Ode to Colour-Blindness


Perhaps, on reading my blog posts in the last year, some might be led to believe that I reject colour-blindness outrighly, as a matter of principle. As a matter of fact, I don’t.

magic-of-belle-isle-dvd-cover-79In the last few months, Dan and I have seen a number of movies that have adopted a colour-blind approach and we’ve loved them. The first is The Magic of Belle Isle, starring Morgan Freeman as a well-known author of western novels. He’s come to Belle Isle against his wishes because his nephew insists on his trying to reclaim his life after he has turned to the bottle too much since losing his wife. His nephew is proved right; Belle Isle turns out to be just the medicine he needs to get onto his feet again and resume writing. The real clincher of his recovery is the combination of his friendship with a little white girl with a wild imagination who lives next door to his rented house and wants to tap his wisdom from writing (especially with regard to helping her develop the necessary imagination to write great stories – he shows her that she already has it), and a blooming romance with her strong and good-looking mother. After some twisting and turning, there’s a happy interracial ending.

The key to the success of this film as a heartwarming narrative is that race is never mentioned or made an issue of. Morgan Freeman’s character (Monte Wildhorn) moves to a lily white neighbourhood and is immediately fully embraced by the community even though they don’t know him basically at all and he proves himself very early on to be a grumpy, temperamental over-user of alcohol. This may be “magical” indeed. Despite his being unknown and his flaws, he becomes somewhat of a local sensation (granted he has some redeeming character traits which increasingly emerge as he recovers hope in life), to the point of entering into a romantic relationship with the beautiful, blonde, mother-of-three-girls living next door – and no one bats an eyelid. It’s pretty heady stuff!

This movie presents a highly attractive alternative to our present (a world in which race is not even noticed because it is just not an issue). Sorry to say, it feels like a parallel universe to me.

Just to be clear, I do not reject this movie’s depiction of race relations as an ideal – I long for such a day. But I do reject it as a representation of our present reality. Having some sixteen-odd years of experience in inhabiting and moving through white spaces in different parts of the world and always having had at least one person “bat an eyelid” or say something downright horrible to me about my race in every place, I can tell you that such a scenario as is presented in The Magic of Belle Isle is highly unlikely.

A social construct though it is, race is very real, and its implications too wide-ranging and deep, albeit mostly unconscious today (as we canvass on this blog), for such a picture to be real. Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for such hopeful, utopian portrayals. We all need to be reminded of what we hope for, and are hopefully moving towards, regardless of the fact that it is very far off in the future.

Think-Like-a-Man-DVD-Box-Art-602x802A more realistic portrayal of “colour-blind” relations in our time is that in Think Like A Man, based on the book, Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man by black comedian, Steve Harvey. This book/film falls into the category of books/films that deal with dating and how women can get the upper-hand on men and get what they want (in the form of long-term commitment rather than just booty calls). So it’s a predominantly black version of He’s Just Not That Into You meets How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days.

What first stands out in this movie is that the main group of guys who hang out is made up of four black guys and two white guys. One of the white guys is living with his long-time black girlfriend who wants to get married but he’s too stuck in puberty to realise or “be ready”. The second white guy is happily married to an unidentified woman (presumably white). The black guys span the range of bona fide player, mummy’s boy, undirected dreamer (who is broke – and single – because of his lack of career direction) and recent divorcee who ultimately realises that he adores his Amazonian-type black woman even though she beats him.

The second thing that stands out in this movie is that conversation does not shy away from race. The guys good-naturedly tease each other about their respective racial identities and what stereotypes come with these. Sometimes the guys accept the accusation that people of their race behave in certain ways and other times they deny them and even get mad at the one who made the accusation, but without giving up the relationship. That feels real to me. And, sure, Dan and I are by no means representative of the only ideal possible in our time but that’s just how we confront our racialised identities in our relationship. This is what we (and scholars on this subject) call ‘race conscious’ relating. Most black academics on this subject (and white scholars with black relations, like Erica Chito Childs) agree that this is the best we can hope for in our time.

silver_linings_playbookA final, less profound, representation of this is in the recent movie, Silver Linings Playbook, in which Pat’s (Bradley Cooper) good friend from the mental hospital is a black guy, Danny (played by Chris Tucker), who keeps showing up at his house alleging to have been legally released from the mental home and each of the initial times finding that he has to return because of some legal glitch. The two guys don’t discuss race but their consciousness of it is revealed when Danny finds Pat choreographing a dance with a good-looking white girl (Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence) and offers to show Pat how to dance with feeling and smooth motion. He says to him, “black it up!” Pat asks, “what does that mean?” Danny retorts, “you know what I mean! Black it up!” Danny then goes on to add a move to their dance that takes them from the more ‘black’ dance moves to more stereotypically ‘white’ dance moves.

The latter movie displays something interesting that empirically-based scholarship also speaks to: that black people are typically much more comfortable with bringing up and naming race in relationships than are white people. This is understandable: race impacts black people much more and more severely than it does white people. (Recent headline stories about Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Sun Trust automatically charging African American and Hispanic clients higher rates for their subprime mortgages than white people with credit ratings that were exactly the same prove that such impacts of race persist.) In other words, colour-blindness is too far in the distance for us black people to speak or act as though it is a reality or option for us in the present.

Nevertheless, it is desired. We too eagerly anticipate a time when our race will not largely determine our fate in the world. Stories like Monte Wildhorn (in The Magic of Belle Isle) – like the popularity of one of my favourite country singers, Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish fame who, in 2009, became the first African American ever to win the Best New Artist Award from the Country Music Association, and the second to win any award at all) – represent this hope that, one day, we will live in such a world. One day far – but, hopefully, not too far – away … In the meantime, race conscious interracial relating seems a very good option indeed!

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