As a young boy, I remember getting a book on “Nature” for my birthday. It covered the oceans, the trees, the continents, animals, humans… and one page was devoted to the notion of race. On it, a picture showed a black man on the left, a white man on the right and, between them, a man who was clearly the child of a mixed marriage. Under the picture a caption read: “Who would the man on the left say is white? Who would the man on the right say is black? What would the man in the middle say?” Perhaps I’m paraphrasing through my now adult viewpoints, but I seem to recall that page made the point that there is but one race, the human one. Everything else, it said, were just ethnic and cultural subsets of humanity.
That concept resonated with me, both as a child and, later, as an adult. I passed it on to my own children, who quickly grew accustomed to never asking me what race someone was, or to use race as a defining character when trying to describe one of their friends or a new acquaintance.
And yet, as a describer for the vision impaired, I have had to revisit this idea… and it’s a bit more complicated than it seems.
Let’s say I’m describing the opening scene of a movie: “A middle aged woman gets on a bus and casually takes the first seat available”.
So far, so good.
How about this? “A middle aged woman gets on a 1950’s bus and casually takes the first seat available”.
Does it make a difference if she’s black? Of course it does.
So: “A black, middle aged woman gets on a 1950’s bus and casually takes the first seat available”. This is clearly the story being told. This is the director’s vision.
But in choosing to describe it that way, am I normalising white, Europeans as the standard?
After ten years of working in video description, and thousands of hours of described productions, I have worked on several shows where the standard was the other way around. Two sitcoms – Lord Have Mercy and Da Kink in My Hair – and several movies, like Ten Thousand Men Named George, featured a mostly black cast, with occasional appearances by members of other ethnic groups. In those instances, it was clearly necessary to describe the whiteness of someone as they entered a scene for the first time. In other words, within the context of those productions, being black was “normal” and being white, Asian or Hispanic was unexpected.
But what about incidental parts in just a typical show, where the actor’s ethnicity does not appear to be an integral part of the story. Say, a doctor who appears in just one scene, and happens to be Asian? What’s the standard then?
I have long taken the position that my job as a describer is not just to “tell the story”, but to tell the story the director, writer and producers were trying to tell. I am not allowed to either improve on it or diminish it. I am a translator of their vision, as good or bad as it may be.
So, with some reluctance, I do find myself often describing ethnicity. Not usually for the majority of the cast, but if the doctor is Asian, then a casting director, a producer and the director of the show made that determination and, if time and other factors permit, I feel ethically compelled to pass that along to the vision-impaired audience.
Has the last word been written on the subject of race in video description? I doubt it. And perhaps, some day, this will all be somewhat moot. I, for one, can’t wait.