Don't Tell Me My Experience Isn't "Relatable"

by Bim Adewunmi, Buzzfeed

For a woman who has made a career out of her love for culture – and consumes so much of it – it would not make sense for me to continue to watch and read and listen to things that I do not relate to. I have been a middle-aged, straight white father and radio psychiatrist, a mid-twenties flaxen-haired masseuse (and full-time kook). I’ve been an unexpected star quarterback from a small, football-mad Texas town. With no qualms. It took no extra labour; it cost me no additional part of my humanity to imagine myself in those shoes, even as they were as far from my experience as it was possible to get: Frasier Crane, Phoebe Buffay, Matt Saracen. The me that I see in all of these characters is not immediately apparent, but it doesn’t take much for me to recognise in them something that already lives in me. You could argue that some of us, more than others, are forced to find that thing.

How do you recognise yourself, if you have never seen yourself? Is it “yourself” – i.e. the things that you know, sight unseen, that you are – that strike a chord? Or is it that you look around and see that nothing looks familiar, and conclude that you must therefore be somewhere in the absence?
Earlier this week, I published a piece that highlighted 14 UK-based make-up, hair, and fashion YouTubers. Every single person on that list was black. It was a deliberate choice, in the style of this post, in which BuzzFeed Books Editor Isaac Fitzgerald compiled a list of contemporary American writers for readers to get stuck into. The aim was not to “trick” anyone into clicking through – the post did what it said on the tin: These women are UK vloggers, and their tips on hair, fashion, and make-up will likely transform your morning routine. But the comments were interesting – but only in the way they revealed the unchecked biases that we carry around, unarticulated but always there.

The reward for being able to identify yourself in a character is being granted permission to take part in the grander cultural conversations. A narrative is built on what we consider to be communal cultural property. “Ross and Rachel” (or “Tim and Dawn”, or “Nick and Jess”) is the shorthand for a classic TV “will they/won’t they” romance; the image of Ally McBeal tugs on a vestigial memory of nineties career girls; “the Mitchell brothers” conjures up family drama.

What we consider to be the benchmark, or even just a workaday example, tells us all we need to know about what is valued, but also what is considered “the norm”. If we can agree that something is universal, i.e. “Everyone gets this!”, what does it mean when someone doesn’t get it? Would you recognise, in the same contexts as above, if I had said “Whitley and Dwayne”, “Joan Clayton”, and “Hakeem, Jamal and Andre Lyon”?

The takeaway is this: Everything all-white is for everybody, but all-black things are reserved for black people (unless it is being Columbused as the “new” thing). When someone complains about being misled because the blackness of the list was not brought up, how do you answer? What do you come back with when someone concludes a comment with a phrase I have thought about many times since: “I just couldn’t relate”?

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