Kia ora friends! Today I want to korero on support: or rather, why even in marginalised communities, the most unsupportive folk are often our own.
I love the show Brooklyn Nine Nine, not least because of its unproblematic portrayal of discrimination, racism and sexism in the workplace and police force. So, it’s disappointing to see that black actor Terry Crews has made multiple statements this year dismissing BIPOC, including his former co-star of AGT Gabrielle Union, the Black Lives Matter Movement and more.
As frustrating as this is, this situation - where mass media or even in private conflict, upholds a minority person who seemingly disagrees with their own, in order to weaponise them - is pretty common. In more simple terms, people LOVE to say ‘but my black friend disagrees with the protests’ or ‘my Aboriginal mate doesn’t care about Sorry Day’ or ‘My sister thinks that feminism is crap’. I’m sure you’ve heard, or maybe used this before, yes?
I’ve written a lot about the Model Minority myth, which I encourage you to read, so I thought this Terry Crews situation is an opening for us to discuss this with more nuance.
In short, the Model Minority Myth is upholding an uncommonly exceptional minority person as a target or standard for all minority people. The problem is, is that those Model Minority figures have often a) benefited from their proximity to whiteness/patriarchy and b) been forced to assimilate in order to survive. Thus, one is deliberately withholding, and not comparing like with like.
For example, Barack Obama is a model minority, becoming the first black USA president. He was also raised in a middle-class area mostly by a highly educated white mother with a strong, supportive family and a mixed middle-class safe community, which enabled him to find internships, attend Harvard Law School and enter society with some level of privilege and safety. It is common, but deeply unfair, to compare Obama with black children experiencing violence and poverty, saying ‘if he can do it, they have no excuse not to!’.
I encourage you to read more of my or other work to gain an understanding of how the Model Minority Myth functions.
Let’s return to Terry Crews. One of the most popular comedy tropes and media designations of BIPOC men, is ‘giant scary black man who subverts expectations by being sensitive and emotional’ or the ‘gentle giant’. Think - Terry Crews himself, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Jason Momoa, Shaquille O’Neal. I could write on how bizarre it is that for the ‘majority’ of Western audiences this trope of ‘BIPOC men are scary/violent/aggressors’ is so ingrained into our subconscious assumption, that as soon as we see a black man cry, dance, play with his children or enjoy yoghurt, we find it comedic. Who knew! BIPOC men are people too!
Crews, a former linebacker who by his own description was ‘sweeping floors’ after his football career ended, has instead found career success, wealth and safety first by his black physicality (remember him as an Old Spice guy?), then by playing ‘scary, muscly, sexualised black men who have comedically sensitive feelings’ including his character as loving dad in Brooklyn Nine-Nine and singing along to A Thousand Miles in Wayans’ comedy White Chicks. In every way, Terry is a model minority. He has stepped into, and excelled in, the space created and the expectations set for him, without challenging ever them or trying to be himself outside of those structures, and benefited from that. In doing so, Terry has been awarded a level of visibility, financial abundance and safety that is not often accessible by other young black men in society and in this instance, black women in the same industry (read Gabrielle Union, who experienced racist discrimination while working alongside Terry on America’s Got Talent).
The point I’m trying to get at here is that Terry Crews became a Model Minority by playing along to the dominant expectations of his behaviour, looks and choices. The reason that Terry succeeded where, perhaps, other similar young, black, footballers-turned-actors may not, is specifically because he did what was demanded of people who looked like him, by the dominant (that is, white) majority.
It can be hard for model minority people at times to conceptualise or admit how much they have benefited from privilege rather than just their own effort or talent. To call someone a Model Minority isn’t to say that they haven’t worked hard, rather, it’s identifying what makes up the difference between minorities who do succeed and find safety, legitimacy and social status and those who do not. More often than not, that difference is not in how hard they work but in their proximity to privilege. I have no doubt that Terry is a dedicated, hard-working and talented comedic actor, but nevertheless one who has benefited from media industry contacts, educated, diverse and established showrunners and film producers from Andy Samberg to the Wayans family.
So when Terry makes harmful, dismissive statements that ‘he didn’t experience racism at AGT’ (despite Gabrielle Union, a black woman, asserting otherwise), or that ‘all lives matter and BLM sounds like a black supremacy movement’, he’s not speaking as a representative of the majority of BIPOC, he’s speaking as someone who has been sheltered by his relative privilege by playing a Model Minority role. He’s made his career doing exactly what he was told to do, to make a buck, because there weren’t any other options. To challenge that would be to potentially threaten his good standing as a model minority with his agents, employers and audience that ensure that Terry has income, a house and relative safety as a visible black man in the USA. For Terry to even see or admit that, for example, racism was prevalent at AGT would be to say ‘I was treated better than Gabrielle Union because I behaved like a good little performer and just took whatever I was given (whereas Gabrielle challenged use of blackface and prioritised her own health e.g. by asking staff not to smoke inside), I looked in the other direction at injustice, also because I’m a man with higher social currency in the toxic hierarchy of male-dominated media’. Can you see why that’s a self-reflection that this Model Minority man would want to avoid?
This is why, especially in terms of intersectional feminism amongst women and within BIPOC communities, we have our own micro-challenge of addressing toxic patriarchy or racism stemming from our model minority figures. It’s not as simple as ‘stand up for your own’, it involves working through one’s self-identity as someone who has benefited from privilege, taking into consideration how different life may have been without that privilege.
As a white-passing woman of colour, I know that I have benefited hugely from proximity to whiteness and privilege going all the way back to childhood and schooling, especially in direct comparison to Aboriginal and Pacific Islanders in my cohort. So when I reflect on my ‘success’, I know that it’s not just my own hard work but also the privilege of not being excluded. Even now, almost half of my audience and client base is white and indeed many are men. This gives me a responsibility to educate, lead and advocate specifically because I can access these people in ways that many other BIPOC cannot, and also because as a white-passing person, I am privy to what people do and say and enforce when they don’t realise a BIPOC is around. One thing that I - and Terry Crews, and any other Model Minority, cannot ever do - is use that privilege as a weapon against other marginalised people by dismissing their voices.
Model minorities are often deliberately exceptionalised, not to inspire or learn from, but to weaponise them against any dissent. Make no mistake, this is used to shut up marginalised people, to dismissed their lived and proven experiences, and to create division within their own communities. One of our core needs as human beings is to feel safe and for many model minority people to admit that their friends, employers or even family have only accepted them on the basis of their performing correctly and doing what they’re told, is too frightening and destabilising to even think about. This is exactly why we have black men like Terry Crews, or anti-feminist women or even, within our own families, BIPOC elders who verbalise anti-blackness. It’s frustrating and disappointing, but it’s also helpful. It reflects back to us an area that is in need of change, a situation or a dynamic that has grown old and no longer fits.
The work continues, on personal and public levels. The first step, for many, is challenging the Model Minority Myth.