This blog has been on temporary hiatus, but I’ve read your questions and have posts in the works. Activity coming soon to a whiteness blog near you. Thanks yall.
I want to start here for two reasons: I admit to having a subjective and personal (white) queer bias, but I also want to complicate the idea of all forms of education being strictly academic on this blog. As many POC have taught me, there is more to learn from their stories and lived experiences (fictionalized or not) than a textbook or college course could ever teach you. These are some of my favorites, and I invite everyone to please contribute!
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Margins by Terri de la Peña
Red Azalea by Anchee Min
Gulf Dreams by Emma Pérez
The Other Side of Paradise a memoir by Staceyann Chin
Bullets & Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry edited by Emanuel Xavier
“Because racism is systematic, PoC can not be racist against white people in America.”
This statement has lead a few PoC to go off the rails. After writing the previous post, I thought it only fair that I tell you a tiny little secret about PoC. You ready? Okay, here it is…People of Color are…
Being a problematic, flawed, and contradictory human being, I will freely admit that I watch and am entertained by certain popular shows I would never describe as critically conscious or racially progressive. I’m not sure that any such show exists on television. I will also admit that 30 Rock does not fall into the entertainment category because I am personally biased against finding it endearing. Yes, The Office tried to get away with a peripheral character in Blackface as part of a “Christmas tradition” in the holiday episode of their current season. No, this does not get a pass because I’ve been a fan of the show for six years. So while I acknowledge that the shows I happen to like are equally deserving of the same scrutiny and criticism, they are not the subject of this particular post.
Last week the “stars” of 30 Rock appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to reflect on their seventh and final season. And one might ask: why watch the interview if you don’t like the show? Please refer to paragraph one, sentence one. I was watching Late Night because ‘I heart Jimmy,’ and I watched most of the interview with the 30 Rock cast because I was curious to see if they would address the multiple spectacles of racist humor and uses of Blackface on the show—if even for a moment.
And the moment came.
When it was Jane Krakowski’s turn to share her favorite clip from the series, the actor who “portrays” a self-obsessed actor chose a clip prominently featuring her own character, Jenna Maroney. Most importantly, this was an opportunity to publicly downplay and ignore the two instances (that I know of) where she appeared in Blackface on the show; instead, she used the interview as an opportunity to publicly showcase it. Her introduction began something like this: “Well, once we established that Jenna was totally insane, we could get away with anything.” This is no excuse to disguise racist humor, in my opinion, but I momentarily hoped she was laying the groundwork for a follow-up commentary on their moral opposition to racism and some explanation of Blackface as “social satire.” I wouldn’t cosign this as a justification for Blackface from a sitcom, but that wasn’t even the justification she tried to make. A series of homophobic and transphobic remarks linking her character’s “insanity” to her “gender changing” for an xmas party costume were all that followed.
The clip played. On the left is Jenna’s “shman” (Will Forte) dressed as Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and on the right is Jenna in Blackface as Pittsburgh Steelers athlete Lynn Swan, completing their couples costume of “two black swans.”
Jane Krakowski would only address the fact that her character had temporarily assumed a different gender identity, and made absolutely no mention of the fact that she was also dressing up as Black. It was when Krakowski described her character as participating in “gender changing” that Tina Fey casually interrupted her a few moments later to add “and race changing,” which I translated as her white code words for Blackface. No one called it what it is, reminding me of the phrase coined by Toni Morrison: “racetalk,” or the “explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than pressing African-Americans to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.” To me, this exemplifies the marriage of white liberalism and political correctness. A show like 30 Rock can celebrate feminist subplots and liberal politics while still reinforcing dehumanizing racial tropes and employing casual racism under the banner of “irony.” And when they use very clear and unequivocal Blackface, symbolic language disguises it as “race changing.”
Historical amnesia and neutrality in entertainment allow whites to be “pioneers” all over again, thereby enabling discussions of racist humor to be either congratulatory or effectively mundane and placating. I also sense a desire to treat the use of Blackface as courageous, edgy, and worthy of the highest recognition, as Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar nomination for his Blackface role in Tropic Thunder would attest. When an equation is drawn between Jenna Maroney’s “gender changing” and “race changing,” this wrongly suggests these politics and identities are interchangeable, if not identical—something straight/cis/white folks are neither qualified nor entitled to decide. Drawing this equation also suggests that conservative boundaries are being liberally pushed when a white woman dresses up like a Black man and sings a song next to a white male dressed as a white woman. So this display of transphobia and racism (treating trans and Black identities as comic costumes) are casually transformed into harmless entertainment and white folks can continue the fantasy that we are pushing our own prejudiced boundaries.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (co-author of Racism Without Racists and White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism) has identified a “new racism” in the US as a subtle, subversive, and often casual racism that has become more commonplace than the overt, hostile, and explicit racism of previous decades. Don’t get excited—this does not mean the hostile and the explicit have vanished and been completely replaced. He is talking about public discourses of white liberalism where issues involving race are whitewashed and/or “sugarcoated” to avoid the accusation of racism. So if Tina Fey can sugarcoat Blackface as some kind of random/everyday “race changing,” she can avoid accountability for the very specific, historical, and racist meaning of this recycled comedy.
Creators and writers can only project so far: they can try to make it seem as if the racism and racist humor of their characters are disconnected fictions without any basis in reality, but characters like Jenna Maroney are not improvised—she and her Blackface are consciously created and actively written. The characters on a show might be “insane,” but behind every crazy character is a calculating and moderately sane writer. I don’t care if writers are dropping acid and taking body shots, teams that write for hit shows on mega networks make critical decisions, approve content, and get their shit together eventually. And 30 Rock is one of the most, if not the most, celebrated and awarded television comedies in the history of television comedies. This is more proof for the point that something that was once explicitly hostile and gratuitously demeaning in previous decades (Blackface) can be transformed into a subtle, neutral, and sugarcoated version of the original in the contemporary moment. Tina Fey can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
With some kidding, I came up with the title myself. It’s meant with humor—something Al Franken called “kidding on the square,” meaning it’s somewhat serious but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of offering collection agency services for the lost and confused, but it’s also a serious way of offering some level of education/discourse for white folks POC don’t want to educate/engage discursively.
Do I have a moral purpose or obligation to do this? No, no, never, and no. This makes me sound heroic, which I am not. This project actually goes back several years to dialogues with professors and fellow students of color about white folks speaking directly to their own communities, rather than retreating to spaces created for POC in a futile attempt to distance themselves from their own whiteness. This was not my idea—this is something I was taught by friends, peers, and educators of color. Skip to graduation, and I spent a solid half of the following year learning from and organizing with critically/radically conscious people of color until all of our lives changed dramatically. This isn’t something I’m going to discuss here and now, but I say this because this project could not exist without the love I still have for each and every one of them. I had no intention of starting this blog when I first joined tumblr not long ago, then I noticed all of the harassment and ignorance POC would confront on a daily basis from white users, so I ultimately combined all of these events/dialogues/experiences/reasons with writing. And here it is.
I could never, not even in my wildest and most ridiculous moments, imagine that a blog by whites for whites could do anything to seriously heal the historical wounds of slavery or colonialism. And as far as reparations are concerned, I really don’t see the need for me to have an opinion on something like that since I am not related to the communities that would be directly affected. This does not mean I am opposed to reparations, it means I see solutions to structural white supremacy in housing, education, employment, government, big business, etc. where I think my opinions are better suited.
Thanks for the questions. And I’ll read your “:P” as an indication that the white guilt question was not a serious one.
My advice would be this: if you want to sever yourself from a script, then you first need to stop using it. Assuming it’s true that “nobody can tell if a white is racist by looking at him,” then I would argue it’s equally true that nobody can tell if a person of color is “deliberately acting how he thinks a white racist would expect him to act.” While I might think intellectual understandings of survival strategies are useful as points of empathy, they are not useful as points of reference or action for social approaches to POC. Your subjective and individual reading of a script in this particular context—what you perceive to be servility or deference—may have more to do with your assumptions than the behavior of a person of color in your presence.
I think there is a difference between operating with a conscious awareness of racial politics and imposing meaning based on strange connections between race and behavior. I don’t treat POC like they are different because they are POC, or because I imagine they are involved in some elaborate scheme to flatter me out of doing them harm. My actions, your actions, and the actions of white people in general are the only actions that matter when we find ourselves in direct confrontation with the dynamics of race. I believe it’s more important to show respect, to listen, and to simply practice any of the tenets of basic decency that would follow. Any time you find yourself interpreting the behavior of POC and how they personally respond to your whiteness, stop right there and throw that script away.
There are quite a few of you. This is nothing more than a quick note to say: welcome. And to also say that I will not be posting/updating at the rate of frequency with which many blogs are updated. I work, I dance, I volunteer, and I write other things, so until there are more moderators/contributors there will be more time between original posts.
Right now I am compiling lists of resources for race, racism, white supremacy, white privilege, gender, sexuality, and various social justice issues. If anyone has any suggestions or ideas, please submit them. I will be circulating a list for additions and revisions very soon.
Red rover, red rover: send whitey on over. But seriously, YES. Link to us when you’re DONE, because that’s exactly why this blog is here! Thanks for the love, thanks for sharing—and never hesitate to correct me if I fuck up <3
Apparently you do. Or should I say: you do indeed. Judging from your other questions (the ones I won’t be answering), you also read the follow-up posts that are clearly not written by a professional film critic.
I think it should be clear to most people by now that my post on Django was an opinion piece and an analysis of whiteness, or, to use “professional film critic” language, I gave it two thumbs down. Complaints and airing of grievances concerning Spike Lee and the (evidently unreadable) sarcasm and snark I used to give DiCaprio a bad review have already been addressed. It appears that some things are untouchable to certain white folks, and Leo is one of them. Been there, explained that.
Only recently did I learn…
I see what you are saying about how white voices are often privileged over black ones (as well as the voices of other marginalized races and ethnicities). However, your argument about the speaking credentials of barbers on organic chemistry (etc) is not the same thing. while QT might not be as credible a speaker on black issues as Spike Lee, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be allowed to speak on black issues; the catch is that we have the right to not listen, or in this case to watch Spike’s movies instead of Quentin’s if we prefer. To put it a different way: As a writer, QT has the right to write any character or story he wants; we have teh right to tell him to shut the fuck up if we want as well.
Samuel L. Jackson in a Blues Brothers suit carrying a wallet branded with “Badass Motherfucker” is a character. That is recycled and revised Blaxploitation fiction. However, a Black couple separated by slavery and beaten by members of the KKK are not the creative property of Quentin Tarantino.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded after the Civil War. Django Unchained takes place 2 years before the Civil War began. Be careful with your facts.
These “characters” are based on historical facts and lived experiences of racist violence. When I think of famous Black filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to think beyond Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; when I think of famous white filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to keep track. This structural inequity and white supremacy in US show business makes Tarantino’s accusation of (reverse) racism highly untenable. The fact that one of these precious few Black filmmakers dared to challenge the racism of a white director’s movies, one of the few in Hollywood who could tell a story like Django Unchained without racism and be entitled to tell it, makes Tarantino’s accusation deplorable and ridiculous.
Even a movie supposedly centered around a slave turned bounty hunter in pursuit of revenge is a movie that stars white people with Black people in supporting roles.
The blacks are in supporting roles? Is that why Candie and Shultz are killed before Django actually rescues Broomhilda without assistance? That’s a strange argument, especially because the movie starts with Django and ends with Django, almost always (if not actually always) choosing to follow Django at the expense of following Shultz when they part ways. Further, the movie is primarily about rescuing Django’s wife. It’s about accomplishing Django’s goal. Django is the Siegfried character in this story. It’s about Django.
And to be accurate, slavery is reduced to nothing more than a geographical backdrop, social scenery, and circumstantial setting for a signature Tarantino parody—this time using a Spaghetti Western formula. But there was something about selling this as a Western that confused me. I had no trouble comprehending the references in the throwback “Wild West” font of the opening credits, the desert-like landscape, and John Wayne outlaw music. However for the rest of the movie, audiences were apparently meant to believe a Western was taking place in the… Antebellum South?
Considering westerns took place at the same time as slavery, that texas was a slave holding state, it’s not that hard to believe. QT is actually on record as saying that part of why he wanted to make a western involving slavery was because it has been systemicly ignored by a genre (the western) that should have included it but instead has worked hard to white wash the history of the American old west.
I got a sickening feeling after the movie spent its ten minutes in Texas and shifted to southern plantations, that the era of chattel slavery was chosen because it provided new opportunities for Tarantino to explore/exploit gratuitous violence. And I’m not talking about the many white people whose heads were blown through and whose dicks were shot off, or the projectile blood from any number of body parts exploding like a can of red paint on the receiving end of a shotgun. This is all typical for a Tarantino flick. I’m talking about the two mandingo slaves who fight to the death in Calvin Candie’s parlor, ending with both men covered in blood and the victor not only clawing his victim’s eyes out by hand, but also smashing his face with a hammer. I’m talking about the slave who is attacked and torn to death by a pack of vicious dogs, a punishment ordered by Calvin Candie. I’m talking about Jamie Foxx as Django hanging naked from his ankles almost visibly castrated by a white slaver with an orange-hot blade, and Kerry Washington as his wife Broomhilda whipped and nearly bashed in the head with a hammer by Calvin Candie. As it turns out, the institution of slavery was not violent and/or awful enough, but must be saturated with a series of humiliations and atrocities in its storytelling.
The point was to show how brutal slavery was in a way that no other film (except perhaps Roots) has. It’s not just a backdrop. Its the whole damn point.
All I can say about Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie is that it made him less of a convincing actor and more of a convincing racist. He was a little bit too believable for me, and by that I mean the slave master stole the show from the slave.
So you were so convinced by his performance that you now believe he’s a racist? That’s what good acting is supposed to do.
The comic camp created around this national shame is expressed and made sympathetic through many exchanges of witty banter and Tarantino’s tendency to make heinous villains handsome, charming, and/or funny. A hooded white militia spends at least five minutes having a *hilarious* argument about one of their wives insufficiently cutting the eye-holes in the white “bags” on their heads. Although no one in the movie explicitly called them the KKK, they wore symbolic hoods and made a brief allusion to attacks in their “full regalia.” An opportunity to make the most excessive, outrageous, and overdone scene involving the KKK in their “full regalia,” and Tarantino didn’t take it. He made a subtle hint at these things that younger or less informed people in the audience might not notice. He made these characters look like simple vigilantes on horseback with cheap pillowcases on their heads.
I addressed the KKK issue above, but the fact that the scene is funny is due to the fact that QT is saying that racism and the behavior that the KKK would later adopt is fucking stupid.
Yet when Django is given the “freedom” to purchase his own “valet” uniform, he emerges from the store with a white bow at his chin, a blue satin coat to match his blue satin trousers, silk stockings, and buckled shoes—an entirely unexplained transformation.
Did it ever occur to you that maybe someone who has never been allowed to choose his own clothing and instead was forced to wear rags might choose to dress in a elaborate and flamboyant way? Seriously?
Multiple comic spectacles are made of Black characters and the brutality of the violence they suffer, but the KKK only give a quick mention of their “regalia.”
If you think that the brutality that blacks suffered in this film was comic, you may want to consider your own racism. Or, and I hope this is the case, there were other people in the theater laughing at those parts, I think that says more bout them than the film itself
That is not Tarantino’s style; he doesn’t deal with any subject matter delicately, discreetly, sensitively, conscientiously, or with subtlety. Yet the KKK were somewhat disguised and miraculously escaped his confrontational and sensationalist plagiarism.
I could never imagine the diverse experiences Black folks might have when/if they see this movie, nor can I, as a white person, legitimately or personally take offense to the use of the N word. I can only comment on the extent to which I became more convinced the instances of the N word outnumbered the lines of dialogue Black characters had in the movie. After hearing the word fifty times, I stopped counting.
You know what I find offensive as a black man? The idea that a movie about slavry should avoid the use of the word nigger (or any of it’s variants) because that shit is a white washing lie that does not show slavery to be a racist and vile as it was.
Kerry Washington spoke less than ten times in two hours and forty five minutes. She is seen being ruthlessly whipped and branded as an object of abuse, or as a figment of Django’s imagination, until her physical form is finally produced when she is dragged naked and screaming from Calvin Candie’s “hot box”—a box in direct sunlight, mostly buried underground, and locked from the outside.
I think the point about Kerry Washington’s character having very fews lines is an important one from a feminist perspective. However, from a black feminist perspective (and I am speaking based not only on my own reading of the film but because of conversations i’ve had with black women who saw the film) the fact that a black woman is considered so valuable and important that not only does she have a husband (blacks weren’t always allowed to marry) but he comes to rescue. I can’t think of a single damsel in distress type movie where a black man comes to rescue a black woman. Yes she has few lines, but her role is to be precious and loved.
Any other Black women who appear on screen are speechless, disoriented, or helpless.
Yes and no. Many of the female slaves at candieland are speechless because slaves weren’t exactly allowed to express themselves freely. Additionally, many appeared terrified. Because screwing up or appeared to screw up could get you beaten, raped or killed (see the things that happen or are implied to have happen to Hildie). I would like to note the character of Sheba. She is the only speaking female character who get’s to just be eye candy—a role traditionally reserved of white women. Sheba, a blaclk woman get’s to simply have the role of being beautiful. (also, not the way she is shot: the focus is on her face, not her body) These things aren’t perfect reprsentations of black women or even enslaved black women, but they do say important things about how slavery was for them as well as to show a black women in a way that only white women are traditionally able to have.
Django, whose name is the title of the movie and his vengeance the focus, spends 90% of the story saying next to nothing.
Consider the possibility that acting and story telling isn’t all about talking. Just consider it.
Ultimately, this was an exploration of the white villain versus the white hero.
Again, is that why both of them are dead before the resolution of the film? And is that also why teh plot focuses on Django’s goals not Shultz’s?
And, oh yeah, a slave gets his wife and his freedom in the end.
Yep, just the whole focus of the film: Also Django wasn’t a slave. He got his freedom. he fought for it. How could you forget that and reduce him to chattel. Why couldn’t you remember he wasn’t property?
There are two white heroes in Django Unchained. Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is the compassionate white bounty hunter who heroically dictates the terms of Django’s service and his freedom—an emphasis on white kindness and generosity, which I would say is the least important narrative to privilege in a movie about slavery.
The film actually problematizes Shultz’s heroism because it is very clear by Shultz own admission that he was using slavery to his advantage for personal profit even though he thought it was morally wrong. Thomas Jefferson, famous slave owner, employed similar logic while he hated slavery but profited massively by it.
Schultz is, after all, the star and the one who avenges the slaves by killing Calvin Candie in the end. He was so overcome by his disgust for Candie’s racism that he just couldn’t help himself.
This is an important point: Shultz botches the rescue and get’s Django re-enslaved—what a shitty hero. Django has to then free himself by his own wit and then rescue Hildie on his own. Now that’s heroic.
After this climactic assassination, the last few moments where Django kills the rest of the white people in the movie and Calvin Candie’s “House Negro” (Samuel L. Jackson) seem like an afterthought.
You didn’t think it was important to mention the name of the black character that blew the whistle on Django and Shultz’s plot? That’s interesting, because he seemed really important.
Django is given his moment only after Schultz has had his. The second white hero, Tarantino himself,
If QT is a hero why doe he cast himself as a slave owner?
delivers his version of victory, justice, and power to slaves by giving a happy ending to Django and Broomhilda.
Again, they weren’t slaves, the were people, free people.
This is the question I always have whenever filmmakers practice racism by appropriating stories from/inventing stories about POC: if this is a fantasy, if this is creative fiction, then why is racial oppression an inevitable and nonnegotiable reality? It seems the facts of white supremacy must remain true to life when any number of ridiculous things—a German bounty hunter disguising himself as a dentist, or a white woman writing the memoirs of Black maids—are unlimited in their fabrication. These fantasies are about good white people who grant some form of freedom to unusually talented characters of color, lending more attention to the Great Emancipator Complex than to well-developed and substantive roles for POC. As long as audiences are somewhat comforted by this, and equally entertained, one of the most gruesome tragedies in human history can be easily converted into a disgraceful and campy bloodbath. It is a filmmaker’s “right” to do so.
You know what would be really comforting to white audiences? Writing a story where white people don’t have to deal with racism (you know, like you’re suggesting). I wonder where we could find any of those…
I have a limited perspective in this dialogue as a white person, and I can only speak to something I intellectually understand—not something I experience. Choosing to reblog this critique needs context and disclosure of intent for many reasons, not the least of which is this is a blog designed for white folks, so it needs to be made very clear that I am neither requesting nor inviting any counterpoints from white followers. I think this critique warranted respect as one directly from someone in the Black community, rather than the hostile and uninteresting tantrums circulated by a few white folks. I reblogged a “critique” from one white follower shortly after I published the Django post only because addressing their issues was significant to the larger discussion. I am not going to reblog/respond to people who, first of all, can’t read the entire post and who, second of all, can’t craft a more articulate reaction beyond “Suck a dick.” In case there are questions in anyone’s mind along the valid lines of “why are you only responding to a critique from a Black person,” this is not what is happening and I hope this explanation will answer them.
To the OP of the critique: I’m going to respond briefly, because I would like to acknowledge some of the issues being raised that directly concern the post—not your experience of seeing the movie and how you personally responded to it. These are things I can’t, shouldn’t, and have no place to comment on. I just feel as if some of the points I made were misunderstood, and I would like to respectfully address them.
First and foremost, I did not personally find the Black violence in the movie comic. I found it hugely problematic that comic spectacles were made of the Black violence, and by this I mean white characters always had clever remarks, witty monologues, or one-liners to deliver before a gruesome scene of Black violence unfolded. The lines were written to be amusing, but I did not respond to them in this way. And the fashion Django chooses to wear seemed like more of a punchline to me than an unimaginable outfit to replace with rags, confirmed by how most of the audience in the theater laughed at him when he emerged from the tailor. This was a comic and lavish spectacle made at the expense of his hero, but the KKK got the humble treatment of historical accuracy.
As for the KKK, I agree with you that I and anyone else should be careful with these facts—especially Quentin Tarantino. Yes, this is true, they were not yet officially recognized or formally organized in 1858, and this is precisely why I questioned their appearance in the movie in the post. If the KKK did not exist yet, then my point was to critically examine Tarantino’s decision to put such a clear reference to them in the movie at all, then somewhat disguise them. They had no fundamental purpose to the overall plot-line, and no smaller purpose aside from cheap comic relief. So I felt Tarantino was being very irresponsible with the KKK—making this a comic and restrained moment, instead of creating a spectacle around the gruesomeness and brutality of their behavior. I am more interested in the selective historical authenticity/accuracy Tarantino employed in this film, and what that says about his social position as a white writer and filmmaker. Because while I agree with you that the point was to make the KKK look like they were “fucking stupid,” I’m not sure presenting them as a bunch of inept and harmless morons is really… historically accurate, or a particularly good idea.
This seems to be one of the most common criticisms of the post: that I somehow ignored or didn’t appropriately deal with the historical accuracy of the KKK or the N word. What I don’t understand is when it inevitably devolves into a defense of the film along the lines of ‘you can’t expect historical accuracy from Hollywood,’ which seems to be followed by a defense of the film along the lines of ‘Tarantino’s use of the KKK, gratuitous slave violence, and the N word was historically accurate and therefore justified.’ I also never said the N word shouldn’t be in a movie about slavery—I said I was convinced the N word was said more often than the Black characters in the movie spoke. If there is no expectation/rule for Hollywood films to be historically accurate, then I don’t understand why Tarantino’s excessive use of the N word has been defended in this way. You’re absolutely right it shouldn’t be whitewashed away from movies about slavery, but I sincerely do not see how I was arguing in favor of that.
As always, Black followers are more than welcome and invited to check my privilege and to respond to this post, or comment on that which I am not entitled to comment.
No I get what you’re saying. This is problematic and always will be. I personally think to have the purpose of this blog made very clear is important, because I know I always walked away from any attempts at education on racism that were advertised as conscious discussions, but they were never disclosed as discussions lead entirely by white people. So this is very clearly run by a white person (hopefully it will not just be me in the future) for the education of whites, and I think the clarity of this point is crucial to transparency: people here know who they are learning from, instead of being preached at by white people who think their whiteness isn’t relevant, isn’t the point, and/or has no meaning. And while I don’t think it’s vitally necessary for critical whites to have a space to engage with fellow critical whites, I do think this helps to add to the spaces if they exist. Thanks for the comments and appreciation.
Like. Every day. Bill O’Reilly makes me hot.
Aside from a few random clips on Youtube or Colbert, I’m happy to say I’ve never watched their “news” network.
Below in bold are a series of questions I received late last night via email regarding the post I wrote on Django Unchained. Answers will follow.
Where does a writer’s license to imagine things other than their life begin? Must all works be non-fiction in first person? In that case can we ever talk about slavery at all?
This discussion is not so broad as to include all works of writing in their various forms, it is intentionally limited to the direct subject matter: a specific piece of fiction concerning a specific narrative. I question the assumption of total freedom and license in storytelling when its forms are very specialized, regulated, and inscribed with the power dynamics of race. I’m not exactly sure who “we” are in this scenario, but it would stand to reason that you are referring to white people. Saying it is disrespectful and unjustified for a white director to make a movie from the perspective of a slave and his path of imagined vengeance is not the same as saying “white people can never talk about slavery at all.” There is a big difference, and these statements should not be used interchangeably. However, the institution of slavery was not fiction, and a “first person narrative” of the slave experience does not exist if it is written by a white person. A writer’s “license to imagine things other than their life” began hundreds of years ago, and it should end any time this license grants those who have not experienced racial oppression to use it as a point of entertainment and campy gore. To suggest racial oppression is neutral content easily accessible and comprehensible to white writers, is to suggest the historical wounds and material consequences of racial oppression can be severed from this content under the pretext of “art.” I would call this violence, not art.
There’s not a single PoC that has the experience of being a slave. It surely is a huge leap to even pretend to remember what that was like, no matter what ancestral memory has been passed down or culturally exists. It’s been well over a hundred years. Surely, someone should be able to represent or remember it. Where do you draw the line?
I would ask you to take notice of these assumptions: “it surely is a huge leap to even pretend to know what that was like,” and “surely someone should be able to represent it.” So the assumption is that Black folks have no oral traditions and histories that keep this legacy alive, and the implied argument is that Black people in the contemporary moment have no legitimate connection to their own history because it happened hundreds of years ago. Please see Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon for a much more involved perspective on the endurance of slavery that I will not be addressing here. Black folks (from the era of slavery to the present moment) have already been writing their own stories and producing their own knowledge. If you dare to suggest POC have no contemporary experiences of slavery “no matter what ancestral memory” exists, then I question why Tarantino isn’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny—someone who has absolutely zero frame of reference or memory regarding that side of history. I draw the line at the argument that POC can’t logically associate with their histories, but white artists can. If you think it is a “huge leap” for Black people to relate to their own ancestors, then what kind of biblical leap is a white male taking when he thinks he can represent, remember, and/or relate to their ancestors? This is when a vague and mysterious “someone” who “should be able to represent and remember” inevitably translates to “a white person who should be able to write stories about POC.”
It’s because of racism and white supremacy that narratives told by white folks are privileged over narratives POC have been telling for centuries. And I wonder… who can draw the line between an appropriate and inappropriate amount of time to pass before communities’ tragedies become subject to an imaginary public domain?
Is it solely based on race? Does research or knowledge play a part? Who gets enfranchised into the cultural memory conversation? Are perspectives from non-slaves totally useless and worthless? Should we ignore abolitionists (however problematic they were) or what went on personally and historically for conflicted people like Jefferson? Does that have no use?
So what if I draw the line at race? Why is this so controversial and questionable? Is it only “legitimate” if I draw the line at “research and knowledge”? Drawing the line at race equally involves research and knowledge. I am skeptical whenever anyone suggests that living legacies of gruesome atrocities can easily be understood (then written about) just by going to the library and opening a book. Learning is one thing, appropriating an experience to invent a prolonged and hideously violent fantasy in the service of a director’s career is another. This collection of inquiries also relies on the assumption that the consequences of slavery (segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, white supremacy) no longer exist in this country and everyone has fully recovered. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has documented and explained how there are more Black men imprisoned today than there were enslaved in the Antebellum South. No one is entitled to make the decision for all Black people that their mourning period is over, their history is beyond them, and white people get to tell their stories because of points A and B. Discussions about abolitionists have no use in this particular context because Quentin Tarantino is not an abolitionist and we are not talking about a narrative written by or about one.
First of all, it is intellectually dishonest to carelessly compare chattel slaves to the characters of “bankers” and “mobsters” (then throw in “civil rights leaders” for the sake of political correctness—which television shows have ever featured civil rights leaders?). That their experiences might be “ineffable and non-transmittable” was never my point or my argument: bankers and mobsters, even though their theatrical depictions may have been based on actual figures, are not oppressed identities. It is not the same to imagine a wealthy mobster who desires guns and prostitutes, as it is to imagine an oppressed slave who desires liberation and vengeance; in that context, one has power and the other does not, one is a character and the other is not. With the over-representation of white literature and the demonstrated ability of white authors to write endless narratives about white experiences, I don’t see how it is unthinkable to resolve that white authors have enough content to explore. Ultimately, the “chief value” of art is a highly subjective and debatable topic, and if rightfully observing how whiteness and racism have dominated storytelling (in all popular forms in the US) destroys the “chief value of art,” then so be it and so much the better. If this “chief value” dictates that white writers have the right (as Tarantino said) to writer whatever they want, then this means the “chief value” of art is disenfranchising the voices of POC.
Who owns history? Is it just the persecuted groups or the groups viewed as persecuted? Or is it based on blood? Do Chinese nationals have no right to talk about or set a drama in 18th century London? There has to be some level on which all history is owned by everyone, if people understand the bounds. It gets really silly when that’s brought to an extreme as well.
The victors own history. That’s kind of the point. If I look at this situation critically, I see a white writer who is re-enforcing the legacy of ownership by treating slaves, slavery, and this history as his creative property. Do his “rights” and “demands” as a writer take precedence over the rights POC have to storytelling and self-determination? I would say no, and I would also say the “creative freedom” of white writers has been taking precedence over the creative/cultural productions of POC for many hundreds of years. When I consider the fact that the whole of mainstream textbook and knowledge production in the US (including, but not limited to, our entire system of education) has been a franchise of white authors and white history, I am amazed when someone takes offense at the suggestion that even a sliver of the space whiteness occupies should be relinquished so POC can tell their own histories. History is based on a number of things, and I can’t claim to know all of them, but I do know that the histories of oppressed groups and the histories of groups in power are not interchangeable, nor are they identical.
The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Roots by Alex Haley
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson
Finding Sojourner’s Truth: Race, Gender, and the Institution of Property by Cheryl Harris
Whiteness as Property also by Cheryl Harris
I’m going to briefly address some of the negative feedback to this post because I noticed a few patterns in the commentary. There are some issues that need to be cleared up.
Spike Lee: The post was not about, nor did it make any reference to, Spike Lee being a perfect person with flawless politics. Any criticism of Spike Lee as an individual only serves to clarify the point that you dislike him—it does not prove he is wrong about Tarantino or this specific issue.
DiCaprio as Candie: First of all, sarcastic humor. That was a moment of personal snarkiness rather than a literal and/or serious statement. No, I don’t actually believe DiCaprio is a plantation owner and a white supremacist. The simple matter is that I have never been convinced by one of his performances until now, and this was truly his Oscar moment.. considering its hideousness, I’m not extending this as a compliment.
The KKK: After reflecting on what is being defended, it might be useful to consider it irrelevant that the KKK was supposedly “not real” because they were officially founded (see: formally organized) after the Civil War. As I have already said, if the KKK wasn’t real at the time, they shouldn’t have been in the movie at all. Their cameo had absolutely no significance to the plot-line aside from providing cheap comic relief and an opportunity to use explosives. Also, the KKK did not fall out of the sky in 1865, and, perhaps more importantly, nothing about this movie is real. It’s acceptable to fictionalize a Black slave into a completely invented and barely developed character, but the KKK must be treated with nothing but the utmost accuracy and precision as a humble group of vigilantes. Uh huh.
I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the whiteseducatingwhites blog.
I completely understand what they’re trying to do, but the thing that pisses me off is how white people DO NOT listen to the opinions of PoC, but instead listen to the opinions of PoC regurgitated by a…
I mean, I don’t really have a problem with YOU or your blog, just the people that follow you and message you. It’s really weird, for example, that a white person cannot listen to an Indian speak about Indian issues, but will listen to a white person. While it does relieve PoC of their burden of always answering to ignorant people, I do kind of wish white people would listen to an actual PoC before asking another white person.
Again I respect what you’re saying and I agree, even though I know I’m not really solving these problems. I wish fellow white people would do the same thing, while it isn’t the same for me to wish something like this. And I’ve only recently learned (yet another indication of my white privilege) that the whole whites-will-only-listen-to-whites argument falls apart when I come across white people no one could ever possibly educate. I usually tell people who write in to ask for opinions from POC on particular issues… but I’m not sure this helps and/or works either.
one thing - maybe change your wording a little for the bolded part above? like, I’m pretty sure you mean something like “go check out POC who have talked about their experiences with [X Issue], check out their articles and discussions and art and scholarly work!”, because it’s fairly clear that your intent is for folks to learn from POC, by listening to & respecting their perspectives on issues uniquely affecting them.
Unfortunately, a lot of folks see “ask for opinions from POC” and instead of looking up the myriad articles, videos, discussions, and blog posts already out there, they will find a particular person of color and badger that person to educate them.
like, seriously, instead of shutting up & reading & listening in order to learn, some folks will come by and be like “SO EXPLAIN YOUR LIFE TO ME. EDUCATE ME, IF YOU WISH ME TO LEARN,” and it’s massively off-putting because (1) I don’t exist on this earth to educate people, my life is not your goddamned educational experience and (2) you couldn’t get away with that bullshit in your average college classroom, where someone’s literal job is to teach you.
Because in a classroom, the professor does not let you just babble some random bullshit - thus wasting everyone’s time, and derailing valuable discussions - when you haven’t done the reading/preliminary work so that you have a basic understanding of the topic at hand!
Yet folks will waltz onto my friends’ blogs (and mine, on occassion) and say stuff that boils down to “yeah so I’m on the internet, the most powerful information-gathering tool created in the history of mankind, but I’m not going to bother teaching myself shit so I’m not totally ignorant when I jump into this discusson, but anyway HERE ARE MY RANDOM-ASS OPINIONS! HERE IS MY ANNOYING DEMAND THAT YOU TEACH ME!!!”
…so yeah. I totally get what you mean! But maybe clarification wouldn’t hurt.
I honestly can’t thank you enough for this discussion. And yes, you articulated what I should have said in a much more effective and successful way. Clarified and clarified. After reflecting on what you shared, I think the “ask for opinions” stance I have been using is too passive and irresponsible, and I needed to be checked on the absence of resources, credit, and serious accountability. This has gone on long enough and I will be on top of correcting it. Please feel free to recommend anything if you would like to do so—I would be honored!
you’re so totally welcome & thank YOU because I am trying to work on my own allyship in other arenas (particularly with regard to LGBTQ* issues), and this discussion has really helped me clarify my thoughts on how I can do better & be more careful as an ally there.
I think that amassing the resources & references initially will be a big task, not to mention adding to them as you go along, but I think it will be rewarding - not just because you want to do careful, conscientious ally work, but because with this blog, you have specifically undertaken EDUCATION. and balancing that goal + having time for life off Tumblr = needing somewhere you can easily point towards and be like “further reading awaits!” (obviously you could engage further when you have time/energy.)
^This is everything. I laughed and I learned. You’re right again. Discussions like these can be so crucial to clarifying some of the potentially more explosive details of allyship work, and it most definitely helped me to understand the need to be much more purposefully conscientious in everything I do here. Resource collection begins tomorrow night, crowdsourcing begins soon, and I looked forward to staying in touch!
I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the whiteseducatingwhites blog.
I completely understand what they’re trying to do, but the thing that pisses me off is how white people DO NOT listen to the opinions of PoC, but instead listen to theto the opinions of PoC, but instead listen to the opinions of PoC regurgitated by a white person??
I hope you will not mind that I reblogged this, but I wanted to engage this dialogue and express how much I respect, appreciate, and agree with what you are saying. This criticism has been leveled against Tim Wise and other white anti-racists many times, and I know I deserve the same type of criticism. I’ll admit that I often go back and forth between whether or not this blog is actually a good idea or the right thing to do, and I don’t have a definitive answer. I don’t always know. I can’t say for certain if taking responsibility for educating white folks is really the best solution when the inevitable result is exactly what you said: white people will listen to opinions of POC regurgitated by a white person instead of learning directly from POC. I can’t disagree with any critique like this, and I have no right to disagree with it. Thank you for writing this post, and I hope we can continue to dialogue.
I want to open this up to followers to see if yall have any thoughts or anything to add… ?
And no, this is not an invitation for white followers to give their opinions on whether or not they “agree” with this criticism—please do not do this.
This type of ally work is complicated, because it’s both really important for allies to help out by spreading awareness and dealing with Racism 101/Sexism 101/etc education, and really problematic when allies’ voices drown out everyone else.[…]But for whiteseducatingwhites in particular, maybe it would be good to have comprehensive resources at hand? This is going to require a good deal of ongoing effort, but maybe create a Further Reading page, with topic headings and links to works by POC on each topic? or like, when you address a given topic, include references to POC who have also spoken about that topic so that if people DO respond to your work and want to learn more, you’re directing them straight to the sources?
Thank you so much for this thorough, engaging, and powerful commentary/advice. I have been working on a list of resources for a while now, but this project has been suffering for a number of life/work reasons. This is no excuse, and you are absolutely right. I will make this my first priority for any future work on this blog, and I will also actively include links/sources/credit to the work I reference so I am more directly drawing the necessary link between the knowledge POC have already produced and the posts written here. Thank you again, I have learned so much from your comments and this dialogue in general. Much love, respect, and gratitude for all the POC who have taken the time to start this discussion and contribute to it.
[truncated my response above, so that this post wasn’t unmanageably huge.]
Life/work happens! I didn’t mean to make you feel like you have “no excuse” for not already having resources available! It’s just that your blog is explicitly for Racism 101-type education, and it occurred to me that one way to highlight POC perspectives & introduce people to intersectionality would be a resource page.
If you’re going to create a resource page, may I suggest crowdsourcing it? I’m sure you can find recommended reading lists, etc, when you have time to start searching stuff to build your resource page, but maybe you could ask people to look it over and see if there’s anything that should be added? Folks could recommend some of their favorite work/commentary on a given topic, anything that struck them as particularly illuminating.
It’s going to be a lot of work for you either way, but I think crowdsourcing could help you a lot with curating a comprehensive, nuanced set of resources & references. (I’m less organized than I’d like with my bookmarks & tagging, but when you get around to this project, I’d be happy to do some digging!)
Brilliant idea. I really, really, really love the collaborative nature of it. This seems like it has great potential to generate sharing and dialogue in a way that would make the resources more of a living/changing archive. And do you think it might be important to consider both academic sources and sources that are considered (according to Western hegemony) “nonacademic” or slightly more accessible? Could be a good topic for crowdsourcing? I also greatly appreciate the offer to help with some digging through materials :)