You Don’t Get to Decide Someone Else’s Race

Originally posted on Tumblr on October 16, 2013 as an unedited, stream-of-consciousness piece.

We meet again, Fandom, when it comes to talking about diversity.

The good news is that it’s not Star Wars that is the culprit/subject of this piece today but rather Agents of SHIELD.  To be more specific, it’s some of the viewers and commenters.  I’m not in the mood for flowery language today so we’ll cut right to the chase:

You do not get to decide who counts as white based purely upon what you think they are.

Since Agents of SHIELD started, plenty of people have been quick to note how white the show is with the exception of Ming-Na Wen as Agent Melinda May.  While I am all for more diversity and for calling out shows when they lack it, there’s just one problem here: Agents of SHIELD stars two actresses of color.

I will be the first to admit that Joss Whedon has not been the best about casting a diverse mix of actors in his shows.  Angel was slightly better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the inclusion of Gunn and Dollhouse had both Boyd and Sierra but they were all still overwhelmingly white casts.  And let’s be honest: there’s really no excusing Firefly with its Chinese-American culture fusion and not a single Asian to be found amongst the main cast.  So this is not me being a Whedon apologist.

Actress Chloe Bennet plays Skye, the hacker for Team Coulson.  Bennet, despite what some people on the internet might think, is biracial as her father is Chinese and her mother is American/white.  (She also had a singing career in Beijing which is pretty darn cool.  That girl is incredibly accomplished for being only 21.)  This does, in fact, make her a woman of color.  For those keeping track, this means that a third of the main cast is comprised of Asian women.  While I can grudgingly understand that not everyone looks at her and automatically recognizes that she is biracial, some of the comments that people have made when informed otherwise have been a bit unsettling.  Many of them can be boiled down to “Well, she can pass for white so she doesn’t count towards the ~visual~ diversity of the cast.”

To put it bluntly, this is something that absolutely cuts me to the core.  And this is where we are about to get personal.  I am biracial.  My mother is Chinese and my father is Italian. Judging from my first and last name, you would be unable to tell what my precise racial background is except that I am at least somewhat Italian.  My looks can best be described as racially ambiguous.  (I’ll admit it comes in handy for cosplay.)  There are probably a dozen or so different ethnicities or combinations of ethnicities that I could pass for.  I grew up in an area that wasn’t exactly racially diverse and I was one of the only non-white kids in my school class until high school.  Recently, for my job, I was filling out a form that required me to indicate my race.  Unfortunately, I had to pick from a five options and was unable to indicate that I was biracial.  When the woman helping me with the form called to ask for guidance, the sage advice she was given was as follows: ask her which she’d rather put down or look at her and put which ever one she looks more like.  Essentially I was being asked to dismiss one side of my heritage or to be judged upon someone else’s assumptions. (For the record, when we asked other people in the office to guess what they thought I might ethnically be just for the fun of it, the answers I got were Hispanic, Filipino, and a blank stare.  Neither is correct.)  Both sides of my heritage are incredibly important to me and being greeted with something like this absolutely floored me.

Seeing Chloe Bennet, a woman whose is not only of a similar racial background but who is also very close to my age, in Agents of SHIELD is a huge deal to me.  I find it quite difficult to think of many actors or characters who were biracial in the media I consumed in my childhood.  Getting Mulan as a Disney Princess was a pretty huge deal.  She was one of the only positive role models I had growing up who looked like me.  It would’ve been awesome though to see more people on TV or in films who looked like me or even more diversity in general.  After all, studies have shown that there is correlation between television exposure and self-esteem depending on a person’s race and another study that shows that kids definitely notice when people who look like them are either not represented or are shown as being less important.  And trust me, although you might not have been able to tell that Chloe is half-Chinese, I (and likely many others) definitely could because years of being one of the only half-Asians I knew meant that I got very good at spotting a fellow hapa at a hundred paces.  To have her racial background dismissed simply because someone doesn’t see it is painfully inappropriate and downright wrong.  It’s also problematic because that means viewers are approaching everything from a white-default.  In other words, because a person assumes that the default race is white in media, that person assumes that all the characters are white unless smacked in the face with information otherwise.  (Sadly, that is a much bigger problem than just this show.)

Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone and I would never try to do so.  My particular experiences as a half-Asian woman of color are unique to me and I certainly haven’t had to deal with much of the racism that many people of color who (to again be blunt) look less white than I do have had to deal with but for me?  Seeing Chloe Bennet on the screen every week is both incredibly important to me and incredibly inspiring.

I’m going to wrap this up before I go on for another page but what it boils down to is this: continue to be vocal about the need for more diversity in media but do not dismiss diversity that is already present simply because she “looks white” to you or you think that she “can pass”.  If you need an explanation for why dismissing Chloe from the diversity count because she can pass as white is problematic, I invite you to crack an American history book some time.  If you make a mistake about her ethnicity, that’s fine but admit your mistake and don’t try and downplay her because somewhere out there?  Someone is quietly saying to themselves, “Wow, that girl looks like me and she’s working with SHIELD!” and that?  That is everything.

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