My grandma used to say, “tu eres el mejor actor en todo el Mundo.”
She was right, I’m a pretty great actor, the best in the world is a big statement, but sure, thanks Grandma. Oh, and watch out Denzel. But my Grandma didn’t know the rules and walls I would be up against. Honestly, neither did I.
“Mission number 1 in LA: Go unnoticed, sort of, blend in. Not too edgy. Not too soft. Be you, if you are something we all see you as, make sense? It’s tough. Be the best and stand out while blending in. Got it? It takes time, practice, and thick skin, but not too thick.”
PS. This is for your own good. We just want you to look good.
When I graduated acting school, I had long thick fro hair I pulled into a bun, a samurai man bun. Finally, I was tired of my agents telling me to calm my curls, and after much consideration and debate with management and mind, I decided to chop it all off, get a crew cut- something classic and unidentifiable.
Personally, I know that that cut, this crew cut, and this life of blending in is in response to the stories and heroes on TV played by the white boys who don’t look like me; their hair don’t curl the same way. I dream of telling these stories, being able and having the opportunity to tell these stories; so I chop, reminding myself, “I haven’t earned the right to be this ethnic yet. What have I done to earn hair that says, ‘this is me, take it or leave it?’ But this cru cut, this cut says, yeah, I can fit into your boxes…”
Sitting in that chair, was the first time I knew my job as a man of color wasn’t to stand out, but to fit in; fit in to how they need me to be, to fill the slots they need me to fill. To fit in to the roles they want me to play. And I have, fit in. I have done quite well fitting in.
6 years later, I ask myself, “For who do I want to look this way? Do I really wanna kick it on fake stoops in fake urban cities on fake landscape with a bunch of brown people with crew cuts? Will I get everything I ever wanted only to realize it’s a nightmare to be seen by eyes that don’t actually see you? How do I appear in the eyes of the wise? Where are my eyes?”
I read a quote that said, “The single purpose of all life, is to maintain and survive.” We gotta find our group, gotta fit in, we gotta survive. In jungles you find your pack. In prison you find the ones who will protect you. In Hollywood, if you look as ethnically ambiguous as me, and you want to play the game, you have to know their rules, you gotta play the part- that means code switching, staying out of the sun, and keeping your thick curls at bay… It’s all a part of survival.
That’s it, huh? Survival. That’s grim. That’s bleak.
What sucks is, I don’t know what’s next. Maybe it’s my acknowledgment that I don’t know what’s next. I really don’t. I don’t have the answers, but I’m ready to have the conversation-
“Oh shut up!” You say, “You are ruining all the magical fantasy- it’s pretend, what’s wrong with pretend? Why must I always care about race?” Fair, fair. I’m going to shut up in like two paragraphs.
The problem is that, as Virginia Woolf pointed out so many years ago, repeated false realities adversely affects art. In this case, at least for me, for people like me, (and there’s a lot of us!), montages of false people, people of color who don’t exist in a very small paradigm don’t do much other than undermine our famously robust self-esteems. We just can’t identify. Our hearts don’t ache along with the characters because… who cares? Simultaneously, our hearts break because… It’s not true, its not me, it’s not my friends, it’s not my family, so who cares?
I want to care. I want to thrive. Not just survive.
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