On Reprogramming My Racist Brain Around Books and Movies Not Centered Around White Stories Or Containing White Heroes.

I often like to reference a point in the past when I was thinking about race issues because it make me feel proud to say, “I LEARNED THIS BEFORE TODAY!” But in reality, it’s always more important to note, “I did not know about this for the majority of my life.” But, if you’ll bear with me while I self-righteously lament things I’ve known for awhile (but still a small minority of the entire scope of my life), I’ll wrap this up with something I learned yesterday.

Back in 2010’ish…I felt very enlightened for having read the book The Help for my book club. My memory tells me we had very good conversations about racism. And maybe we did, but knowing what I know now about my views of race/racism back then…I don’t think that I could have contributed anything even remotely worthwhile because I definitely read that book before I had awoken to my own current white privilege. I voted for Obama (a common thing white people said back then to prove they weren’t racist) and so of course I had been thinking a lot about race in the years prior (I need a sarcasm font) but I’m 100% certain I read that book with the mindset of racism being in the past. I can’t tap into my brain back then to know for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I was someone who considered our election of Obama as a “post-racism” type of indicator.

Then, when the movie came out I felt very progressive going to see the movie having already read the book. Somehow, that made me…I don’t know…more educated about racism. Or something? Like…it was very common for white people to admit they had read the book around the time of the movie as an indicator that they were…I don’t know…definitely not racist. Or something? Like I said, I can’t get into my head exactly from that time but I can connect with that version of myself enough to guess what was going on.

Fast-forward to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. I started actually waking up to racism as a thing in the present and not just the subject of movies set in the past. Once I started looking at the world with that lens, everything changed. For one, I quickly was introduced to the concept of “White Savior” which came up when white people, outraged by these incidents, tried to “save” the movements by creating organizations or rallying people to do what Black activists had already been doing for years. It was my instinct even to be one of those white women. But instead, I listened to the Black Women on the ground and found organizations already funded to contribute to, or join. (Faith In Action is one with a branch in Huntsville that has been really great.) When it comes to fighting racism, White people will wake up and think, “SOMEONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING!” and try to take it upon themselves when – in reality – many people have already been doing something, we’ve just not been listening.

Once I understood the concept of “White Savior” I started recognizing it in books and movies. It turns out more white people will pay to see a movie/read a book about racism, if there’s a good white character they can imagine as themselves.

I had not read Hidden Figures before the movie came out. So, I was devastated to learn the Kevin Costner character was not real and his best moments were entirely made up. Katherine Johnson never used the “colored” bathrooms, she just used the ones designed for white people. And she was not in Mission Control in the launch, she was not allowed and there was no Kevin Costner to bring her in.

There’s no need for “Hidden Figures” to follow the true-life story to the letter — it’s not a documentary. But if the raw material is so powerful and interesting, why did the writers need to add a white guy who “does the right thing”?

The answer to that question is pretty obvious. Black people wouldn’t be bothered by a movie that shows white characters who are oppressive at worst and aloof and unhelpful at best, anymore than women would be bothered by the male characters in “Stepford Wives.” So this kind of alteration only serves to soothe the conscience of white people.

Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” was whitewashed — but it didn’t have to be

Pointing out these flaws does not make it wrong to like it. It is still one of my favorite movies. But I think being aware of whitewashing is an important step in understanding…well…everything around racism…past, present, and future.

And that brings me back to The Help. Evidently it’s surging in views on Netflix right now. And Black journalists/film critics are worried that it’s because people are trying to “understand” issues around race.

“I’m so sorry but the last thing folx need to be watching are bootleg ‘racial reconciliation’ movies like ‘The Help,’” film critic Theodore-Vachon wrote. “If you need a list of Black films, Black film critics are on here happy to suggest some really good ones.”

As ‘The Help’ Goes #1 on Netflix, Critics Speak Out and Offer Better Movies to Stream

It’s also a new movie on Netflix so it could just be surging in popularity, new on the platform. But it is important to note that the real-life Ablene didn’t like the book or movie and Viola Davis has regrets as well.

And while I may be pretending like I’m “enlightened” in my understanding and recognition of the White Savior in popular movies, here is where we come to the “What I Learned Yesterday” part of my journey.

Bethany C Morrow wrote an amazing tweet thread yesterday as a type of letter to White people newly delving into books by Black authors or about Black histories. I was super-embarrassed by how much this particular tweet hit me in the heart, “The easy way out is to say the book confused you. Didn’t hold your attention. Wasn’t what you were expecting. Of course it’s not. You were expecting what you’ve been raised on. What we’ve been raised on. That’s not what we’re serving.”

Now, I didn’t catch this in myself at first because I’ve gone head-over-heals for a lot of Black Author’s YA Books/Stories. I’ll proudly recite how many books I’ve already read on many of the lists floating around right now. I can spit off Black YA Authors like points on a scoreboard. LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT HOW WOKE I AM!

*cringe*

While The Help may be a top view on Netflix right now, the Amazon Best-Selling non-fiction is full of dense histories/commentaries about racism in America.

But at least 50 times a day I lament my struggles with these non-fictions and others people are currently recommending, and I always do it with a blanket “I don’t read non-fictions” type of statement but after reading Morrow’s tweet thread yesterday I found myself thinking, “Or maybe it’s an indicator of something bigger.”

(IN MY DEFENSE: I have read a few of the books on these lists in their entirety. JUST NOT AS MANY AS I HAVE PURCHASED.)

If I listen to Morrow’s words I have to admit that maybe I’m just not used to reading non-fiction where I can’t identify with anyone in the story. None of them look like me, none of them represent points in my history. None of them are written in my voice. Or even more importantly…the people who do look like me and do represent points in my history…ARE THE FUCKING BAD GUYS.

Later in the thread she says, “Recognize there is a language you’ll need to learn. A cultural competency that goes beyond the diet of stereotypes you’ve been fed.” And…oof. Yeah. Maybe that is my problem.

I mean, I’ve never really successfully read White histories either, if I’m being honest. I really do tend to avoid non-fictions in general. But, I’ve been bold enough to buy the books with history of racism as a theme, these are the perfect opportunities for me to push beyond my comfort zone and expand my diet a bit.

All of this is to say that White People educating themselves about racism requires a LOT of serious re-programming. While I like to talk about how much I have learned in the past, I have such a long way to go still.

We have to learn to embrace stories where all/most of the white people are apathetic at best, evil at worst. If the goal is to really understand systemic racism and white privilege (as much as we can as white people), we have to sit in the discomfort of realizing a lot of the white heroes we’ve seen on screen in movies about race, or worse…in our history classrooms…have been glorified for our consumption. Even stories based in truth are centered around white voices instead of Black voices. What if Sandra Bullock’s character in The Blind Side had been secondary to the voice of Mike Oher.

When Mike wrote his own story (with a ghost-writer) he did not detract from the love story of his adoptive family, but he added in plenty of important details NOT centered around them as his only saviors. I love this line from the NPR review here: “But as a story, it’s gripping, and as a demonstration of how you take control of the narrative of your own life without taking anything away from the people who have helped you, it’s equally impressive.”

None of these books or movies with elements of White Saviors are bad. But when we’re setting our goals to educate ourselves as white people on issues around race, we need to make sure we include stories centered around Black voices and Black histories. And especially written by Black authors. We need to listen to white people be racists without other white people jumping in to save the day. We need to listen to stories that DO NOT INVOLVE WHITE PEOPLE AT ALL.

And I personally need to push myself to read non-fiction history books centered around the Black experience even if I struggle…because my struggle is proof I need to read them…proof to the need to adjust my cultural exposure. I do okay with the essays complications/memoirs…but the real History is just as important.

ALL OF THAT SAID…I started reading Stamped which is the Jason Reynolds (one of those YA authors I proudly talk about reading regularly) “adaption” of the Ibram Kendi dense historical account of Racism in America. And it has TOTALLY helped get me past my struggle with history books. Maybe because I’ve read so many of Reynolds’ fictions that his voice feels familiar to me? Either way. If I continue with this book it will be the first non-memoir non-fiction I’ve successfully read in it’s entirety. EVER.

Let’s push outside our comfort zones together. Let’s not avoid or discredit movies or books with White Saviors, but let’s recognize them for what they are and not be blind to their faults. And then let’s reach for movies and books centered around the Black experience as often as possible.

EPILOGUE

I’m throwing this at the end because I’m nervous about it and decided if you made it through this far you’re probably safe to mention this to but – I’m thinking about doing regular Zoom meetings with other white people where we share different things we’ve learned? Like…good articles or podcasts or books WRITTEN/CREATED by Black people that have made us uncomfortable in some way? It’s not up to Black Teachers or Activists or Writers or Journalists to *teach* us when their work is already out there for consumption, but sometimes it’s hard to decide where to start and I thought if everyone came to the “table” with one thing they’d recommend and how it made them uncomfortable/taught them something, we could filter through the massive lists going around right now? Is that a dumb idea? Would anyone be interested?

9 thoughts on “On Reprogramming My Racist Brain Around Books and Movies Not Centered Around White Stories Or Containing White Heroes.”

  1. I’m definitely interested in learning more and would be happy to participate in a zoom (or other online platform) meeting about this. I’ve read some of your recommendations in the past and I’ve learned a lot, but I know I still have much more to learn.

  2. I would be very interested in this type of discussion because you are right we need to educate ourselves.

  3. I would too. Side note: I just learned about DARVO and now I am seeing it everywhere, a lot like how you are much more aware of the white savior character and white-washing. I definitely need to practice more being an active accomplice rather than an ally.

  4. I am interested, though I may not be able to time-wise. My 14 month old can be pretty unpredictable in her time demands lol! But if you discussed something in particular and recommended it in a post-mortem then I’d be likely to read or watch that thing (or things).

  5. Thank you for sharing that tweet. It hit home for me, too. I’ve read a fair number of books written by black authors over the past few years, but I’ve been guilty of reviewing them with words like, “This didn’t hold my attention” and “This wasn’t what I was expecting.”

  6. Definitely interested in the zoom. I saw the tweet thread on this as well, and it was just after one of my Black colleagues asked us all to watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en), so it was extra reinforced. There’s definitely so much more to learn, and I’ve been at this a while too. Thanks for sharing! (I have a pro zoom account, if you need one to do the zooms on).

  7. I’ve been reading on this topic since I could read (55 years!), and some of the most powerful works I’ve experienced were Roots (duh, the book version, not the TV series which couldn’t really be as gritty), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (again, book better than TV). Recently, I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (which was a bit fanciful but good). I saw Harriet, the new movie about Harriet Beecher Stowe and it was AWESOME. She was a fierce force of nature (which I’d already know from reading books about her, but the film captured it so very well). The most humbling and heartbreaking moment (to me, was when she reached haven and told her history, adding it to the histories of all the escaped slaves that came through the Underground Railroad).

  8. I would be very interested in your Zoom meetings (one of the features of Zoom is a cute background that replaces my ACTUAL messy living room as a background, right?), as long as I can get to them (my work schedule changes somewhat from week to week right now). But if I can’t, I will come back and read any posts/minutes/discussions. I am very interested in educating myself as much as I can on race relations and my own white privilege, and while I’ll be doing at least some work at home via reading and watching more documentaries, I think I’d benefit from other perspectives as well.

    Thank you for this post, and for more reading material to add to my list!

  9. Hi, this post is a week or so old now so I may have missed the boat. But if you are planning a Zoom call/discussion group, I would love to participate or help organize. I really value your writing on this difficult topic and others — I’m inspired by how much you keep doing the work and holding yourself accountable, even when it’s so hard. And also how you don’t “let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” which I’m always trying to remind myself of in my own life. Anyway, would love to join you in discussion and sharing.

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