Luke Cage Made Me Uncomfortable And That Taught Me Something About Systemic Racism in Media
Netflix’s latest Marvel series, Luke Cage, left me feeling somewhat uneasy in the first episodes. I wasn’t really sure why. I’d enjoyed all of the Netflix/Marvel series to degrees, but none of them had left me feeling quite so discomforted in the early part of the story. It was somewhere in perhaps the second or third episode when I finally began to put my finger on what was making me feel so strange watching the show. That led to even greater discomfort.
Why was I having trouble? I didn’t always get the cultural references being made. Some of the slang was unfamiliar as well, and I couldn’t identify with a lot of the life experiences of the characters. And then that last matter: there were very few white people on the show. Almost none in those early episodes. That couldn’t actually matter, could it?
My first reaction with myself was to get defensive. Why should that bother me? I’m not a complete stranger to that experience. I lived in Kenya for half a year in college, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to be the only white person around in my travel there. There were times when it was fine, and times when it was uncomfortable, but this felt different. I aim to not be or act consciously racist, although I know I struggle with innate bias like many do. And so on the thoughts went. Basically, the boiled down to “I’m a good person, I’m not racist, the problem isn’t with me, it must be with the show.” Yawn.
If I stopped at that level of introspection, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Thankfully, my thinking went a little bit deeper. As I explored the feeling, it suddenly struck me: oh. Wait a second. What if this is what people of color feel when they watch 90% of American televsion, rarely ever seeing themselves represented, and when they do, it’s a stereotype, a caricature of a real person? Oh my God, it must be something like this. It must be like this with nearly every single show, movie, book. Day in, day out. This is what it feels like to not see yourself represented in the media.
I was supportive of the cause of more diversity and representation in our entertainment, but I didn’t understand it very well until now. I hadn’t walked a few episodes in the shoes of a person of color, so to speak. I hesitate to even make that analogy, because my short, weekend experience can’t begin to compare to a lifetime of that. I gained a little perspective, that’s all. But it helps me understand and empathize better, to connect with the words I’ve been hearing and reading for so long, but never fully understanding.
My discomfort passed quickly. I found I enjoyed the show even more for the fact that I was witnessing many things and viewpoints new to me. Ultimately, I think the character of Luke Cage is my favorite of the Netflix heroes. More than any of the others, he personifies an ideal, a struggle. To be good and do good for others. Honestly… he makes Daredevil look like a self-obsessed jerk.
All that said – nothing else I could say about the show really matters in light of that little glimpse I received, I think. You could very easily say that this isn’t a show for me. And you’re probably right that in some sense that this show was made perhaps to let people of color feel like I get to feel with nearly every damn show on the television. My experience is secondary to the primary experience. But I thought it worth mentioning. And I hope more white geeks like myself have a similar experience. It was eye-opening for me. And I really want to read about how the show made people of color feel. I can’t wait to listen to their thoughts and experiences with the show, so I can understand all of this even better.
In the future, I hope we get a lot more shows like Luke Cage. I hope they make me uncomfortable in exactly the same way. I eagerly look forward to watching them. As for my own writing, I know that I will take the lesson seriously. It’s going to change the way I think about some things. How exactly remains to be seen, but I am determined not to squander the perspective I gained.