There is no distance-learning course for how to be Japanese. How do you stay true to one side of an identity you’ve inherited from your parents when you have never lived in Japan and have, at best, a mediocre grasp of the language? Identity is almost always conceptualised as intensely personal. But developing an identity that is apparently yours to claim can be difficult without first-hand experience of it. In these situations, representative media is one of the most accessible resources for identity-building – a task which necessarily encompasses an acceptance of the social and political weights of inhabiting such an identity. Seeing realistic portrayals of people like us in media makes existing as a marginalised person easier. Even though we may come to the languages of racial, gendered or class solidarity later in life, the flicker of recognition when we see them represented in media is still a source of immeasurable comfort.
One of the markers of an increasingly international world is the presence of more and more people like me: kids, born to parents of different countries, who grew up in a culture that should be theirs, but that for some reason doesn’t quite feel like home. In many ways there are links to immigrant experiences. Usnavi, the protagonist of the musical In the Heights hit the bullseye when he rapped about his desire to ‘find his island’. Though he had lived his entire life in New York, he still thought of the Dominican Republic, the country of his parents, as the place to which he would go ‘back’. This feeling of kinship with a motherland paradoxically familiar and unfamiliar is something many ‘third-culture’ kids like myself know well.
“The best kind of representation is the kind that portrays a people as they are, without hesitation or reservation, for the people they are meant to represent”
People like me have a lot to learn about who we are because a clear-cut identity doesn’t come quite as naturally to us than it does for those whose family trees are firmly rooted within one set of borders. But it’s more common than the mainstream discourse would suggest. In his 2008 memoir, Barack Obama wrote that he, too, had to do this. He was raised by a white mother and grandparents in Hawaii which, while undeniably multicultural, did not have a large black population. In some ways when he left Hawaii he learned how to be black. Although the feeling of solidarity and the inexplicable tug you feel towards people who look like you is something we are all born with, the nuances of a culture and the cues, codes and language of that solidarity have to be learnt.
One of the best ways to learn the interpersonal elements of an identity is to consume the music, art, and media that represent it. The best kind of representation is the kind that portrays a people as they are, without hesitation or reservation, for the people they are meant to represent. Of course, the kind of representation that has the potential to empower is the most rare. Some of the criticisms levelled against this kind of representation is that it doesn’t sell because it’s too ‘niche’.
Learning, whether first- or second-hand, the vocabularies of solidarity and resistance are essential to inhabiting an identity in a society where we have to interact with others. How we walk through the world is inevitably defined by how we are perceived or read by others – woman, non-binary person, trans person, man. It defines our experiences so much so that even if as children we never had to shoulder the weight of our otherness, we cannot ignore the fact that we will be read as having these identities. Familiarising ourselves with the language of our shared struggle is essential for solidarityBut there is nothing financially unviable about the proposition that a Latinx character should be written for Latinx people because there is nothing that says that a white or black or Asian audience cannot appreciate them in all their authentic glory. One of the best examples are Aziz Ansari and Hari Kondabolu, two Asian stand-up comics who regularly acknowledge in their routines that their audiences are predominantly white. Yet they still talk unapologetically about race and their experiences as Asian men, and they can still make a mostly white room erupt in raucous laughter. Here the economic argument is also baseless – Ansari is one of the most commercially successful comedians of the moment. Of course there are concerns about offering up parts of a culture for the consumption of an audience by virtue of their gender, race, class, or anything else. But these dissipate where media is authentic in its portrayal of an identity and doesn’t pander to a majority audience with simplified tropes and stereotypes.
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