Dismantling the unbearable whiteness of critique

Critics of color, who are vastly outnumbered by their white colleagues, are key to the advancement of their entire field.
Two red-gloved hands look through an open file cabinet. The body of works filed under “European Art” dwarfs the other section, titled “Other.”
Iris Lee for The Objective.

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Growing up, writer Ariel Dean couldn’t find any Asian American heroes who weren’t sidekicks, so he found representation of his cross-cultural experience and discrimination in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Critic Amanda-Rae Prescott shared that while watching British period dramas, despite the lack of Black representation, she’s always found an underdog character to root for. 

In high school, I saw myself in angry art nerd Janice Ian from Mean Girls, especially since the Asian side characters didn’t even have English lines.

Many minoritized people of color (POC) don’t know what it’s like to consume a steady diet of popular media entirely populated by people who look like us, so it becomes second nature to actively establish parallels between experiences we see in stories and our own. POCs are hardly given a choice to develop this skill, given the selection of popular art we have to consume. We cannot afford to feel alienated by all the things we do not see ourselves in, because that would be too miserable. 

There are some who would argue that those who consume art shouldn’t be the ones working to connect with it. After all, is it not uncontroversial to state that good art is universal in its ability to transcend cultures and identity to touch each and every one of us? 

What’s missing from this sentiment is acknowledgement — that being able to connect with and resonate with stories from cultural contexts beyond our own is a mental muscle that gets developed through vigorous exercise. This trait is something POCs who are used to consuming art made mostly for the white audience are adept at, and something white critics could learn a thing or two about from us.

Critics of color, who are vastly outnumbered by their white colleagues, are key to the advancement of their entire field. Shortsighted editors may see them as the convenient choices for covering works that depict POCs, but this would squander their heightened skills for perceiving and relating to the humanity of anything they consume, regardless of how the media reflects (or doesn’t) their personal identity and lived experience.

As more content centered on the experiences of POC made around the world becomes increasingly popular to Americans, it can feel like white critics reviewing these works have become gaffe machines. It seems as though every few days a new insult gets published, sparking a fresh round of disbelief and outrage. It’s not uncommon for people of color to raise the question of whether white critics are fit to review POC works. 

In 2020, playwright Yolanda Bonnell even asked that white critics not review her show, out of concern that their lack of cultural understanding would lead to harmful gatekeeping that prevents Indigenous art from flourishing.

I am one of those people who sometimes wonders if editors ought to take white critics off certain assignments, and instead defer to one of their POC colleagues. I definitely thought this when I read New Yorker critic Richard Brody harp on the emptiness of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in his unrelenting pan of the film. He decried the directors — Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert, also known as the Daniels — for depriving their characters of identity and stripping them of history and culture. I was embarrassed for Brody, who conflated his inability to recognize the rich and specific cultural beats of this film with their nonexistence. 

Because of the dominance of white male critics, write Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, “the conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.” 

That is to say, the media establishment still largely yields to white men to interpret culture in a multicultural world increasingly unapologetic about decentering whiteness. Rather than thoughtful discourse on multicultural works that better reflect the diversity of this nation (and the world), white critics often choose to let their ignorance take center stage.

Brody’s colleague Daniel Mendelsohn noted in “A Critic’s Manifesto” that being an effective critic has two requirements: “expertise” and “taste, or sensibility.” To that I would add “worldly self-awareness.” Specifically, the humble understanding that the world is vast, and art is not always created with your particular sensibilities in mind. 

Critics of color have no choice in slipping on shoes that aren’t their own

For POCs, we understand that, a lot of times, it’s up to us to do the work to tailor narratives we consume to be able to relate to them, and do so by looking past superficial specificities to access the universal, human stories at their core.

Actor Edward Hong told me that the dysfunctional, passive-aggressive family dynamics of The Royal Tenenbaums reminds him of his own family. 

“While some nuances would automatically be different due to cultural specifics of how certain things are handled, [my] imagination was always at play that I could always find something to relate to,” said Hong. 

Generations of white people, on the other hand, are, for the lack of a better word, spoiled by seeing themselves represented by other white people. What’s more, the current entertainment landscape encourages everyone to internalize white people’s stories as “race-less” narratives about people. The implication being, any inclusion of racialized characters adulterates the default narrative, shaping it to fundamentally be about race. 

The public has been conditioned to never think of Sex and the City as a show about white women dating in New York, or Batman as a white superhero, or Hannibal Lector as a white serial killer. 

Even in stories that are not centered on white people, white saviors and white audience surrogate characters are incorporated to ensure that white audiences don’t need to flex their atrophied mental muscle for establishing some sort of relatability with non-white characters.

White critics who enter the profession within this cultural bubble cannot escape being spoiled in the same way, since they themselves are also white audience members. They have not been conditioned or taught to see the centering of white familiarity and comfort as a construct, but rather simply as the way media is — or ought to be. 

Thus, their writing continues to uphold the unspoken but widely-held belief that stories about white people are about “race-less” people and relatable to all humans, while stories about people of color are about people of color, and therefore less universally-human. 

What’s more, when white characters are actually racialized, unflattering portrayals of whiteness are often met with resistance from white critics, barring overt depictions of racist violence. 

Rajiv Menon, a documentary producer, recalls in a phone call a white critic’s review of The Namesake in his local paper, now 15 years old, in which the critic expresses annoyance that white characters in a movie centered on an Indian American family were reduced to stereotypes. This still happens all the time — just last month, in a review of Indian action blockbuster RRR, critic Robert Tombs complained that the British were overly villainized.

A 2018 study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that top film reviews written by white men outnumbered those written by underrepresented women 27 to 1, making it clear more diversity is needed in these ranks. But in order to actually advance the field of criticism, there needs to be intention and purpose behind bolstering diversity, so that all critics — regardless of their race — can elevate their craft.

Intention is needed when critics of color are asked to reimagine criticism

For one thing, critics of color cannot be made dumping grounds for the things white critics don’t know what to do with. Critic Siddhant Adlakha recalled being asked by his white colleagues to write about Black cinema and Black history, simply because he is the only POC on staff. Even though, as an Indian immigrant, his identity is as removed from the subject matter as his white colleagues.

“Why am I, as an outsider to the U.S., better at talking about [Blackness] than white people in the U.S.?” said Adlakha. “It became the default where [my white colleagues would say], ‘This is something POC-centric. This is something queer-centric. Let’s get your opinion on this.’”

In our phone call, film critic Alison Willmore of Vulture noted that previous eras of criticism are often unquestioningly held up as the gold standard, representing a less biased time of more elegant and nuanced works. It would be more accurate to categorize this sentiment as nostalgia for a time when art was more homogeneously made for and enjoyed by white audiences, an exclusionary and artistically narrow time I hope we never return to.

Wilmore also warns of the harm of white critics who choose to use patronizing praise for POC works rather than learn to critique outside of their comfort zone. 

“Oftentimes, with well-intentioned, still largely-white powers-that-be, there are a lot of people who don’t actually trust themselves to be able to render judgment on works that are about or by people of color,” she said. “And it just leads to a movie kind of skating by with praise, and then you actually watch it, and it’s awful.” 

This craven condescension doesn’t serve anybody, and barely qualifies as criticism at all. 

Hiring, supporting and elevating the expertise of critics of color as standard bearers of their field is how major outlets — gatekeepers of culture — ought to do their duty better, by teaching their readers how to engage with more stories, no matter how different they look on the surface.

Frankie Huang is a Chinese American culture writer, editor, and illustrator whose work explores public perceptions of race and gender, as well as immigrant identity.

This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Holly Rosewood.

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