It’s Not Her, It’s Us: Race in Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn

Brooklyn | 05/29/2012 7:30am | Comments
Ben Adler | Next American City

The assertions that it is so unrealistic for none of Hannah’s three closest friends to be non-white is a bizarre misrepresentation of life in New York. Credit: HBO

If you are under 40 and have been on the Internet in the last month, then surely you’ve heard about Girls, HBO’s new sitcom created by and starring Lena Dunham, a 25-year-old Oberlin graduate. If you’ve followed the commentary on Girls, you’ve gotten a primer in how badly cultural critics fail to understand the nuances of cities and the urban experience.

Dunham’s character on the show, Hannah, is an aspiring writer living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She is based on Dunham herself, except that Dunham grew up in Manhattan, whereas Hannah hails from East Lansing, Mich. (Disclosure: Dunham went to the same high school as me and knew my younger brother.)

Girls humorously depicts the sexual and emotional lives of young women, but with far more seriousness and sophistication than, say, the film Bridesmaids. Given the dearth of shows made by and for women on television, it has gone through the life cycle of an exciting new cultural product with alarming speed. It was the subject of glowing print articles in New York and The New Yorker before it had aired. Soon the sexual proclivities of its characters were being critically analyzed everywhere from feminist blogs to the cover of Newsweek.

Within weeks the online conversation had progressed from gender to race. Girls has been widely lambasted for all the main characters being white. Bloggers say it is unrealistic, offensive and even racist. In fact, it is merely reality, and the complaints about it show how simplistic and self-satisfied liberals can be when talking about race and cities.

The more restrained writers argued that Girls would be a better show if it were more diverse. “My chief beef is not simply that the girls in Girls are white,” wrote Jenna Worthman in The Hairpin. “The problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that.”

Credit: Victor Villanueva on Flickr

Harsher critics argued that Girls was actually denying the existence of every demographic that the show is not about. In Gawker, Max Read complains, “Dunham’s accidental erasure of the people of color who live in Greenpoint and go to dinner parties, substitute race for a sort of nebulous sense of class — unhelpfully ignoring millions of middle-class people of color, not to mention the millions of white people living and working in poverty.”

Some writers took this supposed “erasure” exceedingly personally. Racialicious ran a post titled, "Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist," by Kendra James, who identifies herself as an African-American from “a nice New Jersey suburb,” who attended boarding school and Oberlin.

“Our views of life in New York city [sic] seem to be radically different,” writes James. “Not only do I work with a WOC [woman of color] who attended high school with her, I have friends who went to high school with both her and her younger sister and, because my friends consist of Latin@s [sic], Asians, Blacks, and whites, I know her life couldn’t possibly have looked as white as the posters for Girls (which is semi-true to life; she calls her character Hannah ‘another version of herself) would have you believe.” [Emphases in original]

Another blogger was so offended that she openly declared a vendetta against Dunham. “I have a problem with Lena Dunham,” writes Francie Latour in the Boston Globe. “The problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the City in 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks. Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.”

One must start here with the logical fallacy at root in the latter three of these quotes: That any fictional show depicting one group of people is denying the very existence of every other. That is absurd. Dunham never denied that James exists just because the four main characters on her show are white. Shows that are set in New York do not deny the existence of people living in Philadelphia, Oklahoma or Indonesia and shows about white people do not deny the existence of non-whites. It is deeply unfair to Dunham to infer that just because a character does not exist on Girls means she is asserting they do not exist at all in the real world.

Prior to gentrification, Greenpoint was a mostly Polish enclave in Brooklyn. Credit: Erin Sparling on Flickr

As a native of Brooklyn, I find the assertions that it is so unrealistic and offensive for none of Hannah’s three closest friends to be non-white to be naive and a bizarre misrepresentation of life in New York. Both my next-door neighbors growing up were middle class black families, so I’m well aware that New York life can be as diverse as James says her life is. And I would argue that, relative to car-dependent suburbs and Sun Belt cities, there is enormous value in living in a city where you walk the sidewalks and sit in the parks and take the subway every day with people from diverse backgrounds, even if you aren’t best friends with most of them.

But the statistics that James and Latour cite are so misleading as to be nearly irrelevant. Areas can be very segregated within a technically diverse metropolis. Go to Washington, D.C., which is majority minority, but stay west of Connecticut Avenue and you would think you’re in an almost exclusively white city. Stay East of the Anacostia River and you might never see a white person.

As Anna Holmes observed in The New Yorker, “Lena Dunham’s world — her Tribeca neighborhood; her Brooklyn Heights school, [Saint]. Ann’s; and her Midwestern liberal-arts college, Oberlin — are populated mostly by privileged white people.”

If you look at a large enough geographic entity, you will find plenty of races that are not represented on Girls. You could, for example, say that there are more than one billion Chinese people on Earth, and yet not a single one of Dunham’s main characters is Chinese so she is falsely denying their existence. But that would be absurd.

It is only slightly less absurd to look at a city of 8 million people and demand that a show represent its aggregate demographics. New York achieves its total diversity by having a collection of often parochial and homogenous ethnic enclaves. Suppose someone set a show in Breezy Point, Queens, which is the Census tract with the highest proportion of Americans claiming Irish ancestry. If the show’s protagonist was a fireman named Kevin O’Sullivan, and all his friends were white, would anyone complain that this is unrealistic?

Now imagine a show set in the Russian immigrant community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. If the main characters in the show were all Russians, would that be unrealistic? Would it be racist? Obviously not.

Recent college graduates from America are a self-contained immigrant group in New York, just like Russians. They often find it strange, even inconceivable that I actually grew up in New York, because they know no one else who did. Here’s a transcript of a conversation I recently had with a lawyer from South Dakota who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is mentioned on Girls.

Her: “Wow, you’re from Brooklyn, that’s unusual.”
Me: “No it isn’t, almost 3 million people live in Brooklyn, they have kids.”
Her: “Well, I mean it’s rare that you meet someone who grew up here.”
Me: “No it isn’t, it’s rare that you meet someone who grew up here. I meet them all the time.”

If yuppie interlopers in Brooklyn find it odd to meet someone like me — a white person from their same class background who happens to have grown up there — how often do they hang out with Latinos from Sunset Park or Caribbean-Americans from Canarsie? Of course some of them have non-white friends. It would have been perfectly plausible if Girls had more non-white characters. But is it really that remarkable for a white girl from Oberlin to have three best friends who are also white? Not at all.

After being repeatedly asked in interviews why there weren’t more non-white characters on Girls, to which Dunham replied that she wishes there were and she hopes there will be next season, Dunham was spotted filming an episode of with African-American actor Don Glover. There won’t be anything inherently unrealistic about having a black character on the show next season — someone from Hannah’s milieu very well could be friends with or date a black man — but it is no more realistic than his absence this season.

Aside from the obvious fact that many people mostly socialize with others like themselves, it is unilluminating to talk about New York’s or Brooklyn’s racial statistics in one large clump. Hannah lives in Greenpoint, in Brooklyn’s northwestern corner. It is geographically, and demographically, closer to mostly white neighborhoods in other boroughs, such as Manhattan’s East Village and Queens’ Long Island City, than it is to the mostly black neighborhoods of southeastern Brooklyn, such as Brownsville and East New York. Even before gentrification, Greenpoint was overwhelmingly white, as it was an enclave of Polish immigrants.

If you look at the statistics on a more meaningful level, as an excellent new article in the current print issue of theWagner Review does, you see a city composed of often heavily segregated neighborhoods. Brownsville and East Flatbush are only 2 percent white, while Breezy Point is only 2 percent non-white. And even residential diversity within geographical boundaries can be misleading. Schools often segregate even within racially diverse neighborhoods. A recent study by The New York Times found that in New York City public schools, “About 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race.”

Credit: Ken on Flickr

Consider the Hasidic Jews who live next to African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans in Crown Heights. Hasids manage to be as cloistered as the Amish. They barely talk to Jews who aren’t ultra-orthodox, so how much do they socialize with their black neighbors? The fact that you could lazily draw a circle around one of these areas and say, “look, it’s so diverse,” doesn’t mean it would make sense for a television show about a young Hasidic woman to have non-Hasidic, much less non-white, best friends.

And, sure enough, you see this in District 17 in Crown Heights, Flatbush, East Flatbush and Farragut, where the white population is largely made up of orthodox and Hasidic Jews. “Census data for District 17 put the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade population at 75 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic, 12 percent white and 1 percent Asian,” writes the Times. “But the white students go elsewhere — many to yeshivas or other private schools.”

There are, of course, differences among gentrifying neighborhoods. Whereas Greenpoint was white before gentrification, some trendy areas — Harlem, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill — were mostly black. If Hannah happened to live in those neighborhoods her next door neighbors might be black. And those neighborhoods have black people among the yuppies and hipsters who are moving in and who — unlike, say, an elderly black couple — Hannah might hang out with.

But even if Hannah lived there, it wouldn’t be particularly unrealistic for her closest friends to be a few other women who happen to be white. In the last year one of my best friends moved to a mostly ungentrified block in Harlem and another to a mostly ungentrified block in Crown Heights. But they don’t spend most their time with their new next door neighbors; they mostly hang out with friends from high school and college.

This is typical. As Salamishah Tillet noted in The Nation, “Recent data has shown that while a substantial number of whites and blacks claim to have interracial friends, when asked to list the names of their close friends, only 6 percent of whites and 15.2 percent of blacks actually listed a friend of another race.” Girls is a fairly accurate portrayal of the social segregation that is rampant in our society. Some viewers might be upset by the ugliness of that image, but they should not blame Dunham for it.