'I'm a White Girl': Why 'Girls' Won't Ever Overcome Its Racial Problem

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Lena Dunham's latest well-intentioned disappointment suggests a cultural impasse over white writers portraying characters of color.

lena dunham girls donald glover.jpg
HBO

Responding last year to viewers who denounced the lack of racial diversity on HBO's Girls, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, told NPR, "I take that criticism very seriously... As much as I can say [writing four white main characters] was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, 'I hear this and I want to respond to it." She did just that in Sunday night's episode, choosing not only to cast African-American Community star Donald Glover as her character Hannah Horvath's new boyfriend, but also to address the issue of race as it manifests itself in their relationship.

Glover's Sandy made his first appearance in the Season 2 premiere. A handsome, easygoing, responsible law student who doesn't go in for the awkward sex and excruciating mind games of Hannah's most recent ex, Adam, he has only one flaw (or what passes for a flaw among 20-somethings in Brooklyn): He's a Republican. His political orientation barely comes up in the premiere, but Hannah's roommate, Elijah, thrusts it to the fore in Sunday's episode, picking a fight with Sandy in the bathroom over his presumed opposition to same-sex marriage. Before the credits roll, Hannah is using his soft-spoken conservatism as an excuse to break up with him—although, in true Girls fashion, what's really bothering her is his dislike of a personal essay she's given to him to read.

It's in the midst of their final argument that Hannah and Sandy find themselves yelling at each other about race. "I also would love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men," she says. "Wow, Hannah. I didn't know that. Thank you for enlightening me that things are tougher for minorities," he shoots back. Soon, he's mocking her for exoticizing him—"'Oh, I'm a white girl and I moved to New York and I'm having a great time and I got a fixed gear bike and I'm gonna date a black guy and we're gonna go to a dangerous part of town,'" he scoffs. "And then they can't deal with who I am"—and she's feebly turning around the accusation on him. "The joke's on you, because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once," Hannah says when it's clear the breakup is really happening, despite the fact that she's the one who introduced race into the conversation. "That's insane." Sandy tells her. "You should, because that's what I am." By the time he asks Hannah to leave, both have admitted they don't feel good about what they've said to each other. The viewer at home, witnessing such shrewdly observed yet ultimately unresolved racial and political tension, is bound to feel just as rattled.

It's a credit to Dunham and the episode's writer, Jenni Konner, that the scene is so unsettling. If they had responded to the controversy over Girls and race by quietly casting a famous black actor and pretending nothing more needed to be said, they might have looked just as naïve as Hannah, who claims not to see race because she's in denial about her own prejudices. Instead, they accompanied their tacit apology with a moment that challenged not only their own and their characters' privilege, but, in its deconstruction of what has come to be known as "hipster racism," that of the show's core audience. Although self-awareness pervades Dunham's work, it was surprising to see such insight from Girls on this particular topic.

Unfortunately, one great exchange does not a truly diverse TV show (or authentic portrait of New York City) make. And while there do seem to be more non-white faces in Girls' party scenes this year, Sandy is still the only character of color who plays a substantial part in any of the season's first four episodes. As she did with the controversial nannies Jessa attempts to liberate in Season 1, and despite the fact that Sandy at least occupies a similar social milieu to the characters, Dunham continues to cast non-white actors only when race defines their character—which is to say, she still doesn't get it.

But let's stop considering Dunham's case in isolation. She's hardly the only white writer or director who has recently been called out for not getting it. Last year, such venerated cultural figures as Quentin Tarantino and Michael Chabon both sparked debate -- not because they excluded characters of color, but because they placed them at the center of their works and represented their experience in ways some found problematic. In a piece defending Chabon's right to write from the perspective of an African-American man, as he does in his 2012 novel, Telegraph Avenue, Tanner Colby noted how many of the book's reviewers expressed discomfort with aspects of his portrayal. The controversy surrounding Tarantino's Django Unchained, meanwhile, has rivaled the Girls debate in intensity. The story of a serendipitously liberated slave's spectacularly violent quest to find and free his wife, its high-profile detractors include Spike Lee, who called it "disrespectful to my ancestors."

If white artists don't portray characters of color, they're whitewashing; if they do, they're appropriating or misrepresenting. That both criticisms are valid makes it even harder to imagine a way forward.

Taken together, the endless arguments over Dunham, Tarantino, and Chabon in the past year suggest that American culture has reached an impasse—and developed something of an obsession—when it comes to white artists portraying characters of color. If they don't, they're whitewashing; if they do, they're appropriating or misrepresenting. That the criticisms on both fronts are, in large part, not only valid but crucial makes it even more difficult to imagine a way forward.

What Dunham's latest well-intentioned disappointment makes clear is that it will never be enough for white writers to simply try harder in their depictions of non-white characters. Some may produce keenly observed, authentic-feeling portrayals, but even those who have spent their whole lives surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds will never know first-hand what it's like to be a person of color in America. They will never respond to Django Unchained in quite the same way as Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay. Those who don't get it will, for the most part, continue to not get it. The truth, distasteful as it may be to those who imagine that we live in a "post-racial" era or believe it's small-minded to apply identity politics to art, is that we still haven't reached a point in our history at which the discrepancies between the way people of different races (or genders or religions or sexual orientations) experience life are negligible.

The solution isn't to prohibit white writers from depicting non-white characters, or to require them to do so. Along with holding these famous names accountable for offensive representations, the US cultural mainstream desperately needs to make more space for writers and directors of color. Arguably more troubling than any of Django's content is the convincing case David Sirota made that a black director would not even have been allowed to make a big-budget film about a former slave slaughtering slave owners.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued that Dunham would be better off sticking to her "authentic self" than adding non-white characters that aren't true to her life. He may be right, and in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren't part of her elite world shouldn't have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she's been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it's the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.

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