How Progressive Movements Hinder Themselves By Not Being Inclusive

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Inclusion is complicated. Oftentimes it feels like it’s impossible to get it perfect. It probably is. There’s almost always someone being left out of the conversation, someone’s rights being sacrificed for the sake of some larger vision. But accepting that you can’t get it perfect isn’t grounds for dismissing dialogue that could help you get closer.

Too often progressive movements get defensive when they’re called out for not being inclusive enough. Arguments often center around priorities: if we make progress on women’s rights (often, white women), we can focus on women of color and trans right later. What’s stopping an open dialogue from allowing us to be better and intersectional from the start? Polarizing communities by not including their voices and taking their needs into account only hinders progress.

A recent example of this for me is Crazy Rich Asians. It’s been nearly two months since the film heralded as a major step forward for inclusion in Hollywood came out, and I’m still processing it.

In terms of entertainment, I really enjoyed the movie. It kept the audience engaged through romance, humor, drama, and stunning visuals. But the box office records and media attention wasn’t primarily a result of its storyline, but rather what it accomplished in terms of diversity in Hollywood. I walked into the theater excited to watch an almost completely Asian cast tell an Asian story. I was ready to be hit by the importance of this moment and that hopeful feeling you get when you witness a turning point.

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And for the most part, it delivered. Jon Chu, et al did what was practically unheard of, a majority Asian cast and crew told an Asian story, set in Asia. They made a strong statement that Asian communities can and should be represented by Asian actors on screen. Not only that, but audiences want to see this too. The film grossed $34 million in its first week. Crazy Rich Asians is an emphatic rejection of the whitewashing that’s been the norm in Hollywood thus far. I heard from many who were thrilled and emotional to finally see a movie where the entire cast looked like them, and to hear the language and cultural references that were meant for them to understand.

Singapore, the setting of the movie is a unique place and well-positioned for a movie of this importance. It contains a number of Asian identifying communities coexisting in one small city-state, the most dominant ones being Chinese, Malay, and Indian. The Chinese community in particular comprises the vast majority of the population (approximately 75%), and is also the main community represented in the movie.

The sheer number of communities and identities that fall under the category of “Asian” has always made filling out demographic surveys a bit absurd to me. I am Indian, which means most of these surveys require me to check Asian as my ethnicity. With that, I didn’t have any expectations that this movie was for my kind of Asian, nor did I think this was a problem. Its main audience was the East Asian, Chinese community, and I was thrilled for that community to have this representation in Hollywood.

But then two South Asian men appeared with weapons and vague threatening music. Suddenly my kind of Asian was on the screen. The only other appearances of this community, the third-dominant in Singapore, were in similar positions: faded, in the background, in positions of servitude. I don’t need to get into the problems with this moment — much has already been written about it. In addition to this, much has been written about the problematic components of this movie in general, whether it’s the careless joke that alluded to Chinese colonial history in Singapore, use of accents, or the accuracy of its depiction of Singapore.

When I walked out of the theater, I felt a complex mix of emotions that left me with an overall feeling of discomfort. In an attempt to navigate this discomfort I went home and researched. I read endless thought pieces and realized that a lot of it boils down to one main thing: Inclusion is complicated.

It’s a complex task to celebrate another group’s progress while managing the discomfort and disappointment of feeling like it came at a cost to another. Humor has often been used as a powerful tool for othering, and it was no different in Crazy Rich Asians. Specifically, it felt like the othering was directed at other Asian communities in Singapore in order to better align themselves with white ideals. The displays of wealth and partying felt like a direct message to counter Asian stereotypes perpetuated by white communities. But amongst this another unsettling message was coming through to me: there’s a different class and race hierarchy in Singapore and the Chinese community is at the top of it.

Would this movie have been compromised if the scene with the armed Indian guards was deleted? If there weren’t only dark-skinned individuals portrayed in roles of servitude? I don’t think so. Why include it? What did it achieve besides a joke at the expense of a community that is also underrepresented in Hollywood? A subliminal message that feeds into an already existing biased narrative? Paired with the extreme opulence displayed for the ultra-rich Chinese community in the movie, it’s hard to ignore. These sorts of decisions are intentional. And if anyone argues that it wasn’t intentional to only have brown bodies represent servitude in this movie, the lack of awareness would be equally concerning.

For those that argue that we shouldn’t expect one pivotal moment to do everything right, I agree. I honestly tried to convince myself of this at first. I told myself it’s a major step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood. It doesn’t have to be perfectly inclusive. But the thing is, it’s been repeatedly framed as a major symbol of inclusion. While I agree that it is a mark of progress, I don’t think we can ignore some of its darker reminders of the ongoing attempts to show white people that we are just like them in order to be accepted.

It’s not uncommon for well-meaning movements to fail to be inclusive. I had comparable feelings about the pink pussy hats during the Women’s March last year. Not all women can say they have a pussy, let alone what color it may be. What does this movement say to those individuals? Women of color face a higher level of bias than their white counterparts. The very real violence and discrimination that the trans community bears daily does not allow for careless (and often, willful) ignorance of the matter. They are often left out of conversations around gender bias and discrimination, but we will only achieve true gender inclusion by including all of these individuals in the movement.

These sorts of criticisms aren’t meant to detract from a movement, but rather to remind us that to be truly successful and impactful, we must not ignore the range of different ways people can identify. We must be inclusive. We must be intersectional. Privilege is a relative concept, not a static one. There is always an opportunity to bring others up who have less access to opportunity than us. And the very least we can do is avoid further debasing a community so that we can better position ourselves.

We must recognize progress while also recognizing the progress to be made. Push each other to make our movements better, more inclusive, and intersectional.