It didn’t take me very long to figure out which “Gina” the tweets on my timeline were referencing Tuesday. Gina Rodriguez, known for the titular role on the CW’s beloved “Jane the Virgin,” has a history of, shall we say, missing the point when it comes to conversations about race despite the fact that she is of Puerto Rican heritage. Given this context, it took me all of three minutes to locate the now-deleted Instagram video where Rodriguez raps along (I’m being generous) to the Fugees' iconic “Ready or Not” and — stop me if you heard this one before — says the N-word.
I am not interested in litigating who is “allowed” to use the N-word; it’s a conversation we have had for years, and I honestly don’t understand how anyone could still be confused right here in 2019. But I am a little shocked that Rodriguez posted the video with her singing the word and didn’t have a friend who texted her immediately with, “Oh no, baby, what is you doing?” (The video stayed up for what felt like days, though it was only a few hours.)
For the most part, the black folks upset on Twitter were annoyed that she had made it harder to root for her continued success. Rodriguez is an immensely talented actress — in less capable hands, Jane could be slapstick and silly, yet she grounds the role with charm and warmth. The irritation only intensified after her initial apology: “I am sorry if I offended anyone by singing along to The Fugees, to a song I love that I grew up on,” she said in a video that has also now been deleted. It was a classic “I’m sorry you were offended” apology, the kind where you can feel the shaping hand of a publicist.
A few hours later, Rodriguez made a slightly better effort that still didn’t hit the mark. A new text post on her Instagram read in part: “I thoughtlessly sang along to the lyrics of a favorite song, and even worse, I posted it.” She goes on to say that the word she said “carries a legacy of hurt and pain” and assures readers that she feels “deeply protective and responsible to the community of color,” vowing to do better.
The phrase “Community of color” is simultaneously the silliest thing I have ever heard and exactly the problem with Gina Rodriguez’s understanding of race. Refusing to say “black people” or “the black community” when apologizing for using the N-word is, at best, an inability to understand what she is apologizing for and, at worst, a deliberately misleading tactic to brush aside the hurt she caused. Unfortunately, it is also not uncommon. While it can be tempting to want people of color to work together against white supremacy and racism, antiblack racism is persistent in all communities, not just white ones.
The phrase “the community of color” is funny because it is so perfectly meaningless. “The community” leads the reader to believe there is one supercommunity that Gina is referencing and is herself a part of. But the follow-up “of color” leads one to ask: What color? It is her inability to specifically name the people who were hurt by her thoughtless use of the N-word — black people — that makes the second apology ring so hollow. There is only one “community of color” that was historically labeled that way, that had the word hurled at them for centuries as they were enslaved, beaten and killed.
There is a danger in assuming all minorities are the same, in assuming the struggles of someone who is Latino are similar to the struggles of a black person. As language has shifted and evolved, we have moved toward using person-first terminology; instead of saying “homeless people,” for instance, we say “people experiencing homelessness.” Where we once might have used “nonwhite people” or “minorities,” words that define populations by the negative, there has been a push to use “people of color.” But the problem with the recent uptick in the use of that phrase is that it’s imprecise, and speakers can elide the complexity inherent in conversations about race.
When you are talking about a group of people who are of various races, saying “people of color” makes sense. To refer to one specific black person as a “person of color,” however, means that the speaker has effectively erased the distinct struggles of the individual in front of them. It’s a phrase that white folks use to feel more comfortable in conversations about race; as Rachelle Hampton wrote in Slate earlier this year, “Suggesting that newsrooms or corporate boards need to hire more people of color when there are specifically no Latino people or Southeast Asians on the payroll suggests that any nonwhite person will do, that we are all the same and bring the same experience to the table.” The lack of specificity is the problem.
Cast your mind back to the Sundance film festival luncheon in 2017 that celebrated women in Hollywood. Salma Hayek, the Mexican American actress known for her Oscar-nominated role as Frida Kahlo, was talking about the importance of hiring women but urged her fellow attendees not “to fall into victimization.” Jessica Willams of “The Daily Show” and “2 Dope Queens” had a different take. Being black and a woman wasn’t something she felt victimized by per se, but it also wasn’t something she felt she could ignore — in large part because she knew that others wouldn’t.
Hayek’s inability to see Williams’ point, and her call for women to adopt the same attitude she has, was her refusing to see how the differences in their experiences as “people of color” matter. Hayek has a different experience as a light-skinned Mexican American woman. Williams’ experience is not Hayek’s, and that’s fine: They get to have different experiences! What’s not fine is when we try to group the two together and flatten the specific experiences of one at the expense of another.
Of course, I am not saying that the ways in which discussions about race get simplified to one “community of color” is the fault of Gina Rodriguez. I don’t think her thoughtless video is the cause of antiblack sentiment among communities of color. But I do think that her inability to specifically name the community she has offended comes from an eagerness to assume all “communities of color” are the same. After all, it would be much easier to undo the work of white supremacy if that were true. But we aren’t there yet, and to erase the blackness of the people to whom she meant to apologize is to erase the legacy of the N-word.
When it comes to apologies, I think she owes it to the “community of color” she alleges to support to do the bare minimum. It shouldn’t be so easy for someone to say the N-word, yet impossible for them to say “black.”