Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 9
Sitting outside an Austin cinema last Oscar season, observing the mostly over-40 crowd flooding out of Hidden Figures with uniformly satisfied looks on their faces, I remembered how the trailer to this biopic about three African-American women in the thick of the space race left little to the imagination. That is, a potential viewer would know exactly what the film is going in, and because it “really happened,” that viewer could feel entirely justified in consuming the exaggerated drama as advertised. And it occurred to me that there are several ways to discuss race within the realm of popular film, but producers have become increasingly more focused on hitting the right market target to the exclusion of the right socio-politcal target – i.e., the audience that needs to hear that discussion the most.
As writer/director Jordan Peele has discussed in several interviews, his feature film debut, Get Out, written during the tenure of President Barrack Obama, represents his own commentary on a “post-racial” America, as expressed through the language of a genre that skews younger than that of the biopic: mainstream horror. What I always appreciated about the work of Peele’s prior creative partnership, Key & Peele, was their ability, within the confined immediacy of sketch comedy, to say something while simultaneously acknowledging and embracing the human contradictions that come along with whatever that “something” is (e.g., masculinity). To put it simply, Key & Peele brought a biting sense of intellectual honesty that never felt like they were preaching to the converted. And to someone like me, that approach turns out to be especially persuasive when it comes to that “something.”
As for the “someone like me” part, coming from a place of institutionalized self-consciousness when it comes to such matters (and for the benefit of those who have no use for my opinion), I should disclose that I am a white male who was, by no choice of his own, born in the United States. Half of my ancestry can be traced back to immigrants who arrived from Europe during the Great Depression to work in factories. In the ’70s and ’80s, I grew up in two small towns within a blue-collar Catholic household where, before my impressionable childhood eyes, my parents’ elevation into the middle-middle class coincided with becoming Reagan Democrats (and several decades later, avid consumers of Fox News). My schools—and thus, my circle of friends—were virtually devoid of black people. And aside from an occasional racial epithet hurled from my father’s rocking chair in response to some segment on the nightly news (followed invariably by a disapproving poof from my mother), we didn’t talk about race in my household. The topic was off limits – like sex, money, and politics.
Being my mother’s last born of four, I was the first from either side of my family to attend college, which turned out (by choice) to be as far away from those small towns as I could venture. Still, I was a relatively shy university student confined by his modest budget and non-fraternity social class to a lengthy stint of living in dormitories. My first randomly allotted roommate came from the Jewish middle class, my second roommate came from the Indian-American middle class, and my third roommate came from the African-American middle class. As it turns out, the latter (for the sake of this backstory, let’s call him “Troy”) and I ultimately chose to live together for three semesters (after which I moved off campus), and if I look back on that time with any sense of intellectual honesty, I would largely attribute our residential choice to the ability to share a bathroom (in both the literal and figurative sense). Considering that Troy’s parents were Republicans employed in the center echelons of corporate America, I cannot say—again, with all intellectual honesty—that the university’s purported efforts to promote “multiculturalism” through dorm assignments offered me that much in terms of learning about the African-American experience.
That’s not to say that I didn’t learn something in my attendance at a public university. At the time, all students in the lower division (first two years) were subject to a core curriculum that included two semester-long U.S. history courses. For my second required course, which occurred some time between the limited release of Do the Right Thing and the rising popularity of In Living Color, I enrolled in “African-American History 1865-present” – not because I had a particular interest in African-American history, but because it was being taught by the professor of my first required course, “U.S. History: 1492-1865” (Dr. George C. Wright, current President of Prairie View A&M University), whose propensity for challenging students was undeniably infectious. I looked forward to each and every class. And without that course, I probably would never have been exposed to W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Boy, the last Playboy interview with Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Professor Wright’s own writing on legal lynchings. Nor would I have been exposed to a particularly frank and illuminating discussion regarding the psychological roots of racism – our brain’s invariable need to reduce and categorize in order to store and process.
Even so, my collegiate opinions on race in America—indeed, ideology in America—were shaped as much by the post-class experiences as the content of the course itself. Whether it was my professor’s intent or not, I noticed that a majority of the white students glommed on to certain aspects of the course that were consistent with this distinct vein of socialism running throughout many of the courses offered by the school of liberal arts. It all came across to me as a persuasive and pervasive set of economic trends that had been elevated to conspiratorial dogma that posited a simple bifurcated world (in contemporary terms, the “privileged” v. the not). Reveling in Malcolm X’s ultimate character arc, whereby he came to accept the assistance of whites in his crusade, this particular group of white liberals seemed to appropriate the African-American cause as part of their own cause against “injustice.” Along the political end of this spectrum were those who would join the Black History Month marches out of “solidarity,” exchanging the Che t-shirts on Tuesday and the Pan-African colors on Wednesday. Along the social end of the spectrum was a young woman from a small Texas town whom after four years of dating blonde-haired/blue-eyed boys, suddenly developed an exclusive taste for African-American men. (Troy, who was often told that he resembled a somewhat more filled-out version of the then Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, referred to this predilection as the “Mandingo thing.”)
As I saw (and still see) it, there was a certain disposition shared by all of this members of this particular group: after reading X number of books in African-American history and tallying Y number of black friends, they all professed, in one form or another, to feel the pain of the African-American experience. As a white male in the African-American studies course (who was presumably cool enough to hang out with), I happened to be privy to a characteristic of this group that betrayed their attempts to redraw and conflate the sociological lines: the way these good white folk spoke amongst themselves differed significantly from the way they spoke in the presence of their African-American brothers and sisters. (e.g., Among her white friends, the aforementioned young white woman would giggle about how “the size thing” really is true!)
As for how the black community on campus took all this, the few black activists that I crossed paths with seemed content to get all of the help they could. As I look back now, an appreciation for the practicalities of the situation did not mean they were unaware of what was happening. Ultimately, the ends justified certain means, and from my perspective, it wasn’t really any of my business.
My own take away from my experience with Professor Wright’s course—and in particular, the two primary civil rights movements in America—was that one minority (whatever the basis of that status) cannot engender an effective political dialogue with “others” in the majority by leading with the differences; rather, before bringing home those undeniable differences, that dialogue has to start with common ground (i.e., what it means to value basic human dignity, what it means to be poor, what it means to start out life with a poor education, etc.) – an approach that is utterly anathema to both the contemporary Right’s fandom of Ayn Rand and the contemporary Left’s commitment to identity politics. And yet, to my mind (the mind of an individual in a dwindling majority who has never been able to embrace the notion that any means justifies an end), we should never mistake sympathy, which is difficult enough to realize and act upon in the face of the inescapable racism of biology and conditioning, with that of empathy, which is a presumptuous impossibility. As I saw (and still see) it, a genuine action in response to the former is more likely to engender respect and facilitate meaningful change; but the pretense of the latter is but a salve for one’s own self-consciousness.
Circuitously enough, all of this brings me to why it took me a second viewing of Get Out to appreciate just how incendiary and topical Get Out really is.
I’ve seen a lot of think pieces zoning in on the fact that the true horror of Jordan Peele’s debut feature film, Get Out, is white feminism. That’s true. But I’ve also seen a horror extending from the screen and filling the packed theatre spaces; the banal laughter and obliviousness of white progressive liberals. I’m allowed to laugh during Get Out, because the awkward situations Chris had to extricate himself from are regular scenarios in my everyday life. Incredulous laughter is what makes them bearable. The white liberals I saw knee slapping themselves into hysterical oblivion clearly missed the mark and seemingly saw the film as only a comedy and not a commentary of their actual faults.
I say liberals because I doubt the Piers Morgans and Tomi Lahrens will venture within a 100 metres of this film after hearing the subject matter. They’ll probably call it anti-white and inflammatory while continuing to blow hot air up the precarious aircraft barely keeping Trump afloat. It’s white liberals who’ll go see Get Out as a testament to their “radical” beliefs and ability to maneuver through identity politics and come out smelling like Febreeze. And it’s white liberals who will so skillfully disengage from the subject matter so as to see themselves only as spectators and not perpetrators capable of exerting the same macro and micro-aggressions endured by Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya), at the hands of his white girlfriend’s (Rose, played by Allison Williams) progressive middle-class family.
I have an uncomfortable truth for white people raving about Get Out—it’s great cinema and I’m glad the thespians in you could appreciate the art. Just as long as you understand that you are Rose. All of you.”
Much has been made of the timeliness of the prologue to Get Out, which features a young black man wandering the night in a hedge maze of white suburbia, only to be violently abducted to the tune of “Run Rabbit, Run.” The sequence is both humorous and horrifying, as is the film. But I believe that Peele sets an undeniable undertone in the succeeding credit sequence, which is set to a score punctuated by eerie whispers in Swahili (translation: “something bad is coming, run”) and features three still photographs which, at the this point in the film, the viewer would not yet associate as the work of the film’s protagonist, Chris.
It is as if Peele is declaring that, notwithstanding the moments levity, the subject matter could not be more serious.
From there, the setup drops fairly quickly: Chris, the black boyfriend, travels to a remote country estate to meet the parents of Rose, his white girlfriend – Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener). Of course, there is a certain familiarity to this proceeding for those acquainted with two of Peele’s primary inspirations for Get Out –
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) …
… and The Stepford Wives (1975).
As a first time director, Peele brings an astute sense of visual parallelism …
… an unapologetic commitment to homage, …
… and a confident reliance upon the performer’s faces to convey. All of these stylistic choices make for an auspicious debut. But it’s the narrative choices that have understandably sparked the most interesting discussions.
As mentioned above, Peele states that he initially wrote the screenplay during a period that, following the 2008 Presidential election, can certainly now be characterized as complacent. Very early on in Chris’ visit with the wealthy liberal Armitage family, something doesn’t feel quite right. Dean seems to be desperately open about his genuine comradery with Chris’ race (“by the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third time if I could”), his undeniable appreciation for other cultures (“I’m a traveler, and I keep bringing back souvenirs”), his ardent desire to kill all the deer (“they’re like rats … I see a dead deer in the road, and I say ‘that’s a start’”), and even the fact that he’s boarded up the basement due to all the “black mold.” Missy is intent on putting Chris under hypnosis to cure (read: mind-rape) him of his bad smoking habit. Rose’s brother, Caleb (Jeremy Landry Jones), seems to be envious of Chris’ genetic gifts, desiring to physically dominate him. The hired help, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), act uncharacteristically robotic around their black brother; and although Chris first chalks this up to disapproval (on the part of Georgina) and jealousy (on the part of Walter) of his relationship with Rose, he ultimately has no idea just how insidious the plot really is.
With Rose as the bait, the Armitage family plans to auction Chris’ beautiful black body off to the highest bidder, a blind white art dealer (Stephen Root), who will surgically assume all of Chris’ motor functions …
… as Chris’ own consciousness is sublimated into a paralytic “sunken place.” And as it turns out, Georgina’s body is occupied by the matriarch of the Armitage family, and Walter’s body by the patriarch – the latter of whom lost to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic tryouts.
On first viewing, I was left underwhelmed with the body snatchers endgame in the wake of all of the pointed satirical content that had preceded it.
Thoughts of white skater kids listening to gangster rap in the ’90s crossed my mind. Culturally speaking, White America has always fetishized Black America. But so what. What’s so relevant about that today? And what does that really have to do with the socio-political context of the rest of the film?
And then, a few weeks later, I saw a news segment following up on a story of which I was only vaguely aware.
The picture on the left is a 16 year-old girl born in 1977 to biological parents of primarily Czech, German, and Swedish origin, who grew up home-schooled in Montana; the picture on the right is the 37 year-old President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in 2015. Each photo portrays the same person – Rachel Dolezal. In the two decades that passed between each picture, Dolezal relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, to attend a small private college, Belhaven University, and was eventually admitted to the M.F.A. program at the historically black college, Howard University, which initially awarded her a scholarship based on her African-American oriented artwork (and which, ironically enough, she later sued for racial discrimination). But with the increased notoriety that came with her role as an activist also came unwanted scrutiny of her racial representations. At the end of a television interview conducted in 2015, her facade unraveled (see here at 7:55), and eventually, she was also outed by her family members. On the Today show, in true #posttruth fashion, Dolezal took exception to the notion that she was “deceiving people”—as opposed to merely “not correcting” people who assumed she was black—and professed to have an “instinctual … self-identification with the black experience” at “a very early age.” From Dolezal’s point of view, if society allows anyone to self-identify as to gender, then why can’t she self-identify as to race? As such, she has described herself as “transracial.” Now, two years after being called out as a fraud, the newly-published Dolezal has doubled down on her contemporary victim cred (comparing her upbringing as a bisexual by “Jesus freak” parents to slavery) and the narcissism that all too often accompanies it (changing her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, the last and first of which are derived from the Nigerian Igbo terms for “bold” and “gift of God”).
Beyond the immediately predictable reactions to the Dolezal narrative (namely, mockery), a variety of perspectives emerged. From the Right, this “New World Order” story offers support for the thinly-veiled arguments that it is Black America, and not White America, that is the truly advantaged in a culture utterly lacking in traditional cornerstones (e.g., “What is the psychology behind Rachel Dolezal’s race fraud?” FoxNews.com). From the Left, the predominant purveyors of political correctness, there seems to be a distinct focus on policing Doleshal’s language (e.g., Syreeta McFadden, “Rachel Dolezal’s definition of ‘transracial’ isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive,” theguardian.com (6/15/2015)). But to me, certain other perspectives rang truer than others.
Until we become united on equality, peace and distributing the notion of respect despite who you are, people like Dolezal are going to be the result of the fetishism of a community — wanting to sympathize with the oppression of a group of people but feeling like they can’t until they completely reject who they are and pretend to be them.”
When white people learn about systemic racism and start to see all the ways that our peoples’ ideology has been shaped to justify racism, it’s understandable for us to feel ashamed that we’re white. Since we don’t have any perspective on the very real humiliating and dangerous experiences that people of color have gone through in their lives, we sometimes wish that we could just “become” not-white like them. We understand race in terms of abstract existential legitimacy. White means privilege which means illegitimacy which means that I have less credibility points than people of color.
Sometimes white allies compensate for our sense of illegitimacy by making ourselves the loudest voices in the room dissing those stupid other white people. There’s a game within identity politics called the “oppression olympics” where you get a point according to how many oppression categories you can claim. But I’ve noticed over the years that identity politics is mostly a game played by allies trying to out-ally each other. People of color and other marginalized groups just don’t like it when their allies talk over them and make themselves the experts on realities they haven’t lived through.
The reality is that white people have been deeply harmed by the hidden ideologies generated over the past several centuries of modern racism. We haven’t been harmed in the same way or to the same degree as people of color, but we have been left with a deep sense of shame and a need to justify ourselves. So we create rigorous meritocracies for our self-justification. Some people self-justify according to the meritocracy of “family values.” Others self-justify according to the meritocracy of “social justice.” Any worthy cause can be made toxic when we make it all about our need to feel legitimate.”
The proliferation of “awareness” agendas over the past three decades, nurtured within the garden of social media, has swung the pendulum to the point where, when it comes to discourse on a wide range of topics, an increasingly larger segment of America measures each individual’s social value—indeed, the very validity and worth of one’s experiences and opinions—by the degree to which he, she, or [insert non-cisgendered pronoun here] is able to self-identify as a member of one or more historically ill-treated classes (i.e., as far away from a “privileged” status as possible). In the current state of discourse, it is not so much about content of one’s words as it is about the identity of the speaker: the actual myriad privileges and burdens that each individual enjoys and carries mean nothing unless that individual dons the right badge(s). And although the Right’s moving parts in the expanding division of the U.S. electorate has received most of the #posttruth criticism of late (and rightfully so), the Left have sacrificed plenty of truth for the sake of advancing its own Truth. In terms of contemporary social and political currency, Dolezal seems to be a rather predictable byproduct of the paradoxically dubious choice of elevating one group of individuals over another for the sake of “leveling the playing field,” as opposed to committing to the principle of equality as both a means and an end.
Indeed, in a climate increasingly defined by means justifying ends (effectively, politics as team sport), it would be a mistake to dismiss Dolezal as an isolated instance of a white person willing to go to the extreme of literally recasting their race (and all of the formative experiences that accompany it) for the sake of activism. (See, e.g., Feliks Garcia, “The rise and fall of Shaun King, former Black Lives Matter darling,” complex.com (1/29/2016).)
Even so, the number of public figures who could be dismissed as extremities of racial fetishism and appropriation is surely minute in comparison to the number private handles one might find in the anonymous morass of the Twitterverse or examples of that fall short of literally changing one’s racial identity. As in Get Out, where one of Chris’ potential future hosts refers to black people as the new fad, these phenomena transcend the world of politics. (See, e.g., Malysha Kai, “5 Signs You’re About to Be Racially Fetishized,” The Root (1/6/2016)). But regardless of whether the discussion is focused on fetishism or appropriation, and regardless of the degree or the context in which these phenomena occur, it all amounts to the same thing: objectification. That is to say, fetishism and appropriation are points on the same spectrum – a spectrum of behavior that vociferously expresses an interest or concern, but essentially and effectively disregards another’s humanity.
With that in mind, it seems to me that Peele is posing a fundamental question to Black America about, and within earshot of, a very distinct segment of White America: How much of your white liberal brothers’ and sisters’ support of racial equality is really about you and how much is really about them? For example, how many of your white liberal brothers and sisters who “like” every #segregation tweet you post also choose to send their own children to disadvantaged public schools? Regardless of what may or may not be the best of intentions, the public awareness-raising of the former takes the swipe of a thumb to make everybody feel good about themselves; but as for the kitchen table action demanded of the latter, just ask someone like Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who has covered segregation for the New York Times, how well white liberals tend to fare.
TERRY GROSS: “So what was the reaction of parents who were told that they couldn’t get their children into the more affluent school and they were going to be sent to the school your daughter was in?”
HANNAH-JONES: “Well, those parents were not happy at all. They called their elected officials, and they began holding meetings, and they went to the press and really revolted against the Department of Education’s decision to send their children to that school. There were several pretty ugly meetings, and at that time I was not sitting in these meetings as a journalist. I had no intention of writing about this issue. I think it’s important not to necessarily report a personal story on the beat that you cover. So I was just sitting in these meetings as a parent who was interested to hear what people who could potentially be coming to my daughter’s school had to say about it, and it was hurtful to hear that things that parents were saying, particularly these are parents who are progressive. They live in Brooklyn because they say that they believe in diversity, often held up as being these kind of hipster people who don’t see race. And I was hearing the same thing from those parents that I had heard in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it was no different.”
If there is one thematic takeaway from Get Out, it is that Black America should be suspicious of White America – all of White America. And a particularly smug segment of White America needs to take a real close look at themselves.