In an office of twenty people, I’ve encountered at least four women recently discussing Lena Dunham’s “Fresh Air” interview with Terry Gross. Clearly, we all listen to a lot of NPR, which puts us solidly in the white, educated, privileged demographic Girls is geared toward, but the primary reason we listened to the interview was to hear Dunham discuss race. Even though Dunham’s Hannah may claim that she is only “a voice of a generation,” the title of the show suggests that this comedy is supposed to be representative of more than just Dunham and her hipster friends. Obviously, Privileged, White, Straight, Liberal, Agnostic, East Coast Girls would have been a less pithy title and sound far too much like an undergraduate honors thesis, but I found it disheartening that Dunham, so hyperconscious of her class privilege, did not immediately recognize the attendant privilege of white skin.
Dunham did sound genuinely troubled by the criticism of the show’s lack of diversity, and she did not try to belittle it like her pal Leslie Arfin (who defines hipster racism). She argued that she was writing about the specific experience of a half Jew/half WASP living in Brooklyn and that she felt uncomfortable writing about the life of a black or hispanic character without having access to this cultural experience. Obviously, the best solution would be to have fewer Arfin-type co-writers and instead hire a more diverse crew of writers who could narrate the lives of privileged young women of color who might also date douchy guys and still expect their parents to pay their cell phone bills.I think Dunham is being honest about her own apprehensions about misrepresenting or co-opting another culture’s experiences. However, I’m glad critics raised the question of race and pop culture’s depiction of New York because this is an issue that should have been addressed twenty years ago. I live in Park Slope. This is traditionally the place where white people come to create more white people. Nevertheless, after taking an informal survey while walking around Prospect Park, I came to the conclusion that the babies in those strollers are not all as white as you might think. Not only do many people of color work in the neighborhood, but I ran into at least five mixed-race couples within an hour. Granted, I’m sure at least one partner in each of these pairings probably works in finance, and they probably both have graduate degrees from Columbia, Yale, or Michigan; however, they exist.
Continuing to probe this uncomfortable topic, I asked white, black, hispanic, asian, and mixed friends how they reacted to this controversy. They all answered by admitting, sheepishly, that they generally hang out with people of their own race, but everyone kept having to qualify this assertion (except for that Indian guy I dated, or my Latino co-workers, or my white or black college roommate, or my other friend of this or that race). The truth is that most people are still closest with those who are most like them. Nevertheless, in NYC, the land where well-educated, ambitious, liberal young people come to spend their twenties and thirties, “closest” does not always have to do with race. I have many friends who are nonwhite, but I have very few friends who did not graduate from a top-twenty school. Obviously, one could argue that this is also a problem, but my point is that what it means to be friends with someone “like you” does not boil down to race as much as class and education—at least in twenty-something NYC.
The reason that the whitewashing of NYC is then so insidious is that it reinforces the idea that there are no young black women struggling to establish meaningful careers or asian women dating men who won’t use condoms. Again, two things can be true at the same time. I like Lena Dunham. I really like Girls. I think that having a woman writing, directing, and staring in a major television comedy is an enormous step in the right direction. But I also think that there is nothing wrong with being critical of the show’s lack of diversity. I’m not arguing for a Cosby-type depiction of race that only focuses on those minorities who seem to be acting “white.” There is nothing wrong with Girls including a scene in which multiple black, Latina, and asian women work as underpaid nannies for white children. Visit any park in NYC. This is also a reality. But if Dunham wants her show to actually be inclusive and realistic, she cannot maintain this all-white universe. I’m not saying this to be politically correct. I’m saying this because it’s New York f’ing city, and no one lives in an ethnically homogenous bubble even when they think they do.