Tag Archives: America

Hollywood and the Shaping of Perceptions of Racism

Image

It is a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. Martin Gilens wrote a book some time ago, for example: Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty, which explores the role of media in the shaping of myth and misconception of welfare policy. And what about the shaping of misconception of racism? We all know Fox News has a nice handle on that, as far as “news” media goes. But what about pop culture? Hollywood? How do the films we flock to theaters to see shape our world? I can think of more than a few examples, as I’m sure any thinking person can. But one in particular comes to mind: films about slavery and the way they shape perceptions of racism in white audiences. Namely the idea that racism is a thing of the past and only existed on Southern plantations a long, long time ago.

Since the release of 12 Years a Slave I’ve had many conversations about films that are about slavery. The conversations that stand out to me the most are the ones where the consensus is, “Why do all the films in Hollywood that feature black people have to be about slavery?” and my own undying question about the underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, “Why does a film need to be about the subjugation of black people in order for it to have more than a one solitary black character?” And also, “Why did so many more white people go to see 12 Years than Best Man Holiday?”

While films like 12 Years a Slave are extremely important in understanding the past and the effect it has on the present, they have an interesting effect on white audiences whose ideas of racism are of the “post-racial” or “colorblind” variety: the effect is almost one of relief. When I left the theater of 12 Years a Slave, the kind of words I heard from the lips of the other white people leaving were things like, “God, it was just so bad back then.” And even things like, “Those people were horrible. Fuck those slave owners.” So, in a sense, relief. “It was so bad back then” translates as “Things are so much better now,” and “Those people were horrible” translates as “We don’t do that anymore.”

And they’re right. Things are better now. White people don’t own slaves in the United States. But this cousin of relief presents, to me, a sort of cognitive dissonance about the reality of racism in America. When white audiences see movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and indeed, when the vast majority of mainstream films featuring black people are movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and not films like Best Man Holiday, their perception of racism (and even blackness) is shaped in a way that lacks a wider context and an awareness of present-day racism. This is what racism looks like, white audiences come to believe: chains and lynchings and the American South. And while they’re not wrong, that understanding is stunted.

In a way, films like 12 Years a Slave, even with its horror and brutality, serve as a comfort to white people seeking to feel a distance between the monster that is racism and the life they lead in 2013. “Progress!” we congratulate ourselves, proud that America has overcome its brutishly violent history. “We used to be horrible people that owned other human beings and now we don’t! We’re a post-racial society now! Go America!” But if we’re talking about reality, the reality of racism in 2013, a reality that generally doesn’t make it to the silver screen, we have to talk about things like environmental racism and structural racism in our systems of education, employment, criminal justice, and more. We have to talk about Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and we have to talk about Oscar Grant and Renisha McBride. We have to talk about what racism looks like now and not let ourselves off the hook with the tired mantra of “But we’ve come so far!”

12 Years a Slave was an incredible film. I think everyone should see it. But I encourage people with skin like mine to not watch it with the idea that the work is done. The fact that white people no longer legally own, rape, and murder black bodies is not a sign of progress we should congratulate ourselves on: our standards should be higher. Widen your scope. Racism looks like this. And this. And this. And this. Don’t allow Hollywood’s narrow line of vision to trick you into believing that violent racism is just something that happened in the 1800’s and looks like the horrific lava of lashes on a black human being’s back while everyone stands around wearing corsets and smoking pipes. It looks like Charlotte police shooting Jonathan Ferrell to death after he was in a car accident and asked for help. It looks like Riley Incognito calling Warring Sapp the N-word. It looks like Trayon Christian being arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s because the NYPD didn’t think he could afford it on his own. It looks like celebrities and well-known magazines showcasing blackface in 2013 and every year before that.

In a nation where so many white people have their “one black friend” and little personal contact with people who don’t look like them—yes, segregation is still “a thing:” New York City had the same level of racial segregation in 2012 as it did in 1910.—it is easy for these audiences to consume movies like The Help and 12 Years (especially given the fact that there are so few alternatives when it comes to mainstream movies featuring black people and their lives) and think “This was racism. I don’t know any black people here in 2013, but I do know that slavery isn’t around anymore. So that’s that!” And—slam—close the book. But that’s not all. That’s not the end, fellow white folks. Why did you watch The Help but not Do the Right Thing? Why 12 Years a Slave and not Boyz in the Hood? Is it because one talks about racism in the past where you’re comfortable with it, and the other talks about issues affecting black people right here and right now? Spoiler alert: they’re the same thing. The racism you see in 12 Years has mutated and transformed and grown tentacles and developed camouflage, but it’s right here with us. Right here with you. We’d be foolish to ignore it; foolish to watch the story of Solomon Northup and think that his suffering was not inherited, that the ugliness of the system that enslaved him doesn’t still linger.

I wonder if white America as a whole will ever be able to empathize with present-day struggle. Looking back with sympathy and indignation is easier than looking around, isn’t it? I just wonder what are we looking toward.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sagging Pants and Pointing Fingers

ImageSince Don Lemon’s statements about sagging pants being the reason black men can’t get jobs, continue their education, stay out of jail, etc., I’ve witnessed a flurry of white fists in the proverbial air, mobs of white commenters on various blogs and forums saying “See? See? What I’ve been saying all along.” Torches and pitchforks. Pointing fingers. Sighs of relief as their own opinions—held however secretly—are given breath by a black man; the token voice they need for “permission” to air out their often ill-concealed dirty laundry.

This topic has been written on extensively. I have little to contribute. Lemon’s equation of fashion choices to the grossly disproportionate numbers of black men who are unemployed, criminalized, and institutionalized is almost laughable. But I do want to ask you this, Mr. Lemon.

Would you say the same about victims of rape?

If a woman is wearing a short skirt or a low-cut top and is the victim of sexual assault, is she to blame? When police officers arbitrarily dismiss her allegations as uncredible; when courts lambast her supposed promiscuity and wardrobe choices; when she is called a whore or that she was “asking for it”—is it her fault?

I am discussing a system of blame in which an oppressed group bears the brunt of its own brutalization; in which petty justifications like sartorial decisions are gestured to as the root of all said group’s misfortune. It reminds me of something… It reminds me of a boy who was wearing a hoodie on a rainy evening while walking home from the store, who was seen as dangerous, threatening, suspicious, out of place. A boy who was murdered as a result of it.

Is your memory so short, Mr. Lemon?

This is a society that would rather criticize hems and pants than its own distorted lens of bias and blame: its systematic inequality and inherited poverty.

A society that would rather point at hoodies as the problem rather than address its prejudice toward the skin of the hoodie-wearer.

A society that has a finger pointing solidly at the black boys with their pants riding low, steadily unaware of the four fingers pointing back at itself.

Black boys are being gunned down in front of their homes, and we’re talking about pants? We’re talking about PANTS?

Enough, Mr. Lemon. And enough, America. You need an intervention.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

One White Woman Looking At Another White Woman

trayvon

I have been angry for days. For those of you who follow me on Twitter or know me personally, this comes as no surprise. But this has not been my usual anger––the daily anger that is generally bubbling under the surface as a result of reading the news, reading comments by trolls, witnessing and experiencing microaggressions, battling internet racists, etc.––but a tight wire in my heart that has been clanging since the verdict was read, since 5 white and 1 Hispanic woman in Florida found George Zimmerman not guilty after he stalked and murdered a boy of seventeen.

I watched every second of the trial. I seethed at Don West. I cringed at the 911 tapes. I cheered for Rachel Jeantel. And the whole time I felt my hope struggling with my pessimism, heard myself say “These bastards will probably let him walk,” while being conscious that I was saying this in an effort not to get my hopes too high. But they were high. Even in the face of grossly unjust convictions like Marissa Alexander’s, I thought, “There’s just no way. They can’t. Not this time.”

But they did. They let him walk, and are even giving him the gun back, the one he used to take the life of an innocent black boy. A bloody souvenir.

In the days since, I have engaged in vicious debates, some with people I formerly respected. One in particular stands out in my mind: a white man told me that we shouldn’t be angry at the jury or vilify them: we should be angry at the laws that “forced their hand” to acquit. Out of all the debates I’ve had, this is the one that irks me the most.

Yes, the laws need to be changed. Stand Your Ground needs to be smashed. But you know what else needs to be smashed? The racist ideologies that cling to the hearts of white Americans, proven by the fact that Don West could enter a trial with the strategy of “Scare the white ladies with tales of a big bad black thug” and succeed; proven by the fact that Trayvon Martin, in death, was on trial for his own murder; proven by the fact that white Zimmerman defenders have said over and over that Trayvon should have identified himself (Freedom Papers?); proven by the fact that despite our teaching our children to run away from suspicious adults who might mean them harm, Trayvon Martin was somehow wrong wrong wrong for trying to protect his own life.

During the trial, there was speculation that the jury would convict because all of them were mothers. Although white, it was said, these women have children of their own and would see through Zimmerman’s elaborate circus of lies in the pursuit of justice for a child. Those speculations were wrong. I have quoted a poem by Ai many times in my ongoing fight for equality, and I’ll do so again here:

 

“what can I say, except that I’ve heard

the poor have no children, just small people”

 

This is how these jurors—and, indeed, much of White America—see black Americans. How could this jury of 6 non-black women see Trayvon Martin as a child, when to their eyes he was a man? And not just a man: a black man. A dangerous man. A threat. A pestilence. A thug.

Last night I listened to Juror B37 during her CNN interview, her face in shadow, while she said “them” and “they” and “sorry” and “Georgie.” I listened to her implications of Rachel Jeantel’s inferiority and her disgraceful deference for George Zimmerman. And I wanted to scream. Cry. Break things. I wanted to burn the world down. She essentially admitted that he committed manslaughter, but that “his heart was in the right place.” In these words I heard her complicity with the murder of black children in Florida and everywhere. However terrible Zimmerman’s actions, his heart was in the right place. Why? Because a black child is dead. And how could that be wrong?

This is what we’re up against. By we I mean everyone who believes that justice was not carried out; who believes that black children matter; who believes black lives matter; who believes as long as people like Juror B37 exist, our work is not done.

There are many problems with this case, with Florida, with the United States, with this world that puts blackness on par with ugliness, danger, and ignorance. But of those problems, which one glares at me, twanging the wire in my heart? Whiteness. Whiteness and its lack of empathy, its refusal to take responsibility, its ego. Its inability to see a black boy as a black boy, to equate that black boy and his marijuana with your own white son and the pot you know is in his backpack. Whiteness and its refusal to sit down, shut up, listen, help. Whiteness and its blindness; its stuffy, raging defenses and finger-pointing. Whiteness and those—like B37—who wield it as a shield, then, behind that shield, attempt to write books and profit off a death that you blocked justice for.

We shouldn’t be angry at the jury? I am angry. I am one white woman looking at another white woman, who—along with her peers—saw a black child’s death laid out before her and chose to turn her back. I am not turning my back. Not on Trayvon. Not on Michael Griffith. Not on Marissa Alexander. Not on Jordan Davis. Not on Emmett Till. I empathize. I organize. I’m angry.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements