Like Me

Basa nanjye.

They look like me.

This is something I feel without even considering it when reading most books or watching most movies. Finding characters with whom I identify—who in some way represent some significant portion of my experiences or beliefs—is so easy that I never even think it might be a privilege. Specifically, I have never struggled to find characters who look like me.

So for an entire month, I chose to only read books or watch movies written by or about people who do not look like me.

It happened this way: I wanted to show video clips to my Senior 4 general studies class. We were wrapping up a unit on communication, and I thought they deserved to have a little fun with their end-of-unit review. Making them apply all the concepts they’d learned by analysing and critiquing some interactions in movies seemed like a good idea.

Choosing clips to show them, though, turned out to be a time-consuming and frustrating task. It’s difficult to find brief interactions that are understandable without knowing the slang used, details of the culture, or the broader context of the film.

But the biggest challenge I faced was finding clips that portrayed diversity.

Because none of my films are Rwandan, I was inherently presenting a series of tiny glimpses into American culture. And yet it seemed every example I could find (that wasn’t peppered with slang or dependent on culture and context) showed the same thing: white upper- or middle-class Americans living white upper- or middle-class lives.

Now, in interest of full disclosure, I do not have the entire internet at my disposal. I could not simply open my browser and search specifically for films portraying more diverse realities. And I’ll be quick to admit that my collection of films is likely not representative of the entire body of Western entertainment.

But… I have nearly 550 films and TV shows on my hard drive. I ran some numbers, and here’s what I came up with. Of those ~550 films:

  • 349 feature an entirely white main cast
  • 61 have a mostly-white main cast featuring one or two token characters of colour
  • 26 feature a character of colour in the lead (sometimes sharing that space with a white character)
  • 97 feature what I deemed a diverse cast
  • 63 of those diverse casts feature white lead characters
  • 22 include no white characters
  • 15 feature a majority of characters of colour

film data

Factors that should affect the conclusions drawn from those numbers:

  • I did not include sequels (so, for example, seven diverse Fast and Furious films only total one point for diversity)
  • many of thse include characters of colour fulfilling (usually negative) stereotypes
  • the numbers do not account for minor background characters of any colour
  • some are international films and by default include entirely non-white casts (such as my small Bollywood collection)
  • some are set in a time/place in which racial diversity would be incorrect (i.e. Jane Austen films)
  • some, especially animated films, include characters of colour played by white actors
  • at least six of the “majority-non-white-characters” films arguably portray white saviour complexes

Twist my numbers however you want, but I don’t think you can work out a way to make them match up to US demographics, especially if you remove the Japanese and Indian movies, which make up the bulk of the “POC Lead,” “Majority POC,” and “All POC” columns in my spreadsheet.

There’s a difference between knowing that entertainment features and often propagates a lack of diversity and experiencing firsthand the frustration of actively looking for diversity and not finding it.

At this point, a friend and I decided that for the month of June, we would only read books or watch movies that were created by people of colour, featured a person of colour as the main character, or included a majority non-white cast.

I quickly became frustrated with my movie options. Not only were they severely limited in number, but they were also seriously limited in genre. If I wanted an action film, Denzel Washington or Jackie Chan had my back. But try finding a chick flick that isn’t about white people. (J-Lo saved me there, but my point stands. You can only watch Maid in Manhattan so many times in a month.)

I’ll be the first to concede that not every film should include racial diversity (as I’ve mentioned above, I own an insane number of period dramas, which in general do not and, for historical accuracy, should not include racial diversity)—but there should be more.

We need more.

I should see people who don’t look like me across the spectrum of genres and across the spectrum of character types—not just the bad guy, not just the soldier, not just the inner-city kid. I want more than the token Asian guy, the sassy black woman, or the expendable first-to-die-in-any-horror-film.

And people who don’t look like me should be able to see themselves in media. They should see themselves portrayed honestly, not boxed into stereotypes. They should see themselves in every genre and every form and every personality. They should see themselves breaking boundaries without overtones of white saviour mentality. They should see themselves as complex villains and complex heroes.

Creators of fiction, whether in print or on film, have a responsibility not only to portray the world as it is, but to portray the world as it could be.

We aren’t limited by the demographic statistics. We aren’t limited by reality. We have the freedom to dream up and share the world that we want to see.

And the world that’s limited to white characters with the occasional extra tossed in to fulfill the diversity quota…that’s not the world I’m dreaming of. That’s not a world I want to live in.

My students here hold the beliefs that all Americans are white, that being white by default makes you smarter, that having lighter skin makes you more attractive, that all white people are richer than all black people.

I want to change these beliefs.

But right now, the media is not helping me.

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Allyship

Allyship.

There is no word in Kinyarwanda for this concept.

Gloriosa, one of Peace Corps’ Rwandan staff members, explained: “In the Rwandan context, ‘allyship’ isn’t a special word, because you’re supposed to already be there for everyone. . . . There are people around you who count on you.”

But in English, we have this word. Allyship.

ally (v.) to unite for a common cause

In American culture today, this is a politically charged word. It immediately conjures ideas of minorities, systemic oppression, protests, and angry social media posts. But at its simplest, to ally means to join together for a cause.

To stand with someone. To support them.

At a recent Peace Corps conference, we discussed this idea of allyship. We talked about what it means to us and the different ways we see it—or don’t see it—in our own lives. I was struck by the intensity of the feelings revealed during this discussion, and by the unexpected bits of wisdom and poetry presented as people allowed themselves to be vulnerable.

Let me share some of their words with you.

“Being an ally is being okay with being uncomfortable . . . to help someone avoid being hurt.” – Aimee Carlson

Here in Rwanda, allyship takes on a more personal significance for all of us. In this context, in this place where we are perpetually other, we become uniquely aware of our own diversities.

Some of us are PCVs of colour who struggle against stereotypes of what an American should or should not look like.

Others of us represent diverse genders or sexualities and struggle to fit into a culture that doesn’t accept or acknowledge those aspects of our identities.

Justice will not happen “…until my pain is your pain…until I step down from my fight and you step up.” – Dominique Henderson

We may represent minority religions or no religion—both cause interpersonal discomfort in a highly religious culture.

Still others of us are differently abled physically or live with mental/emotional health problems that make daily life a unique struggle.

“Being an ally requires us to constantly manage our own ignorance.” – Claire Pennington

We come from different socioeconomic, family, and educational backgrounds but face the stereotype that all Americans are wealthy and successful.

Many of us are single and have to justify this to neighbours, coworkers, and even strangers on the bus.

“You won’t fix them. . . They don’t want you to . . . Its someone else’s struggle.” – Stina Stannik

Our desperate need for allies is thrown into stark relief against the backdrop of life in Rwanda. Our need is not merely for political allies but for personal allies, at times and in ways that we never would have imagined.

We live isolated lives here. We see each other from time to time, but in general we live alone in our villages, tiny islands of our own culture in the midst of people we love but sometimes cannot comprehend. People with whom we often cannot share our struggles or to whom we cannot explain our fears. Well-meaning people who are at times the cause of these struggles and fears.

“Absorb some of their pain into yourself.” – Claire Pennington

So we become allies for each other.

We correct stereotypes over and over, even when they don’t apply to our own identities. We listen to one another’s fear and despair and exhaustion and tell one another that it’s okay to be tired and afraid and so done with this. We celebrate one another’s small victories. We acknowledge one another’s identities. We do the small things we can do—over the phone at night after long days; over beers in regional towns on weekends; over WhatsApp in between classes and visits and lesson planning.

“I am an individual in a community made up of people who I don’t have to know to defend.” – Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe

Allyship looks different here than you might expect. We find it in unexpected places and at unexpected times, and not always in just PCVs.

I find it in the lady at the market who shields me from unwanted attention. In another single woman who tells me it’s okay not to be married. In a teacher who accepts that my dog and cat are my family here and always asks how they’re doing. In a neighbour who tells others not to ask me for money. In my headmaster who tells the teachers and students my name and asks them not to call me muzungu. In Peace Corps staff who acknowledge how difficult it can be to integrate and who remind me to take time for my own mental health.

“Before taking action, we need to listen to the problem, understand the problem, and accept that a problem is there.” – Esperance Munganyinka

In some ways, each one of us has it easier than the others. In some ways, each one of us has it harder. We find it essential to stand for each other—to join together for a cause.

My time in Rwanda has taught me many things, but this is one that I’m just now realising—the value of allies. The inevitability of each person having some unique aspect of identity that puts them in need of someone to stand with them.

The simple yet elusive truth that each of us needs allyship in a different way.

“What people want is for other people to not be afraid of their diversity (but not be stupid). . . to walk into the world with them.” – Claire Pennington

For many, it is political. For many others, it is personal. For all of us—no matter our identities, no matter our diversities, whether in Rwanda or America or anywhere else—it is vital.

So today, stand with someone. Stand for someone. And maybe find someone who stands with you and tell them thank you.