My parents were first-generation Americans who were born during World War II and raised in Yiddish- and Italian-speaking neighborhoods. They lived in the Bronx and in Manhattan, and they revolved in circles of people of all colors, all backgrounds, and all sexual orientations.
The year I was born, my parents moved to Los Angeles. It felt more like New York than not, because of the diversity. I’d estimate that 75% of the kids I was in elementary school with were not Caucasian. They were mostly Korean, Mexican and Central American. A handful of my classmates had parents from Africa and Japan and China, and several of my classmates had parents of different races (we called it “mixed-race” then, but I don’t know if that’s politically correct nowadays). In junior high and high school, most students at the public schools I attended in the San Fernando Valley were Latino and African-American. I knew Armenians, South Asians and South Americans too.
I also knew gay people in my childhood. My parents were artists and in the bohemian circles they revolved in in the 1960s and 1970s, the gay and straight communities hung out together without it being a “statement” or an issue. Some people were gay. That was it. I grew up knowing about gay people and my parents had gay couples over to our house. I don’t remember ever having questions or conflict about it. That was my America.
I started acting in 1986 at 11 years old. I was taken on by an agent who told me that I wasn’t going to have a typical career. Why? Because of how I looked. I couldn’t play “All-American.”
I thought a lot about this – trying to grok it as I started my career. Given what my America looked like, I thought I was as much of a representation of America as my Mexican and Korean and African-American classmates. I looked like a person, after all. Isn’t America made up of people?
You see, in 1986, “All-American” meant blonde hair and blue eyes, or brown hair and brown eyes, or red hair and green eyes with freckles; but no matter what hair or eye color you had, you had to have small features. All-American meant not ethnic, because that was the America being portrayed when I was a kid in commercials and on television and in movies, unless it was a commercial or TV show or movie about an ethnic or “unusual” looking person.
When I speak to young audiences under the age of 30, they laugh when I talk about this. Because even when I speak to audiences in the middle of this country who are overwhelmingly white, they know that that’s not all of America. And if it ever was, it’s certainly not anymore. For young people growing up in this century – even if they live in white communities – the media and the internet and the shift in population in the places that write the scripts and make the movies and TV have made it so that the portrait of America is no longer white. In effect, “All-American” means nothing, and it means everything.
I was recently on an airplane to Canada and was pleasantly startled to see that the safety video shown before take-off featured a couple that was, to my heterosexual eye, gay. Of course, they could have just been straight friends or even gay friends, but whoever cast the actors in this video was, I think, casting two men to play a gay couple. And no; I don’t mean they were in drag or looked like any of the stereotypes of gay people you might be thinking of! They were an attractive, well-dressed couple who looked a lot like the gay couples I know. The video also showed a light-skinned African-Canadian (do they use that term in Canada?!) man and a South Asian woman in a sari with a bindi. This is what the world actually looks like.
It got me thinking: this is not only the new America; it’s the new world for many Western countries that have populations made up of so many kinds of people. And we now show all kinds of people in things like airline safety videos. Because that’s the world now. Hallelujah.