Greatness beckons on the near horizon, but conservative forces and systems of oppression loom formidable on the path. Am I complicit in the friction against progress? The promises long-pledged of liberty and justice for all could be fulfilled in our lifetimes. We have the resources, spirit, and mobility that previous societies have never had in such volume, and the limitations we do face are self-imposed. So I truly understand the urgency to push unceasingly towards our potential. But I come to you today with a genuine question, one which I ask not sardonically but rather from a place of humility.
What is accountability?
My privilege has afforded me a level of ignorance that I’m not comfortable with, and I know it is my obligation to not simply publicly acknowledge that but to seek answers to that which I do not fully understand.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have not always escaped the hazards of implicit bias or discrimination in how I perceive and interact with the world, and I am desperate to reconcile that with my fierce desire to see realized a world where true progress and equity exist.
To point, I confess embarrassment that for years I was against trans girls competing in high school sports that aligned with their gender identity. I parroted regressive rhetoric suggesting that the simple balance of hormones in a trans female athlete would disadvantage the other girls competing. I knew I was wrong, but I was struggling to understand why. I reached out to people. I had the conversation. I asked the questions. I humbled myself. And I recognized that my own bias and lack of understanding was itself a barrier to our progress towards equity.
Of course, now I understand why I was wrong. Now I understand that my concept of gender and identity was ludditically static, and I was trying to oversimplify a complex issue with which I was quite unfamiliar. But personal knowledge and understanding alone is not penance enough, and I hope to use my voice to combat the same regressive ideologies that I once embraced.
And again, I find myself torn between confusion and progress as I contemplate what true accountability should look like, specifically regarding racial representation and action for the Black community. Two ongoing controversies in the past week have instigated my confusion.
In the Heights
Lin Manuel Miranda’s new movie wasn’t quite the blockbuster that many were anticipating, but it has been described as the feel-good movie of the summer that we all needed after a year of stressful quarantining. Personally, I loved it! And I loved watching my Latina wife enjoy a movie that represented parts of her experience as an immigrant living in America. It opened to fantastic critic reviews that acknowledged how it did a great job lifting up and celebrating Latinx culture. Then came a tough but fair criticism of “In the Heights”: There was a conspicuous lack of Afro-Latino representation in the main cast of the film, especially considering the demographics of the neighborhood that it was profiling. Miranda was quick to respond with a heartfelt apology and recognition of this slight; director Jon Chu (though less emphatically than Miranda) also acknowledged the film’s shortfall. In a conversation on Colbert, the Latina cultural pioneer and Hollywood icon Rita Moreno dissented to the criticism, but quickly and sincerely walked back her statements the following day after receiving criticism.
Yet, the pushback persists, and I have even seen commentaries claiming the movie’s casting reinforces systems of white supremacy. My question is: What does appropriate accountability look like in this case? The showrunners have apologized. The dialogue has been ignited and will surely translate into greater representation in future films like this.
I’m not lamenting “cancel culture”, and I believe that when art that is meant to reflect life instead offends it, then it should be called out and rectified. But what is the right rectification for this? For what the movie is not, “In the Heights” falls short of being entirely inclusive; but for what it is, the movie is an exciting and light-hearted celebration of Latinx culture that does touch on important social issues that immigrant communities are facing in American society today. I’m not defending it. I’m genuinely curious about what shape good, productive, constructive accountability would take.
For the first time since 1983 (8 years before I was even born), the President has signed legislation to create a federal holiday: Juneteenth, commemorating the day on June 19, 1865 – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued – that the last enslaved people in America were freed. As much as conservative pundits would love to convince us that racism pretty much ended in the United States in 1863, we know that systemic and individual racism persist in implicit and explicit ways that still plague our society today. No one in their right mind believes the fight is over.
But many people are saying that this recognition is little more than virtue signaling. They remind us that school boards and state governments across the country are rallying to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in their curricula, so making Juneteenth a national holiday is hardly enough. But my question is – Who is saying it is enough? I don’t think it was meant to be a cure-all for systemic racism. I think it was meant to be one piece of a much larger collage in the fight. Can we not be simultaneously thrilled that we are using the cogs of government to create this federal holiday while also turning up the heat on the same politicians to pass election reform and implore authentic educational standards? Does accountability mean not accepting any outputs unless they are comprehensive outcomes? And who makes those judgments?
I’m not suggesting that we should allow small actions to overshadow the need for system-wide revolution. But must they be mutually exclusive? Maybe so. Maybe in lauding the small actions, we risk failure to achieve the more important steps towards equity. How do we calibrate our judgment to hold people appropriately accountable?
In conclusion, I find myself wondering if we are letting perfect be the enemy of good. No, “In the Heights” was not a perfect movie and it did commit sins against equity. No, recognition of Juneteenth does not punctuate the fight against systemic racism. But is it wrong to celebrate these small victories for communities of color who are still fighting for a bigger voice? I am a journalist by training, and I know how important it is to share our perspectives and experiences.
Our worldview is informed foremost by our lived experience, and that shouldn’t be condemned. But nor should it be our sole informant – open dialogue fosters change, change fosters progress, and we are ripe for progress.
For too long, the narrative has been written overwhelmingly by white voices. And I know – here I am, another white voice, contributing to the narrative. I don’t want to reinforce systems of oppression. I do want to use my platform to decry racism and hold people accountable.
Perhaps in previous decades, accountability could comfortably mean less than it does today – demand less than it does today. Perhaps the world is ready and pining for a new standard of accountability. If our conception of accountability must evolve (which I believe it must!), then I want to evolve with it. Help me understand how.