I have a pretty socially conscious friend group on social media. We have epic conversations about race, feminism, sex, Donald Trump, and gender—and most of the time, people’s contributions are pretty thoughtful. Yet every so often there’ll be a question that makes me grit my teeth. Inevitably, it’s a question about race, asked with the expectation that people of color will respond with an explanation when the question could’ve easily been answered with a little Googling.
These situations make me realize how much I, a mixed-race person, just don’t want to have these conversations with white people anymore. I’m tired. I’m tired of explaining my existence to people. I’d rather have conversations with other people of color. Such conversations are deeper, richer, and often more meaningful because there’s no need to be a token interpreter. And with the Oscars coming up this weekend, I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot.
People of color have been doing the heavy lifting for centuries when it comes to explaining and educating people about race, feminism, and intersectionality. I’ve done it, too; I’ve explained why it’s not ok to touch my hair, why you shouldn’t compliment my skin color or say you wish you could tan that way, and why really, you do not have an “inner black soul singer.” You are not Aretha Franklin. You are not even Aretha Franklin’s inauguration hat.
Recently, a conversation about Moonlight—the film nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture—highlighted, again, how exhausting being the POC interpreter can be. For background, about three years ago, some friends and I made a decision to actively support films made by non-white directors and films starring people of color. We’ve watched films including Twelve Years a Slave, 13th, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight.
Arguably, these films help stimulate broader conversations about race, segregation, sexuality, and gender. My friend and I left Moonlight raving about the story and the gorgeously lit skins of the actors. (Film was originally designed to flatter white skin.) Another friend, who is white, went to see Moonlight, too. While she also loved it, she spent a lot of time raving to us about the actor, Trevante Rhodes, and how sexually attractive he was. We couldn’t believe that’s what she got out of it. It was an incredibly uncomfortable situation.
It’s great that these movies are filling theaters and earning accolades, but it’s also frustrating to sit in a dark room and listen to gasps when Hidden Figures actress Taraji P. Henson has to run half a mile to use the bathroom. Why is that detail surprising? People of color know that America’s laws, language, and media coverage, has made their lives difficult for decades. Meanwhile, white people seem to get something emotionally satisfying out of being shocked by movies about the non-white experience.
But that’s not the point of a movie like Hidden Figures, just as Moonlight wasn’t made to provide white women with evidence of black male attractiveness. More importantly, however, it’s not my job to enlighten my white friends about what the films’ underlying themes actually are.
Instead of waiting to be educated or entertained, white audiences—or any audience watching a movie that takes place from an alternative experience—need to get comfortable with doing their own research. We all need to get in the habit of educating ourselves first before jumping into those deeper conversations. By making sure one of us doesn’t have to take on the responsibility of explaining decades or centuries of history, I promise we’ll have a much more enriching and enlightening interaction. And yes, we can also discuss which celebrity you dreamed about last night.