Race, Media, and the Elephant in my Room

The following is a stream of consciousness written from ten to eleven-thirty pm at a time when i was close to exhaustion and mostly wallowing in uncomfortable emotions. I wrote this to get some stuff out of my head that’s been following me around like a storm cloud for the past several years. Other than a brief SPaG run through it has not been edited. I’m posting it here because getting everything out was cathartic and I think putting it up for others to read will also help me in some ways. 

For some reason, I’ve found myself randomly reflecting on my racial identity and representation in media and how that’s played into my own self esteem issues that have persisted throughout my life. I can’t personally say that I’ve faced many outside obstacles though I also can’t say with total confidence that I won’t eventually run into problems like that. No, for much of my life, my issue has been an internal one brought on mostly by my family situation.

Growing up I have lived with my white mother and my white grandmother. My relationship with my Mexican father has gone through many stages but I can say without doubt that we’re currently what one would refer to as estranged. That’s not to say I haven’t been without contact with the Mexican half of my family. Throughout most of elementary school I spent my afternoons with my cousins who are also mixed race. For many years, I celebrated Christmas Eve with my paternal grandparents and everyone on that side of the family until the point where I no longer felt comfortable being there. Barring the occasional family gathering where both halves of my family mingle, I don’t keep much in contact with that side anymore.

Labels have also made things difficult. Calling myself Mexican-American has always made me feel weird for reasons I still don’t think I’ve held a good grasp on. But then calling myself simply Caucasian or Mexican/Hispanic wouldn’t feel right either. By officially declaring myself one or the other I’d feel bad that I were ignoring some other part of me just to make things easier on myself or for others benefit. Even if I never felt fully connected with my Mexican roots does that mean I have the right to pretend that part doesn’t exist? Would labeling myself Mexican mean erasing the white mother who raised me for my whole life?

My experiences in life have led to me not liking labels very much. I don’t want to be half/half of something. I don’t want to be hyphenated or boxed into one thing or the other. I certainly don’t want to ignore one half of myself just so I can feel whole as a person but at the same time I feel I have much farther to go when it comes to accepting my racial identity.

And this is where representation in media comes in.

Everyone wants to be able to turn on a TV, read a book, or watch a movie and see themselves as a protagonist or an otherwise major character. I watch Disney Channel from time to time and get commercials for the cartoon Elena of Avalor. Elena is advertised as Disney’s first Latina princess and as much pride as it is to see this happen it’s also bittersweet. Where was this princess when I was growing up, when seeing such a character would have helped me so much?

One might look at representation in media in regards to children and think: “What does it really matter? Do kids really notice or care when there’s no one on TV who looks like them?” There are statistics one can look up that prove that yes there are kids who notice when they’re not represented in the media they consume. However, I honestly can tell you that I didn’t really think much of that when I was child.

I think I knew on some level that there was something missing. I would sit in the family room of my Aunt’s house and Dora the Explorer would be on which is about the only thing I had at the time that would be considered representation. Still, I wouldn’t feel connected to Dora like I might have connected with someone of mixed race. I couldn’t look at Dora and say, “Hey, this girl has a white mom and a Mexican dad just like I do. Isn’t that great?”

How did I really first notice on a conscious level that my childhood was missing the media representation I secretly craved all along? It wasn’t until just a few years ago when the animated Disney movie Big Hero 6 arrived.

For those who don’t know, Big Hero 6 struck up a small controversy when it came to its racebending of characters. Rather than the all Japanese cast of its source material the BH6 movie chose to go a bit more varied in the races of its characters and set up its world as a fusion of Tokyo, Japan and San Francisco, California. This resulted in a main character who was Half-White, Half-Japanese played by an actor of the same.

I can see why people are upset with this change. An animated movie by a one of the biggest animation studios in the world starring a fully Japanese cast? That would have been the biggest fucking opportunity in a world where Japanese characters are getting whitewashed all the time in American adaptions of their source materials. Hell, there’s a major action movie coming this spring that’s gotten a lot of heat for doing just that. I perfectly understand the way people feel about this and I don’t want to begrudge anyone for those feelings.

Yet, at the same time, I’m kind of glad. Just the experience of having a main character be mixed race, even if it wasn’t the perfect match to mine, was an eye-opening moment for me. Here’s what I’d been missing in my life even if I didn’t know it. The opportunity to see someone of established mixed race lead a movie in my preferred medium of entertainment is what I could have used in my life, a validation that wouldn’t have fixed everything but would have helped immensely.

I’m older now and at a point where rather than wait for media that looks like me to arrive perfectly packaged in my lap I want to create it myself and fill it with people who mirror me and others similar to me. I want to create something where a little girl can look at it and say, “Yes, that is me. That is someone who looks like me, who has two parents of different races like me, and isn’t it great that I’m seeing this now when it could make a difference and not years later when I’m still struggling to come to terms with every thing that I am?”

One of the characters I’m working on the moment is in many ways a mirror of me but the fact that she’s of mixed race isn’t a Big Deal. It’s a lot like a dream for me, a world where race doesn’t matter and isn’t made into a Big Deal. She’s White and she’s Mexican but it doesn’t really make a difference story wise but then she’s set in a world where superheros and supervillains are like 9 to 5 jobs so really why would it matter?

Coming to terms with my racial identity means confronting and defeating demons I’m not yet ready to face. I’m not sure I’ll ever truly defeat the beast that has followed me though all my life causing me to doubt every aspect of my life. Hell, my issues with race is just one of the many problems that faze me and not even the biggest issue that keeps me from properly living my life as free as I one day hope to.

There is one thing I know for certain. Even if its too late for me, somewhere is the person like me wondering where she can see herself in the media she consumes. And one day, maybe I can be the one holding the mirror letting her know just where to find exactly that.