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.

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

  1. Thanks for the tip, will definetely check this out.

  2. Hmmm. I actually want to see this film. But. But. Why is slavery always white folks vs black folks? I’m white, but I live in the Middle East and there’s a lot of slavery going on here, but we don’t call it that. It’s only occasionally in the media. While white supremacy may reign in the Western world, it’s certainly not that case in the Arab world. I brought up a racist incident I stopped in front of a bunch of Arab journalists and they blanked me – as if I, in stopping several Arabs beat up a South East Asian, were the one with the problem. I know the States is very different and the race relations are shocking, but the default position that white people are the ones who have a problem, when it is whoever has the money, who therefore has the power, who dictate these things.

    Convoluted answer – I agree with you but also not. No offense meant!

    • Laura,

      A few points: to address one form of racism as this article does is not to say that all racism or that all slavery is perpetuated by White folks against Black people. However, it is VITALLY important that we address the realities of slavery in North America and the legacy of slavery that lives today. That does not preclude us from talking about other forms of racism, but it must be discussed.

      As far as the rest of the world, any discussion of racism must be discussed through the lens of European colonization. Throughout much of the Middle East, the divisions of race and class are artificial creations of European powers to help them maintain power in the region (even after colonization officially ended). Thus, when you are talking about racism in, say, Saudi Arabia, you are also talking about White racism as a tool of oppression. For more on that, check out the work of Edward Said.

      The problem that I have with this comment, though, is that this sort of comment is so often used by White people to help them escape a conversation about and responsibility for racism. Every White person in the United States (and arguably in almost every corner of the world) benefits from racism through privilege, and to talk about that is important. To shift the conversation to, “But. But! Racism exists elsewhere too!” served to avoid that responsibility.

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