Broad City, Ilana and Space Enough for Bothness

I remember the day I found out that Ilana from Broad City wasn’t biracial. I Googled around until I found evidence that there were others like me: biracial girls who felt a little bit incredulous; just a hair shy of betrayed. To this day I haven’t been able to convince whatever part of my brain that initially projected that identity onto her to unclench.

Part of my stubbornness may have to do with pride. When I was younger, I frequently asked strangers on the street if they were biracial and I had a pretty good track record for guessing correctly. It was a kind of gaydar. In fact, the two -dars are not, for me, unrelated, but I don’t think I can get into all of that right now.

Lately, I have been wanting to write from an emptier and emptier page. To forget everything I know or think I know. To feel a sense of anticipation that a curving line is as likely to make an abstract shape or an ostrich as it is to make a letter. Maybe it’s the fact that I was invited to dance freely to classical music in a yoga class a few weeks ago and realized how much I missed ballet. I was about nine years old the last time I danced like that. I used to choreograph routines and zigzag in diagonal lines across the living room to Anita Baker.

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In college I spent a lot of time thinking about the book Cane, in which Jean Toomer begins sections with the fragment of an unfinished circle. Before the lyric essay was an origami bird in a mostly white literary world, Toomer wrote a thing that was concerned with racelessness and it was prose and also some poems and a play. Ralph Ellison said, in his 1953 National Book award speech, “we who struggle with form and with America.”

Sometimes, when I stretch in the morning, I get light headed and I have to crawl onto my hands and knees to stay steady or else I fall down. When I start to come to, it feels warm and good, like I am waking up as a child. Fainting might not be the best way to do it but there are rituals that we can perform in order to create what feels like a blank page. Rituals that find a way to circumvent or subvert or deconstruct or dismantle or trip up or cover over or swim out from under the constriction of binaries that make it hard to breathe.

In CA Conrad’s book, Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, the poet offers a collection of exercises that tip-toe toward a dreamscape that we can enter together: “I rode several of my favorite escalators in Philadelphia, taking notes up and down the vantages. At the top and bottom of the ride I would show photographs of myself to strangers and ask, ‘EXCUSE ME, have you seen this person?’ Sometimes there was confusion.”

Conrad is as much a mediator as he is a creator. He speaks of crystals: “I touched the tree with my left hand while speaking into my crystal in my right hand, ‘PLEASE translate any messages my tree friend has for me.'” He does not take the function of any object or body for granted: “At each security camera I paused, looked into the camera, DIRECTLY IN THERE, and stuck my tongue inside a flower… A security guard asked, ‘What the fuck are YOU DOING?’ I replied, “I’M A POLLINATOR, I’M A POLLINATOR!!”

All along the way he introduces categories, boxes, indicating what it is we need to release ourselves from, even though the maneuver is always so delicate: “My generation is the last to have our mothers touch their bellies talking to us as male and female.” And, “The ultrasound machine gives the parents the ability to talk to the unborn by their gender, taking the intersexed nine-month conversation away from the child.”

What does language sound like when it makes space enough for bothness?

It might sound something like Broad City.

Every episode seems to like to play with the notion of opposites. So often they split the screen. Ilana is usually the black one, like, pop culturally. Abbi plays the white part– what with her adoration of Laura Linney and her devotion to Oprah. And then they have that twin thing where they speak their own language together, which is laughter, like the biracial girls in Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and they tunnel their way toward the space where “Pass that Dutch” is one with “Gypsy.” Suddenly the world is speaking two languages at once. And Abbi and Ilana teach you how to speak this way, or they teach you that we all know how to speak this way. That we can find, like CA Conrad did, a new friend on the escalator who will get it. Someone who will look straight into both your eyes without needing to split you in half.

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Aisha writes essays about art, race and film from Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared or can soon be found in Ecotone, The Offing, Sierra Nevada Review, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Essay Daily and Guernica, where she serves as a contributing editor. Her book, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was published by University of Iowa Press in 2013.

Aisha has written 16 articles for us.

43 Comments

  1. I understand your disappointment in being able to identify with her racially, but you wrote an entire article with her ethnic identity as the premise without even mentioning her *actual* ethnic identity.

    She’s Jewish, which is still an othered identity. Jewish women who look like her tend to grow up being bullied for having poofy, curly hair, for looking “too masculine” and for being “dirty,” “untrustworthy,” a “Christ-killer” and so on.

    Basically, yes, while many Jews (but not POC Jews) benefit from white privilege – and yes, we’re well-represented in the media, lol stereotypes – we still deal with heaps of bullshit from other white folks.

    Let me tell you about the sting of being literally pelted with pennies by other children at my elementary school, or how last week, I had to explain to my doctor that yes, my family is low-income, because no, all Jews aren’t rich, and that’s a stereotype. My actual doctor who graduated medical school had to be told this, in 2016. In NYC.

    White idiots have also petted my thick, unruly hair without consent, and because I “pass” for not-Jewish, I’ve had the pleasure of being trapped in the same room as anti-Semites spewing hatred and Holocaust jokes while being too afraid to out myself and speak up.

    As for my partner, who does “look Jewish,” they’ve been stalked by hateful white men spewing “dirty Jew” “Hitler was right” bullshit. They’ve had to run out of the train station in tears, fearing for their life. This has happened on multiple occasions. In NYC. Within this decade.

    Perhaps you could find appreciation for what she actually is, and educate yourself about how Jews are still considered the ‘other’ by mainstream white society in 2016?

    • Oh wow, my picture next to my comment is from when I cut all of my hair off 4 years ago and had straightened it for that pic. I don’t know how to change it, but my hair is currently a gigantic and delightfully thick mess of curls that takes hours on hours to dry.

      • SFG, you are so right. I fret constantly when writing about race because I know I am going to find a way to be myopic and I absolutely didn’t account for Ilana’s actual background in writing this weird thing about mis-reading her and how that misreading spins out in my mind. I actually do appreciate Ilana very much for exactly who she is, I’m sorry that wasn’t more clear. And I appreciate your feedback and your thick mess of curls and the lovely picture that, alas, doesn’t properly honor them.

      • Oh wow, my picture next to my comment is from when I cut all of my hair off 4 years ago and had straightened it for that pic. I don’t know how to change it…

        You can change your profile pic by clicking “Members” at the top right, then click “My Profile” then click “Change Profile Photo.” I’m sure your hair is great either way!

        <3
        Bren
        Editorial Assistant

    • Dude I feel you, what you’re talking about matters, but weighing in this particular way feels a little bit like you’re steamrolling over this particular conversation about race. Ilana is Jewish but her character absolutely reads as biracial to lots of people, not just this author, in a way that is actually pretty complicated. And it’s important that she gets to be visible and Jewish and awesome, and your personal experiences deserve to be heard, but weighing in in a way that you are expecting an apology from this author doesnt actually seem appropriate to me in this moment.

      • The author was writing about frustration with erasure. The commentor was writing about frustration about erasure. They’re the same frustration. The author wrote back to commiserate. I thought this was really beautiful. I didn’t see steam-rolling, I saw communication and closure. Just think of how frustrated this commentor would’ve been without that kind of acknowledgement – almost as frustrated as the author is with her own sense of erasure?

        … see what I did there?

    • I’m sorry those things happened to you and your partner, that shouldn’t happen. I know that feeling about not speaking up or editing what you say to make it more general and less Jewish sounding(had to do it last week). I may have to drop a friend just cause this person believed in some of the KKK lies/conspiracies(despite this friend being not straight).

      *spoiler* She(if I remember correctly) mentions her Jewish identity again on the episode that aired tonight.

    • I loved the article and also this comment. I think they both bring up valid points.

      Also, I am not sure what Ilana’s heritage is, but there are definitely are also Jewish POCs. In Israel, Mizrahi Jews (Jews who originated from Arab countries) are Jews of color and are subject to oppression and race issues not dissimilar from those in America. Here is a really good piece in which the author, a Mizrahi Jew, asks herself if she is a person of color in America:

      http://forward.com/opinion/318667/im-a-mizrahi-jew-do-i-count-as-a-person-of-color/

      • I think SFG’s point was that Jewish POC don’t benefit from white privilege and don’t face the exact same race issues as white Jews, not that Jewish POC don’t exist.

        • YES EXACTLY

          People think Jewish = white, Eastern-European, since those are the ones who’ve been allowed to have representation in American media, and because racist policies in Israel have afforded them visibility and privilege.

          But Jewish POC (Sephardim, Mizrahi, Bukharan, Ethiopian, Yemeni, etc.) are rarely recognized, and it’s bullshit. They definitely exist and face so many issues of intersectionality, and I really wish that they would be acknowledged in the media/pop culture as part of the diaspora.

          It’s awful that within a marginalized/oppressed community and how it’s represented, white privilege and in turn, POC invisibility, continue to rear their ugly heads.

          • I didn’t mean to imply that SFG doesn’t recognize Jews of color (it was obvious to me that opposite is true). Just bad wording on my part 🙂
            And SFG– totally agree with every word!

          • I was just getting fingerprinted for work at the local police station and I was thinking about your comment, SFG, about media/pop culture representation and this list of Jewish POC identities I never ever think about and it kind of broke my brain (again) to come back to the reality that black, hispanic and white are STILL the choices we have for identifying ourselves on these official forms that are very much a matter of life and death— and they don’t even have anything like guaranteed relevance to how we look.

            I agree with you that it is truly bizarre that the only visual education so many of us have is what we see on film and tv and that that conversation is still mostly framed by the black/white binary, although thank goodness this is slowly changing because of shows like Master of None and Fresh off the Boat which are hopefully a tipping point. And Broad City which maybe has this opportunity to delve into educating everybody about Jewish diaspora if it wants.

            Also: I have been chewing on these comments all day– it’s been awhile since a conversation about race has kept opening out and out in a way that makes me want to read and learn and talk and think, so thank you.

    • YES. Thank you for recognizing this. Came down to the comments to say the same thing.
      I am constantly asked where I am from/what mix I am. I wish I was allowed to exist as what I am-a Jewish person whose history has been white-washed through forced assimilation.

  2. Watching the webseries, I actually always thought she was latina until one episode, probably on Comedy Central, where they brought in her mom and Ilana started saying how she was this great Jewish mom who was a little too obsessed with bag linings (lol) and I thought, o well she can be Jewish and latina, then i read in the press that Ilana and Abby were both Jewish with no mention of being latina and I got extra confused.

    Being biracial myself though not American, I actually never assumed her to be biracial as you seemed to. Assumptions are interesting, though.

    And indeed, asking random people on the street if they’re biracial is a little disconcerting. I often get asked if I’m from the West Indies (which I’m not) by random dudes and I’m just like, what do you care?! (though I’m aware it’s a pick-up line). I understand your appreciation of people’s identity though.

    • Totally– I think assumptions are fascinating, too. I get asked what I am a lot, and I love the fact that Ilana sparks this kind of interrogation into how we project things onto other people.

      But, I guess I should clarify: the reason I didn’t go into a whole lot of detail about WHY I asked people if they were biracial on the street when I was young is because there was a whole lot else going on to contextualize that interaction and I can’t imagine sufficiently explaining it in the span of a short article that is sort of about something else. In referring to the fact that I did this embarrassing thing when I was young I’m not encouraging that others follow suit!

      Anyway, it’s nice to hear about your experience mis-reading Ilana, it could be an anthology– oh my gosh an anthology!

      • Hehe, i totally pictured you randomly asking people right after saying “hello, how are you”.

        And yeah, assumptions have a lot to do with our own projections as well as our perceptions (which, arguably, are tainted with said projections?). It’s like when I assume most people are gay until I find out that dude I thought was clearly is, in fact, straight. Happens to me a lot. I guess it has to do with metrosexuality, maybe I’m not clear on that. But it happens with ladies, too.

        To go back to Ilana, I think I’ve never read her as “black” as you mention in your piece. She definitely appreciates/indulges/seems to be a connoisseur of black pop culture however, I mostly read her as a New Yorker who’s very in tune with her environment. Whereas, instead of reading Abby as her white counterpart, I see Abs as a more sheltered and more reserved gal less prone to navigate NYC as fluently as Ilana. On that note, I didn’t know being into Oprah was a white thing, lol.

      • I’m sure you know Latinx people and Spanish are not the same. Though I think i get what you are saying, that maybe she has some Spanish-Jewish genetics, and some Latinx people also have similar genes(my friend is from southern Mexico, but can pass as from Spain or Portugal.

    • Just because she hasn’t mentioned it doesn’t mean it can’t still be a possibility. Latino Jews exist, and even have a culture and language (Ladino) of their own — see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaeo-Spanish

      But, media representation being what it is and how it privileges those who are more assimilated into mainstream whiteness, Eastern-European Jews and their culture are the most represented and Sephardic/Ladino Jews fall by the wayside.

      Personally, I’m pretty sure Ilana is of Sephardic or Ladino heritage but just hasn’t gone into it.

      • Omg, I had to comment because you’re so aware! I have black Jewish ancestry and reading your comments inspired me to reply.

        I currently go to a synagogue where the rabbi and his wife speak Ladino, it’s really cool. I love the diversity in our people.

  3. Hmmm I like this. The quote about “taking the intersexed nine-month conversation away from the child” is just, woah. And then your commentary about language that “makes room for bothness”? Super cool. Really interesting to think that those first nine months are framed in a “bothness” (“allness”?), but it’s weird to continue that post-natal? How is that not a great model to just continue?

    Anyway, thanks for this! I like the stream-of-consciousness feel to this.

  4. There are many delicious things to chew on in this article, but please let me point out a few hell yea moments:
    1. Lately I’ve been wanting to write from an emptier and emptier page….fucking gorgeous sentence.
    2. CA Conrad reference for the winning of my heart and creative mind…LOVE LOVE LOVE their crunchy granola punk rock ways.
    3. Betrayal as a theme of defeat.
    4. What does does mean to pass for biracial and then culturally appropriate accordingly? Feels hella cheap to me…just sayin’
    Thank you.
    Great read.

  5. I loooooooooved this so so so much. Your writing is so beautiful and dreamy and I just rolled around in these words.

    P.S. I’m Jew-ish and I also read Ilana as of a dual heritage

    P.P.S. My mum always gets people asking her if she is because of her hair

    P.P.P.S I understand peoples points (and hurt feelings and past traumas) above but I don’t think one personal essay needs to encompass everything about a subject. Its just fragments of a feeling about something too big to name anyway and that’s okay.

  6. Love both this article and the thoughtful comments the author engaged with. Your writing is poetic, but not empty (like dreamy writing sometimes can be), Aisha. Clearly you’re going deep here, thanks for sharing it with us.

  7. I love this so much, and I actually feel so attached to Ilana — even though she is a white Jewish, I feel like the show makes room for Jewish people of color (like me) in a way I can’t explain

  8. I have naturally curly hair and will never straighten it despite people asking me all the fucking time. I’m proud of my Italian/Jewish mutt ancestry, but wasn’t when I was younger. I grew up in New Hampshire and people of color were rare. I was always asked, “Is your dad black?” “Are you mixed?” I remember on the playground when playing Spice Girls I HAD to be Scary Spice because of my hair. I remember my mother taking me to a salon to get my hair done and the stylist told my mother to take me to a salon who focuses on “ethnic” hair. I ended up growing my hair long until I chopped it off 11 years ago and kept it that way. I like my short messy Italian Jew Fro. Sometimes I struggle with being MOC and having these luscious locks, but my hair is really part of me.

    To be honest, I didn’t get into Broad City until a friend of mine told me I look exactly like Ilana and I was curious, because you don’t usually see folks like us on screen. Then I saw the episode with Ilana hooking up with Alia Shawkat and pretty much died with laughter. I totally wouldn’t mind being the third part to their look a like sex combo. ?

  9. Interesting. I never thought she was biracial. Many white Jewish women occupy a similar space racially- where people place them as something other than white and they don’t necessarily correct them. I would’ve appreciated more commentary about how this experience harms biracial people and people of color. That line that says Ilana is “usually Black,” is especially disconcerting. She isn’t Black or playing Black. Her character appropriates Black. That’s why people have misraced her. And it seems as though they’re developing her as queer now, as a way to allow her to get away with more/be seen more as other. Ilana’s racial and queer/questioning ambiguity afford her things that Black women (particularly if they’re understood to be queer) don’t have access to. Ilana’s antics are entertaining for the most part, but racial ambiguity or not, she gets away with them because she’s white- not because some people think she’s mixed or because her actual background doesn’t afford her the highest level of whiteness.

    • I’m glad you posted this comment. That’s what I have been thinking ever since I saw the show the first time. I knew she was Jewish because I used to watch her brother’s web series, “It Gets Betterish” and I couldn’t figure out why her character was not being called out in queer media for acting black and bi if she wasn’t either of those things? Now I guess her character is bi, but for me it was all too little too late. The show made me laugh, but it also left a very familiar bad taste in my mouth.

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