race, clones, and disguises

As usual, I have finally gotten to that bit of pop culture that everyone else got to ages ago and is probably totally over. This time, it’s Orphan Black. I watched the entire first season in about three days because it’s absolutely captivating and addictive, and the damn good writers end every episode with a true cliffhanger.

Discussions of great acting and cool storytelling aside, there are two things about the show that have especially made me think.

One is race and the zeitgeist of white tears, white feelings, and whites being all, “I’m not racist; I have a Mexican friend.” The other is race and stories more broadly.

First: Allison. Nothing made me more excited than when they revealed her kids to be black, or mixed black and something*. Then they showed her husband, Donnie, and I was like, hmmm. I didn’t know whether to be sad that she didn’t have a black husband or excited that adoption was such a non-issue that all they needed to do was show her kids and then once have her ask offhand if Sarah’s daughter was adopted, too. I was a little like, “omg because adoption is THAT normal? Awesome!” and then it turned out that it’s because clones are supposed to be sterile. But still. It’s never been brought up again, because it’s more important that Allison is a soccer mom harboring a serious substance abuse addiction but who loves her kids because they’re her kids, period.

Then you get the episode where Victor accosts her, thinking she’s Sarah. So Allison calls Sarah and tries to describe whom she just encountered.

“He was …urban.”
“What does that mean?”
“….Not white.”

This, I feel, is the perfect illustration of white cognitive dissonance when it comes to race. The zeitgeist these days is that discussions of race must take into account white guilt and white feelings, not real, literal attacks on people of color driven by and validated by systemic racism.

You may have read that “I, Racist” article by John Metta, in which he concisely describes this:

She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.

There’s no discussion to be had on the show in this moment, because it’s not really relevant to the urgency of the actual plot, but I do love that Sarah rolls her eyes at Allison’s terminology, and I like to think she absolutely gets how ridiculous it is to raise black children but also use that term when describing Victor, who I guess is Latino? (I feel more and more terrible all the time about how little I know about Canadian life and cultural identity.) It’s a great little moment that actually shows quite a lot of nuanced thought on the part of the show’s writers. And I appreciate that.

Second, and this is a personal axe I’ve been wanting to grind ever since I watched Alias a decade ago: why do only white people get to wear disguises ever?

Watch any show or movie about a secret agent or on-the-run criminal who needs to change her hair and look frequently, and it’s always a white girl. Obviously that’s because it’s mostly ever a white girl in any female role. But it’s also another example of cognitive dissonance.

White people love to point out that all people of a race look alike. They love to compare any person of color they meet to the single celebrity of that same race (as a “compliment,” I guess?) even though that reveals absolute blindness as to, I dunno, face shape? Features? Hairstyle? And on and on… I’ve also said more than once that they are literally blind and ignorant as to the definition of “dark” when it comes to humans. So if that were the case, wouldn’t it make sense to have people of color in disguises all the time, if white people are So Distinct and PoC all look The Same?

I would love to be a secret agent. Err, I would like to see one who looks like me.**

Tatiana Maslany is fucking brilliant in her role. Talented beyond imagining. I truly believe that I am watching 8 or whatever different women in different roles. But it is doubtful that any actresses of color would have been even considered for that part, because the idea that a black woman or Asian woman or Latina woman can look like anything except uppity/hard, demure/dorky, or sexy/subservient*** respectively is so ingrained that chameleons or nuance are unfathomable.

*Amended after watching more episodes to say that I don’t actually know what type of PoC those kids are, but they’re not white.

**First person to pull a “I’m not racist; my best friend is black” by pointing out the black guy who was on Alias gets punched in the face. He was disguised like twice and was not the protagonist of the show.

***Yes, there’s danger in a single story, but there are really two stories. But that’s still fewer than the MANY that white actors can choose from.


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