Indah’s Interview with Tiffani

Indah Putri 刘仪皇

WGST 1100 – 02

Dr. Danielle Borgia

May 1, 2017

ORAL HISTORY PROJECT

Portrait of Tiffani Williams.

Tiffani Williams is a 20-year-old Jamaican-American from the United States of America. She is a Junior, Theater Arts major and Women and Gender Studies and Journalism double-minor undergraduate student at Loyola Marymount University. She was my classmate that I met earlier this Spring 2017 semester while taking a theater design course. She was born and raised in the area which is near the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California on September 8, 1996.  Her mother works as a lactation specialist at UCLA Santa Monica, and her step-father works at the LAX airport. Prior to attending LMU, she attended St. Mary’s Academy located in Inglewood, Los Angeles, California. Tiffani comes from a Baptist Christian, middle class Black family background here in the United States, who are still very close to their Jamaican heritage, as well as family members living in Jamaica. Although originally in class, we were all instructed to interview a woman of color much older than ourselves, and Tiffani is only a year older than I am, my professor agreed that my background as an international student of Chinese ethnicity and Indonesian nationality would have been enough of a contrast between the both of us in order to produce an interesting interview. Turns out my professor was right.

I will be analyzing some of what I think are the most significant parts of the interview that I had with Tiffani. If you would like to watch the full interview video, you can click on this link! I have also added a short blooper at the end for the fun and heck of it!

   

One of the common grounds that I knew Tiffani and I have in common, even prior to the interview day, is that we are both (essentially) immigrants in our respective home countries. When I asked her who from her family came to America first, and for what reason, Tiffani responded that it was her grandmother and her great grandfather who first immigrated to America. Tiffani’s grandmother came to the United States as a young girl. Tiffani said…

 “Her dad brought her here so that she could have a better life. Jamaica is a kind of poor country, so he brought her here so she could be able to do things that she wanted to do, which was really good cause she became a teacher, so… She came illegally at first, but she’s legal now.”

This reminded me of a reading we did in class, called  The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, where she talks about her experience of growing up in the U.S as an illegal immigrant, along with her siblings and father. Grande quoted her father once telling her “I brought you to this country to get an education and to take advantage of all the opportunities this country has to offer. The minute you walk through the door with anything less than As, I’m sending you straight back to [Mexico].” This statement by Grande’s father is a universal theme that shapes the narrative of every immigrant family, not just in America, but anywhere around the world. I myself, coming from a family of Chinese immigrants, whose grandparents initially came illegally to Indonesia, sympathize with the story of Tiffani’s grandmother and Grande’s father. The political situation revolving immigration in many countries (mainly anglophone nations such as the U.S, Canada, and U.K) is making it increasingly difficult for immigrants and/or children of immigrants to survive in their respective country of residence, particularly those of non-white, colored minority communities. There is so much antipathy and bigotry directed towards immigrants. What many may fail to understand about those of us who come from an illegal immigrant background is that we ourselves, or our parents, or our grandparents, took a chance in breaking another country’s law for the sake of potentially providing their family with a better life than what they knew or would have known back in their original homeland. For instance, my grandparents ran away from China because they did not want the future generations of our family line to be stuck living in stricken poverty in the small city of Chao Zhou (潮州), where the quality of education was poor, there was barely any opportunity to make money, and they were all living under the cruel dictatorship of Mao Zi Dong (毛泽东). Tiffani’s grandmother too, came from a time of poverty in Jamaica, Grande’s father probably did as well back in Mexico. All of our families emigrated from their ethnic homes to another country where they knew they had more opportunities to make money and succeed, and thus provide a better life for themselves and now us. None of us ever wanted to be in the position of breaking the law, but sometimes present circumstances leave one with no choice.

   

Another common ground I knew Tiffani and I both shared is our major in Theater Arts, and how we are both aspiring-actresses of color. Since she has been attending LMU two years longer than I have, and has more experience being under the Fine Arts department than what I have so far, I asked her to talk about her experiences with auditions and castings here at this university. Mainly, I asked her how her race has affected the results she have received from all her past auditions, as well as just how race plays a role in determining casting decisions in general.

T: “[Casting calls are] definitely based on race, because most of the stories told are not for minorities, and that’s true here [at LMU]. I’ve been at this school for three years now and I’ve only seen one production that was an all-black casted play, and I’ve only been in one production. And they do three shows a semester, so that’s a lot, that’s more than 12 shows where they didn’t have minority students. They also had a show called Chavez Ravine where they didn’t have the right casting for it. It was for Latin Americans, but they did not have that, and that was very controversial.”

I: “Who did they use [for Chavez Ravine]?”

T: “White people. Caucasians.”

I: “Have there ever been any situations where your ethnicity might have been an advantage to you in casting calls?”

T: “Fati’s Last Dance, cause it was about Haitian-Americans. I mean I’m not Haitian-American but you need black people.”

As stated by Jessica Hagedorn in Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No luck, she states that by Hollywood standards, “films with Asian actors or characters run the risk of being unsuccessful, even when adapted from a best-seller,” she describes it as “a risky proposition.” Hagedorn is making this statement from her position of being a Filipino playwright and author, but this statement rings a truth for not just Asians, but actors of color as a whole. Hollywood is governed by the myth that non-white actors don’t generate box office returns, and that we are not profitable when put on the big screen. Actors and actresses of color are heavily under-represented in the media. According to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2015, 73.7% of roles in Hollywood go to Caucasians, 12.2% go to Blacks, 5.3% to Hispanic, and 3.9% to Asians. These percentages have not changed since the year 2007, according to the study. This is also reflective of a statement made in the documentary we watched in class called Miss Representationwhere it talks about American media caters to a predominantly white hegemonic male audience. For both Tiffani and I, whether or not we would get casted in an acting role does not only come down to the color of our skin, but also our gender. According to the Miss Representation documentary, “the people who call the shots in Hollywood in terms of TV and movies are nearly all male, with women comprising a paltry 16 percent of all writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors.” According to a research done by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen the percentage of Asian female characters doubled from 3% in 2015 to 6% in 2016. The percentage of Black female characters increased slightly from 13% in 2015 to 14% in 2016.” However, “the percentage of Latina characters declined slightly from 4% in 2015 to 3% in 2016.” It is much harder for a woman to succeed in Hollywood, and especially for women of color.

Furthermore, it was interesting to me how Tiffani said that the production of Chavez Ravine did not have a Latin American cast because the Theater department “did not have” Latin American students. Speaking from my own experience of being a Theater major, although this department is indeed predominantly white, there are still at least five black, hispanic/latino and Asian Theater students. Even if there were not, LMU as a whole has a large Latin community. Directors from the department could have made an announcement that they were looking for Latin students who would be interested in auditioning for roles in the play. It is beyond disappointing to have learned that the professors from my own major department made the decision to white-wash a play about Mexican-Americans. If directors want to profit out of using the narrative of certain cultures, traditions, or histories, to promote their product, then they should use the people who belong to that ethnic or racial group. Instead of blaming poor casting decisions on the lack of talented minorities, decision-makers and other  influencers should create more stories of minority characters, or create more stories that are not racially exclusive, and open up auditions for anyone of any race.

   

Although it was nice to explore some of the things Tiffani and I shared in common, I moved onto asking her questions that related more to her identity as a Black American woman. I acknowledge that us Asians and Blacks have two different sets of realities here in the U.S, and I wanted to learn and understand more of what Black people like Tiffani are going through in their everyday lives.

I asked Tiffani on her experience in dealing with systematic oppression, both at school and in the workplace. In all complete honesty, I had the preconceived notion that such a thing would not ever occur at a school such as LMU, but I was shocked to learn that Tiffani, and so many other students of color like herself, not only faced some level of racial discrimination and prejudice from teachers inside classrooms within an academic setting, but also from their employers while working jobs provided by the school. As a result, the intercultural services office at LMU opened an event for students so that they could have the relief of talking about their problems and struggles of being students of color at a PWI (Predominantly White Institute) in a safe space. She informed me of the following:

“Usually, almost once a month, they [the school] have this race talk where students can come and share their experience that they have right here on this campus. It’s talked about all the time, but I don’t think we talk about it with the right group, it’s usually just the minorities getting together and talking about it, and not the people who are oppressing the minorities coming in and listen.”

The most important thing that Tiffani said, that I feel the need to stress in this post, is how we are not talking about the issue of racism with the right group. I remember a very important class discussion earlier in the course when we were discussing AnaLouise Keating’s book called Beyond Intersectionality, and there, the author is talking, from her position of being a white feminist, about the importance of listening to dialogues pertaining racism and white supremacy with raw openness. “We spend so much time coming to voice, talking back, and transforming silence into language and action that we seem to forget the importance of listening.” The fight against any form of social oppression needs to be a collective effort from every member in society. The fight against racism does not only take people of color constantly coming together and speaking out, it also takes white people coming together and listening to what is being said to them. White people, especially wealthy white heterosexual males, need to understand and acknowledge that they are coming from a position of privilege, being in a country that is a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. In realizing that privilege, white people should not respond in defensiveness or objection. Instead, they should use that power and privilege to help those of us who without them. As Keating said, “We need to engage in risky conversations – potentially transformational dialogues where listeners don’t jump to conclusions but just open our minds and listen, with the intention to learn from, and potentially be changed from what we hear (while acknowledging that these changes might be painful.)”

I asked Tiffani to share her experiences with this systematic oppression in the workplace. She currently works with Door Dash as a food delivery girl/courier. She told me that she used to work on campus in University Hall, but had to leave that job due to inappropriate racial remarks from her boss.

“I used to work in U-Hall and my boss used to just say stuff that I don’t think she realized was hurtful. Last semester, there was a day where there was free donut day at Krispy Kreme, and so we were talking to one of the other employees about it, me and my boss, and she was saying how the closest one was down Lincoln, and I told her she would be in a lot of traffic so she should try the one that is Balwin Hills, which is by the area where I grew up. So my boss goes on Google, and she looks it up and was like “Oh, that one’s on Crenshaw Boulevard, you should go over there if you want to get shot.” That was really hurtful to me because this is the place where I’ve grown up. I’ve never been shot, have you even been over there. These were just things that were unbecoming to me, and so I talked to her about it, and she was like “Oh, I didn’t realize, I’m sorry.” But then, when the election happened, she told me, she was like “Oh the proposition for weed got passed, I bet you’re happy.” She just assumed I was a pot head, I don’t know why – I’ve never been high at work or anything, she just assumed I was a pot head, and I was like… I don’t know, I just couldn’t deal with that anymore.”

I also asked Tiffani to share her experiences of discrimination while she was out and about, going about her daily life in public. She told me…

“We went to the Fox Hills mall to get food. I guess there was a Trump rally going on, I didn’t know what I was, but we were just trying to get food, and the man was like ‘Are you here for the Trump rally? Are you b****es supporters of the Trump rally?’ I was with another friend of mine. ‘Are you b****es supporters of the Trump rally? You can’t be in here unless you’re for Trump, and I know you’re not of the Trump campaign because you’re black’ and this this and that.”

For Tiffani, being a Black woman means that she is bound to be treated unfairly, scrutinized or have assumptions made of her because of her race and gender. The Black community here in America are often associated with violent crimes, drug abuse, and gun shootings as part of their stereotype, and we see here how Tiffani’s previous boss had attached onto Tiffani these stereotypes simply based on her race. Black people, as I have noticed while observing the last presidential elections, also have a political assumption attached onto them. Black people are always immediately assumed to be a Democrat due to their general status of being oppressed minorities, and I think this leads to many Republicans (primarily straight white male Republicans) feeling as if they are able to treat black people with disrespect in order to fulfill a racist political agenda. I am reminded of a quote by Audre Lorde from her Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference reading. “For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living — in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us.”

   

In the United States, where white supremacist capitalist patriarchy rules society, Black women are often portrayed as lethargic individuals who are incapable of doing well in life. Too often, these societal views create and enforce institutional prejudice and discrimination that act as obstacles for Black women, preventing them from succeeding. In a response to my question asking her what she thinks are some of the assumptions of black women, she said…

“I don’t think people expect black women to succeed. Well, I don’t think people expect me to succeed. When I come into classrooms here at LMU, and the teachers ask questions – this only happens in BCLA, this doesn’t happen in the theater department a lot, but I am also in the BCLA department because I have two minors – but when I answer questions it’s like “oh, well, I wasn’t expecting for that to come out of your mouth.” That’s always a weird moment. They don’t expect you to succeed, they don’t expect you to graduate, they don’t expect you to do well.”

“Black women are expected to just be the b****es and hoes that people call us, and not be educated, not have wants and goals, that we’re weak, and we’re expected not to handle a lot. As in, if we’re pressured, we’re just going to snap and that we can’t be tolerant and [have manners]. I think black women are expected to fail.”

Black women are not discriminated against because of just their race or just their gender, they are discriminated against because of both their race and their gender. This is true at school for Tiffani, and this is true for every other Black woman out in the real world working jobs. To quote The Combahee River Collective Statement“We [Black women] also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.”

   

In a society that is dictated by men, it is our own men’s treatment of us women that often determines how everyone else treats us. I asked Tiffani to talk about the racial discrimination experienced by Black women, and how it differs from that of Black men. Tiffani responded…

“I think that it does differ because black men are not doing a great job of taking care of their black women. It’s because of their music, it’s because of the way they speak to us, it’s the way they treat us, and other people that they treat us that bad and so maybe we deserve to be treated like that, or we deserve to be spoken to in that manner. For example, in all hip-hop music, the black man refers to the black women as “b****es,” and “hoes,” and all these things, and so if someone else sees that it’s like “oh, well their men are doing it why can’t we do it.” As for black women, we’re always taking care of our black men. It’s evident when police shootings happen. It’s black women who are always going out there to fight for these men, but in return, they don’t do the same thing. I think that black men have it easier when it comes to interracial dating and it’s tougher for us (black women) to date anybody, even black men, so…”

Although I personally do not listen to rap music that much, I have listened to a few popular songs. Even from what much I have listened to, I recall most of the lyrics primarily talking about a woman in the rapper’s life, and  referring to her as a b**ch. Rappers, who are usually black men, typically sing about wanting to have sex with women, and adoring their “fat booty” or breasts. In addition, women in rap songs are often depicted to be sexually promiscuous, comparable to that of a prostitute who would go as far as to selling themselves for money. For instance, a song that I remember once being popular was B*tches Ain’t Sh*t by Dr. Dre, and a short part of the lyrics go as the following:

Long as my mother f*cking pockets was fat
I didn’t give a f*ck where the b*tch was at
But she was hanging with a white b*tch doing the sh*t she do
Sucking on his d*ck just to get a buck or 2

Not every rap song is similar to this song in nature, but it is the truth to say that most rap songs share the same theme of sexually objectifying and degrading women. When women are not being treated as sex objects, women are regarded as pests that do not deserve respect when talked to. For instance, another very popular song titled I Don’t F*ck With You by Big Sean:

I see you calling, I be makin’ it quick
I’m a answer that sh*t like: “I don’t f*ck with you”
B*tch I got no feelings to go
I swear I had it up to here, I got no ceilings to go
I mean for real, f*ck how you feel
F*ck your two cents if it ain’t goin’ towards the bill, yeah
And everyday I wake up celebrating sh*t, why?
Cause I just dodged a bullet from a crazy b*tch
I stuck to my guns, that’s what made me rich

In many societies, if not most, women often have to sacrifice so much for men, but barely get much in return from them. In many cases, women not only have to sacrifice their career for their male partners, but also their body in being the one to conceive the child. After the child is born, women are also always the ones who are expected to be fully responsible and raising and taking care of the children, whilst still sexually satisfying her husband after he comes home from work. As said by Audre Lorde in Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, “Women are expected to educate men.” Women are always the ones blamed for when a relationship with another man crumbles, on the basis that it should have been the woman’s responsibility to not only initiate dialogue with her partner, but also be the one to communicate better with him.

In addition, it is also important to note another statement made by Audre Lorde, and that is, “Black women and men have shared racist oppression and still share it, although in different ways.” Black men are only under White men and Women, but Black women are under White men, White women, and Black men. This is why intersectionality within feminism is so crucial to the overall movement, because the struggles of white women do not equate to that of a black woman’s. “We [Black women] are also oppressed as women, and that sexual hostility against Black women is practiced not only by the white racist society, but implemented within our Black communities as well.” Black women can never climb up the staircase leading to equality without first being treated as respected equals by their Black men.

   

Coming from Indonesia, a largely multicultural country filled with people from many different countries and cultures, I have been beyond privileged to have grown up with more than just my Chinese heritage and the local Indonesian culture. I grew up with Singaporeans, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Filipinos, Mexicans, Russians, Germans, French, Whites from America, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. I have never had much encounter with Black people because there were never a lot of them where I am from, and so I never had the chance to learn about the different Black cultures. I remember being a young girl, when I was still in my elementary school days, and coming to the U.S for the first time with my mother. I actually used to be scared of black people, and my fear was all based from the intimidating depictions of black people that I saw from watching television. When I was in Middle School, I thought that black people were all obnoxiously loud, rude, did not care about education, and always got into trouble. By the time I reached high school, I was a lot more mature, and while those negative presumptions that I had of an entire racial group went away by then, I was still very much ignorant. I don’t look back at those times with shame, and I don’t think I was at fault for thinking the way I thought at that time. I just did not know any better because there was never a black person at my school, or in my life in general, for me to talk to and get to know better. All I had to base of my understanding and knowledge of black people were Hollywood films that only ever represented black people in a negative and degrading light. When I moved to Los Angeles last year in August, I told myself that when I graduate in four or five years time, one of the things I want to leave with from this city, is a better understanding of Black culture and Black people. I told myself that while I have the opportunity to meet so many black people, unlike back home in Asia, I would make a couple of Black friends and listen to their stories so that I can have my own opinions and beliefs of these people, rather than have outside sources shape them for me. When my Women and Gender Studies professor introduced this Oral History Project assignment of having to interview an American woman of color, I knew I wanted to interview a Black woman for the sake of also educating myself. I have been so lucky to be able to interview Tiffani, because not only did I have the chance to get to know her better as a person, and somewhat establish a level of friendship between us, I also got to learn more about her people, her culture, and listen to the stories she had to tell about them. Listening to Tiffani talk about her experience of being a Black woman in America puts my understanding of my own oppression and privilege as an Asian woman into perspective, and I hope the same effect is achieved for everyone else who are reading this.

   

Course Materials Mentioned

Hagedorn, Jessica. Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No Luck, 1994

Grande, Reyna. The Distance between Us: A Memoir. 2012.

Miss Representation, 2011, Dir. Jennifer Siebel Newsom

Keating, AnaLouise. Beyond Intersectionality

Frazier, Demita; Smith, Beverly; Smith, Barbara. The Combahee River Collective Statement. 1977.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Redefining Difference” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 1984

Other Works Cited

“Hollywood Equality: All Talk, Little Action.” USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalismhttp://annenberg.usc.edu/news/faculty-research/hollywood-equality-all-talk-little-action

Lauzen, Martha M. “It’s A Man’s (Celluloid) World, Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2016” Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University, 2017. 3 May 2017. http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/research/