I can see it in their faces; here she goes again, when I tell people I have mixed feelings about a piece of news they excitedly brought to my attention. “But you always complain that there aren’t a lot of people of color/queer people/marginalized people in the media! You should be happy! If you’re not happy now, will you ever be happy? Will it ever be enough?”
I remember when I started becoming aware of how unaware I had been to social injustice. Before, I was a fair weather advocate. I would happily wave a rainbow flag at a drag show or find excitement when Brandi played Cinderella in the colorblind version of the fairytale. But after sitting through classes and becoming involved on-campus with social justice centered groups, I felt overwhelmed by the information I was taking in. At first, I became angry at all the injustices brought to my attention. But then I became confused. I began questioning myself, my thoughts, my words, my actions. I wanted to help change everything, and see actions turn into results. But I didn’t understand how.
I remember sitting in a history of black film class when my professor asked us if we had seen “The Princess and the Frog.” I hadn’t seen the movie but I was aware that it was the first Disney princess movie to feature a black princess.
“What did you notice about Tiana?” my professor asked. After some silence he blurted out, “she had a big butt!”
My initial thought was, how dare these artists illustrate Tiana as a caricature of a black woman. My second thought, was what would happen if they did the opposite? What if they had copied the standard Disney princess face and frame to use for Tiana. Would people be upset that Tiana was now a White Disney princess in blackface? Or that Tiana’s body had been whitewashed? Was there a way to make everyone happy enough with Tiana’s portrayal?
A week later, a professor of sociology who had published literature on the portrayal of blackness in the media gave a lecture at my school. I didn’t get to ask him a question during his lecture, but I later emailed him asking him about Tiana’s portrayal and whether she could have ever been drawn to represent black women in a way that made everyone happy. His response has stuck with me, four years later, and is something I look to when I have doubt about the effectiveness of the work I do as a social justice educator.
He told me to look at the overall system as opposed to this one example. Instead of considering Tiana by herself, he challenged me to look at the Disney princess franchise. Was Tiana one of many Black Disney princesses? If not, why was this? Because she is the only black Disney princess, she will undoubtedly be under scrutiny for being the exception to the rule and critiqued for her entire character as the only example to understand blackness in the Disney princess world. And if she is the only, is it fair to hold her to the expectation to represent black women? And beyond this, why not take down the whole Disney Princess system that promotes patriarchal, heteronormative norms? Will the work ever end?
For me, this professor challenged me to look at the bigger picture. He asked me to consider the systems and institutions that created this one example. It’s not easy to take down an entire system. It takes a lot of work and contribution from many people. It may feel defeating at times to have low attendance at a program, or to have trouble retaining students. But social justice work is difficult, if it wasn’t, we would have solved many things a while ago. It’s not easy, it’s not fast, and it can get messy and complex.
I understand that social justice is a process and a goal, but I do recognize that process isn’t always as tangible as some would like. Sometimes I question my effectiveness as a social justice advocate when I do not necessarily see the results I envisioned. As with my last post, I will end with an open question to student affairs professionals and social justice educators: What inspires you to continue to fight the good fight in the face of slow progress?
Stacie Taniguchi is a second year graduate student at the University of West Georgia’s Professional Counseling and College Student Affairs Program. She currently works in the First-Year Experience Office as a graduate assistant. Ever since becoming involved with student of color, queer, and feminist groups in undergrad, she has found her passion in learning about and advocating for social justice. Stacie is thankful for the opportunity to write an entry for the ACPA CSJE blog and cannot wait to be more involved in the future. She hopes people will connect with her to share their experiences and thoughts by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org