rises above politics, is not immune to this. It is an art form about looking at bodies on display, about profiting from the bodies of girls who work themselves sometimes to exhaustion. But it is also about beauty and joy and the sweetness of struggle. These are not irreconciliable. As ballerinas of color take to the stage, they inevitably participate in a cultural sphere that does not always respect or value them—but they also work to carve out a space for themselves and for the craft they love. That is beauty.

This gallery pays tribute to Misty and her fellow ballerinas of color: those who shone so brightly on stages all over the world and inspired the next generation of dancers. For a fuller list of black ballet dancers, please visit Roll Call.

This extremely brief introduction is by no means an exhaustive list (not even close!) I have intentionally focused on black ballerinas because in the fraught racial history of the United States, black ballerinas have been forced to overcome more explicit color barriers than most other groups. This is not to diminish the achievements of other women of color—another post about them is forthcoming! If you have suggestions, please share your favorite ballerinas and dancers of color, trailblazers all, in the comments. 


And the future? It might look like rising star Michaela DePrince, one of the subjects of the ballet documentary First Position. She is now dancing in the company of the Dutch National Ballet. Here she is at the young age of 14, competing in the Grand Prix. Check out her TED Talk too!

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