Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

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By Thomas Kochman - 02.06.2011

I find that people often dismiss representations of their group not so much because the slice of life portraits are distortions of what goes on for members within their group but because the stories are all too depressingly familiar, something they want to distance themselves from.

When that happens the story becomes less about the facts and more about them.

This is often the case among members of ethnic minority groups and it often surfaces when a book about “their” group becomes a run-away best seller, like “Angela’s Ashes” –one Irish immigrant grandmother said disparagingly after reading it, “For Christ’s sake, I could have written that”.

Likewise, the mixed reactions among the people in Limerick, Ireland.

It especially surfaces around “Oscar” time when nominees are announced for best actor or best film.

In 2009 many African Americans had difficulty with the accolades and awards given to “Precious”, or in 2005, with “Crash”.

The Coen Brother’s movie “A Serious Man,” prompted deep and heated debates among Jews.

An Italian American friend didn’t like the 2010 nominated film “The Fighter”.

Those of us hearing his complaint thought that the dysfunctional (“Italian”, “Irish”) family depicted in the film –especially the mother matriarch in the family— resembled too closely his own family experience.

Members of class or ethnic groups do have an issue, if not a problem, that mainstream members of U.S. society do not have.

The former are seen as members of a group. The latter are seen simply as individuals.

When you’re seen, or see yourself, as a member of a group the stakes are higher.  As an insider, you are socially implicated, for better or worse, by the way members of your group are depicted.

When you see yourself or are seen by others as individuals, then it’s just about you or that other person, not about us.

That makes a difference in which stories are told and how differently insiders and outsiders experience them.

Members of ethnic/tribal groups in U.S. mainstream films, for example, are often portrayed as extremely wise (“The Legend of Bagger Vance”, “The Karate Kid”), exotic/idyllic (“Avatar”), or needy (“The Blind Side”, “Radio”) and/or whose role it is to rescue or be rescued by someone white. Sometimes, their role is double-edged (“The Pursuit of Happyness”, “Dances with Wolves”).

One common denominator is that they, or the situation they’re in, is always very special.

For a story about ordinary people doing things that are simply neurotic or dysfunctional — you know, like people in real life– you typically have to go white and U.S. mainstream.

2 Responses so far

Very well put Tom! I enjoyed this article a great deal and agree with it completely. Kudos!

Very interesting article. This brings rise to the long held “me” versus “them” issue. Most issues arise because of a perceived difference between self and others, a perception that breeds tension. Thanks for sharing!

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