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Power & Privilege at the Movies

There is a story about a Native American elder and a white man visiting the reservation.

“I notice,” says the white man, “that your songs are almost always about water. Not having enough of it must be a real problem for your people.”

“That’s true,” says the elder. “And I notice that your songs are all about love.”

You can tell a lot about a society from its songs and stories, both what they’re about and what they’re not. Since movies are our most popular form of storytelling, it’s worth noting which get singled out as being more important than the rest.

Like any story, a movie plot is told through the lives of characters, which raises the question of not only what is the story about, but whose lives are used to tell it. Who are the human beings having these human experiences? And who, in being left out and made invisible, are not?

In a society organized around various forms of privilege—white, male, nondisabled, and heterosexual—with rare exceptions, the dominant stories are told through the lives of dominant groups. When subordinate groups are featured, the story will be about their subordination, not being allowed to be just human beings in the throes of being human. They will be marked by their subordinate status—the black woman, the gay man—unlike the straight white nondisabled man who gets to be just a human being.

As a feature of systems of privilege, all of this has consequences. For subordinate groups, it underscores their social invisibility and their status as outsiders. For dominant groups—men, in particular, and especially white men—it sets them up to expect to always be at the center of attention and to be larger than life, a standard that the vast majority are unable to meet. The effects of this are all around us, especially in violence toward others and themselves, whether it’s domestic violence, suicide, the mass murder of children, or the readiness for war.

Here are the Best Picture winners from almost fifty years of Oscars, with occasional notes as needed for clarity. In all that time, there has not been a single Oscar winner that has told the story of a person of color or someone with a disability where the story has not been about race (Twelve Years a Slave, Crash, Driving Miss Daisey, In the Heat of the Night), or disability (The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man). The occasional film that violates the whites-only rule is often set in another country and another time, which keeps it from challenging or upsetting U.S. audiences by reminding them of their own society today.

No winning film has told the story of someone who is LGBTQ, whether the story is about that or not.

Straight white women without disabilities fare somewhat better (Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment, The Sound of Music), but not by much when you consider they account for more than half the population.

Here’s the list, by the year in which the film was made:

2015   Spotlight
2014   Birdman
2013   Twelve Years a Slave
2012   Argo
2011   The Artist
2010   The King’s Speech
2009   The Hurt Locker.
2008   Slumdog Millionaire
2007   No Country for Old Men
2006   The Departed
2005   Crash
2004   Million Dollar Baby (the main character is female, but a boxer, no less, who is ‘managed’ by none other than macho Clint Eastwood)
2003   The Lord of the Rings
2002   Chicago (women, yes, serious story, no)
2001   A Beautiful Mind
2000   Gladiator
1999   American Beauty
1998   Shakespeare in Love
1997   Titanic (a film about a ship that was conceived, built, controlled, and sunk by men)
1996   The English Patient
1995   Braveheart
1994   Forrest Gump
1993   Schindler’s List
1992   The Unforgiven
1991   Silence of the Lambs (The FBI agent is a white woman, but whose name comes first to mind, Hannibal Lecter, the white man who eats white people, or . . . what is her name?)
1990   Dances with Wolves (most of the characters are Native American, but the story is about the title character, a white soldier ‘going native’)
1989   Driving Miss Daisy
1988   Rain Man
1987   The Last Emperor (an exception to the whites-only rule, but set in China, a long time ago and far far away)
1986   Platoon
1985   Out of Africa (a rare woman-centered story, but also about white people colonizing and exploiting Africa with not a hint of doubt. Note the irony that in the same year The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won not a single one)
1984   Amadeus
1983   Terms of Endearment
1982   Gandhi (another exception to the whites-only rule, but, again, set in India in the past and about no less a figure than Gandhi. And, of course, it’s about race)
1981   Chariots of Fire
1980   Ordinary People
1979   Kramer vs. Kramer
1978   The Deer Hunter
1977   Annie Hall (Annie Hall may be the title character, but, like all Woody Allen films, it’s really about Woody Allen)
1976   Rocky
1975   One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest (in the novel on which the film is based, the point of view belongs to Chief, a Native American, unlike the film in which it’s all about Jack Nicholson’s white character, McMurphy)
1974   The Godfather, Part II
1973   The Sting
1972   The Godfather, Part I
1971   The French Connection
1970   Patton
1969   Midnight Cowboy
1968   Oliver!
1967   In the Heat of the Night
1966   A Man for All Seasons
1965   The Sound of Music
1964   My Fair Lady (emphasis on the subject of the ‘my,’ being a man betting another man he can turn a cockney speaking Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady)
1963   Tom Jones

If we compare the most recent ten year period (2005-2014) with the ten years that begin this series (1963-1972), we could simply reverse the two with the same result. We have had a black man as president for five years, and his successor may be a white woman, but in the stories we tell about who we are and what it means to be a human being, privilege and power still call the tune. A UCLA study released just last week found that although men make up less than half the population, they account for 75% of lead actors, 95% of directors, 87% of script writers, and almost 100% of those who head major movie studios.*

Eons from now, an archeologist from another planet would have no trouble concluding from this record that the ‘real’ human story in this society was about straight, white, nondisabled males, with everyone else being little more than bit players in supporting roles whose stories were not worth the telling.

______________________

If you liked this post, you also might want to read “So Yesterday” and “What Is a System of Privilege?

*To access the full UCLA report, click here.

Proud to Be White?

I remember that day when I was teaching a college course on race and how quiet the white students became when the focus shifted to black people fighting oppression by promoting pride in being black. Black is beautiful. And then there was a pause in the conversation and the white student wanted to know if she was allowed to feel proud of being white.

It came as no surprise. Who, after all, doesn’t want to feel good about who they are, especially when they’ve had no say in what that is, told from the moment she was born that she was white. And born into a racist system of privilege that is also not her fault. So why, then, she wants to know, should black people be the only ones to feel proud of who they are?

She is, of course, ignoring the rest of what people of color have to deal with that she does not. Even more, she is asserting privilege by expecting that race should not be a source of loss or unhappiness for whites.

But that isn’t what stands out in my memory of that moment. Her question is rhetorical. Her tone makes it clear that she believes the answer is no, and she thinks it isn’t fair. Yes, she knows she is white and that white privilege is real and oppressive and wrong. But she also sees herself as a human being like anybody else. Being white does not mean she will be strong or resilient or successful in life, that she will be grounded, safe, or secure in who she is. It will not make her wise or happy or immune to tragedy and grief, or to loneliness, depression, and despair.

In fact, being white makes her vulnerable to that moment when the fraud of whiteness itself suddenly becomes visible, and all that she unconsciously takes for granted about race whenever she looks in the mirror or walks out in the world is suddenly thrown into doubt. It is the vulnerability that made James Baldwin feel sorry for white people for having to depend upon the ridiculous belief that being white makes them better than everyone else.†

I understand why black pride would exist. If your body is arbitrarily made into an object of contempt, disparagement, ugliness, and disgust, then to reclaim that body makes all the sense in the world.

But if something as arbitrary as the color of your skin has been made into an exalted cultural ideal, the purest expression of what it is to be not only human but, beautiful, superior, and fine, and that turns out not only to be a myth and a fraud, but a cultural invention whose sole purpose is to justify exploitation, injustice, and oppression, then what is one to make of that?

That is the bind that she was in, as am I and anyone else identified as white. And, wanting to feel good about who we are, it is tempting to seek refuge in not looking too closely at what it is exactly about being ‘white’ that should make us feel good about ourselves, not to mention proud.

It cannot simply be the color of our skin. For one thing, that isn’t something we have any hand in bringing about, no more than my being tall or having brown eyes. ‘Proud to be tall’?

Then there is the idea that ‘white’ is just another word for ‘European,’ as if I am to derive some sense of who I am from a continent that includes Russian, Italian, Finish, Greek, French, German, Polish, Czech, Norwegian, British, Scot, Irish, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, and Dutch, to name just the ones that come to mind.

Not to mention that at one time or another, Italians, Greeks, and the Irish were not considered white by those with the power to decide such things. And Jews no matter where they were from. And that for most of history, no one in ‘European’ countries thought of themselves as white even when they were well aware of people who looked quite different than they.

The fallback position is that ‘white’ stands for the idea of European, the whole thing as a point of pride, as in European Civilization, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. All right, for the sake of argument, but then why not just say that? What does ‘white’ signify that ‘European’ does not? And what is the message in the meaning?

The painful fact is that what the ‘white’ identifier says, and all that it says and ever has, what the word actually means when you get right down to it, is that if you are white, you are inherently superior to anyone who is not.

Proud to be white. Proud to be better than them. Proud not to be you.

What I said that day is that one of the contradictions of whiteness is that we don’t get to feel proud of being white unless we ignore what it means. Unless we forget that the idea of whiteness and the fiction of race (which is all that they are, cultural ideas and fictions) have a history. There was a time not that many centuries ago when they did not exist.

But she had now come to know too much to shield herself with ignorance and forgetting. And she was resisting the bind this puts us in—how to see and feel about ourselves as white—that is part of the legacy of race that we inherited the moment we were born.

We did nothing to deserve this. But neither do people of color deserve what is handed to them.

Part of what makes the bind so difficult is the belief that the only alternative to pride is shame—that if people of color now get to feel proud of their ‘race,’ then whites must be ashamed of theirs, what I think I saw in her face that day.

But there is another possibility. As a cultural cornerstone of white privilege and racism, the idea of whiteness is a shameful thing with a shameful past and present. But as a human being, I have no reason to feel ashamed because I happened to be born looking like someone identified as white.

If not pride or shame, then what?

Grief, for one, for the injustice and unnecessary suffering, and the unavoidable complicity of white people, and what that does to our lives, whether we know it or not.

And compassion. And anger.

And a resolve to carry the painful reality that it means something to be identified as white, that it matters in how the world happens and shapes people’s lives, including my own, and to not feel free to join the Great White Dream that none of this exists, or matters, and even if it does, it will go away on its own without anything required of us.

If white people are to feel proud of anything with regard to race, I would say let it be how we live the inescapable bind we are in, and how we respond to the challenge of consciously being white in an oppressive system of privilege that we did not create, but that belongs to us now.

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If you liked this post, you might also want to read, “The Hijacking of Political Correctness.”

†James Baldwin, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies.” (1984). Reprinted in David R. Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York: Schocken, 1999.

To learn more about the history of whiteness and race, see Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Verso, 2012); Audrey Smedley and Brian D. Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 4th ed. (Westview Press, 2011); and Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade, rev. ed. (Back Bay Books, 1988).

What Can We Do? Becoming the Question

Last month I posted “Letting Go of Despair and Hope,” partly in response to the question of what can we do about privilege and oppression and the injustice and suffering they cause.

It is a question I often hear asked in a way that suggests there is an answer already worked out somewhere that I might pass along, and for many years I tried to do just that with suggestions about education, organizing, and activism.

But then I began to notice it taking longer and longer for the words to come. I felt impatient with the question. I found myself thinking, I don’t have an answer. Why are you asking me? How would I know? How would anyone?

Needless to say, this is not how public speakers are supposed to respond, especially with university audiences who expect you to know or at least have an educated guess. That’s why they invited you, after all. And so I soldiered on.

Then, slowly, it began to dawn on me that the question I wanted to respond to was not the one being asked. I was listening to a deeper and larger kind of question that does not have an answer that is knowable in the usual sense, that you can look up on Google or turn into an item on a test.

Because the answer does not yet exist.

Pointing to ‘the answer’ is not what such questions are for. Their purpose is to shape our lives in ways that encourage answers to emerge from our lives and our engagement with the questions as part of our lives.

It is like the artist who lives the question of how does beauty reveal the nature of reality. The question is always there, consciously or not, not to be answered and done with, but to inform every observation, every feeling, every thought. The artist lives by the question, and the art is the artist’s response. It is around the question that the artist organizes a life, moment to moment, the studio, the books lying open on the table, what is on the walls, the view out the window, where do they go, whom do they meet, what do they talk about, what do they do, their life inseparable from the question and the answer unfolding from it.

In trying to change the world, we must have such questions, because there is no manual for dismantling patriarchy or the system of white privilege or for getting from global capitalism to an economy that serves the needs of ordinary people and the planet. We don’t know how to bring about such change because it has never been done before. Even revolutions are not all they’re cracked up to be, including our own, having a way of reproducing in another form the very thing they were intended to undo.

What we know about how to change the world and envision what it could be has come from people living those questions day after day, year after year, by themselves and, more important, together. They could not see what to do without knowing where they were and what they were up against, and the only way to discover that is to engage with what we do not know, to ask the questions in one way or another every day in the context of what is happening now. The answers do not come all at once or in neat little packages, but in bits and pieces that take a while to get connected in our minds, or someday in the minds of those who haven’t yet been born.

Standing in front of audiences, the question that had eluded me, the one I wanted to talk about, was how to make ourselves, our own lives, a part of that.

Of course we make use of what we already know, the practical steps and strategies contained in the answers we have. But these are only the beginning, in part because they come out of and are shaped by our participation in the very system we want to change. Which makes it even more important to also make ourselves part of the process of carrying those questions from one day to the next without the promise of a ready answer, just as the shape and meaning of our lives comes only through the living.

We must become the question, with the living of our lives the response.

For the questions I have become, it means angling my life in their direction so they are never far away and I am always bumping into them. Why is there so much injustice and unnecessary suffering in the world, how does it happen, what keeps it going, what does it have to do with me? What does it mean to be a human being, what does it require? How can truth that is painful and disturbing, that people do not want to hear, be told in ways that are whole and so beautiful and compelling that it cannot be ignored? Who or what am I working for, in service to what? What have I come here to do? What is this?

I must sustain a place inside myself in which the questions live as part of who I am and out of which the answers come from how I live my life as a result. I position them so that I can no more escape them than myself looking back from the mirror—in the books I read, the people I know, what we talk about, what I think about as I’m driving down the road, how I choose to act in the world in ways large and small. To become a question is an undertaking, something to be done, a commitment, a practice, a discipline, a way of living from the question into answers that are always works in progress.

Gandhi said that we must become the change we want to see in the world, and I wonder now if this is what he meant—that our becoming is the change and the change lies in our becoming. And because the change he speaks of is not merely personal, but both in the world and of it, then we must find ways to become the question with one another.

That is what we can do.

___________________

If you liked this post, you might also want to read “The Hazards of Being Real.”

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