I can't stand when legendary comedians complain about the state of political correctness in the world. I grimace every time I read or see Jerry Seinfeld or John Cleese complain about how they can't even play colleges anymore. Complaining that colleges are too sensitive is like complaining that the library is too quiet. What did you think was going on there in the first place? Their complaints always miss the point of what's happening today in our age of safe spaces and trigger warnings. The motivating force behind the Trigger Age isn't sensitivity but anger. It's happening because we've progressed to the point where people who have been excluded from the conversation can say their piece and have it heard—and they're rightfully pissed off. It's important to listen to the outraged and not deride them as just too sensitive, because they usually have a good goddamn point to make.
These passions of mine were aroused with the release of the second season of Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I hadn't watched it until my girlfriend told me how conflicted it made her feel. She thought it was hilarious, but worried it was kinda racist: specifically, a plotline revealing that Jane Krakowski's vain, uber-rich trophy wife character Jacqueline White is actually Jackie Lynn White, an indigenous American and member of the Lakota tribe who has been passing for white for years. She spends a number of episodes attempting to reconnect with her roots and her family.
When she told me the plotline, I was dumbfounded. "That sounds crazy racist," I told her, just imagining the tone-deaf jokes being delivered by the white-as-hell Krakowski. This type of joke (haha isn't it funny when people who look white claim indigenous heritage) in particular irritates me because it hits close to home. My grandmother is a member of the Batchewana First Nation of Ojibways, whose mother lost her status and place on the Goulais Bay reserve when she married a white man. This policy of stripping status from women who married outside of their band was one of the techniques the Canadian government used in its attempted genocide of indigenous people. The policy had its intended effect as well. For my mother, her background was a source of pain and shame. She was subject to all the racism and taunting that is rife in Northern Ontario, but without any of the strength an attachment to her culture could have provided. This painful ambivalence to our past extends down to me as well. While I look and was raised blandly white, the confusing phantom limb of my First Nations heritage contributed far more to my values and ethics than the oodles of French Canadian genes that make up the rest of me.
This is all to say that as I queued up the first episode of the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I was ready to rip it apart as a racist, ugly extension of the colonial project. And then I began the episode and found myself laughing, a bunch. The episode chronicles Krakowski's misadventures on the reserve, and instead of the sweet, sweet outrage I was expecting to feel, I just laughed. A mounting panic filled me as the episode wrapped up, and I apprehensively said to my roommate, "Uh oh, I didn't really think that was racist."
What the hell happened to me? I don't think Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is racist—what do I even believe in now? Maybe it isn't even #allmen? Oh God, when I wasn't paying attention did I become the head of a police union?
I texted my girlfriend that I didn't think the show was racist. I explained that while I thought it was occasionally clumsy, I never thought the culture was the target of the jokes but instead the context or setting for them. The humor comes from Krakowski's idiotic character attempting to integrate, not from how silly or strange this other culture is. Instead of feeling it was disparaging, I was heartened to see aboriginal culture and concerns as integral parts of a popular sitcom. It was also nice to see aboriginal characters (her parents) who were not portrayed as desperate tragedies or stoic savages but instead as an ordinary middle-class couple who love their culture and are exasperated by their idiot daughter.
As soon as I formulated this opinion, though, the doubt started to creep in. The part of my brain that's read Edward Said poked and prodded. "It's unforgivable to have a white actress in this role," it piped in. "This show by white people and starring white people is appropriating the struggle of others, which is racist no matter how much of a positive light it's done in." In enjoying this show, am I supporting the white supremacy that has done so much damage to my family? Am I no better than the character of Jackie Lynn who bleached out her past? This may seem like an overheated response to a sitcom, but in a country where many still believe the solution to the dire problems on reserves is relocation (because look how that worked in the past), these issues are deadly serious and require consideration.
Still, I watched more episodes and enjoyed them, and as I did, I began to relate more to those old put-upon comedians who can't perform at colleges. Not because I agreed with them, but because I realized what underpins those opinions. I didn't know what to think about this show and this confusion—no longer being able to locate the line between right and wrong is a scary place to be. There's a sense of powerlessness to it. So of course we criticize people for being too sensitive. It's far easier than looking in the mirror and realizing you are on the wrong side of the issue.
So I, a progressive who is acutely aware of the plight of First Nations, watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and didn't think it was racist, and I don't know what that means. Am I a liar or a secret racist, a conservative, a traitor? I'm confused and at the end of day probably wrong, as I'm sure people will tell me. But I'm OK with that because I'm willing to listen to why, something I hope the show (and its creators) would be open to as well.
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