I Feel Good: Elevation, Positive Thinking & The Persistence of Racism

Everyone, it seems, likes a story with a happy ending.  It may be a particularly American cultural phenomenon or part of human brain structure.  But the rather relentless focus on cheerful positive thinking is also getting in the way of confronting the persistence of racism in the U.S.

267/365 - keep smilin'

( photo credit: joshfassbind.com)

In the U.S., the prevailing narrative about race is that “racial dynamics have been transformed,” first by the Civil Rights Movement and most recently – and finally – by the election of President Barack Obama.   We see this meme repeated again and again by mainstream news media, in popular movies (e.g., “Blind Side” and the entire genre of “white savior” films), and in personal conversation.   There is something in this narrative that speaks to both a human desire for “elevation” and the American quest to be “positive.”

Roger Ebert, film and social critic, explains that he’s never moved to tears by sad moments in movies, just during “moments about goodness.”   Ebert describes the feeling this way:

“What I experience is the welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift: Yes, there is a good person, doing a good thing. And when the movie is over, I don’t want to talk with anyone. After such movies I notice that many audience members remain in a kind of reverie. Those who break the spell by feeling compelled to say something don’t have an emotional clue.”

This is the feeling that the movie “Blind Side” was supposed to evoke.   Ebert doesn’t mention the Sandra Bullock movie, but touches on race when he goes on to compare that feeling to the way he – and lots of other people – felt in Grant Park the night President Obama was elected.

In an article at Slate.com by Emily Yoffe, “Obama in Your Heart,” she describes a study about “the emotions of uplift” conducted by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, who had studied physical responses in test subjects who are deeply moved — what psychologists call “elevation.” Yoffe writes:

Elevation has always existed but has just moved out of the realm of philosophy and religion and been recognized as a distinct emotional state and a subject for psychological study. Psychology has long focused on what goes wrong, but in the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in “positive psychology”–what makes us feel good and why. University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, writes, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

Some of this research suggests that elevation is triggered by the stimulus of our vagus nerve.  As Yoffe writes again:

“In his forthcoming book Born To Be Good, Keltner writes that he believes when we experience transcendence, it stimulates our vagus nerve, causing ‘a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat’.”

This emerging field of “positive psychology” is proving very popular.  A course in the positive psychology at Harvard is consistently the most popular course on campus, with over 800 students enrolled in it.   Whether or not this is a result of something linked to human biology remains to be determined. Closely tied to the ideas of elevation and positive psychology, is the deeply American notion of “positive thinking.”

In her recent book, Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, 2009) Barbara Ehrenreich writes that :”Americans are a ‘positive’ people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are oft en baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor.”   The central tenet of this reputation is that positive thinking will make us feel better (physically and emotionally) and this optimism will actually make happy outcomes more likely. In other words, if you expect things to get better, they will.

She goes note that there are some serious downsides to ‘positive thinking,’ including acting as an ideological cover for consumer capitalism and making it impossible to foresee the events of 9/11 (even though there was plenty of evidence of an impending attack).  I’m quoting the following at length because it’s good and she cites a number of sociologists:

While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a still impressive case for capitalism’s roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

But if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, “late” capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more — cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds — and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.

In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

In her remarkable book, Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst, sociologist Karen Cerulo recounts a number of ways that the habit of positive thinking, or what she calls optimistic bias, undermined preparedness and invited disaster. She quotes Newsweek reporters Michael Hirsch and Michael Isikoff, for example, in their conclusion that “a whole summer of missed clues, taken together, seemed to presage the terrible September of 2001.”7 There had already been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; there were ample warnings, in the summer of 2001, about a possible attack by airplane, and flight schools reported suspicious students like the one who wanted to learn how to “fl y a plane but didn’t care about landing and takeoff .” The fact that no one — the FBI, the INS, Bush, or Rice — heeded these disturbing cues was later attributed to a “failure of imagination.” But actually there was plenty of imagination at work — imagining an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy — there was simply no ability or inclination to imagine the worst.”

Ehrenreich’s focus in the rest of the book is about her encounters with this relentless drive toward ‘positive thinking’ after her diagnosis with breast cancer (her critique is a devastating one leveled at the “positive thinking” pink ribbon campaigns).

There’s also relevance in Ehrenreich’s critique of positive thinking for understanding the persistence of racism in the U.S. and our collective reluctance to address it.   Many people – mostly white people – think that the best way to solve racism is to ignore it.   Some black folks think that way, too (e.g. Morgan Freeman).    This view exists across party lines and political affiliations, both liberals and conservatives.    And, in a way, it’s a version of the “positive thinking” that Ehrenreich describes: if you expect things to get better, they will.  Now, just apply that to racism.    End of story.  To do otherwise is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

I think that’s a mistake.   Where we err is when we think that the best way to deal with racism is to look only at the bright-side, to study only how we’ve overcome, without a simultaneous critique of the persistence of racism and a thorough analysis of how we go about dismantling it.  Racism will not just “go away” because we wish it would.  And, it won’t go away if we keep producing and consuming images that “elevate” us about the subject.

I will feel elevated when there are enough jobs (even for black teens), and everyone is housed (and there are not predatory lending practices), and there are no differences in health outcomes based on race (including an end to diabetes among Native Americans and low birth weight babies among African American mothers), and there are fewer people locked up (and those who are reflect the racial demographics of the entire nation).  Now that would be a happy ending to the story of American racism.

“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.