A month or so ago, I watched the Gwen Ifill Town Hall in Ferguson. A White male spoke in a way where I knew he didn’t “get it”. Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders (http://dreamdefenders.org/vest/about-us/) gave an excellent delineation of repression. Cut to: a White male, Ross Kaminsky, he said, “I get the feeling. I understand this feeling of, uh, the system isn’t fair, it’s biased against us. But then, when you start going to this idea that 400 years of repression in a system that’s still designed to hurt us and still designed to keep us down, that starts feeling to me, like uh, racism against me just because of the color of my skin. My parents weren’t here 400 years ago…” (see the clip, here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365331269/). I’m sure you know where he was going.
Ever since I was a child, I keep seeing these interactions repeat. Black people talk about hurt, White people don’t “get it”. And, always, Black people seem to be evolving but White America does not. It isn’t as simple as “they don’t really care about us.” There is a deeper issue at play. It’s embedded. Empathizing with Black people has never been a part of the visual culture. White people have been so privileged, in the visual landscape, that they don’t have the ability to step into the shoes of others, especially not Black people.
How is it still possible that many White people still don’t understand the unfairness woven into the fabric of American society? The images we abhor, the constant parade of White men in power, White women in jewels, lit with a halo, aren’t merely about the creation of beauty standards. These images also convey rules of engagement. These images, since the beginning of film and television in America, have laid the dynamics for interaction in the culture.
I am astounded when I hear people say that movies and television are “just entertainment”. Or, that visuals have very little weight in the construction of identity or culture. WRONG! Visuals create identity. Even if we come from homes where we read books, where there was an air of Black pride, we are still shaped by what we see. Even when I’m around the most progressive and radical voices in the culture, I still see an identification with, a need to be accepted into American culture. A classic and, on the surface, silly example, is Snoop Dogg. I’ve always found it interesting that Snoop Dogg identified with Snoopy. Snoopy was the clever, marginal, watchful character who provided the cool. He observed the culture of the Peanuts, he wasn’t part of the group. That’s Snoop Dogg.
We all ingest mainstream images and they show up in our life, somehow. If you don’t see yourself, how do you create identity? One can argue, this is why "Scandal" and "How To Get Away With Murder" are so important. There are Black women to identify with. Images shape our identities, or, sometimes, we become them. I critique because I understand the power of the visual and how it is situated in our subconscious.
Last year, I saw an amazing theater play ‘Wild With Happy’ by Colman Domingo. It told the story of an Actor who had to bury his Mother. He and his mother were both engaged in a type of fantasy. The Actor, created the illusion that his life was more successful than it was. At the same time, the fantasy, the dream for his mother, was to go to Disney World. In her generation, that was a wish, a hope. The play captured the idea of the American dream with a profundity. What are the dreams and aspirations of Black people who see themselves within a landscape of White visuals?
When I can tolerate it, I turn on TCM. Watch that channel and you get to see what the diet of American images has been for decades. There are also nostalgic stations on TV that allow me to view shows like “Father Knows Best”, “Dennis the Menace” and “Leave It To Beaver”. I watch these shows and wonder how these images impacted the Black psyche at that time. What was the message to people who didn’t look like the all White programming? How does someone develop desire, love for self, love for someone who looks like them? How does one develop identity?
In the 1970’s, shows like “Good Times”, “All In The Family”, “The Jeffersons”, “Sanford and Son” appeared. These shows attempted to bring a more rounded depiction of the culture. But, they failed, in that, the Black voices were inner city, comical and not, in any way, powerful. They may have feigned power within the realm of the show. But, within the context of the larger society, the characters had no real power.
Currently, I’m looking through the American visual canon (trying to watch anything and everything). There was a show in 1977-1978 called “James at 15”. It is a very insightful show. In the show, the White male lead was a sweet, thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive photographer. There was also a Black male character. His name was Sly. He was described as a “jiving student”. He was slick, provided the marijuana, allowed James to explore his other side (even though Sly came from a middle class, Black, family that listened to classical music). James gained a bit of fun and lost nothing in his life with Sly. And, Sly provided the fun, the interesting experience for James without having a real, meaningful character arc in the show.
This is a constant in American visuals. Black people are the “other”, provide the spice to the show (recently, I watched "Transparent". One of the most thoughtful and insightful shows I have ever seen. Yet and still, the Black characters were an afterthought, provided the spice, had no real investment in the show). It would have been easy enough to give James a Black male friend that was considerate and curious. After all, mayhem can be created from curiosity. No, Black people must represent something alien. Black people are presented as not worthy of having sincere feelings or thoughts. Our needs, concerns are comical not deep. Within this visual landscape, Black folks negate their own needs and don’t speak about anxieties, pressures, fears, hopes. So, there is no reason for White people to consider them. Honestly, it’s crazy. The notion that we are supposed to suffer in silence is built into the framework of film and television.
Fortunately, in our time, we get to see the White male anti-hero. He destroys the life of his family at the same time that he seeks fortune, glory, power (i.e. Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad). But, the White male is still the powerful figure in the narrative. He dominates and controls the life of the show. The show is his universe. If Black people enter that universe, they are tangential and problematic.
The flipside of the criminalization of Black men is the coronation of White men. The flipside of the beauty of White women is the ugliness of Black women.
America’s canon of images negates the humanity of Black people. What we then see, from Black content creators, is a reactionary dichotomy. There are Black people who attempt to become colorless by stepping into roles that do not address race, plight or challenge the narrative of power. Unless, of course, it is an acceptable and known figure (for example, Will Smith as Muhammad Ali).
Or, we see Black folks who address “issues”. That’s what Black people do. We bring up the “societal ills”. Because, that is our role. That’s the currency that we have in the culture. We become saddled with having to speak to the “problems” in the culture. In doing so, we become “the problem”. This could be why the White person, who doesn’t know you, has never met you, will roll their eyes when you speak about racism as if they’ve heard you say something over 1,000 times. That’s what they see in the media. Black people keep bringing up slavery, inequity, civil rights, because that’s our role. White people don’t speak about it. They are simply living their lives, buying Tide, and here we come, disrupting their lives with talk about racism.
It’s an interesting arrangement we have in the landscape of visuals. It’s an arrangement that needs to be broken.
White people, who identify with this construction of Whiteness in the culture, don’t have human rights, for all, as an agenda. In the realm of American cinema and television, human rights/ending racism is not an issue (again, unless Black people bring it up). So, if said White folks are the decision makers within the entertainment industry, they will make what is of interest to them. Black people are trying to survive and be recognized. White men want to escape, relax with "Dumb and Dumber" and "Sex Tape". They don’t have a desire or need to care for the well being of others. Life, for them, is not fraught with unemployment, poor education, decay. They don’t have to face it until it is brought to their attention.
So, ultimately, it’s not that White people don’t care, they simply have not been held accountable. Accountability does not occur unless the culture demands it. And then, when presented, it’s presented as a complicated situation. Trayvon Martin was going to the store to get skittles and ice tea BUT “he was wearing a hoodie, he fought with zimmerman”. Those crazy Black people, again, who complain and don’t accept that they are the problem.
The question is, how do we change this? First, we must acknowledge that we live in a culture of denial where Black people are still seen as “the problem”. We are “the problem” because we constantly talk about “the problem”. White people would like to get on with the lives that they have. The lives/fantasy constructed for them in the media. And, there is a passive acceptance from many Black people in power who go along to get along. White people don’t know that there’s a problem because they don’t have to. Conversations about racism challenge their fantasy. No one wants to have their fantasy interrupted.
We are going to need thoughtful and incisive content creators who can shatter the dynamics that have been created. We are not arguing for inclusion in entertainment because we want to be difficult. We are trying to create equity in the culture. We cannot see Black people as human until we see Black people as human. And, White people will not be empathic, en masse, if they are not seen in roles where they enact empathy. This is not a difficult concept to grasp.
It will be difficult to undo generations of images that have delivered a message of exclusion of Black people (people of color). Certainly, we can’t keep parading “To Kill A Mockingbird” as America’s conscience. We need new cinema, new images that disrupt this peculiar dance we’re all doing. Seriously. America needs a new narrative.
So, the next time a White person looks incredulous and annoyed when you bring up racism, just think, oh, he actually believed “Leave It To Beaver”(insert whatever movie or TV show you like). He/she hasn’t caught up to the fact that Black people live in the world, eat, drink, love, hurt, have mothers, fathers, siblings who love them and are human beings, too.