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White People Don’t Get It Because They Never Had to

White People Don't Get It Because They Never Had to

A month or so ago, I watched the Gwen Ifill Town Hall in Ferguson. A White male spoke in a way where I knew he didn’t “get it”. Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders (http://dreamdefenders.org/vest/about-us/) gave an excellent delineation of repression. Cut to: a White male, Ross Kaminsky, he said, “I get the feeling. I understand this feeling of, uh, the system isn’t fair, it’s biased against us. But then, when you start going to this idea that 400 years of repression in a system that’s still designed to hurt us and still designed to keep us down, that starts feeling to me, like uh, racism against me just because of the color of my skin. My parents weren’t here 400 years ago…” (see the clip, here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365331269/). I’m sure you know where he was going.  

Ever since I was a child, I keep seeing these interactions repeat. Black people talk about hurt, White people don’t “get it”. And, always, Black people seem to be evolving but White America does not. It isn’t as simple as “they don’t really care about us.” There is a deeper issue at play. It’s embedded. Empathizing with Black people has never been a part of the visual culture. White people have been so privileged, in the visual landscape, that they don’t have the ability to step into the shoes of others, especially not Black people.

How is it still possible that many White people still don’t understand the unfairness woven into the fabric of American society? The images we abhor, the constant parade of White men in power, White women in jewels, lit with a halo, aren’t merely about the creation of beauty standards. These images also convey rules of engagement. These images, since the beginning of film and television in America, have laid the dynamics for interaction in the culture.

I am astounded when I hear people say that movies and television are “just entertainment”. Or, that visuals have very little weight in the construction of identity or culture. WRONG! Visuals create identity. Even if we come from homes where we read books, where there was an air of Black pride, we are still shaped by what we see. Even when I’m around the most progressive and radical voices in the culture, I still see an identification with, a need to be accepted into American culture. A classic and, on the surface, silly example, is Snoop Dogg. I’ve always found it interesting that Snoop Dogg identified with Snoopy. Snoopy was the clever, marginal, watchful character who provided the cool. He observed the culture of the Peanuts, he wasn’t part of the group. That’s Snoop Dogg.

We all ingest mainstream images and they show up in our life, somehow. If you don’t see yourself, how do you create identity? One can argue, this is why “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder” are so important. There are Black women to identify with. Images shape our identities, or, sometimes, we become them. I critique because I understand the power of the visual and how it is situated in our subconscious.

Last year, I saw an amazing theater play ‘Wild With Happy’ by Colman Domingo. It told the story of an Actor who had to bury his Mother. He and his mother were both engaged in a type of fantasy. The Actor, created the illusion that his life was more successful than it was. At the same time, the fantasy, the dream for his mother, was to go to Disney World. In her generation, that was a wish, a hope. The play captured the idea of the American dream with a profundity. What are the dreams and aspirations of Black people who see themselves within a landscape of White visuals?

When I can tolerate it, I turn on TCM. Watch that channel and you get to see what the diet of American images has been for decades. There are also nostalgic stations on TV that allow me to view shows like “Father Knows Best”, “Dennis the Menace” and “Leave It To Beaver”. I watch these shows and wonder how these images impacted the Black psyche at that time. What was the message to people who didn’t look like the all White programming? How does someone develop desire, love for self, love for someone who looks like them? How does one develop identity?

In the 1970’s, shows like “Good Times”, “All In The Family”, “The Jeffersons”, “Sanford and Son” appeared. These shows attempted to bring a more rounded depiction of the culture. But, they failed, in that, the Black voices were inner city, comical and not, in any way, powerful. They may have feigned power within the realm of the show. But, within the context of the larger society, the characters had no real power.

Currently, I’m looking through the American visual canon (trying to watch anything and everything). There was a show in 1977-1978 called “James at 15”. It is a very insightful show. In the show, the White male lead was a sweet, thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive photographer. There was also a Black male character. His name was Sly. He was described as a “jiving student”. He was slick, provided the marijuana, allowed James to explore his other side (even though Sly came from a middle class, Black, family that listened to classical music). James gained a bit of fun and lost nothing in his life with Sly. And, Sly provided the fun, the interesting experience for James without having a real, meaningful character arc in the show.

This is a constant in American visuals. Black people are the “other”, provide the spice to the show (recently, I watched “Transparent”. One of the most thoughtful and insightful shows I have ever seen. Yet and still, the Black characters were an afterthought, provided the spice, had no real investment in the show). It would have been easy enough to give James a Black male friend that was considerate and curious. After all, mayhem can be created from curiosity. No, Black people must represent something alien. Black people are presented as not worthy of having sincere feelings or thoughts. Our needs, concerns are comical not deep. Within this visual landscape, Black folks negate their own needs and don’t speak about anxieties, pressures, fears, hopes. So, there is no reason for White people to consider them. Honestly, it’s crazy. The notion that we are supposed to suffer in silence is built into the framework of film and television.

Fortunately, in our time, we get to see the White male anti-hero. He destroys the life of his family at the same time that he seeks fortune, glory, power (i.e. Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad). But, the White male is still the powerful figure in the narrative. He dominates and controls the life of the show. The show is his universe. If Black people enter that universe, they are tangential and problematic.

The flipside of the criminalization of Black men is the coronation of White men. The flipside of the beauty of White women is the ugliness of Black women.

America’s canon of images negates the humanity of Black people. What we then see, from Black content creators, is a reactionary dichotomy. There are Black people who attempt to become colorless by stepping into roles that do not address race, plight or challenge the narrative of power. Unless, of course, it is an acceptable and known figure (for example, Will Smith as Muhammad Ali).

Or, we see Black folks who address “issues”. That’s what Black people do. We bring up the “societal ills”. Because, that is our role. That’s the currency that we have in the culture. We become saddled with having to speak to the “problems” in the culture. In doing so, we become “the problem”. This could be why the White person, who doesn’t know you, has never met you, will roll their eyes when you speak about racism as if they’ve heard you say something over 1,000 times. That’s what they see in the media. Black people keep bringing up slavery, inequity, civil rights, because that’s our role. White people don’t speak about it. They are simply living their lives, buying Tide, and here we come, disrupting their lives with talk about racism.

It’s an interesting arrangement we have in the landscape of visuals. It’s an arrangement that needs to be broken.

White people, who identify with this construction of Whiteness in the culture, don’t have human rights, for all, as an agenda. In the realm of American cinema and television, human rights/ending racism is not an issue (again, unless Black people bring it up). So, if said White folks are the decision makers within the entertainment industry, they will make what is of interest to them. Black people are trying to survive and be recognized. White men want to escape, relax with “Dumb and Dumber” and “Sex Tape”. They don’t have a desire or need to care for the well being of others. Life, for them, is not fraught with unemployment, poor education, decay. They don’t have to face it until it is brought to their attention.

So, ultimately, it’s not that White people don’t care, they simply have not been held accountable. Accountability does not occur unless the culture demands it. And then, when presented, it’s presented as a complicated situation. Trayvon Martin was going to the store to get skittles and ice tea BUT “he was wearing a hoodie, he fought with zimmerman”. Those crazy Black people, again, who complain and don’t accept that they are the problem.

The question is, how do we change this? First, we must acknowledge that we live in a culture of denial where Black people are still seen as “the problem”. We are “the problem” because we constantly talk about “the problem”. White people would like to get on with the lives that they have. The lives/fantasy constructed for them in the media. And, there is a passive acceptance from many Black people in power who go along to get along. White people don’t know that there’s a problem because they don’t have to. Conversations about racism challenge their fantasy. No one wants to have their fantasy interrupted.

We are going to need thoughtful and incisive content creators who can shatter the dynamics that have been created. We are not arguing for inclusion in entertainment because we want to be difficult. We are trying to create equity in the culture. We cannot see Black people as human until we see Black people as human. And, White people will not be empathic, en masse, if they are not seen in roles where they enact empathy. This is not a difficult concept to grasp.

It will be difficult to undo generations of images that have delivered a message of exclusion of Black people (people of color). Certainly, we can’t keep parading “To Kill A Mockingbird” as America’s conscience. We need new cinema, new images that disrupt this peculiar dance we’re all doing. Seriously. America needs a new narrative.

So, the next time a White person looks incredulous and annoyed when you bring up racism, just think, oh, he actually believed “Leave It To Beaver”(insert whatever movie or TV show you like). He/she hasn’t caught up to the fact that Black people live in the world, eat, drink, love, hurt, have mothers, fathers, siblings who love them and are human beings, too.

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/SteeleInk. Or visit digtanya.com.

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Comments

Sam

The Black community is often tmes the populational majority in major cities including Feurgeson. If you want your voice heard, VOTE! You are an american citizen, you do have a voice, now use it. try to find ways to get black people out of crime and poverty. there are plenty of programs and scholorships that help black people do better in school, even without parental support. We just ahve to want it bad enough in order to get it. Prove that we do not have to be bringing up and issue that is over 100 years old in order to be heard. we should change us so that we are at our absolute best before we start talking about changing them.

Lolea

I’m British and we have the same problem here and with much of our visual media and shows coming out of America the problem falls to us here also. People watching shows don’t see the characters there as African-American they see them as blac. When they see me they don’t see me as British or differentiate between the characters on a show being African-Ameican and me being British, we are all just Blac so the wider world must be invested in better image creation.

Nkrumah

The fact that institutional and systematic racism exists is why I care. I don’t need anyone else making any policies that negatively affect me just because they don’t care to understand me or my people. You can claim to be empathetic all you want but until you are willing to put yourself in my shoes you have zero chance of knowing how your actions and the actions of others effect me and my family.

Kayla

Working in the advertising agency world for over 20 years – makes this article not only nothing to sleep on but very relative to my continued experience. Buy from black business’ remarked one reader- is there a black Clorox company you buy from? Is there a black Macy’s or Barneys (intentional references) that you shop in??
When we continue to lessen the reality of the experience and equate speaking about it as if we need to be asleep/ we already are…
We walk on a hollowed ground in major cities and in small towns of this country. With most of our young and older ones bedazzled by Kim and Manye in their pretend little world. The reality is that if we as a country continue to hold on to the dynamics of the past and keep sweeping the past under rugs we will one day inevitably have to deal with the unmistakeable filth of our perceived and real paradigms. I for one, like clean sheets when I lay my head to rest. For now, I have to wash them in Clorox or oxi clean. What brands are you using/ or is the safe bet that you’ll go to sleep/ teach your children to go to sleep and somehow they will magically like in the movies be clean the next day?

Steve Harper

It’s a problem. And I think part of the solution is making your own stuff. That’s what I’m doing. (See the Crowdfund This article about my web series: SEND ME).

hope is the future

Amen is all I can say.

A Akran

Well said. We cannot see black people as human until we see black people as human and hold them accountable.

Abraham Lateiner

risksomething(dot)org

Abraham Lateiner

I agree that Whyte people like myself have been brought up to not see the racism that is shoved in Blaque peoples’ faces daily.
I’m in the process of trying to deprogram myself and hope to inspire other Whyte people to SEE-program, DE-program, and RE-program ourselves for collective liberation. Racism is our business, in all meanings of that word, and it’s largely up to us to work to end racism.

Abe

why can’t I comment?

Ol' Skool

@ Zach, you were doing alright ( tolerable as a Caucasian who thought we needed to know that) until you just solidified the author’s point. Great job Zach, you knucklehead. So, lets see, your disappointment with this site was initiated… by… ???

Zach

This doesn’t teach or reach, it just preaches (to a choir). I’m rather disappointed in this site.

ppryce

very insightful. when you have Nikki Minaj, Cash Money, Lil Wayne and these new money hip hop artists disrespecting themselves and us with their/our music how are we ever going to meaningfully change black visual imagery, when we are busy undermining it ourselves?

Dan Gomez

I am a first generation Colombian American. I get it, but at the same time, I have no idea where my role in "American Culture" is defined. Sometimes I feel liberated because of this (considering the fact that I am light skinned), I also, at times sense a feeling of opression; this, by virtue of the fact that everything is "anglicised" and based on WASP tendencies that have been perpetuated over the last two centuries. To sum it up: I don’t know where I stand exactly. Best people.

Kebu

Please fix this comment system.Apparently well thought out responses are too "spammy".

CC

@Zach, "So, who’s the audience? Do you want to inspire people to work together to make a change, or do you want to preach to the choir in a way that ensures only the choir will hear you?" EXACTLY! And you’re not the first to bring that to the table. And, it’s important to note that the others who have pointed that out were regular/frequent readers of this site (African Americans). Yes, some of Ms. Steele’s articles are preachings. Thus, the audience (the choir) says "AMEN" and then moves on to the next old song. In other words, there’s really nothing new here that we didn’t already know and haven’t heard before. Now let the choir say…

Zach

Sorry about the several posts, the anti-spam bot here apparently won’t let me write the color that milk is.

Zach

Okay, I’m Caucasian. Gotta get that out there. I utterly agree with the main thrust of this post- the glaring disproportion of representation of all non-Caucasian races in mainstream media needs to be fixed.
The far too often idea of a non-Caucasian actor or actress as automatically a *token* or supporting character, or a character that *teaches lessons to*, or *provides a cause for* or *provides an element of danger or exoticism to react to* for some milquetoast Caucasian character needs to be eliminated, and feels like a ridiculous and hurtful remnant of another era that the mainstream just won’t let go of.
That being said, I wonder who this post is supposed to be targeted at. Saying things like "*Caucasian* men want to escape, relax with "Dumb and Dumber" and "Sex Tape". They don’t have a desire or need to care for the well-being of others. Life, for them, is not fraught with unemployment, poor education, decay. They don’t have to face it until it is brought to their attention" makes me wonder. I’m a Caucasian man who seeks out interesting and challenging work by the Ava DuVernay’s, Justin Simien’s (and Park Chan-wook’s, and Hany Abu-Assad’s, and Joshua Marston’s and many more) of the world. I’m a Caucasian man from an inner-city, urban neighborhood, who has been unemployed, who is a product of a severely under-funded, primarily non-Caucasian school district, who actually does care. There’s plenty more like me, and plenty others who will respond to a well-articulated and reasoned argument, as much of this post is. However, some of it is also, frankly, offensive to those that don’t fit into the neat characterizations you made here. So, who’s the audience? Do you want to inspire people to work together to make a change, or do you want to preach to the choir in a way that ensures only the choir will hear you?

Zach

I’m Caucasian, that is.

Zach

Ummm, nevermind I guess. The crux is that I’m, and I agree with the vast majority of the points made here.

Zach

Guess I’m gonna break it up?

Zach

Well, I had a comment for this, but apparently "it seems to be spammy"

Reinaldo

Very good paper. It is not that simple we cannot build much if we are a marginal group as we are part of this country and the system that prevails is not that generous. Realistically speaking I once said that we need to engage America in new dialog about education, art and culture. Of course all this will lead us to a new narrative.

Bettye Neely

Threecee, I agree. This is a well written and welll though out article.

Tony

If they don’t get it, they won’t identify or relate. And if they can’t or which is really the case, they won’t identify or care then you don’t matter. So as black and brown young bodies lay in the streets. They won’t get it, won’t identify and won’t care. And to that they feel defensive and relate to the oppressing side, the cop, the murderer because they identify, relate and get their side. Too much work to get it.

threecee

well, i give a f*ck because they’re still the ones running sh*t. i don’t care if they love me, but i want them to care enough not to f*ck up my life because i happen to be a black man.

CareyCarey

Scoot over Mark and Darla. While I nod off I need a place to lay head before Charles Judson arrives. But really, as QBN said, who gives a fat f*ck about what "they" don’t get. Damn, you can’t make someone love you – if they don’t.

Mark and Darla

zzzzzzz…..

QBN

Who cares if they don’t "get it"? Teach your kids to love Black, support Black businesses, build your own institutions like every other ethnic group has and do YOU.

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