Subtle Indignities: Why We Should Still “See” Race – Part 3

In solidarity

After my last post (my intermission), I wasn’t sure I wanted to proceed with my series of blog posts. Ironically, I was feeling a little fatigued of talking about the need for race consciousness (colour bravery)  especially against the backdrop of the xenophobic attacks (“black-on-black violence”) that have taken place in South Africa these last few weeks, reminding me of the self-hate we have internalised as black subjects of historic and ongoing oppression. But then this week hit.

What happened in Baltimore has been shocking, infuriating, confusing and heartbreaking  often all at once. The police (with its institutionalised racism, as evidenced by the fact that some of the police involved were black) and establishment bear much responsibility but, certainly, so do the rioters. But the terms in which what happened there has been portrayed and discussed, especially in the popularist media has certainly revived my sense that we have a lot of work to do in understanding race and its meaning/significance for our social reality as well as what it means to regard and treat the “other” in a way that recognises and affirms their human dignity. So I’m picking up my “subtle indignities” series with a piece that focuses on the significance of stereotypical representations of blackness.

I am sure women of all races reading Part 2 of this series on subtle indignities recognised some of what I described from their own experiences and, though I am sorry that they share these experiences, I am glad that I can give voice to an injustice we have in common.

I do think my gender plays a meaningful role in the personal experiences I have described in my first two posts – but I hope my “feminist” sisters also accept my point that gender is not the only operative factor. I find bell hooks’ term, imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, capturing the intersectionality of systems of oppression, compelling in this regard. Yet, as you will see in this part of this blog series, I would argue that blackness alone is enough to attract negative expectations. Gender only adds to it.

As I have written before both on this blog and elsewhere, people tend to see me as a “black” (not always even a “black person”) first and a woman only second, if at all. I would now add that the same can be said of my class, which is why it can be seen as mitigation for my blackness, with all the negative stereotypes with which that comes. Allow me to illustrate.

A few months ago, Dan and I watched Belle. (Shout out to the lead actress, Gugulethu Mbatha-Raw, who’s father is a black South African and mother a white Brit!) It is a story about an aristocratic mixed-race woman who lived in the later 1700s England – raised by her white patrilineal kin and left a substantial dowry by her father yet rejected by society for being black and thus having the blood of a slave, at that time, chattel.

Daughter of a slave mother and father with title in a racist society.

One motif in the movie, used brilliantly by the filmmakers, is that of public representations of race in portraits. Everywhere she went – from her beloved uncle’s home in which she grew up to scenes hanging outside pubs frequented by poor people – paintings of black people in subservience or prostration before white people standing tall as the main subjects of the portraits served as a constant reminder of her actual position in society, despite her means. Though she was wealthy, she was still black and that made all the difference in and to the world.

Watching that, I felt I could very powerfully relate. Paintings are obviously not the norm in our time but news, advertisements, movies and pamphlets certainly are. Overwhelmingly, black people continue to be depicted as inferior in these image sources. In the news, stories are much more likely to be widely broadcast and race mentioned when an offence is committed by a black perpetrator and less likely when it is a black victim – except when the black community protests en masse (especially violently) as in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and now Freddie Gray.

Just consider the fact that it is possible that a young, unarmed black man is shot and killed by police, security and vigilantes every 3-4 days. How on earth was that not publicly shouted out before Ferguson?! And, obviously not condoning violent protest, how is anger (moral outrage!) not an appropriate reaction to that from all people  especially those whose lives are placed at perpetual risk by it?! After all, so far as we know, Freddie Gray’s only “offence” was to look the officer in the eye. That was enough to render him a dangerous criminal in the eyes of the officers.

Too many

In movies, as my black friends and I have joked for years, “the black guy always dies first”. Seeing this in movie after movie is like repeated affirmation of the black man’s being less smart or heroic, and therefore dispensable – and that’s not even mentioning the infinite number of roles in which black men are depicted as criminals. (I don’t know that I will ever forgive Idris Elba for going from playing Nelson Mandela to his latest movie in which he depicts the stereotype of a murderous black man escaped from prison. I know black roles on the big screen are comparatively few and a man’s gotta earn a living – and sadly, this depiction might draw more viewer attention than did Long Walk to Freedom – but still!) You have to look at the following breakdown on Buzzfeed to see just how bad things are! You’ll recall the criticism that the Academy was met with when Denzel Washington finally won an Oscar for best actor, not for his many amazing inspiring roles but for playing a corrupt cop; and in the same year, Halle Berry won hers, not for the several strong female characters she’s depicted, but for taking on the highly sexualised role of a woman with serious man problems. You’ll recall too the criticism that Hollywood received on just how “white” this year’s oscars were – even with movies like Selma (and Belle) on the scene.

Back to Belle: in the scene in which the eponymous character sits before her dresser and desperately rubs and claws at her skin, wishing there were some way she could dispose of it and thus the shame that it carries with it, I saw the many dark women of whom I wrote a few months ago when reflecting on the documentary, Dark Girls. Again, I could relate – more than 200 years later and darkness is still mostly associated with ugliness and shame. In her day, the subtle indignities that came with her skin were seen in that she could not have dinner with her white family when they had company whereas, even a vicar’s son, of lower station than she, was invited to dine with them (not to mention the horror of slavery!). In my day, more subtle as the indignities now are, they are experienced in the “black tax” I pay in my career, as discussed in Part 2 of this blog series (not to mention “the new Jim Crow” !).

As a brief aside: it might seem ironic that I should say that movies grossly present black folk in the negative when I just gave favourable mention to the biopic, Belle. This movie truly is an industry exception. What a joyous relief to see a (sadly rare) film featuring an intelligent and accomplished black woman of character, integrity and conviction as the main protagonist or one of the main characters. It is a welcome change from the common representations of foul-mouthed, ignorant or poor, unmarried and promiscuous black women who have multiple children and use drugs while depending on welfare – and that’s not to mention the commonly-dubbed “positive” depictions of black woman as maids or just plain invisible. (Of course, stories of poor and excluded black women and men deserve to be told with compassion, respect and hope too – in this regard, I think of Precious, which also was told by a black director, and Tsotsi, written by white South African protest theatre playwright, Athol Fugard and directed by Gavin Hood, two white people who get a pass).

A mysterious image brought to life on the big screen.

An important thing that stands out about Belle also is that it is a story told by a black screenwriter and writer/director (both women – whoop whoop!!). Stories like Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay’s and Simon Norfolk’s (Twelve Years a Slave) – the one a work of historical fiction based on a painting and another a biopic based on an autobiography – are largely left to black people to find and advocate to have told in Hollywood. And, when they are, they are more likely to bomb in the box office than to succeed (think Black Nativity). Apart from its outstanding acting and directing, Twelve Years A Slave may have therefore benefitted in this regard from a lot of white support, including the “patronage” of Brad Pitt. (I hate to point this out to those who would respond to me, “see, there’s a movie that makes white people look bad and black people look good – and it was widely seen and loved!”: while it is indeed a story of white people at their worst, it is also a story of white people ultimately saving the day.)

Movies aside, in a political campaign mailer sent by Senator Sanborn last fall, here in my new home state of NH, a bag of cocaine and semi-automatic firearm were superimposed on an anonymous black man’s photo. The allegation was made that this represented an alleged offender whose initial conviction the mailer neglected to tell recipients had been reversed over three decades ago. As Dan argued in his recent blog post, the suggestion was clearly made (as has been done in other forums a million times before) that, it doesn’t matter who an individual black man is because “they” are all potential drug dealers and cop-killers. This obviously fuels the not-yet-dead slavery and Jim Crow trope that black men are bogeymen, always to be feared as a threat to good, innocent, hard-working white folk. Just imagine what indignity – and threat to life and limb – young black men, their families and communities suffer as a consequence of it. One would think I wouldn’t again need to say Ferguson (or, now, Baltimore) but, as this race-baiting shows: apparently, we have not yet learned our lesson.

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