“I can’t relate” is a common response to artworks, ideas, people and other things that just didn’t feel quite relevant to one’s experiences or interests. On one hand, it’s an alternative and somewhat polite way of saying, “I don’t care.” If a close friend or co-worker passionately introduced you to something or someone that gets them off and it just didn’t do anything for you, “I can’t relate” is perfect for claiming your disinterest without risking insult. On the other hand, “I can’t relate” is a very literal statement. For some reason, a person or idea that you encountered was unable or unwilling to establish or maintain a compelling relationship, like a bad first date.
I’ve often seen “I can’t relate” used in response to narratives or pieces of art that felt either exclusionary or just non-inclusive, the former pushing one away and the latter just not acknowledging one’s existence. I think that these feelings and this particular way of articulating them – “I can’t relate” – are completely legitimate, but I also think that “I can’t relate” has some noteworthy limitations that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The first limitation is the kind of relationship that “I can’t relate” tends to refer to. In most cases, the relationship is one of direct correspondence. People “can’t relate” because the person or object in question doesn’t directly connect with them on the registers that they find important. Another way to put it is that the object doesn’t present itself in the way one prefers. The show Girls (Full disclosure: I’ve never watched it) has been attacked on these grounds on multiple occasions because of its absence of women of color. SNL was recently attacked on similar grounds for its absence of black women. I sympathize with these attacks in practice because they call attention to problems with our media landscape, but I wonder how well they articulate what plaintiffs really want. In other words, could people [of color] not relate to Girls and SNL because 1) they saw no people of color or 2) because they felt people of color were actively written out of these shows? Or perhaps there are other reasons entirely. Whatever the actual case, “I can’t relate” always frames grievances in terms of direct correspondence.
There is a distinction between these two options (1 & 2) that “I can’t relate” can’t really address. SNL’s subsequent hiring of more black women, for example, changes the presentation of the show, but it’s unclear how [or if!] it changes the experience of the show, the actual relationship one has with the show. If it does, how does this happen? What about the presence of a black woman on a tv show makes the show palatable to black viewers generally and black women specifically? “I can’t relate” answers this question by saying that the presence itself is the important factor because the absence was the original problem.
I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer, especially when you consider the second limitation of “I can’t relate,” which is that it doesn’t quite account for people who in fact do relate to the object in question despite not being directly represented. For example, my stepfather, my stepmother and my stepgrandfather, who are all black and from the South, are all very fond of Westerns. On one hand, I’m sure this is a product of them growing up in a time where Westerns had the same prestige and ubiquity that action movies have today. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, the three of them are simply intrigued by the genre. I know from speaking with them that they would have liked to have seen more Westerns with black characters, especially black characters who weren’t servants, sidekicks, prostitutes, cannon fodder or menial workers. In fact, they all seem to know who the black actors were by name, implying that they had an enhanced relationship with those particular actors, much like a young black kid (like me) being able to specifically name-check black superheroes. Given these enhanced relationships, I think it’s fair to say that the three of them would have liked to relate to Westerns in a different way. That said, they each managed to relate to the genre anyway, despite its lack of direct correspondence and despite their very concrete incentives to actively shun the genre (i.e. being black in the 60s and before). That is important to recognize.
“I can’t relate” wouldn’t be able to recognize that persisting relation” because it posits our relationships with media as being direct, solid, when they are in fact much more liquid or even gaseous, impossible to grasp. Even if it is useful for framing grievances and is sometimes true – there are definitely things I like just because of one black character or one female character, etc. – “I can’t relate” is a tactic that I would use very strategically because it reduces relationships with media down to checklists that don’t reflect real problems with the media landscape. This is dangerous because these checklists are readily co-opted into the service of statements like, “This show has no white men. This is racist” or “All the men die. This is sexist.” As silly and pigheaded and just plain wrong as those statements are, I think that their ability to be uttered is also a function of “I can’t relate.” As a frame, it simply can’t reliably relay the complexity of legitimate grievances against our distorted, dehumanizing and disrespectful universe of media. So instead of saying, “I can’t relate” sometimes it’s better to change it up and say, “This excludes me” and insist that “excludes” is a very, very active verb.