Last night I started rewatching a show that I was a causal fan of during high school. I hadn’t seen the first few seasons in a really long time so finding out they were on Netflix was really nice! But rewatching the first season has been really awful, especially since many of the episodes focus solely on terrorism and many of the foiled terrorists are from the Middle East or of Middle Eastern descent.
I ended up texted a friend about my frustration and anger regarding this representation because so far in my marathon, there’s been exactly one reoccurring person of color in the cast and he’s an assistant who barely talks and didn’t have a name until the second or third episode (if I recall). (And if knowledge serves me right, he gets replaced by another white man late on – I know it’s so shocking.)
I could go into depth about generalizing and representing an entire group of people into one homogenous stereotype but for the sake of clarity and for me to not get completely sidetracked at the moment, that’ll be for another day.
So during the middle of my texting rant, my friend responded with the fact that the show started in 2003 and the writers were just “being of the times”. This response only made me want to even more tables in frustration because that’s not a justification for what happened. That’s an explanation for the racist bullshit that occurs but that doesn’t mean people are suddenly exempt from not being shitty.
I’ve been trying to think of the best way to articulate why this idea that the problematic nature of different things is okay because of historical context is so frustrating. A part of it has to do with the fact that this idea also seems to imply (to me at least) that the US has gotten better about racism when in reality, it really doesn’t matter. Mychal Denzel Smith wrote how the question of whether or not we’re better in regards to racism is actually pretty useless, saying among other things that:
…I truly believe “Are things better?” is one of the most useless questions in a discussion about racism. It’s another in a repertoire of rhetorical tricks we use in this country to avoid the hard work of addressing racism in its modern form. By reframing the conversation around how much progress has been made, we further the false narrative that racism is a problem that belongs to history. While we pat ourselves on the back for not being as horrible as we once were, we allow racism to become further entrenched in every aspect of American life.
And I think that’s what really articulates my frustration with using the phrase “being of the times” as far as racism goes. Because it removes all sense of responsibility to own up to shitty past behavior and places blame on context. Noah Berlatsky wrote about the ‘product of its time’ defense is no excuse for both sexism and racism, saying in particular that:
…the idea that sexism or racism is “a product of its time” assumes that the past was self-evidently worse than the present, that culture progresses in some sort of straight-line fashion, and that we can therefore assume that folks now are smarter and more enlightened than folks in the past. This is unduly flattering to the present, which has by no means overcome prejudice or stereotype.