Anti-Asian Racism: Toby Keith and Mocking Asians

According to news reports at a Nobel Peace Prize party in Oslo, the United States country singer Toby Keith used the standard physical gesture of eye stretching to mock Asians (“yellow”) during an impromptu singing performance. Numerous Asian American groups have condemned the brief performance. The Asian American Justice Center made this comment:

Toby Keith embarrassed himself and his country, denigrated the Nobel Peace Prize and offended Asians and Asian Americans by using a crude, racist hand gesture.

The Media Action Network for Asians made this comment:

By doing this, he is telling Asian fans, ‘You don’t matter, you’re not on my radar.’

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the country’s oldest continuing Asian American civil rights group also issued a statement condemning the old racist gesture:

His behavior has drawn criticism from the Asian American community, yet Mr. Keith still has not acknowledged the offensive nature of his gesture nor issued an apology. As the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizens League joins other organizations in condemning Mr. Keith’s actions, and demands that he acknowledge and apologize for his racist behavior.

When he pulled back his eyes to symbolize “yellow,” Mr. Keith reduced Asians to a demeaning caricature that has long been used to alienate an entire race. Though the gesture lasted no more than a second, it evoked powerful and painful emotions in the Asian American community, a reminder of schoolyard taunts and childhood bullying. It was an immature and insensitive action that only served to humiliate Asian Americans through racial mockery.

Mr. Keith’s silence following the Asian American community’s response to this incident suggests that he does not take our community’s concerns seriously. By not issuing an apology even one week after the event, Mr. Keith has clearly chosen to compound his indifference towards the Asian Americancommunity. This type of attitude underlies a pervasive stereotype of Asian Americans, where physical differences imply a foreignness that hinders an acceptance of being considered as true “Americans.”

Keith has not yet apologized. Oddly enough some in his group made this comment:

“No one at the concert thought Toby was out of line,” his camp said. “Everyone was impressed with his rapping skills and that’s it . . . all of the artists liked each other, hung out, and it was a very friendly, genuine, and supportive atmosphere.”

I guess they do not think Asian folks watch rapping or country music? Or that some other folks might take offense at such racist stereotyping seriously too? At a minimum, we do not teach Stereotyping 101 (or even Human Manners 101?) and thus what racial framing is learned as children lasts a lifetime. Friendly racism?

Numerous social science studies have lately shown how widespread the facial mocking and language mocking and other stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans are these days. Not to mention the racial discrimination that often flows out of such mocking framing. Such anti-Asian stereotyping/mocking has been part of the white racial framing of Asians since at least the 19th century, as the late Ronald Takaki, among others, has often shown.

Dances With Aliens: James Cameron’s Avatar Movie and White “Saviors” (Updated)

In our book Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) we discussed two types of white hero that often appear in American movies: the white messiah and the racial masquerader. The narcissistic fantasy of the a white hero who leads people of another color in a struggle of liberation presents whites a pleasing images of themselves as saviors rather than oppressors. The racial masquerade is another fantasy solution to white guilt in which the white hero crosses over and pretends to be black or native American.

avatar wallpaper
Creative Commons License photo credit: gwai

James Cameron’s “Avatar” combines these two archetypes in a movie that might be called Dances With Aliens. What is new in the movie is the eye-popping visual effects technology, with its detailed, stunning creation of an alien planet, complete with exotic flora, fauna, and indigenous population with its own language. But the plot is a pastiche, recycled junk from a dozen movies about the adventures of a mythic white hero in a distant land or on a distant planet, including “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Star Wars,” “Star Gate,” “Dune,” “Pocahontas,” “The Matrix,” “The Last Samurai,” and “Dances With Wolves.” The story is predictable: the coming of the messiah is foretold, he shows tremendous ability and charisma, quickly learns the indigenous ways, marries the beautiful native princess, is inducted into the tribe, and ends by uniting with and leading them in a struggle for survival and freedom against evil outsiders. The white American racial imagination seems to require such stories.

On the one hand,Avatar” sends numerous positive messages to an American and a global audience: it is pro-environment, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and pro-gender equality. It also mercilessly mocks the rhetoric of the George W. Bush administration about “pre-emptive strikes” and “shock and awe” and the use of mercenary armies such as Black water. On the other hand, these messages provide cover for a regressive myth about a white messiah and the noble savages—a white messiah who is reborn as the noblest savage of them all, as in The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, and the other movies mentioned above.

In Avatar,” we have the paradox of the most expensive movie ever made, American corporations investing $230 million plus another $150 million on promotion to disseminate an apparently anti-corporate and anti-white American message. Why? Well, first of all, the formula still works: this visually astonishing action-adventure fantasy will be enormously profitable globally through cinema, video game, and numerous ancillary products. Second, it assuages the guilt of a white American audience about what we continue to do to racial and ethnic minorities here and abroad. And third, it reassures the global audience about the morality of white America, which can criticize and confront its own evils, at least in the movies.

Finally, Avatar” is a racial fantasy for the Age of Obama. Like Obama, the protagonist Jake is racially mixed: although he starts out as white guy, he ends up inhabiting the body of an aboriginal on an alien planet. And like Obama, Jake is accused of being anti-capitalist and anti-white. Yet the movie is a supremely capitalist product which resolves white guilt. It does so by dividing whites into two sides: the maniacal white mercenaries who destroy the environment and kill the native population on behalf of the greedy corporations; and the noble white messiah who goes native and leads the tribes in a successful battle to preserve their land and their way of life against the evil whites. This movie is supposedly set on the distant planet Pandora, but it really takes place close to home, for it opens up the Pandora’s box of the American racial unconscious.

Updated by admin 01/11/2010: Looks like David Brooks, NY Times columnist, has been reading here and drawing heavily on the same ideas.  Would be nice to get a link back from the NY Times, eh Mr. Brooks?

“Invictus” : From a Different Perspective

For two hours, I forgave Clint Eastwood for making “Gran Torino.” As a serious race scholar, you may ask how I could possibly have given him a second chance. I forgave him because I am a rugby fanatic. I fell in love with the sport in 1995, the same year in which Eastwood’s newly released  “Invictus” is set.  For months leading up to this December’s release of Invictus, I had been inundated with trailer previews (opens video), articles and advertisements on my favorite rugby blogs and news sites, along with Facebook invitations to opening day of the film. I struggled with my racial understandings and my desire for my beloved sport to get some actual media attention.

“Invictus” is the screen adaptation of John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and The Game That Changed a Nation. The movie follows Nelson Mandela in his first term as the South African president. Mandela, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, has the difficult job of uniting a splintered apartheid-torn South Africa. Mandela recruits the captain of South Africa’s rugby team to help him use the 1995 rugby World Cup to bring the nation together. I knew better than to believe a Hollywood film. I know that the story was told through the eyes of someone white in South Africa. However, I could not resist a good fairy tale. I got teary on at least two occasions while watching the film, thinking that rugby could bring enemies together.  It’s not such a far-fetched idea;it happens all the time after grueling matches between bitter rivals.

However, Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” is just another work of fiction. Mandela as represented here is a man who remains ever hopeful to appeal to the better side of whites. In the film, Mandela is a de-radicalized figure who personifies the notion that non-white activists and leaders should rely exclusively on forgiveness, understanding, and nonviolence for any hope of racial progress. There are moments in the film where you see blatant white racism. To Eastwood’s credit, racism in South African is portrayed as institutionalized and systemic; yet after two hours South Africa’s problems are a thing of the past after the national team wins the Rugby World Cup.

Following the film, I did some looking around online to get a different perspective of “Invictus.” I stumbled upon this comment by someone named Batanai posting at the NYTimes’ review of “Invictus.” Batanai’s comment really shed a different light on the film for me:

I Remember ’95, Didn’t Like It!

I remember a very different sentiment when this rugby match took place; Mandela and the Blacks had been following the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe before him, offering the hand of reconciliation to the previously oppressive Whites. And, as had happened in Zimbabwe, the Whites in SA continued to spurn, even spit on this open embrace. That Mandela continued to seek acceptance from these people (instead of the other way round), grated a lot of us in the African community.

The Whites begrudgingly, but only temporarily, unclenched their fists after Mandela showed up at “their” rugby game, dressed in the full colors of the sport. It did not however, take long for them to go back to their angry and condescending ways as they sued and hauled Mandela to court over his push for more racial inclusion in the rugby sport!

Apparently, the Whites were (and many still are) more comfortable with the Blacks compromising themselves with absolutely no expectation of reciprocation from the former.

Which is why many Africans like me a very uncomfortable with the western halo over Mandela. He is hailed as an icon of forgiveness, an example for Blacks to follow in their dealings with races that have been abusive to them. People like me do not understand why forgiveness should be a virtue imposed on Africans and angrily discarded when going after “uncooperative” Africans….
The West is incapable of forgiveness, yet it demands the “weaker” peoples be forgiving of THEIR abuse!

The Mandela that fought for his people’s political liberation, I admire. The one that fought for the economic status quo while President, I am uncomfortable with. The post-political haloed Mandela, the one crafted in western media as an example for Africans and all previously oppressed people to follow, the one that values forgiveness over economic justice, the one that does not upset the current power structure and packing order, this Mandela I REJECT.

Batanai, Washington

Eastwood celebrates the de-radicalized Mandela by sinking millions of dollars into a film paying homage to a black man unflinchingly forgiving of whites. A friend asked if the timing of this movie was coincidental with Obama’s election. In both cases, there was so much “hope” that the nation would reach new heights of racial harmony by electing a non-white leader. However, we see that it’s not just that easy.

As for the magic of sport making the world a better place, we must also be very cautious in declaring victory over social inequality. Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs was a glorious moment in sports history, but that feat did not defeat sexism at the end of the day. We still have long way to go as we see barbaric “gender testing” measures being taken on South African Sprinter, Caster Semenya because no “woman” could have a physique like her.

South Africa’s triumph over New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup was an amazing feat by an underdog team. However, it did not create a nation of racial harmony as suggested by both Carlin and Eastwood. I truly appreciated the two hours of make-believe, but after leaving the theater I understood that there is still much more work for me and other scholars and activists to do.

Societal Equality Means Better Health and Wellbeing

I just got this notice about a CDC presentation on how inequality/equality shapes major aspects of every society:

The Division of Violence Prevention and the CDC/ATSDR Social Determinants of Health Equity Work Group invite you to attend a presentation: “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” by Richard Wilkinson Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology, University of Nottingham and Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology, University of York (Tuesday, January 5th – 9:30-10:30AM, Chamblee 106, 1A-B).

The summary of their presentation is suggestive of deep structural issues:

Among high income countries, comparisons of life expectancy, mental health, levels of violence, teen birth rates, child wellbeing, obesity rates, the educational performance of school children, or the strength of community life tend to be fairly consistent: countries which tend to do well on one of these measures tend to do well on all of them and countries which do badly on one, tend to do badly on all. What accounts for the difference? The key is the amount of inequality in each society. The picture is consistent whether we compare rich countries or the 50 states of the USA. The more unequal a society, the more ill health and social problems it has. This presentation will provide an overview of the theory and evidence for how income inequality affects well-being and examples of strategies that are being adopted based on these research findings.

Richard Wilkinson has a recent book, written with Kate Pickett, called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009). He is also a founder of The Equality Trust “to increase public understanding of the damaging effects on societies of large inequalities in income and wealth (”

One review of The Spirit Level on Amazon notes that in the book:

Wilkinson and Pickett lay bare the contradiction between material success and social failure in today’s world, but they do not simply provide a diagnosis of our woes. They offer readers a way toward a new political outlook, shifting from self-interested consumerism to a friendlier, more sustainable society. The Spirit Level is pioneering in its research, powerful in its revelations, and inspiring in its conclusion: Armed with this new understanding of why communities prosper, we have the tools to revitalize our politics and help all our fellow citizens, from the bottom of the ladder to the top.

Moving to class, racial, and gender equality means moving to healthier societies.

President Obama on the State of Black America: No Mention of Racism

Well, President Obama has been in office just 11 months, and people are now making broad judgments about his efforts so far. He already has done more than Bush did in eight years to move the country in a progressive direction, in spite of all that remains to get this ship of state back to some semblance of democracy and humanity.

One set of issues now cropping up involves “what has he done for black Americans?” Given that no group supported him as overwhelmingly as black Americans, that is an excellent question. And it has been one of the last ones to be raised lately, it appears. At Politico, one article by Carol Lee a few days back raised a set of issues along this line. It begins thus:

President Barack Obama deflected criticism Monday that he has not been attentive enough to the African-American community, telling American Urban Radio Networks that he was unconcerned to see that kind of message coming from former supporters such as actor Danny Glover.

President Obama said that Glover was just one of few discontented folks, that most black actors supported him so far, and also cited his support from black Americans in the polls. He was asked these questions, significantly, by one of the very few reporters (April Ryan) in the White House press corps, with whom he had a rare one-on-one interview. He is certainly accurate about the polls. Interestingly, Politico does not link to the full interview, and thus ignores the full question asked by April Ryan, which was much deeper and probing:

Speaking of the African American community, this seems to be a shift in black leadership, as it relates to supporting you. You have the CBC that’s upset with you about targeting on the jobs front — African Americans, 15.6 percent unemployment rate, expected to go to 20 percent; mainstream America 10 percent. Then you have black actors who supported you — Danny Glover, who’s saying that you’ve not changed, your administration is the same as George W. Bush. What are your thoughts about the fact that black leadership is grumbling, and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African American President, and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for black issues?

He made an interesting comment to Ryan’s question, to quote Politico again:

“Is there grumbling?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course, there’s grumbling, because we just went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” “We were some of the folks who were most affected by predatory lending. There’s a long history of us being the last hired and the first fired. As I said on health care, we’re the ones who are in the worst position to absorb companies deciding to drop their health care plans,” Obama said. “So, should people be satisfied? Absolutely not. But let’s take a look at what I’ve done.”

Right on point, so far as I can see. Black Americans and other Americans of color have taken harder hits from this Bush Depression than have white Americans as a group. And Obama inherited almost all the Depression problem. You can raise serious questions about the white team he has advising him on the economy, but not about that he inherited this problem. Politico notes too that

Obama repeatedly used the pronoun “we” in discussing America’s black community, but insisted that he shouldn’t be expected to target policies exclusively to African-Americans. “The only thing I cannot do is, by law I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks,” Obama said. “I’m the president of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African-American community.”

The “we” is indeed revealing. This is the first case since 1789 where black Americans could really be part of a strong “we” statement from the head of state. Interestingly, again, Politico leaves out a lot of substance that Obama gives about his take on the “state of black America” in replying to Ryan:

I think this continues to be the best of times and the worst of times. I mean, I think it’s the best of times in the sense that never has there been more opportunity for African Americans who have received a good education and are in a position then to walk through the doors that are opened. And, obviously, you and me sitting here in the Oval Office is a testament to that. I think it’s the worst of times in the sense that unemployment and the lack of opportunity, particularly in some cities, has never been worse. I mean, you look at a city like Detroit where you used to have an enormous African American middle class built on the auto industry — that city is in hard, hard times right now. Now, just going back to the point you raised earlier about our responsiveness to the African American community, imagine what Detroit would look like if we hadn’t stepped in to make sure that GM stayed open. . . . [However,] if you’ve got double digit unemployment in cities like that, we’re going to have to make some special efforts, and it starts with early childhood education; it starts with education generally. That’s why I’m putting such a big emphasis on that. But it also means that every federal agency has to make sure that the assistance that’s being made available to the general population is targeting those hard to reach places, so that they are also benefiting from our overall efforts to lift up the economy.

Eloquently put, clearly, but it is striking that at no point in this interview does President Obama note the widespread racial discrimination facing black Americans in housing, employment, education, and policing, and he does not even touch on the critical need of these “federal agencies” to enforce aggressively the (now mostly weakly enforced) U.S. civil rights laws. He continues to use language that plays into the soft version of the white racial frame, language about education and socioeconomic conditions that does not frighten off moderate or liberal whites.

In our recent book Adia and I point out that this playing to moderate/liberal white sentiments was true, with only one major exception, during his entire presidential campaign. In a “post-racial American,” a black President still cannot openly and candidly address a/the central problem facing African Americans—and indeed all Americans: Systemic White-Imposed Racism and its many facets and impacts.

On Kwanzaa

Today, I celebrated Kwanzaa with the folks at my church. There are conflicting takes on Kwanzaa in the blogosphere from black neo-cons who take issue with it and white lefties who are anxious to make fun of white right-wingers making fun of Kwanzaa.  One of the common critiques (from the left and the right) about Kwanzaa is that it’s a “made up holiday.”  Hey, guess what?  All holidays are made up… including Christmas.

More positive takes on the holiday include The Grio’s post that enlightens us about the five things you didn’t know about Kwanzaa (but should) (#3. Hip Hop played an instrumental role in Kwanzaa’s growth in the eighties and early nineties).  There’s also Prof. (Dumi) Lewis’ excellent piece “Quit Frontin on Kwanzaa” in which he schools us all on the seven principles of Kwanzaa and reminds us of the importance of  looking around “your family, your neighborhood, your nation, and tell me if we can afford to continue to not be self-reflective and work towards a better community?”

In a piece from The Root from last year about this time, Erin Evans wonders about the commercialization and lack of real observance makes me wonder where the celebration will be in a generation or two.  Evans ends with this reflection:

In 2003, NPR’s Farai Chideya canvassed Ladera Heights, a largely black area of Los Angeles, to find out if young folks were celebrating Kwanzaa.

“Ain’t that a Jewish holiday?” asked Jaleel Miller, one of the young people she interviewed.

I shook my head when I heard it, but I could also relate. The future of Kwanzaa is in shaky hands—mine included.

I have my own issues with Kwanzaa, and they mainly have to do with the legacy of the founder Maulana Karenga (nee Ron Everett), once a member of the US organization – a political rival to the Black Panthers.   While a leader of US (as in “us” not “them”), two leaders of the rival Black Panthers were gunned down in a parking lot at UCLA.  Karenga was not charged with these crimes but was rumored to have been involved.  What Karenga was charged, and convicted of, was a brutal attack on two women – Deborah Jones and Gail Davis.    In 1971, Karenga and two other men were convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment for torturing Jones and Davis who were involved in the US Organization.  An article in the Los Angeles Times described the testimony of one of the women: “Deborah Jones, who once was given the title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis’ mouth and placed against Miss Davis’ face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga, head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said.”

Contemplating all this today sent me to the academic literature to see if I could find anything that would give me some answers.  I came across a very good peer-reviewed article by scholar Elizabeth Peck, called “Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966-1990” (Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 20, No. 4, Summer, 2001, pp. 3-28).    Pleck explores the discourse around Kwanzaa between its founding in 1966 and an artificial end point, 1990. Like all rituals, Pleck argues, Kwanzaa is a ritual that both reflects and is shaped by the discourses that surround it.

A key element in Pleck’s argument about Kwanzaa is that it is a ritual filled with ironies.   Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning:

“As a flexible ritual that changed, grew, and flourished over the years, the  history of Kwanzaa is replete with ironies. Born in part out of a critique of capitalism in the United States, the holiday owed much of its growing acceptance to refurbishing through consumerism. Originating among a black nationalist scornful of black “matriarchy,” Kwanzaa found its most eager enthusiasts among black women, who usually organized the feast in the home. Seen as an accessible ritual bound to appeal to the black masses, Kwanzaa was taken up mainly by the black middle class.  A ceremony intended to replicate a simple harvest festival, most Kwanzaa celebrations occurred among residents of large cities or suburbs. Created by an intellectual hostile to Christianity, Kwanzaa proved dynamic enough to be redefined as religious, secular, or both, and as fully compatible with Christianity. Stemming from a rejection of racial integration, the holiday-time Kwanzaa celebration at many public schools functioned as a sign of toleration for cultural difference. Seen as a ritual to develop a diasporic African identity, Kwanzaa became more appealing as it came to include many more elements of African American history and culture” (p.3).

Pleck traces the ebbs and flows of Kwanzaa’s popularity by examining the mentions of it in the black press.   Not surprisingly, much of the ritual’s popularity has followed the personal ups and downs of Karenga’s life.  While he was in prison for the crimes against Jones and Davis, Kwanzaa suffered what Pleck refers to as period of “duldrums.”   Pleck argues that the holiday “thus carried the weight of this specific incident,” as well as of Karenga’s fairly well-known attitudes toward black women in general.

Karenga in the 1960s believed that the proper role of black women was to be submissive to black men; he opposed equality between the sexes. In speeches between 1965 and 1967 he argued that “equality is false; it is the devil’s concept.” He said that the black husband had “any right that does not destroy the collective needs of the family” (p.11).

After his release from prison, there was a small but growing interest in the ritual. And, as Karenga transformed himself from radical political activist to professor and eventually chair of the African American Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach, the holiday’s popularity continued to rise.  Pleck also ties the rise in the ritual’s popularity with a growing black middle class and an increasing self-definition among middle class blacks as African American, and with an increasing desire to identify with African cultural roots.
Pleck notes that the black mainstream press discovered Kwanzaa in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first article on Kwanzaa in the black mainstream press appeared in Essence in 1979, and seems to have been an act of self-promotion by a Bay Area nationalist, who had written a Kwanzaa manual.  But it was in the early 1980s that the ritual began to really emerge in the black mainstream media:

“The more significant date is 1983, when Ebony and Jet first published articles about Kwanzaa.  Black sororities began to invite speakers to show their members how to celebrate Kwanzaa. Cedric McClester’s handbook on the holiday, written in a more accessible style than Karenga’s … pamphlets, appeared in 1985. He developed a lengthier script for the Karamu. He also created the folk figure of Nia Umoja, a Kwanzaa “Santa” and teller of African tales, who brought gifts to children. Large national museums, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (beginning in 1985) and the Smithsonian (beginning in 1988), staged Kwanzaa celebrations” (p.13).

These large institutions, most located near large, urban, black populations, Pleck argues, wanted to add programming that showed an interest in and demonstrated good will toward African Americans.

“Celebrations of Kwanzaa at many college campuses date from this period. Increased publicity about Kwanzaa on television, radio, and main stream newspapers encouraged the celebration, although many first learned about it from a friend. Some of those who celebrated Kwanzaa in public school or at a community center later came to practice it at home” (p.13).

Through the 1980s and 1990s while many black women, both in institutions such as college sororities and in private family homes, increasingly adopted Kwanzaa as a way of celebrating ancestral heritage and uniting family, at the same time Pleck notes that some black feminists, such as bell hooks, have remained critical:

In 1997, the feminist social critic bell hooks was interviewed in Essence and offered several reasons why she did not celebrate Kwanzaa. She began by noting her dislike for what she considered the rigid format of Kwanzaa and the Ngusa Saba. She also told the interviewer, “Another troubling thing about Kwanzaa is that you’re talking about patriarchal Black Nationalist men who decided they had to reinvent [these principles]. As if they didn’t already exist” (p.13).

And this is where I come back to with Kwanzaa. Is there a point to this ritual in a way that’s meaningful for me or is this, as hooks would have it, a celebration of patriarchal principles that already exists elsewhere in the culture?  Pleck argues that because black women took on most of the organizing work of Kwanzaa that they re-made the ritual and in so doing, “erased entirely Karenga’s initial ideas about the submissiveness of women” (p.20).    This was certainly what I saw today at my (queer), multi-racial church where black women led a transformed Kwanzaa celebration that highlighted diversity and the work of black women who did the work of organizing the civil rights movement, such as Ella Baker.   Honoring this chosen and diverse family, unity around social justice and a commitment to a faith that the world can be a better place are worth celebrating.

“The Blind Side” : Sandra Bullock, White Women & Racism

Several weeks ago, I saw “The Blind Side” which is, as lots of people have already pointed out, yet another addition to that long list of white savior movies.  If you’re not familiar with this particular movie trope, you should read Hernan and Gordon’s Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness.   The film also trades in the “magical Negro” meme, in which black people perform various miracles for white people (see also, “The Green Mile”).  This particular theme is deeply embedded in American culture and for more about this you can read the classic Langston Hughes’ Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment or the more recent Brannon Costello’s Plantation Airs.

This is all well-trod ground for examining race in this, and other, films. I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that the sort of one-note discussion of this film that asks “is it racist or is it not racist?” suggests that:

“if you’re not a racist, if a movie isn’t racist, then presumably it’s all good. Arguing over the contents of people’s hearts, or the admittedly myriad interpretations of modern movie, prevent us from getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements which we have yet to name.”

In that spirit, I want to take a slightly less well-worn path to discussing this film and talk a little about some of those ‘beautiful and ugly’ elements we have yet to name.

As Mark Blankenship notes, the movie is based on a true story. A rich white family really did adopt Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager, and eventually, he became an NFL star. In the real world, that’s very moving.  In parts, I found the story compelling.  It is sometimes the reality that white families adopt and raise, even “save,” black children from sometimes dire conditions.  While I’m well-aware of the vehement critique of this practice by the National Association of Black Social Workers (and others), that’s still a story that I’m interested in knowing more about in its particulars, as Coates would have it, “getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements.”   For example, how does a white mother raising a black son teach her son to deal with racism?   How does she confront her own racism in that copmlex mother-son relationship?   And, given that this story is set in an affluent, Southern, Christian, all-white community, I wanted to know the particulars of how this boy became a man in this world.

There was one scene in the movie that almost tapped this rich potential for storytelling, and it was when Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Touhy, confronts her ladies-who-lunch friends about their own racism in their comments about her newly-adopted son.   She stops them cold and says to them, “Shame on you.”   It’s a remarkable filmic moment in many ways.  First, it clearly depicts whites  – in this case, white women – engaging in the kind of back stage behavior we’ve talked about so often here on the blog.  It’s rare to see the whites talking about race in explicit ways portrayed in a film.   Bullock’s confrontation of them is refreshing, too, but it’s underplayed and comes out of nowhere for her character.   We know nothing about how her character has dealt with her own internalized racism – or, even if she has – to get to the point of confronting her lunch-friends.  Is she conflicted? Has she always wanted to confront them about their racism?  Or, does she secretly agree with them, but just prefer them to engage in the “polite silence” around matters of race that has come to prevail in many social settings?   Does she continue to be friends with these women?  Does she lose their friendship because of this confrontation?  If so, is that painful? And how does that pain factor into her feelings about her son?

We will never know.  This is not a film with much nuance (the predominant metaphor is about football).    While it’s a moment worth noting in the film, (I can even see using the clip of that lunch-table confrontation to foster discussion in a class or workshop), the moment is a lost opportunity for anything more multifaceted, or artful even, about transracial adoption, about race, or about the journey away from individual racism.  All of which is too bad, because that’s a film I’d really like to see.

Ultimately,  the film’s screenplay and Sandra Bullock’s performance (one many are saying is the best of her career) misses the opportunity to connect with the tradition of the few white women who have stood against racism like Mary White Ovington, Lillian Smith, or Viola Gregg Luizzo, and instead draws on the much broader tradition of white women perpetrating paternalistic racism, set in stark contrast to portrayals of black women as unfit mothers.   This kind of storytelling, repeated again and again throughout the culture, is just not that interesting and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of ‘art’ in my view.   It does, however, seem to draw a crowd.  “The Blind Side”is this season’s “surprise hit” at the box office.

“It’s a Wonderful Life”: Honoring Lillian Randolph

During this holiday season, lots of people go to the movies and watch classic holiday-themed films like, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film can be read as a critique of capitalism through its indictment of the Potter character, and an affirmation of hope and the beauty friends as “true riches.”   There is one African American character in an otherwise entirely white cast, perhaps not surprising for a Hollywood film released in 1946.    That character is “Annie,” the Bailey family’s maid, and she is played by Lillian Randolph.    Yet, she maybe best known for is her brief role and memorable quote near the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which she offers some comic relief in the climactic last scene.  Offering George Bailey, her employer, all of her savings, she says:

I been savin’ this money for a divorce, if ever I got a husband!

The line is funny, but not.  It speaks to the fictive notion in the white imagination that black women have no families of their own, but live to serve their white masters.   Scholar Jacqueline Jones in her powerful book, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, dissects the many facets of this erroneous belief as she details the historical record of black women’s struggles to raise their own families while often laboring under the most oppressive conditions of white employers.    There are few accurate portrayals in mainstream Hollywood films that speak to this reality, but perhaps Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal of the character “Sofia” in “The Color Purple,” (1985) comes closest.  In this film, Sofia goes to jail for talking back to and striking her white employer.  The contrast between Sofia’s resistance to her white employer and Annie’s acquiescence is striking and, in many ways, speaks to the social changes brought by the civil rights movement in the years between 1946 and 1985.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that Lillian Randolph (the actress who portrayed “Annie,” in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” )  shared the same acquiescence to the white power structure as her character.  Lillian Randolph (died 1980) enjoyed a long career in radio, film and television.  Many of those roles, including ones in “Roots,” offered a very different view of black women’s struggle.  And, in fact, Lillian Randolph’s own daughter Barbara Sanders briefly followed her mother into acting (pictured here).  This holiday season, I’d like to honor Lillian Randolph, and all the black women who’ve played the maids, servants and walk-on roles in white-dominated Hollywood films.


Over the next few days, I’ll be doing a series of movie-themed posts about the way race and racism are addressed or perpetuated in Hollywood films.

HP Webcam: A Case of Cyber Racism?

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a lot of discussion whirling around the web these days about a HP-designed webcam that seems to read the faces of white people and not the faces of black folks.  Some are accusing HP of racism.  Is this a case of cyber racism? It all got started by this, rather funny, video (2:16):

I have to agree with Angry Black Woman (and cross-posted at Alas, a Blog) ~ I see a case of “privilege and blindness” with regard to race rather than intentional racism.