Preconceived Notions

So while perusing some tweets last night, I stumbled across an interesting post on the blog, Feministe, authored by Captain Awkward entitled “Step into My Film School! The Importance of Casting in Breaking Open Movie Stereotypes” (link below). The title alone drew me in, so I clicked on the link to read more and what I discovered is that although subliminally I know race inequality still exists in television/film roles, I never thought about how I, as an individual may contribute to perpetuating this systemic problem by what I choose to watch. Let me explain, the author of this post is a film teacher and has casted films before, she challenges her first-year film students “…to understand what happens to a story when actual human beings inhabit your characters, and the way they can inspire storytelling.” She goes on to describe a ‘small’ experiment she does with her first-year film students each year:  students pull from a diverse (age, gender, race, size) file of head-shots provided by her, and then take a few minutes to make up a story about them. What she discovered was a trend with all of her students, no matter their ethnic background, each had a stereotypical response to this experiment. For instance white males tended to always identify their actor as being a main character, non-white males tended to identify their characters as some kind of sidekick/friend, terrorist, drug dealer and non-white women tended to identify themselves as friend or girlfriend. Now I’m in no way saying that this experiment means that everybody who casts a movie is always casting to these stereotypes, but what the author illustrates is how we all subconsciously have a first impression that is of course based on our own life experiences. In a nutshell, none of us can act as if we don’t have preconceived notions about others and this is of course not only evident in film school, and in real-life casting situations, but it also colors the way we treat each other in our ‘regular’ daily routines. I know I struggle with this and I work for a global educational organization that tests my preconceived notions daily. This article is well-worth a reading and has made me revisit the idea of ‘diversity training’. If you haven’t noticed, diversity training is a professional buzzword that has been around for quite a bit and is touted often in human resources but is not taught. I worry more about the person who says he/she has no preconceived notion than those who can admit their own shortcomings. A good way of airing these things out, in a respectful manner, is to have a mediator start a discussion in a safe space (no judgment, can’t take what was discussed out of the room) and create an innocent scenario, like the afore-mentioned film teacher Captain Awkward. These types of exercises are great to challenge the status-quo and force each individual to look inwards. I was challenged on this level in college. I grew up in rural/suburbia Maryland where my parents, exposed me to the richness of my Black heritage, and my mother taught me and my siblings about Jewish, Russian, Mexican, Japanese and African cultures to name a few. What I was not exposed to (so I thought at the time) in my small town, home , and Catholic college prep school was homosexuality and so I went merrily off to college with a homophobic perspective. I was stunned by my first run in with a flamboyantly gay man and was good for saying F*g this and F*g that until one day, a female freshman approached me and said, “I’m not gay, but I’m offended by your constant use of the word F*g and I wish you wouldn’t use it!” Well I was taken aback and at the time, had a mildly derisive private laugh at her opening line, “I’m not gay, but…”  Typically that’s a sign of one’s own insecurity to make a statement with a lead-in like that, but I am someone who can take criticism, sit on it and ponder and that’s what I did. After thinking about it, I was like, “What do I care? Why would I not get to know someone based off of their sexuality? What makes this person different from me and what makes me think I’m better than them?” After mulling over all these questions I realized I was the one missing out on gaining new friends and experiences. In retrospect I am so glad this then-girl now-woman/wife/mother challenged my narrow-minded ways, which I came by honest. In the end, we are a conglomeration of all of our experiences and choose how we will expand our horizons because of or in spite of them.

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