White People: Take a White Friend to “12 Years a Slave”

White people,

This weekend I saw 12 Years a Slave.  I am still sorting through my feelings and my reactions to the film, but one thing is plain as day to me after seeing this film: more White people need to see it.

12 Years a Slave

Though this film is not without its criticisms (as brilliantly put by bell hooks in this discussion with Melissa Harris-Perry where she criticizes the portrayal of Black women in the film), it is a rarity.  Not often in Hollywood are films made with a Black leading cast that are written by a Black person, based on the true story of a Black person, and directed by a Black person, particularly if they tell the truths of White Supremacy.

And in the rare circumstances that such films are made, White folks avoid them like the plague (this ain’t no Django fantasy).

So this Thanksgiving, I want to give White folks a challenge.  If you haven’t yet seen the film, consider going on Wednesday night.  

Then make an effort to bring the film up with your family and friends on Thursday, discussing how it made you feel and what its implications are for our modern constructions of race and Whiteness.  And then from there, consider what action you can take to work for racial justice.

In the words of my friend Julie Landsman (you should probably just read her whole piece),

I find that some white people who see or read accounts of slavery or Jim Crow retreat into guilt without naming it as such. They rest there, immoveable, privileged by their skin color yet unwilling to accept the past which still determines much of the present policies and day to day indignities in our country. Some say they will not see the movie because it would be so hard to watch. I get that. I also get the desire to turn away, contribute to a bake sale for a child’s school and call it even. Yet this is not enough.

Steven McQueen the director of 12 Years a Slave, said he wanted to make it possible for the viewer to get inside the experience of slavery. He and Alfre Woodard each said at different times during a press conference in Toronto after the first showing of the film, that the movie is really about human dignity and about love. It is also about complexity and nuance, more so than any other such film I have seen on the subject. It is about those who are left behind. It is also about a country that still persists in leaving a whole people behind. There is little joy or ease in the 2 ½ hours spent watching McQueen’s work. Many movies have traumatic tales to tell but this one, the genocide that was a part of our history, and that influences how white supremacy perpetuates the system that still oppresses many African Americans in a unique way, is shown in such a manner that it enables us to get at least a cinematic idea of how all pervasive the slaughter of human beings was here.

So go see the film.

But when you see the film, I have a second challenge for you.  As much as you are able, do not close your eyes.  Do not shy away from the all-too-real depictions of brutality.

Because the present we know is not divorced from the foundation upon which it was built, a foundation of brutality toward Black bodies (and all bodies of Color).  When George Zimmerman walks free and it takes 2 weeks and tremendous public pressure for police outside of Detroit to charge a White man in the cold blooded-murder of Renisha McBride, this “justice” stands upon a system that was fundamentally built on the enslavement and brutality of Black bodies.

To force ourselves to watch when we want to close our eyes or put our hands over our faces is to breathe in, in whatever way the fiction of film may allow us, the air that surrounds us every day but we often choose not to recognize is there: the air of White Supremacy in these United States.

In the end, there is no amount of film watching and discussion that will allow us to truly know the brutality that comes from White Supremacy, but the simple act of, as a mentor and professor often says, “wading through the shit,” facing the brutality, at least might allow us to connect emotionally and spiritually with the price we pay for the privileges of Whiteness.

So let’s start there.

In Peace,

Jamie

P.S. If you can’t afford to pay $12.50 to see the film, consider watching what bell hooks called the only film on slavery that she’s truly liked, Slavery By Another Name.  You can stream it for free online.  Then talk about it with your family and friends.

P.P.S. For those folks who are indignant that this is so specifically addressed to White-identified people, listen to Julie Landsman one more time:

It is not up to African Americans to follow through. It is not even suggested here that they go see this movie. Each of us can decide that for ourselves. I do believe, however, that it is up to whites to understand our history, our complicity—whether it was my uncle’s bank in Connecticut that profited from the slave trade, or the ivy league universities that also took advantage of the bondage of millions. I believe it is up to whites to make time for 12 Years A Slave, because until we experience this from the inside, as McQueen hopes we do, we will not have the will to redress it. We will not understand the intimate way it feels to experience loss, and the historical memory of such a loss on a grand scale. We will continue to leave whole people’s behind.

On Listening, Lily Allen, and Satire

I’ve been reading a lot about Lily Allen in the last few days, and I’m troubled to say the least.

In case you’re unaware, Lily Allen recently released a “feminist anthem” called “Hard Out Here.”  A friend posted it on Facebook with the question, “Is this clever feminist satire or just a recreation of the same racist commodification of the bodies of Women of Color?”  A rousing debate ensued.

Hard Out Here

Screenshot from Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here”

In this debate, as well as in a few others I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook in the last 24 hours, there was one thing that was pretty obvious: White people were FAR more likely to defend Lily Allen than people of Color, and there wasn’t a whole lot of listening going on from those of identity privilege.

And it’s not just my random White Facebook friends that are having trouble hearing the critiques.  Lily Allen herself responded to the criticism defensively, claiming it’s just a “lighthearted satirical video” that “has nothing to do with race, at all.”

When I hear her respond, though, I just want to scream, “Why do you get to decide if it’s not about race?!?”

And therein lies my point.  As people of privilege, it is our responsibility to listen and reflect when we are called out for the ways that our privilege impacts oppressed and marginalized people, even if we are oppressed and marginalized in other aspects of our identity.

In short, if we are striving to be “allies” or to fight for social justice, we need to step back and do a better job of listening.  In this case, White people – even White women – need to step back and listen to the myriad of voices of Color who are saying that if this video is “feminist,” then they want nothing to do with “feminism.”

So here are a few powerful voices.  There are all sorts of others out there, but these are a few criticisms/critiques that helped me to grow.  Hopefully they can do the same for you.

Easy Out There For A (White) Bitch: A Few Words On Lily Allen and the Continued Use of Black Women’s Bodies As Props

By Mia Mckenzie of Black Girl Dangerous

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From a Consultant: Why Your Business Doesn’t Need a Consultant

I originally wrote this essay as part of a GRE practice test, and as I completed it, I couldn’t help but think of the corporate clients I’ve worked with who could benefit from its sentiment.  In some ways, it departs from my usual content on here, as I rarely write about the business world, even while I am occasionally consulting within it.

In the end, though, the lessons here are ones for people in any industry or field: bring on board a tremendously diverse workforce, empower them, listen to them, and you will be the most successful entity in your field.

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From a Consultant: Why Your Business Doesn’t Need a Consultant

There’s an old business adage that says, “If you want someone to state the obvious, hire a consultant.”  Yet business consulting and organizational development is a billion-dollar industry in the United States.  Often, though, these consultants are hired before the organization even looks to the brilliance of its own team for solutions.  In the knowledge-based economy, businesses that rely on outdated, top-down structures of leadership are being left behind.

Businesses that maximize the power of the team through effective feedback mechanisms while encouraging and fostering creativity in their team are far less likely to need a consultant to help them grow and prosper.

Listen to Your Employees

Listen to Your EmployeesFor the vast majority of consultants, the consulting process begins with a period of data gathering.  This data can range from expenses and profit margins to personnel files, but more often than not, it draws upon the experiences and voices of every member of the organization to diagnose any problems that may exist and to help the business create a plan forward.  In short, consultants are hired to tell businesses what they should already know.

Through interviews with employees, surveys with clients, and an analysis of the leadership structure, effective consultants can determine with little effort whether a business is exploiting the collective brilliance of all of its team and easily offer plans for doing so more adeptly.

Notably, then, businesses that have a structure for listening to team members and for fostering creativity in employees are those least likely to benefit from the services of a consultant.

This is because those that need consultants to tell them how to proceed are far more likely to be operating from outdated business models based on top-down leadership structure where creativity is seen as primarily driven from those “appointed” as leaders within the organization.  The problem, though, is that this business model was designed in the time of a different economy.  The strictly labor-based economy dictated that “creative” employees designed products that the “labor” would simply execute and build.

To Succeed in the Knowledge-Based Economy, Empower the Creative Brilliance of Everyone

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The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

Everyday FeminismThis is a strange position to be in!  Though I am writing a lot of new content lately, I am now in my third week of not having to post something new to my blog directly!  As a contributing writer to Everyday Feminism, I am expected to write two articles per month for the site.  Well, lately my articles had been backlogged at the site, and now they are all getting published.  I am still writing new content for CFW, but I will keep it in the wings until there is a week when I am not being published elsewhere.

In the mean time, enjoy this week’s post from Everyday Feminism.

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The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

In my work with high school students, I am regularly asked, “What can I do? I know that injustice exists, but I feel so powerless. I want to help!”

More often than not, the students asking the question is doing so from a place of privilege: a straight student who wants to be a better LGBTQ ally, a white student who wants to be more anti-racist, an able-bodied person who wants to better support his differently-abled brother.

It’s no surprise to me that folks of privilege are the ones struggling to figure out how to act for justice. More often than not, those who are denied access, voice, privilege, and justice in dominant culture know exactly what they need to do to act for justice.

Those of us with identity privilege, though, can simply coast, never considering how our unchecked privileges contribute to a system of oppression.

To that point, my answer to their question is always the same: “Listen.”

Listening Is the Root of Justice

There are lots of steps that someone can take to become a better ally, but surely there is no more important step than listening.

I was raised in a culture where I benefit from a great many privileges.  I am cis-male, white, straight, English-speaking, and able-bodied, and I come from a family of wealth privilege. In the words of Louis CK“How many advantages can one person have!?” 

With those unearned advantages comes a little voice that tells me that I am always right, that I am above reproach, that I have power and deserve power.

And not only does this little voice tell me that I am always right, but it tells me that there is no need to listen to the voices of those who are different from me.

“What could they possibly teach me?”

And therein lies the arrogant lack of perspective that can come with any form of identity privilege.

After all, when a person lives in a vacuum of privileged voices and perspectives, how brilliant can said person be?

Men who refuse to listen to women, cis folk who ignore trans* voices, white people who ignore people of color… In every case, we are denying ourselves the knowledge of powerful perspectives.

And because privilege conceals itself from those who have it, those of us who benefit from identity privilege are often unaware of the perspectives we deny, silence, and stifle with our voice.

As such, I’ve done a lot of silencing in my life, but most of it wasn’t active. I haven’t simply talked over someone or shouted someone down.

Instead, I’ve resorted to one of my most powerful weapons as a person of privilege: my refusal to listen.

For example, white people like myself are taught that we shouldn’t listen to voices of color. After all, if we did, we wouldn’t need study after study to prove that racism is real and that we don’t live in a “post-racial” society.

We would simply be able to hear it in the stories and voices of those folks of color that must live in our racist society every single day.

Read the rest of the article at Everyday Feminism!

Django Unchained: Listen to Black Voices

django-unchained-movie-poster-teaserI recently saw Django Unchained, and I loved it.  I had a feeling that I would because I love most everything Quentin Tarantino releases, but I was definitely not disappointed.  I also found it to be an important film because I understood it to have a pretty critical, anti-racist message that was well-researched and thought provoking considering that it is a major Hollywood release.  Now, let’s be clear.  This is Hollywood, so it’s not going to be THAT groundbreaking, but I thought it did a good job.

Things I enjoyed:

  1. Tarantino is known for putting extensive research into his work, and the film did a good job of showing some of the horrors of slavery, particularly considering that a majority of the audience for this film are likely to be White Men, folks who need to understand better the realities of what our people did to Black people in the institution that made the U.S. the economic powerhouse it is today.  Everything from the treatment of runaway slaves to the collars and masks slaves had to wear to the “hot box” to mandingo fighting is important for White folks to understand when we so commonly say to Black folks, “Why can’t you just get over it?”  Well, White folks, please consider watching the film in its entirety and not covering your eyes when a slave is torn apart by dogs or when one slave is forced to beat another to death and then think for just a little while about how if that were seared into your people’s collective conscious as just two of innumerable unspeakable acts if you’d be able to “just get over it.”
  2. It pokes great fun at the myth of White supremacy.  For those who’ve seen it, the scene with the KKK riders and their hoods = comedic genius.
  3. The acting was fantastic.  Thank you, casting director, for that.
  4. It features authentic White allies (though there is important and ample criticism of Shultz as a Christ figure and as the lead when the true lead should be Django).  So often White folks don’t have examples in popular culture or in our history books of White people acting as allies.  Though I was troubled by Schultz saying that he wouldn’t free Django until he had served a purpose, he goes on to be an anti-racist White ally!
  5. It displays the culpability of poor Whites in the system of slavery and White supremacy.  So often White folks will say, “Well, my family never owned a slave.”  The genius of the system of White supremacy and slavery is that poor whites were and are pitted against those that should be their allies, poor people of Color, because they are given modicums of power over people of Color.  By buying into that system, Whites were and are culpable, even if we “never owned slaves.”
  6. It’s great fun to watch as a freed slave enacts vengeance on the system of White supremacy through utter destruction of but one plantation and its White inhabitants.

All that being said, the first thing that I thought upon leaving the theater is, “I wonder what Black critics are saying about this?”  I say that because privilege conceals itself from those who possess it, and I, as a White person, am unlikely to think about all of the ways that a film about slavery is problematic when written, directed, and produced through the lens of a White man.

Thus, I immediately headed over to The Root where I found a fantastic piece that tackles some of the complexities of Django.  You see, in moments like this, it is not so important what I as a White Man think of this film.  Instead, we need to listen to Black voices as they discuss the merits of this apparently anti-racist film that was created by a White man.

Thus, I REALLY REALLY REALLY hope that all of my readers will read “‘Django Unchained:’ A Post-Racial Epic?” by Hillary Crosley.  A few of the highlights:

Herein lies the crux of the problem that many have, and probably will have, with Django Unchained:While it deals with race, the film’s mere existence is not necessarily a commentary on how far we’ve come in terms of race relations in America, which some viewers might expect from a film about slavery in 2012. At its heart, Django is a spaghetti western, and the film, written and directed by Tarantino, showcases his wild sensibilities as he imagines America’s slaving days through the narrative of a black man.

Let’s all agree up front that a film about a newly freed slave enacting revenge on those who abused him and his wife can seem problematic when the director is a white man. There is no way around this…

Ultimately, Django featured several cruel traditions that were likely historically correct — it’s not hard to imagine that blacks were branded with an “r” if they ran away, that some were torn apart by animals or that Mandingo fights had black men fighting to the death — but that doesn’t make them any easier to watch.

Enough of that.  Just go read the piece!!!

And lastly, let’s be clear.  This film is a big budget Hollywood fantasy about Slavery written by a White man.  So, in the words of Davey D, “I say use this excitement around Django and the hype machine that director Quentin Tarantino has around him to turn folks onto other projects they may have overlooked, forgotten about, or not seen at all.”  So yes, please go see the movies that he recommends in his post “4 Movies You Should See and Know About Before You See Django That Deal w/ Rebellion.”

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UPDATE!

I just read one of the better reviews I have read on Django over at IndyWire.  Check out Tanya Steele’s “Tarantino’s Candy (Slavery in the White Male Imagination).”

And make sure to check out Darnell Moore’s piece “Django Unchained, or, What was So Damn Funny Anyway?

Perhaps the single best piece I’ve read on Django Unchained: “Django Unchained: A Critical Conversation Between Two Friends.

Listening is the Root of Justice

So . . . Keep an eye out for a video blog I’ll be posting later today, but in the mean time, someone asked me to repost a piece I had published in Good Men Project on Change From Within, so here ’tis:

Listening is the Root of Justice

Reflections on Listening, Privilege, and Twitter Conversations

Talking about identity, power, privilege, and oppression are hard enough when we have unlimited characters in which to conduct the discussion.  In turn, why so many (including myself) decide to have these tough conversations over Twitter is beyond me, but it happens.  Recently a highly-publicized conversation took place on Twitter between The Good Men Project founder Tom Matlack and some feminist and anti-racist women and men concerning the language and perspectives Tom had taken in some pieces here on GMP.

The majority of the conversation related to feminism, male privilege, and the concept of being a male ally, and the conversation inspired such controversy, that much publishing has been done in its wake (see here, here, here, and here as a place to start).  However, a small strain of the conversation related to a comparison Tom made between black men being overrepresented in prisons and a piece Hugo Schwyzer published explaining why it’s understandable for men to be “guilty until proven innocent” when it comes to rape.

Race scholar Sarah Jackson took issue with his comparison and tried to engage in a discussion with him about why the analogy is problematic.

If there’s anything we White folks are good at, it’s getting defensive when we think we’re being called racist, and we’re especially good at getting defensive when we’re told that we may, in fact, be benefitting from White Privilege.

In reading through the Twitter conversation, I had to stop here for a minute because this hit a little too close to home.  In my attempts to become an ally to Women, People of Color, LGBTQ folks, and other traditionally-marginalized identities, I’ve definitely messed up – A Lot.  One of the hardest things for me in attempting to build ally relationships, then, has been to hear that I’ve messed up and not simply get defensive and retreat into my privilege.

A professor of Color in college once told me, “The best thing you can learn to do if you want to be an ally is realize that you’re going to fuck up, and you’re going to do it a lot, so you will need to learn to apologize with honesty and a true desire to change.  Then don’t get hung up . . . move forward and do better.”

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Race, Listening, and The Good Men Project

Rather than hosting this week’s piece here on Change From Within, I am actually going to be sending my readers over to The Good Men Project.

I was recently published over at GMP with a piece entitled, “Listening is the Root of Justice.

Here’s a quick excerpt from the piece:

In his piece resigning from The Good Men Project, Hugo Schwyzer put it this way, “Power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it.”  As a person of privilege, I know that I cannot see all of the ways that my identity silences other voices, and I cannot see the ways that my privilege works to empower me while disempowering others.

Thus, when criticized for my language, the space I am taking up, or for the ways in which my actions reveal my privilege, my first response needs to be to listen.  No matter how defensive that statement makes me, I need to listen.  No matter how much I would like to retort with a story about how I’m not as privileged as the other is assuming, I need to listen.

Listening is the root of justice.

I encourage you to head over to GMP to read the piece, and if you’re up for a real challenge, wade into the comments.