Dear white person who saw ‘West Side Story’ as a myth for white culture: Stop with your cultural invocations

“West Side Story” happens to be a pretty simple story. There is, of course, tragedy that percolates from the early scenes of one young girl’s first carnival trip (in this case to perform “The Man Who Got Away”). But the central conflict is not that young Maria knows she is falling in love with the male lead, Bernstein; it is that her peers initially dismiss her foolish faith.

I was captivated by the central tension.

A fair amount of cultural appropriation flourishes in the after-the-fact attempt to understand and render this story in our own universes. We grow sophisticated enough, through painstaking reading, to celebrate the rainbow-colored scarf worn by Maria. We thank the lyricist for working in a little “Maria” with a little “America.” We wax poetic about the poor “Mariette.” We join the legions of people who worship Tony, Riff, Maria, Maria’s parents and potential parents.

And yet, this is a lot to take in. Let’s add a few more strands to the net: the Puerto Rican culture of the band members; a chorus singing for justice and responsibility in an America they haven’t yet experienced; the dangers of Paseo del Mar; Maria’s desire to protect her older brother; Paseo del Mar as a huge white power symbol, for those of us who aren’t Spanish speakers. We can have similar discussions about “West Side Story” in South Korea, India, China, Mexico, Morocco, etc.

If the original piece was meant to knock us off our feet, today’s adaptations need to be commended for pushing us all off our seats.

And then?

Well, it’s not worth finding anything that resonates with Maria.

One white man found himself stuck in his head trying to understand her.

One white man found himself stuck in his head trying to understand what the heck was going on.

Some white man found himself stuck in his head trying to understand, or not understand, what was going on.

So, it was a white man, born in America and brought up in America, who chose, in this age of breaking boundaries, to see the script of “West Side Story” through an all-white lens, and ponder the truth in the telling.

One man, an old, white man, was forced to confront what it felt like to be stuck in one’s own head, when someone decided to go see this musical and reject its existence.

I love being treated with the appropriate respect when listening to storytelling. I love the moment when someone knows we don’t have a 1,000-year-old argument with “The Diary of Anne Frank,” or when someone understands how complicated our messianic faith is for us today.

I am grateful for those moments.

But when the act becomes so didactic and the intentions so presumptuous that it feels forced, it doesn’t interest me as much. No one on earth wants to justify the actions of their ancestors to a stranger. No one wants to defend their racism. No one wants to justify how one culturally specific world didn’t square with another. No one wants to deal with other people.

The responsibility is one that must be assumed by all parties.

Whenever I hear that God intended racial equality or Black Lives Matter in those two songs “America” and “Maria,” I wonder, “Where is she? Where is she? I’m glad I met her, but I’d be nowhere without her.”

Later, when a white person finds themselves stuck in a “West Side Story” interpretation, I imagine she is rendered indistinguishable from her white friends, who, in their paper-thin understanding of the story, become alarmingly ubiquitous.

The path to realizing a fuller, more meaningful version of this piece lies beyond making such entries on a bucket list.

I would encourage the white man to simply ask, and answer, “What is West Side Story?”

I would urge his black friends to do the same. In the end, this story is about children, and that is the only real substance they should be focusing on.

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