seeing myself on tv

Priyanka, a drag queen on Canada’s Drag Race. she describes her heritage as Indo-Caribbean. in this photo, Priyanka is wearing a blue and gold sari with one leg exposed, her black hair is styled big and parted on the side into two perfect asymmetrical swooshes. i cannot describe fashion, unfortunately. but she’s gorgeous!! Photo from RuPaul’s Drag Race Wiki, uploaded by AlexanderRous.

Even before the pandemic, television has always been my favorite form of visual media. I worked three jobs through college and was well known for falling asleep during movies. I enjoyed the theater and acted in a few small plays. I had a favorite improv troupe (it was the early 2000s). I didn’t have cable growing up. My home movie repertoire included Blockbuster rentals and sunday movies of the week. My family watched a lot of TV together.

My cultural heritage is Mexican and Sri Lankan. Growing up, it was rare to see people who looked like me. TV in the 1990s and 2000s might contain a single person of color in an otherwise-white cast. Shows that were more diverse were often the niche.

I’ve spent most of the year indoors due to the pandemic. This means I’ve been watching a lot of TV. My tastes now branch out into many genres. I’m starting to see more people who look like me, who grew up like me. Here are a few that have caught my eye recently.

Never Have I Ever: remixing stereotypes
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Devi, the main character on the show Never Have I Ever. The actor is Sri Lankan, but Devi is an awkward Indian high school sophomore. She lives with her mother Nalini and cousin Kamala after the death of her father. Nalini’s mannerisms remind of so many aunties I’ve known in my life. Devi, too, is like a lot of the family friends I had growing up: very smart, but also pretty weird.

There was a “color blind” take prevalent among proto-woke white writers in a lot of 90s media. People challenged themselves by taking a white character and casting them as Black. A Black character dealing with white stories the way a white person would. It loses all the richness that comes from having characters with varied backgrounds. People are not interchangable, and neither are their stories.

I love that Devi could be in the background of another show, a naive, too-intelligent foil to a white kid. Instead, this is her show. One episode centers on the family celebrating Ganesh Puja. There’s so much story that is possible there, rather than another bake sale setting. Devi’s stories are interesting enough to stand on their own.

Monarca: know your audience
As a millennial with a borrowed HBO login, I loved watching the dripping excess of Succession. But I was not prepared to enjoy the show I compared it to: Monarca. It’s centered on a family of media conglomerate and tequila billionaires in Mexico. After the murder of their father, Ana María, Andrés, and Joaquin vie for his empire’s throne. The stories of an all-Mexican family of elites don’t play the way they do on Succession, or even Arrested Development. There’s intrigue, betrayal, and drama.

They also bypass the they’re-Mexican-but-always-speak-English trope of some US show. Though it’s a Netflix-owned series, Monarca is set in Mexico and films in Spanish. I’m glad they can find crossover success while retaining what makes them unique.

Priyanka on Canada’s Drag Race: why diversity is important behind the camera
Priyanka is a drag queen on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race. More than 150 queens have been on the many different series in the show’s universe. Priyanka is only the second person of Indian heritage to appear. It wasn’t until she appeared that I realized I had been missing more brown people in the Drag Race pantheon.

But Canada matches the Pacific Northwest bill for its whiteness. When Priyanka competed in the category Pageant Perfection, she dressed in a modern take on a blue and gold sari. Priyanka says her inspiration was her grandmother. She wanted to bring a Bollywood-style beauty to her performance. The judges, instead, raved over what they called her Princess Jasmine look. It served as a reminder that even when we stand out, we do so through the lens of a dominant culture.

There is so much TV coming out these days, it’s about time that media started to look like different people. BIPOC stars can still flounder when they’re written for and directed by an all-white crew.

I didn’t grow up with these shows, but I’m glad that they exist now. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

like a hammer

a video by Jeffrey Gibson called ‘one becomes the other’. the film is set in the Denver Art Museum. Indigenous people in ceremonial dress populate the film, examining artifacts on display throughout the museum and in the archives. I’m fascinated by the racist juxtaposition of what I perceive as “ancient” meeting the “modern” setting of the museum. But as the people demonstrate in every frame, they are very much alive. this culture lives on, despite the best attempts of the dominant culture in the united states.

Jeffrey Gibson’s exhibition Like a Hammer was on display at the Seattle Art Museum last spring. It’s one of the rare exhibits I’ve gone to see more than once. (Another fave was Gordon Parks’ Segregation Story at the High Museum). The exhibition space on the last night of the show was buzzing with energy. A person wearing a shirt that read “Indigiqueer and still here” caught my eye.

One of Jeffrey Gibson’s pieces is a video called On the Other Hand (above). Kealey Boyd at hyperallergic says, “The film is set in the Native American archives and art storage of the Denver Art Museum. We see a man speaking Kiowa pick up a hand drum from a shelf and begin to play. A woman in a long, white dress with colorful patterns enters the halls, dancing in time.”

The video moves me because it is both modern and historical. People with indigenous ancestry handle artifacts that once sat in someone’s home. At what precise moment does an item shift from “everyday object” to “artifact”? Set in a museum’s archives, the video also made me think about these pieces as art. I compared them to what American culture is used to seeing in museums: baroque paintings, snuff boxes, marble sculptures. Someone owned these priceless paintings before they landed in a museum. The cards nearby often state the former owner or the fact that it is a gift. What do these Indigenous artifacts say about their owners? Did they give these items in the same way?

The stereotypical Native American war bonnet is a classic example of cultural appropriation. An item worn by male leaders in some Plains Indian tribes is now divorced from its original intents. Now, colonizers wear it at outdoor festivals and halloween parties. We call it cultural appropriation because it’s stolen. It’s used without permission. It’s used without respect, by a person who has no connection to the object’s origin.

For me, an important component of cultural appropriation is profit. Another is power. Another is context. Rick Bayless took medium-low heat for making his fortune on mass-produced Mexican recipes. He argues that his knowledge of Mexican culture justifies his profit. But as many critics have pointed out to him, a white man in Oklahoma is likelier to receive a business loan. His family supported him while he spent his teenage years studying Mexican cuisine. He had to learn these recipes and techniques from experts in the field. But what happened to those teachers? What happened to the restaurant that inspired Taco Bell?

What I find interesting about Jeffrey Gibson’s work is his remix of cultures. The beadwork on punching bags links his heritage with that of his oppressors. With his art, he creates new artifacts for a culture that never went away.

i made you dinner!

a cropped photo of Sanamluang Thai diner in north Hollywood. part of a neon sign is visible on the restaurant’s facade. a circular open sign in neon hangs on a window.

“Hey, you should come over for dinner,” I say in kind of an abrupt way. It’s the after-times, when the pandemic is over, but it was the first time it started to feel like the before-times.

“That’d be great! What’s the occasion?” You ask.

I give you a placid, friendly smile. “I wanted to do something nice for you. I know you’ve had a rough time recently, and I thought I could do a little something to help you out.”

“That’s so nice, thank you!” Your mood brightens. “Sure, I’d love to come.”

“Oh that’s great!” I say. “So what kinds of food do you like to eat?”

You give an exaggerated sigh and fan your face dramatically. “It’s been so hot recently! I’ve been eating a lot of summer meals, you know? Cool weather foods. Salads, fresh vegetables, things like that.”

“Oh, that’s perfect,” I say, nodding with enthusiasm. “I love those. Okay, so I’ll make a beef stew.”

Your expression flashes to puzzled, then shifts to cockeyed. Is this a joke?
“That’s…” you stammer.

I interrupt you with, “Okay, great! See you tomorrow at 3 PM for dinner!”

This very scripted example is how some organizations build their programs. We cook up an amazing meal, something we ourselves might like to eat. We spend the day buying groceries, putting the placemats justso. And for all our good intentions, we spend countless dollars and effort doing the wrong things. And why should we go through all the trouble of making someone dinner when the end result is stew? (if you love stew, this example won’t make sense to you).

Why do we seek the voice of the customer?
We don’t know what people need. We often must take educated guesses when we build programs. But rarely do we have such intimate knowledge of the problem that we craft the perfect solution. If we’re going to put the work into doing something, we should make sure that it’s wanted.

If I want to make you dinner but I don’t care what you like, there’s a slim chance you won’t like it. Some people will love it (some people love stew!), but others will hate it or be non-plussed.

It takes work to involve people. It can slow down our timelines, but arbitrary deadlines are another trap we fall in. But if I’m going to go through the trouble of making you dinner, why not make it something you want? Why isn’t it worth it to take the time to get to know you?

lived experience is not enough

building a better board

a photo of a forest on the Rattlesnake Ledge trail. tall straight evergreens cover the image as wide and as far away as the eye can see. the sky is a bright white with a slight yellow tint. one can see a small green patch of brush in the foreground that continues off camera. i love the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. anyway, i chose this picture because if you want to build a better board, you’ll need a good stand of trees. that’s it, that’s the joke.

Board members are almost never the ones using the services their organization provides. Some may have lived experience: they experienced first-hand the problems their non-profit aims to solve. While some people dream of a board full of lived experience, lived experience is not enough. Instead, we should want people who currently need our non-profits to be the ones who lead them.

In an ideal world, a board is a representative group of owners that emphasizes current lived experience. You could have a mix of current and past lived experience if the board is exclusively made of these two groups. These board members would consult with each other and their communities. Their collaboration would define the goals and end statements in our strategic plan.

lived experience is not enough

There’s an old joke about the non-profits who exist to end poverty. If you want to end poverty, the joke goes, give money to people in poverty. But the COVID response is showing that… this is actually true. Instead, we dream up countless programs that treat poverty like a problem we have to sneak up on. We aim to lift our neighbors out of traps we can’t see, but that they can define with sublime precision.

I struggled to make ends meet while I was in college. That experience is real, and true to me. But it doesn’t tell me about the problems that someone else in my shoes might face today. Instead, my lived experience should serve to remind me that when I was in need, I knew what I needed.

People who are currently struggling have experience and expertise that outweighs our own. Their ideas will be more relevant to current state and the environment where they live. We’re not the ones experiencing poverty, so why would we look to ourselves for the solutions?

the trap of advisory boards

Now we agree that it helps to have people with current lived experience call the shots. The next pitfall is tokenizing those people. Sometimes that tokenization manifests as an advisory board. These groups have “board” in their name, but they’re more like focus groups. Most advisory boards serve to consult on or tweak the best ideas that we come up with. At their worst, we use them to rubber-stamp the ideas that we had without their involvement.

Other times, that tokenization shows up as an “honorary” board membership. One person with current lived experience joins the board as a kind of special envoy. First off, this forces a single person to represent a vast diaspora of situations and needs. This can bog us down with the very different needs of that token board member. That person can’t afford to take time off work: we should pay them for their time. But nobody else on the board gets that compensation. It feels weird to pay only one person. The person can’t raise thousands for the organization: okay, so they don’t have to. But that’s a responsibility the rest of the board has. These contribute to a dynamic of a “real” board that sits alongside the “token” member. It’s hard to get this dynamic right while making their participation meaningful.

The approaches above are all missing the obvious: we have power that we should entrust to people who need it. We must create a space for people to articulate and actualize their own needs. We need to create a structure that gives outsized power to the people we serve. We need to create a structure that moves people in need past consultation and into ideation.

building it better

There are plenty of resources on how to build a board with a community-driven governance model. But there’s actually an easier way. Take a regular board, and an advisory board. Then swap the titles!

Now, your regular board is nothing but people with lived experience. Pay them for their time. Pay for their childcare. Make sure they have what they need to attend all the meetings. Invest actual decision-making power within this body. Recruit people who are Black and Indigenous. Add other people of color. Look for a range of geographic and cultural diversity. Ask these board members to engage others in board recruitment.

And over on the advisory board, you have your industry experts. Advisory board members would bring needed corporate, non-profit, and fundraising experience. Consult with them on the ideas generated by the board. They can help operationalize the actual stated needs of the community. The advisory board would have more time to fundraise, network, and dig into the mission. This group would learn so much from your board members. Make that happen!

in the meantime

It’s of course not enough to create an advisory board and call it “the board.” You first have to acknowledge that a standard board structure doesn’t work. How many non-profits have closed because they solved the problem? Not a lot of them! We can look to smaller steps on the path to a true community-run board. Start by recruiting people from a local speakers bureau. Speakers bureaus train people with lived experience to speak about their experience. They also establish a compensation structure that the speakers have already agreed to. It’s often less than what they’re worth; speakers, too, do this work as a labor of love.

Recognize that your community already has many of the tools and ideas they need to succeed. What holds back so many people is not ideas, but money, power, and the ability to fail and try again.

We have the power to reject the dynamic of a disconnected or out-of-touch board. We can create something better. We can let the true experts lead the way.