The White Screen
There was laughter all around me, and I couldn’t help but join in.
I was at the orphanage, playing ball with a bunch of kids in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Despite being a little homesick and barely knowing the language, I was having few problems living here. I loved this place, with its ancient roots and friendly people. I loved hearing the morning’s call to prayer when I woke up.
This is the country where my youngest brother was born, where he was raised for three years of his life before he became a part of my family. This is why, when I was figuring out what I want to do in the summer, that my only requirement was that it had to be in Ethiopia. I contacted the organization that had helped my family through the adoption process and through them I traveled to Ethiopia for five short weeks, heading out to teach kids English.
I just didn’t know how much they would teach me.
On the weekends, or sometimes after the English lessons at school, I went to the organization’s orphanage for kids with HIV/AIDS. As I knew most of the kids already from school, I made these trips to the orphanage so that I could hang out with them on a level I couldn’t through teaching them. Unfortunately, many of the kids were into sports and, having very little athletic ability myself, I needed to find another way to really bond with them. During my second visit, the kids brought me into a room with a TV, handed me a thick DVD case and gestured for me to pick a movie to watch. Finally, my time had come: something neither sports nor homework related.
I was so happy as I flipped through that DVD case, seeing movies that I had loved and known since childhood. I saw the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (one of my favorites) and immediately started to mimic having a long nose and screeching, “Childreennn! Lollipops! Candy! All free today.” The kids shouted “Yes! Scary man!”, laughing and smiling. I smiled and laughed with them, happy that we had found something to connect on.
We picked Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and as we settled down to watch, I thought that it was going to be so much better than playing soccer.
But it wasn’t.
As we watched the movie, another thought crept its way into my mind that I couldn’t ignore. Sitting among those amazing, smart, beautiful kids, who just happened to have skin darker than mine, made me realize that on the screen I could only see white.
I could only see white people.
How did I never notice this before? How could I have been so blind? As they all sat there, eyes glued to the TV, I took the DVD case and flipped through the movies again, my stomach growing heavy with dread. Instead of being hit with a wave of childhood nostalgia, I was smacked by movie upon movie of predominantly white characters. Few, if any, actually had a main character of color. I was dumbfounded. I glanced up at the kids’ faces as they sang along to a song, trying to understand what it must be like to watch a movie where none of the people look like me.
Suddenly, I was filled with anger.
I was angry that there are so many people who don’t see that this lack of diversity on screen exists very much in today’s society. I was outraged that when someone points it out, they are more often than not ignored. And I was mostly furious at myself, for never having thought about how my brother must feel while watching a movie with my family, seeing our color on the screen but barely seeing his.
Then I had another realization: this problem is not limited to movies. This lack of equal representation expands into our literature, television shows, and almost every other form of pop culture. As an avid reader, I have read hundred upon hundreds of books. But if someone were to ask me right now to name a book I’ve read that has a black main character, I would have to think really hard before answering. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, noticed the lack of people of color in books, too. She thought as a child that books were always supposed to be about foreigners, about people with lighter skin drinking drinks that she’d never had. The thought of that experience makes me sad; isn’t the best part of a book when you are able to connect with a character?
There was a funny part in the movie, and the kids pointed to the screen, directing my attention back to the movie. There was laughter all around me; but this time, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh.
Casey Trattner ’18