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“In the Heights” colorism controversy and why accurate representation is important

Recently, the newly released film adaption of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical–In the Heights–has received some controversy regarding the film’s casting choices and lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors, with critics citing colorism as the root cause of the inaccurate representation of the historic NYC neighborhood.

In the Heights, colorism controversy

In the Heights faces blacklash regarding colorism controversy. (Image Source)

Set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, the film’s themes celebrate diversity and identity. However, audiences were quick to notice the lack of dark-skinned Latinos in lead roles. Instead, all of the main Latinx characters are portrayed by light-skinned or white-passing actors. Viewers took to social media to voice their feelings and bring attention to the longstanding issue of colorism in Hollywood. 

In the Heights follows the lives of various Latinx characters living in Washington Heights, weaving their stories together in a celebration of Latin pride and Latinx stories. However, the film adaptation notably lacks dark-skinned Afro-Latinx main characters, creating an inaccurate portrayal of the NYC neighborhood. Described as a “melting pot” by In the Heights actress Melissa Barrera, Washington Heights, the film fails to portray an accurate “mosaic of this community.” 

While the film maintains a high rating on critic site, Rotten Tomatoes, and has favored well with general audiences, the issue of colorism remains a valid criticism and an important conversation to be had. 

Commenting on the controversy, actress Melissa Barrera said that “the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there. A lot of darker skinned people. And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent,” clarifying, “Because the cast ended up being us, and because Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like.”

It is true that there were dark-skinned performers in the group numbers as background dancers, but this only further highlights the key issue: there were none in lead roles. To dark-skinned Afro-Latinx viewers this sends the message that their lives and their stories are not important. It tells them that they are only “background” characters in the lives of light-skinned and white people. The film’s only dark-skinned character is Benny, played by non-Latino actor Corey Hawkins. In the musical, Benny pursues a romance with Nina, though he is viewed as an outsider by Nina’s father because he is not Latino. Being the only dark-skinned character in the main cast, this sends another message to audiences, that dark-skinned people are “outsiders” or don’t belong in Latino communities, which could not be farther from the truth. 

In our current socio-political climate, where race issues are at the forefront, this significant lack of dark-skinned Afto-Latinx actors in a film about a historically diversey neighborhood cannot be ignored. Movements like Black Lives Matter have made it clear that there is still so much work to be done regarding the treatment of Black lives in our society. The lack of visibility of Black lives and Black stories in our media is just one of many symptoms of systemic racism. Just as systemic racism prevents Black individuals from accessing resources, education, and employment due to long standing biases ingrained in our culture, Hollywood, too, is affected. 

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As Melissa Barrera pointed out in her statement, the audition process included many Afro-Latinx actors auditioning for lead roles. However, not a single one made it to the big screen. Why? Some may say it was down to talent, but there are many, many talented dark-skinned actors in Hollywood, so one has to wonder why they were not given the same opportunity to star in the film as light-skinned and white Latinx actors. 

In the Heights creator and American actor, singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, and playwright, Lin Manuel Miranda. (Image Source)

In a Twitter statement addressing the colorism controversy, Lin Manuel Miranda expressed his deep apology for the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx representation in the film. 

“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen,” he says. “And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen. I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend, and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles. I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling unseen in the feedback. I hear that, without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the world feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.”

“In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening. I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings. Thank you for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”

systemic racism

Black History Month: Steps toward dismantling systemic racism in the U.S. 

Today, a House Judiciary subcommittee is hosting a hearing to discuss the H.R. 40 bill which seeks to create a commission that would explore reparations for Black Americans who have faced disproportionate disadvantages due to long lasting systemic racism. If passed, this would be a major step toward dismantling systemic racism in the U.S. 

The effects of systemic racism 

Systemic racism, also referred to as structural or institutional racism, is defined as “a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity,” according to the Aspen Institute. Systemic racism is not something “a few people or institutions choose to practice.” It is ingrained in our social, economic, and political systems and has adapted over time. It identifies the parts of our history and culture that have historically privileged “whiteness” while subjecting people of color to unjust disadvantages. 

Black Lives Matter

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Since the protests from last summer following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought many issues surrounding racism in the U.S. to the forefront of national conversation. One of the biggest topics in the fight for racial equality is that of systemic racism and dismantling systemic racism in the U.S. 

Systemic racism is present in all systems and institutions and prevents or makes it more challenging for people of color to participate in society and in the economy. Some areas where systemic racism is prevalent include the criminal justice system, employment, housing, health care, politics and education. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some of the ways in which systemic racism in healthcare, employment, and housing has impacted people of color who suffer from disproportionate rates of infection and hospitalization. 

homeless

Black Americans make up nearly half of the homeless population. (Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

Black Americans face greater, disproportionate disadvantages due to historic practices of racism and discrimination within these systems that have evolved over time. One example of this is the, now illegal, practice of redlining. 

Redlining refers to the system used by banks and the real estate industry in the 20th century to determine which neighborhoods would get loans to buy homes, and neighborhoods where people of color lived — outlined in red ink — were deemed the riskiest to invest in.

This practice made it nearly impossible for people of color to obtain loans and was a form of segregation which kept people of color living in poor, low-income, often urban areas while white people were able to afford homes in the suburbs. 

Redlining was banned in 1968, however the areas that were once deemed “dangerous” or “hazardous” by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp are still more likely to be home to lower-income, minority residents to this day. Black Americans also make up nearly half of the homeless population today, despite making up only 13% of the population. These disproportionate numbers reflect the impact of systemic racism and shows how old systems of discrimination can become ingrained in our society and have lasting effects long after those practices have been banned. 

Steps toward dismantling racism in the U.S.

To properly dismantle systemic racism, change must be made across the board and all institutions must consciously reflect how they may be contributing to the discrimination of people of color or hindering their advancement in society. 

To address the issue moving forward, NAACP President Derrick Johnson outlined three key steps: First, we must “acknowledge that racism actually exists.” Second, we must get involved with organizations that are fighting it. And third, we must elect leaders and policy makers who won’t reinforce or support structurally racist policies. 

“Racism is not a partisan issue, and we need to stop making it a partisan issue,” Johnson said. “It’s a question of morality.”

systemic racism

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

President Biden has pledged to address the issue of systemic racism in his Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity last month where he stated that, 

“By advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved, which benefits everyone.  For example, an analysis shows that closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would amount to an additional $5 trillion in gross domestic product in the American economy over the next 5 years.” 

Additionally, in his Proclamation on National Black History Month, 2021, President Biden reiterated these sentiments stating: 

“we are also launching a first-ever whole‑government-approach to advancing racial justice and equity across our Administration –- in health care, education, housing, our economy, our justice system, and in our electoral process.  We do so not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do, benefiting all of us in this Nation.

We do so because the soul of our Nation will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to persist.  It is corrosive.  It is destructive.  It is costly.  We are not just morally deprived because of systemic racism, we are also less prosperous, less successful, and less secure as a Nation.”

You might be interested: How systemic racism is costing the U.S. trillions

Another step Congress is taking toward dismantling systemic racism in the U.S. is the possibility of granting reparations to the families of formerly enslaved African Americans. After the Civil War, reparations were promised to formerly enslaved families, but the promise was never fulfilled. Now, Congress is taking another look at the H.R. 40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” 

The bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989, and since the last time a hearing was held on H.R. 40 in 2019, it has garnered the support of 170 members of Congress and 300 organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, NAACP and ACLU. However, in the three decades since the bill was first introduced, it has yet to reach the House floor for a vote. 

Today, a House Judiciary subcommittee is hosting a hearing to discuss the H.R. 40 bill.

If passed, H.R. 40 seeks to establish a commission to study “and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes,” according to H.R. 40’s text.

systemic racism

How systemic racism is costing the U.S. trillions

Systemic racism has cost the U.S. a whopping $16 trillion, A new study by Citigroup released last week finds out. That’s right, the U.S. could have been $16 trillion richer if it not for racial inequality which has economically impacted Black Americans for over the past 20 years.

systemic racism

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Systemic racism is costing the U.S. trillions

In recent months we as a society have become much more aware of the injustices that Black Americans face in our country. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought many of the issues caused by systemic racism to the fore with recent protests and rallies pushing back against these injustices and crimes against Black Americans. From the killing of innocent unarmed Black men and women such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the mass incarceration of people of color (POC) to economic inequality such as POC receiving lower wages from their white co-workers, recent months have shone a light on the effects of systemic racism in the U.S.

When people talk of racism, many white people will claim it’s a thing of the past. “Racism is over,” they’ll say. “It ended long ago,” as if the Civil Right movement was centuries ago and not merely 70 years, with many who fought in the movement still alive today. The system wants you to forget. They want you to believe that it “was so long ago, but we’re past that now” so you won’t go take a closer look at the issue and the world around you today.

But a closer look reveals that racism is far from over and its effects have deep and lasting consequences for Black Americans and their quality of life.

The effects of systemic racism on Black Americans

The future if we close the economic gap today (Source: Citi Research)

“The 400 years of enslavement of Black populations in the Americas has residual effects that persist to this day despite tomes of legislation providing equal access to various aspects of American life under the law,” says the study conducted by Citigroup. “Attitudes and policies undermining equal access are at the root of the racial gaps plaguing U.S. society.”

Citigroup’s study attempts to quantify the economic impact of systemic racism. Its findings have estimated that:

  • Black workers have lost $113 billion in potential wages over the past two decades because they could not get a college degree.
  • The housing market has lost $218 billion in sales because Black applicants could not get home loans.
  • And about $13 trillion in business revenue never flowed into the economy because Black entrepreneurs could not access bank loans.

If we were to close the gap of economic inequality due to systemic racism and discrimination, then the U.S. could have close to $5 trillion in gross domestic product over the next five years, the study indicates.

What can we do to close the economic gap?

Since systemic racism is a huge part of the issue, the first step to closing the gap of economic inequality is to address factors of systemic racism. Incarceration rates among Black Americans, voter suppression efforts and conscious bias in hiring all play a role in hindering the U.S. from making strides in closing this gap, Citigroup said.

systemic racism

Attitudes and policies that undermine equal access are the root of the racial gaps plaguing U.S. society (Source: Citi Research).

Our efforts need to be directed toward dismantling these systems and biases that are limiting and oppressing Black Americans. One way to do this is to put pressure on government officials to implement change such as promote financial inclusion, implement tax reform and housing incentives, invest in wealth building, invest in protections against discrimination, provide guaranteed wages and implement salary history bans.

On a corporate level, we need to urge corporations to support diversity and inclusion initiatives from the top, address racial gaps in hiring, retention, and firing, recruit more Black board members and dismantle structural barriers to hiring black talent.

economic inequality

A path toward equality (Source: Citi Research)

Citigroup has taken initiative and said they will be directing $1 billion toward helping to close the racial wealth gap, investing $550 million over the next three years in encouraging home-ownership for people of color, and another 50 million will go toward capital investments for Black entrepreneurs.

On a personal level, we as individuals can utilize our political power by voting in the upcoming 2020 election and putting leaders in power who will prioritize issues of equality. It is our duty as citizens and members of a society to look out for those in our communities.

How we can close the gap of racial inequality (Source: Citi Research)

A society is a community first and foremost and members of a productive and just society cannot only think of their individual selves but they must think of every member. If members of a society are not being treated fairly and given the same equal rights and opportunities, than the entire society will suffer.

The economic inequality caused by centuries of systemic racism has cost the U.S. trillions of dollars and severely impacted the livelihood of Black Americans. If we come together as a country and fight for rights of our fellow citizens, then we all will prosper