The boy with the warm brown eyes walked away down the sidewalk, turning back to wave before rounding the corner.
Think about that sentence. Visualize it. What did you picture? A busy city street or a suburban neighborhood? A teenager or a young child?
Was he white?
This is seen all the time in modern literature—people of color being specifically described as such while white characters are left to the assumption that they’re white simply because nothing was indicated otherwise. In fact, there was a public discussion surrounding this recently concerning Harry Potter character Hermione Granger. In the movies she was played by a white actress; people had strong opinions, both positive and negative, when a black actress was cast in the role in the epilogue play. But her race was never mentioned in the books. Why should white be the default?
This topic was illustrated beautifully by James Miles, the executive director of Arts Corps, at the “Decolonizing Pop Culture: Past, Present, and Future” panel at Northwest Folklife 2019.
“I’ll give you a super simple example,” said Miles near the beginning of the panel. “Santa Claus. When I go to a mall and I see Santa Claus, I say, ‘Hey, cool, look, there’s a white Santa Claus.’ If there’s a black Santa Claus, I just say, ‘Hey, there’s Santa Claus.’ And the reactions I get from my kid’s peers are like, ‘What?’ And I say, ‘Well, Santa Claus, there’s a white Santa Claus! That’s great! I’m so happy there’s a white representation of Santa Claus for you!’ It’s a small effort, but those kids start thinking like, ‘Yeah, why does Santa Claus have to be white?’ So, they’re growing up and changing the way they talk to their parents, to their friends, and their younger siblings, and they’re like, ‘Hey, there’s Santa Claus!’ ‘Well, Santa Claus is white.’ ‘No, Santa Claus is whatever I say Santa Claus is.’ And that’s the most simple example, using capitalism as instruction. So then when, you know, we work at these malls, who do we hire as Santa Claus?”
It’s a thought-provoking question: Who do we hire as Santa Claus? What stereotypes do we have that influence the image of someone in our minds? These questions, and more, were brought up at the Folklife panel on May 25. Understanding the answers to them requires understanding the origin of these race-based defaults. They are rooted in an old idea of white superiority, and are perpetuated by the media. Television, radio, and the internet all feed us these stereotypes and influence our perceptions to the point where assumption is automatic.
“I had the opportunity to go and see Netflix headquarters and see these people speak,” said Wynter Rhys, a rising film director, at the same “Decolonizing Pop Culture” event, “And they would always say, ‘Just go for your dreams! Just do it!’ But what about the people who are told every single day that they can’t? That’s who I want to speak to when I do public speeches, so I always keep that in mind, I always keep it in mind that we have work to do.”
One commonly seen aspect of popular culture today is mimicry. People do things, wear things, say things, not necessarily because they want to, but because those things are “trendy” and “in.” This heavily contributes to the current lack of representation in the media. If there isn’t diversity today, and all the new things are copying what’s already there, then there won’t be diversity tomorrow.
This sense of mimicry also shows up in many art forms, one of the most notable being music. These days, there are videos on YouTube with millions of views titled “Top 10 Sound-Alike songs” and “20 Songs That Sound EXACTLY The Same (MIND BLOWING).” And it is a little mind-blowing. So much of the art made today is heavily intertwined with capitalism. People aren’t looking to be creative anymore, they’re just looking to make money. And if one thing is making money, everyone else copies it. But, as said by Kid Roman, a third member of the “Decolonizing Pop Culture” panel, “If I wanted to sound like someone like Drake with all the stuff that I make, even if I can make it good, I’m never gonna make it to where he’s at if I’m just following suit, because he’s already there.”
The first step to making successful art is finding an individual style unlike anyone else’s. And the first step to finding a unique style is self actualization.
“I don’t think we necessarily have to change what pop culture means,” said Kid Roman, “but redirect what we allow ourselves to be influenced by.”
For consumers, this means actively thinking about the things you see in the media, making educated decisions about how and where to spend your money, and taking a step back to understand the impact of your own actions on others. For artists, this means assessing what negative stereotypes you may be perpetuating through your own art, and learning how to say no to promising offers that would force you to conform your art to the specific standards of someone else.
Of course, nothing is ever as simple as a few easy adjustments. Money plays a huge part in how our world functions, and Silas Blak, a 2016 nominee for a Stranger Award in Music and the fourth panelist, brings up an interesting point about the role capitalism holds in society:
“Instead of marching, why aren’t we just buying our way into stuff? Why aren’t we paying for specialists, and sending them in? We have talented people of all levels. Decolonizing is really not a game, we can’t do it just with music, or even make a realistic attempt at it in my opinion. Everything else, even that becomes commodified. So, now the march organizer is making more money than anybody marching. How is somebody making money from this? At every layer you get hit. I like to ask people, and they’re like, ‘I wouldn’t do this,’ and I ask my students, ‘Have you ever seen a check for $400,000? Has it been in front of you?’ Because when an image makes you pursue the money, makes you a capitalist before you even know what it means, then the actual money’s gonna really twist you up.”
The illuminating panel discussion at Folklife analyzed the many aspects that contribute to the colonization of pop culture: defaults that are perpetuated without substantial resistance, conformation to the unrealistic expectations set by the media, and general human selfishness being just a few. Finding a way to move a society in a new direction is not easy, and there’s not one perfect remedy. Combining many small solutions, like consumer resistance and accountability, can begin to move us down the right path, but only if everyone does their part to decolonize themselves and educate those around them. Youth voices play a huge role in this, and one of the best things adults can do is give the youth a platform to be heard. We cannot fix these issues as individuals; we have to move forward together as a society.
Lead photo credit: "Decolonizing Pop Culture" Panel. Photo by Christopher Nelson, courtesy of Northwest Folklife.
The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about other Press Corps programs including Press Corps Intensives, the Teen Editorial Staff, or the TeenTix Newsroom, see HERE.