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Why I Wouldn't See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person
November 28, 2013 9:11 PM   Subscribe

"Very often, black people work to make white people at ease by layering away any unease we ourselves may feel. It is hard work to translate yourself daily to someone else who most likely lives life without ever being fully aware of how their very existence has been the basis for determining what is 'normal' in America and much of the world. And yet this painful and ongoing work of translation is second nature to those of us who have always had to figure out ways to be seen and understood in a world where the white experience is assumed to be the default."
posted by rcraniac (191 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not that the world needs another white perspective on this, but I think that's a pretty healthy response. Sure, I'm only a tiny, unwilling cog in the great machine of racist oppression, but there's no way to escape being a part of the machine. Why would I expect someone who fights every day not to be ground up by that machine to feel safe around me?
posted by gingerest at 9:35 PM on November 28, 2013 [18 favorites]


I certainly understand her desire to not see the movie with a White person... But I don't understand why she saw it alone.

When I see an emotionally powerful film, I want to discuss it with someone, to discuss it's impact, what it meant to me and the person I was watching it with personally... Experiencing an emotionally intense experience and then having no one to immediately discuss it with (who saw it at the same time I did) would be... A bit lonely. But that's just me.
posted by el io at 9:46 PM on November 28, 2013


I did not want to have to entertain any of the likely responses from anyone who could not see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen. I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people.

*SPOILERS*

There's a great scene early in the movie in which Chiwetel Ejiofor's character (at that point still a free man) is buying some items in a store and a slave wanders in from the street and disturbs the transaction. And the shopkeeper/slave owner apologize to Northup for the disturbance. Throughout the movie there is a sense of "I'm not supposed to be here" from Northup (both in regard to his legal status as well as the fact that he's an [extremely] educated man who can read and write) that is gradually eroded. This eventually culminates in him joining in a song with a number of slaves in this really powerful moment of shared experience, a product of heinous brutality. The ending of the film is this man returning to his previous life, but it's not triumphant at all, he has been completely altered by the experience. You get the sense that his family cannot truly understand what has happened to him whatsoever.

I can only really react to the film as a white man, but to me, that was the most incredible part of the film, is the way it transported me, a white man, into the perspective of a man whose initial reaction was "I'm not supposed to be here" and then was broken down by a perverse and horrible system and then returned to a society that cannot fathom his experience. And I found that really overwhelming.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:54 PM on November 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


...those of us who have always had to figure out ways to be seen and understood in a world where the white experience is assumed to be the default."

Come to Hawaii? It's finally playing here now. ^_^
posted by trackofalljades at 9:58 PM on November 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can you elaborate?
posted by rtha at 9:59 PM on November 28, 2013


And I posted while you were editing for content (which we're not supposed to do).

I guess? I'm part Hawaiian and I grew up some on Oahu, but I don't know that I'd say my experience as such would be comparable.
posted by rtha at 10:01 PM on November 28, 2013


Well it depends on where you live, and on which island, I suppose...but suffice to say there are plenty of places in Hawaii where "white experience" is not assumed to be the default and "white privilege" is dramatically reduced from what one learns to expect on the mainland. The result is a lot of white people crying "racism" in situations where they're simply learning to live as most non-white people do for once. It's fun to see happen. There are folks who blend right in and get along fine, and then there are the ones who bring their upper middle class mainland suburban chip on their shoulder and...people don't get along with them for obvious reasons.
posted by trackofalljades at 10:02 PM on November 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


I certainly understand her desire to not see the movie with a White person... But I don't understand why she saw it alone. When I see an emotionally powerful film, I want to discuss it with someone, to discuss it's impact, what it meant to me and the person I was watching it with personally

I think maybe because she knew it had the potential to go beyond "emotionally powerful" into the territory of "reliving trauma", for herself and for Black friends she might have gone with. Waiting to discuss the movie might be preferable to being witnessed in or witnessing such a vulnerable state.
posted by gingerest at 10:02 PM on November 28, 2013


(rtha and anyone else who might have misunderstood me, I certainly didn't mean to equate being white in Hawaii with being black anywhere else...all I meant was that Hawaii is full of places where "white experience...assumed to be default" is not how life works - and with good reason. That's as far as I meant the statement to go.)
posted by trackofalljades at 10:05 PM on November 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hmm, it seems that my initial comment of "Yup, us white folk are all the same" got deleted so let me rephrase that in a better way:


I find it ironic that somebody who writes this:

> " Our personal narratives do not matter when we walk into stores that cater to consumers of high socioeconomic status (Barney's). Our accomplishments do not matter when we’re randomly accosted by police (Henry Louis Gates). Our leadership (Obama), our strengths, our beauty, our innocence (Trayvon), our fears, our needs (Renisha McBride), our humanity all take second seat to our skin, skin that in all its beautiful, nuanced shades is simply seen as “black.”"

At the same time seems to generalize all white people as having the same identical "white experience":

> And yet this painful and ongoing work of translation is second nature to those of us who have always had to figure out ways to be seen and understood in a world where the white experience is assumed to be the default.


And lines like:

> There are things we learn to do almost subconsciously in order to keep some whites comfortable enough around our blackness.

where it is acknowledged that this isn't seemingly about all white people are then altered by lines like:

> Very often, black people work to make white people at ease by layering away any unease we ourselves may feel. It is hard work to translate yourself daily to someone else who most likely lives life without ever being fully aware of how their very existence has been the basis for determining what is “normal” in America and much of the world.


So, I'm confused. What is she saying? That all white people share the same experience and that by white people existing they are defining the status quo of the world? Just by existing? That all white people have the same experience regardless of their background? And what does "our blackness" mean? Is it a way of acting? Or is it a literal term for skin color? What does it mean to "translate" yourself?
posted by I-baLL at 10:08 PM on November 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suggest to remedy such confusion, the author should have used qualifyng phrases like "very often."

Oh, wait...
posted by trackofalljades at 10:09 PM on November 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


trackofalljades: Are you replying to me? Because if you are I don't understand the response as it doesn't seem to address or answer any of my questions.
posted by I-baLL at 10:13 PM on November 28, 2013


White people share the experience of being unmarked, unremarkable, the norm. That doesn't make the experiences of all individual white people exactly the same, but it's a hell of an invisible umbrella to be covered by.
posted by rtha at 10:16 PM on November 28, 2013 [38 favorites]


[Guys, it would be really, really, really great not to go down the same old derail path of "ALL [GROUP]??!!" again. Please.]
posted by taz at 10:19 PM on November 28, 2013 [28 favorites]


rtha:

> "That doesn't make the experiences of all individual white people exactly the same, but it's a hell of an invisible umbrella to be covered by."

Do you really believe that the culture of all people who happen to have been born with white skin is so remarkably similar that you virtually call it "almost the same"?
posted by I-baLL at 10:23 PM on November 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


that was the most incredible part of the film, is the way it transported me, a white man, into the perspective of a man whose .... life experiences were not those of a white man.

See, that transformative experience is effectively there only for white folks. I think I get that part of the point here is that non-whites, particularly blacks watching this particular movie, don't need, want, or have the ability to participate in that transformative experience, because for them racism, however residual in comparison to outright slavery, is in fact lived experience.

I hope that I understand how this type of film is a fundamentally different theatrical experience for whites than it is for blacks. And while I, as a white man, have interest (no opportunity as of yet) to enter into that transformative experience, I wouldn't presume to believe that just for the sake of my experience a black person would want to go along with me on what is in every way a wholly different sort of ride. Otherwise, I'm just engaging in another form of privilege, that of being a tourist, who can go home at the end of the two hours patting myself on the back for "enduring" what it must have been like.
posted by dhartung at 10:23 PM on November 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


What Ms. Okoro seems to be saying is that she doesn't want to see the movie with any of her white friends, because even though she loves them, she doesn't feel safe enough to undergo this searing emotional experience with someone who's never experienced institutional racism. She also says she doesn't want to have to understate the intensity of her feelings about the film for her white friends' comfort or possibly (I am going a little beyond the text here) to avoid their defensiveness.
I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people.
She also seems to be saying that she wants to experience her own feelings of the film without worrying about translating those experiences for, and sharing her perspective as a Black person with, someone who has never experienced racial oppression.
posted by gingerest at 10:24 PM on November 28, 2013 [38 favorites]


gingerest: That's what the essay starts off with. However it goes into a bit of a different place:

> "Seeing the movie was hard. But the truth is I had developed my own race problem before the film was even released. And when I look back I see that it has largely come from the slow and painfully growing suspicion that I’m primarily a check-mark in the lives of so many well-meaning, educated white people. Black educated friend: check. African conversation partner: check. Black woman of safe but uncommitted romantic exploration: check. Black articulate friend I can introduce to my family: check. Black internationally reared cultural elite I can relate to without leaving my comfort zone: check. Black emotionally safe friend with whom I can make "black jokes" in the name of familiarity: check. The list could go on.

I am saddened at the undeniable reality of my problem. I mourn my seeming inability to fully trust those pink-skinned children of God."



That last part, those 2 sentences, stand out to me the most. "the undeniable reality of my problem." The problem where she feels like no "pink-skinned child of God" would friend her for any reason other than just having a token black friend. Her "growing suspicion" has become "undeniable reality" less than a paragraph later.
posted by I-baLL at 10:30 PM on November 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have had the experience of slipping through the cracks because I was already a member of a marginalized population. I don't think I have any significant PTSD left from that, at least not in any ways that seriously impact my daily life, but just the previews to stuff like this hits me square in the chest. I don't blame her at all for not wanting to be somebody's token black viewpoint on this, but I find it unnerving that people need this sort of thing translated. I'd be pretty much expecting most anyone with half a heart to be coming out of this a gibbering wreck, but maybe that is seriously underestimating the privilege in America's population. The subset of people who've really experienced the institution being on their side in life is pretty small, but somehow--she's not wrong, I do suspect the average white person will not see their own powerlessness reflected, they'll see it as a thing that happened to Other People.

Like they all imagine themselves in the role of the well-off white landowners just by virtue of being white, much like people always imagine living in medieval times like they'd be kings, not peasants. They can detach. I don't know how. I saw some previews and will not be going to see the movie because it pretty much made my brain kernel panic.
posted by Sequence at 10:35 PM on November 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Do you really believe that the culture of all people who happen to have been born with white skin is so remarkably similar that you virtually call it "almost the same"?

Please check your memail. I'm not gonna derail this any further, and I'm also about to crash because Thanksgiving.
posted by rtha at 10:41 PM on November 28, 2013


So, I'm confused. What is she saying? That all white people share the same experience and that by white people existing they are defining the status quo of the world? Just by existing? That all white people have the same experience regardless of their background? And what does "our blackness" mean? Is it a way of acting? Or is it a literal term for skin color? What does it mean to "translate" yourself?

So okay, I am not white, but I'm born and raised in Canada. One day I meet a person who is also born and raised in Canada, he is white. During a conversation we had, he says to me: "for all anyone is concerned, you're a white person," when I am so clearly not.

So...why did he say that? Would he have said that if I were white?

The answer is no. Because the assumption is that since I appear Chinese, I should speak Chinese, have knowledge of Chinese cultural traditions, hey and maybe know some kung-fu!

Why isn't it more like, I'm just a PERSON who has a different facial structure and skin tone? I'm just a human being, and yet, my upbringing has been colored. Does this happen to people who appear to be white in places like North America or Europe?

I hope that helps you find an answer, I-baLL.
posted by honor the agreement at 10:42 PM on November 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


I knew I could only see this movie alone or with another dark-skinned person.
I yelped at this - in danger of veering into conflating the African American historical experience with all non-light-skinned peoples. But I think she avoided it mostly.

But the truth is I had developed my own race problem before the film was even released. And when I look back I see that it has largely come from the slow and painfully growing suspicion that I’m primarily a check-mark in the lives of so many well-meaning, educated white people.

hmmm... maybe needs to get out of her usual social circles and meet more white people. It's not that hard, I think, to find white friends in America who don't, and don't appear to, treat their black friends as tokens. but maybe it is a lot harder in North Carolina.
posted by Bwithh at 10:48 PM on November 28, 2013


I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people.

Damn, this sentence in particular. All the ways that direct raw experience can be reduced down to intellectual remove and then be neatly filed away.
posted by naju at 10:56 PM on November 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


If you're defensive about being a member of a powerful group, and said group is subject to criticism by a less powerful outsider, by far the most important thing you can do is reflect on why the criticism makes you upset.

Regarding the criticism, you might think "well, yes--some people in my group are like that, but not me"--and are you sure?--the healthy way forward is to use your influence as an insider to work on the group's problem people, not quibble about the criticism itself.
posted by maxwelton at 11:09 PM on November 28, 2013 [56 favorites]


It's not that hard, I think, to find white friends in America who don't, and don't appear to, treat their black friends as tokens.

How could I, as a white person, even begin to assess the truth of this statement? You can't be suggesting this person is a unicorn--someone who just happened to only meet and become friends with white people who do use their minority friends as check boxes?

It's possible to be friends or lovers with someone and appreciate them for their innate qualities--and still have them be check boxes in other contexts.
posted by maxwelton at 11:17 PM on November 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


This sounds like a painful-good movie that I must watch alone.
posted by linear_arborescent_thought at 11:25 PM on November 28, 2013


As a tall white guy I just don't have a non-privileged commentary, but on a personal film-goer level I appreciated this:

I was so grateful I had come on my own. Not because of any increased animosity toward white people, or any steaming anger toward a system of injustice; mainly because in the moments after the film I simply could not speak.
posted by sammyo at 11:42 PM on November 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not that the world needs another white perspective on this,

well, not WHITE, but please speak whatever you think is appropriate ...
posted by philip-random at 11:44 PM on November 28, 2013


The result is a lot of white people crying "racism" in situations where they're simply learning to live as most non-white people do for once. It's fun to see happen. 

Instead of making sure everyone is just generally shittier to everyone else as a way to balance out the problem of white privilege, it sure would be nice if we could just extend the benefits of that privilege to everyone. Otherwise you end up with a sort of cultural race to the bottom effect. And isn't the human condition generally such a miserably futile slog we could all benefit from a little human solidarity and compassion to ease the burden? (Well, with some exceptions I could mention.)

I still think we all ultimately get screwed out of any meaningful connection to our real cultural legacies by the uniquely American racial classification system (obviously, we don't all get screwed equally or in the same ways) but we all generally suffer for having our actual cultural roots oversimplified and obscured by a bullshit color coding system we're forced to adopt and internalize. On the cultural front, why shouldn't the strategy be to aggressively attack and deconstruct America's biologically fictional (though undoubtedly culturally real) racial categories while at the same time working to remedy the socioeconomic inequalities that system has produced? How long do we have to keep living under this bullshit system with the social resentments it seems almost designed to create? (I mean, I know it's a lost cause in my lifetime, but does it have to be for my children, and their children, and so on in perpetuity?)

Sure, as a society we should always acknowledge and do our best to right the historical wrongs committed in the name of racial discrimination as a long term project that's barely even gotten underway, but how can that system ever be dismantled and prevented from causing further harm if we keep dutifully internalizing its various classifications and rules and letting it shape our own senses of identity according to its immoral, perverse and scientifically invalid logic?

It's unfair and stupid that we make so many of our judgments of each other in the absence of any meaningful knowledge of each other as real people and it creates nothing but discord, resentment and mistrust all around. No one is ultimately better off for it except for cynical social manipulators willing to opportunistically exploit all that mistrust and resentment for political or financial gain.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:57 PM on November 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


How could I, as a white person, even begin to assess the truth of this statement? You can't be suggesting this person is a unicorn--someone who just happened to only meet and become friends with white people who do use their minority friends as check boxes?


The truth criterion here is merely related to my opinion (that's why I said " I think") based on my experience and observations. I'm not making a concrete truth claim. I have no idea what a unicorn in this context is, but what I said was that maybe she should try branching out into different social circles if that's the kind of problem, as she says, that she's having with all the white friends she already has *shrug*
posted by Bwithh at 11:59 PM on November 28, 2013


If you're defensive about being a member of a powerful group, and said group is subject to criticism by a less powerful outsider, by far the most important thing you can do is reflect on why the criticism makes you upset.

This kind of statement annoys me, because it seems to contain the assumption that criticism from "less powerful outsiders" is bound to be fair, justified and reasonable. It isn't, and it is yet another regrettable trait of a certain brand of modern liberal to refuse to see this.
posted by Decani at 12:04 AM on November 29, 2013 [18 favorites]


I think the writer's goal was to experience her own feelings and see through her own perspective w/r/t this movie, and she was afraid that if she saw the movie with a white person, she would be so conscious of the normative/privileged white perspective that she wouldn't be able to do that; her experience/feelings/perspective would get warped/shrunken/intellectualized into a reactionary or conciliatory response to the white experience/feelings/perspective.

That has nothing to do with any particular white person's perspective, that has to do with the "white perspective" as a normative (hegemonic) way of looking at the world, and the difficulty of shaking a hegemonic point of view even when it doesn't align with your own.

I still think we all ultimately get screwed out of any meaningful connection to our real cultural legacies by the uniquely American racial classification system (obviously, we don't all get screwed equally or in the same ways) but we all generally suffer for having our actual cultural roots oversimplified and obscured by a bullshit color coding system we're forced to adopt and internalize.

I don't really understand the "cultural legacies" that are getting connected to in this idea. I don't mean that as an attack, I honestly don't know which legacy is being referred to here (shared legacy as a country, personal biological heritage, something completely different...?).
posted by rue72 at 12:13 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Once I was born. History was compressed.

Heh, I found. Age teaches too.
posted by Mblue at 12:22 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: are you talking to me?
posted by telstar at 12:23 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another half-baked, navel-gazing, clearly rushed opinion piece from theatlantic.com that would never make it into the printed version. Is this the future of journalism? I guess it's what you get when you stop paying people.
posted by tecg at 12:26 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Very often, fat people work to make lean people feel at ease by layering away any unease we ourselves may feel. It is hard work to translate yourself daily to someone else who most likely lives life without ever being fully aware of how their very existence has been the basis for determining what is 'normal' in America and much of the world. And yet this painful and ongoing work of translation is second nature to those of us who have always had to figure out ways to be seen and understood in a world where the lean experience is assumed to be the default.

But I hear there's now some kind of ghastly obesity epidemic, so with any luck we won't have to be putting up with this shit for much longer.
posted by flabdablet at 12:27 AM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I-ball, your comments remind me of the time I first had to understand about racism in this country and how helpful it was to begin with this article about the 'invisible knapsack' and embark on my own journey of unpacking it. I then took some anti-racism classes and started to learn about how it really is in the community where I lived my oblivious life. This stuff is real and it is deadly. White people need to understand it. I have had to learn that black people can no more eliminate racism than women can eliminate rape. I have had to learn a lot and change myself. It took a lot of willingness and some time and it wasn't always comfortable. It hardly ever was. But it was very eye-opening and I am glad I tried to see the truth.
posted by Anitanola at 12:42 AM on November 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


Another half-baked, navel-gazing, clearly rushed

I dislike The Atlantic in general, but as an essay it does not exhibit half-baked, nor navel-gazing, nor rushed thinking.

Think of it not as an opinion piece but as expository writing. There are many cues in the text that point this way; the exercise here is to understand the author's state of mind.
posted by polymodus at 12:46 AM on November 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't really understand the "cultural legacies" that are getting connected to in this idea.

Well, for one thing, not every black person in America has cultural roots in Africa or came to America through slave trade and not every white person came to this continent as a European adventurer, but for purposes of most cultural discourse in the US, that's the assumption and as nuanced as we get. Descendents of Europeans from Spain and Portugal are classified as hispanic, just as are the descendents of native South Americans and Mexicans. Irish and Italian immigrants were at one time classified as black in our society (some even arriving as indentured servants) but now are uniformly understood to be white. People from backgrounds with as varied cultural histories as Chinese, Polynesian, or Indian get sorted together as Asian, while others from the asian continent like Russians are considered white. Actual cultural background or geography don't matter, as far as our way of thinking is concerned, once we get sorted out into the appropriate color coded categories according to whatever the prevailing rules of the day are. Either way, once you come to America, where you came from, how you got here no longer matter as long as you can be sorted into one of our fictional racial categories, and I think the effect is to cut people off from their own unique family histories, geographical origins and cultural backgrounds.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:51 AM on November 29, 2013 [24 favorites]


It isn't, and it is yet another regrettable trait of a certain brand of modern liberal to refuse to see this.

If there was a mefi scouting system, I'd consider this response a merit badge earned. That aside, do you have the words to express what was "unfair" about the opinion in the article?

("Certain brand" is so, so weak. It's OK to say whatever horrible thing you're thinking--I promise I won't write an article about not wanting to see a movie with you. if you can define the difference between the lowly modern liberal and the upstanding liberals of yore, too, 'twould be interesting.)
posted by maxwelton at 12:58 AM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


For me (and this may be because I'm not American), it feels a bit weird to see someone with a stated Nigerian ancestry co-opting a story about slavery.

As mean as this sounds, there are plenty of people who had ancestors who were slaves, people who are still carrying with them the burden of that slavery, who would also find it uncomfortable to go and see this film with an African.

That sounds a bit racist, and it probably is, but yeah - for example - I can't think of a many Afro Caribbean's who would want to see this film with an African. Or a white person either.
posted by zoo at 1:01 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


This kind of statement annoys me

*immediately assumes it's something worthwhile.*
posted by bleep-blop at 1:01 AM on November 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


This kind of statement annoys me, because it seems to contain the assumption that criticism from "less powerful outsiders" is bound to be fair, justified and reasonable. It isn't, and it is yet another regrettable trait of a certain brand of modern liberal to refuse to see this.
This kind of statement annoys me because it seems to contain the assumption that I don't know that not all criticism from "less powerful outsiders" is bound to be fair, justified and reasonable. The reason I reflect on why criticism makes me upset is because there exists a pretty good chance I am too close to the wood to see the trees. Sometimes I'm right to be upset, but most of the time there are other factors which bear thinking about and my experience has created reflexive actions which shield them from me.

So by thinking about my own reaction first I'm playing the percentages in order to reach a greater understanding of both myself and the criticism. White people have been assuming we're right for centuries and it ain't fucking working.
posted by fullerine at 1:09 AM on November 29, 2013 [21 favorites]


People do know this isn't a documentary right? It's a film, with manipulated music, scenes, and writing that will portray things in a directed way. Yes, it was adapted from an autobiography, but even that was criticized for exaggerating events to help push anti-slavery movements forward. Yes, slavery was terrible, but this isn't something that deserves the deep thoughts it seems to be getting.
posted by usagizero at 1:16 AM on November 29, 2013


OK, analogy time. Would I, as a gay person, want to take groups of straight people to some hypothetical National Museum of the Gay American? No, I would not. Would I want to take groups of Americans to some hypothetical memorial to the Ukrainian genocide, or the siege of Leningrad, or the battle of Stalingrad? Again, no. You would start saying ignorant things, making noises of shallow appreciation, and putting on airs of being enlightened.

On the other hand, I don't think those things shouldn't exist, or that outsiders should be prevented from visiting.

I don't know if this piece is making a more far-reaching point than this.
posted by Nomyte at 1:28 AM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


That last part, those 2 sentences, stand out to me the most. "the undeniable reality of my problem." The problem where she feels like no "pink-skinned child of God" would friend her for any reason other than just having a token black friend. Her "growing suspicion" has become "undeniable reality" less than a paragraph later.

You completely misread that part: her problem isn't that her white friends only befriend her because she's a safe, black woman. Her problem is that she believes this to be the case and she has to work hard to overcome this feeling.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:33 AM on November 29, 2013 [18 favorites]


I don't know if this piece is making a more far-reaching point than this.

A point that is well made, I believe, is this person never felt black until she experienced racism in America and the reality of that racism has challenged the way she sees herself and conducts herself with white people, it has made it difficult for her to trust. Someone made the point that the character in the film is changed by the experience of slavery; he was never 'supposed to be' treated that way. She didn't know she was 'black' until she came here. Perhaps, as she has drawn these parallels, it is not too fanciful to think of racism as a shadow of slavery.

One more thing, in all the discussions of this type, it is as if many people in every new generation have never had to think about racism, and the denial, defensiveness and accusations of 'reverse racism' come out of the woodwork all over again. If I, as a privileged old white person, am weary of it, black people who manage to keep civil at all must be veritable paragons of patience and tolerance.
posted by Anitanola at 1:51 AM on November 29, 2013 [30 favorites]


The way to look at this is that she's offering an insight into how she perceives things and how she feels. It's useful to have that. She's not offering a debating proposition (White people are all like this - true or false?).

Perhaps some of the discussion here illuminates why she didn't want to go to the film with a debatey white person.
posted by Segundus at 2:00 AM on November 29, 2013 [30 favorites]


Jesus, how so much of this thread is proving the author's point. Honest to god, my fellow white people, stop making every conversation about race focused on your hurt feefees. Black people know shit and experience shit you fucking don't. This is not a hard concept.
posted by emjaybee at 4:33 AM on November 29, 2013 [109 favorites]


It is remarkable that she chose to attend the movie alone, after giving so much thought as to whom she could share the pain of the movie with.

Ironic that she is averse to being someone else's checkbox "black-friend-that-_____" but she couldn't find a "black-friend-that-______"
posted by surplus at 4:41 AM on November 29, 2013


I like the essay because the author comes face to face with her internalized preconceptions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:44 AM on November 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


Black people know shit and experience shit you fucking don't. This is not a hard concept.

No, that's a given.

But it should also be a given that any instantly identifiable minority knows shit and experiences shit that the majority doesn't, and that effecting social change to make that fact less negative is going to call for a bit more solidarity and a bit more willingness to seek common ground than the rather insular position that My Oppression Is A Different Kind From Yours.

I am fully aware of the extent to which my obesity gets me treated as an inherently inferior kind of person, and it gives me the shits when I hear the reasons I'm fat being leansplained at me for the enty-enth time. So I think I do have at least the germ of a clue of how it would be to find oneself considered inherently inferior for other reasons, and that's a strong motivator not to whitesplain race to black folks or mansplain gender to non-cis-male folks and so forth.

The takeaway I get from TFA is that the author just doesn't know enough thoughtful, compassionate people.
posted by flabdablet at 4:54 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is almost staggering how easy it is to tell when someone's reaction to reading this article comes from that comfortable place in society where a person fits in all the ways that you can tell by looking at them and considers themselves an outsider because of how they choose to act or what they choose to believe. Because the conflation of that experience with that of being completely unable to conceal your difference and thereby being responsible for it to everyone else is exactly why the author does not want to see this movie with someone who Gets How She Feels, Really.
posted by griphus at 5:14 AM on November 29, 2013 [34 favorites]


and went alone, griphus.
posted by surplus at 5:33 AM on November 29, 2013


and went alone, griphus.

And said she was happy about having gone alone. Did you not read the article?
posted by Dip Flash at 5:37 AM on November 29, 2013


Yes I did read the article. Maybe I should be more clear on my point.

The way she told her story, she initially framed it as her issue on race. But that wasn't why she chose to attend the movie alone. Did you read not read the article? Go ahead and tell me why she went alone.
posted by surplus at 5:41 AM on November 29, 2013


I mean, the incredulousness at the fact that she went to the movies by herself is sort of half the point of the article. I think some people here have serious trouble grasping the fact that she didn't really have anyone available she felt comfortable going to see that movie with. That's what the whole alienation-for-not-being-the-default thing is about. Yes, you can be inherently different enough from most people you know that it becomes a chore and a trial to find someone with a similar enough experience to yours. And that means doing something incredibly personal and revolving around this difference between yourself and the rest of the world means you have to do certain things alone.
posted by griphus at 5:42 AM on November 29, 2013 [17 favorites]


The way she told her story, she initially framed it as her issue on race. But that wasn't why she chose to attend the movie alone. Did you read not read the article? Go ahead and tell me why she went alone.

I'm not tracking you here. She says in the very first paragraph, "...and yet, I knew I could only see this movie alone or with another dark-skinned person." She expands on this in the sixth paragraph: "I wanted to sit in the pain and horror and soul-breaking sadness of a movie like 12 Years A Slave with another person like me—someone who is reminded every single day that we are black in America"

And then, she sees the movie alone, and after says, "And when it was over, I was so grateful I had come on my own. Not because of any increased animosity toward white people, or any steaming anger toward a system of injustice; mainly because in the moments after the film I simply could not speak."

I'm not seeing anything confusing in that sequence, or anything particularly weird. I can totally understand both her desire to not see the movie with a white guy like me, and her finding a movie so powerful that she needed time to think and process before discussing it. But sure, let's keep nitpicking those decisions and ignore the rest of her points, why not?
posted by Dip Flash at 6:06 AM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yay! Another thread full of people asserting that the author of the piece cannot possibly have experienced what she says she experienced or that she's misunderstood it, or that she doesn't have a good handle on her own life, or that she's just wrong. Could we maybe try to believe that the author has some sense of self-knowledge and might have a handle on why she chose (in this case) to see a movie by herself? If we spent more time in race/gender/class/etc threads discussing the actual issues rather than shooting at the messenger, maybe we would get out of the 101 rut and somewhere more productive. Yeesh.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:10 AM on November 29, 2013 [39 favorites]


I think if we've learned anything from this discussion, it's that white people continue to suffer unimaginably under the constraints of institutional racism.
posted by northernish at 6:15 AM on November 29, 2013 [23 favorites]


Another thread full of people asserting that the author of the piece cannot possibly have experienced what she says she experienced or that she's misunderstood it, or that she doesn't have a good handle on her own life, or that she's just wrong.

More like a a few people not understanding the article and saying, while the rest of the thread piles on as they attempt to tell them they're wrong/educate, with varying degrees of success.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:23 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the basic rules of art appreciation is that if you're with a crowd or a companion, you need to make an effort and understand how they're responding to a thing so you can not-fuck-it-up for them. I have gone to movies alone because I didn't trust any of my friends to react the right way. You don't need, say, a lifetime of engrained mistrust of a race of people to feel that way.

It baffles me that people here find this article so frustrating or outrageous, because this author's talking about a fairly normal experience that happens to everybody and making the not-at-all hard-to-grasp claim that racial dynamics, in this still-too-racist country of ours, amplify this a whole heck of a lot. Seems pretty basic to me.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:40 AM on November 29, 2013 [15 favorites]


Brandon Blatcher - this does seem a recurrent theme in posts that raise the experiences of people of colour with regard to white privilege, though. In principle this article is not difficult to understand.

educate, with varying degrees of success

Yes, well done those who are making the effort to try and do this effectually.
posted by iotic at 6:42 AM on November 29, 2013


I dunno folks. She says in the essay that she's not necessarily happy with her attitudes towards some of her friends - she describes as malaise - but that she's giving herself permission to feel that way for a minute.

Not sure why this means she needs different, better friends. In fact it seems reasonable to think that her friends are about as good as it gets, but that her experiences in this culture have poisoned her ability to appreciate those relationships, at least for a while.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. Sometimes shit gets tiring and you just don't wanna deal with it right now.
posted by kavasa at 6:49 AM on November 29, 2013 [24 favorites]


It's a Kubrick-level amazing movie, everyone should see it, alone or otherwise. I think you might want the option of a hug afterwards though.
posted by Artw at 6:51 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess I also don't get why you'd be upset that she's not "being fair" to white people or whatever? I think we'll be ok while she takes care of herself.
posted by kavasa at 6:53 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


So all white people can't empathize with black slavery? Shitty thing to say really. Me not knowing enough about black culture to have a extended conversation about it is far afield from understanding what happened to black people VERY recently. But hey, I can't have an opinion about this I guess.

[slowly backs off]
posted by Napierzaza at 6:54 AM on November 29, 2013


I whispered to myself, “It’s a movie. It doesn't happen anymore."

Sure it does.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:55 AM on November 29, 2013


My uncle's girlfriend, in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, said that she "heard the new Brad Pitt movie, Twelve Months-a-Whatever, is really good."

I guess this is as good a thread as any to share that in.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:55 AM on November 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


I have a mental health issue that impacts my life in myriad ways. No one has befriended me based on that fact, but a few years ago when I was diagnosed I had a friend who was seeking out mass media depictions of people with my illness and discussing them with me in a way that implied she wanted a gold star for "getting it." If a new movie came out that was said to be a realistic portrayal of someone in my condition, I would NOT invite that friend. She would want to filter it through her experience, which would not be what I wanted to do immediately after seeing something emotionally draining. Now maybe after seeing it the first time I would invite her or other friends to see it with me so we could have a conversation afterwards that was not informed by a raw emotional response on my part. Because I do want people to understand what I go through and sometimes watching a movie is a great way to jump start a conversation. Maybe now that she's seen it and processed some of her response she can think of some friends (of any background) would like to see and discuss the film with.
posted by Biblio at 6:58 AM on November 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


Ugh, really? Media depictions of mental health conditions are pretty much uniformly bullshit and lies, even when positive. Possibly more Si when positive.
posted by Artw at 7:01 AM on November 29, 2013


Holy crap! Brad Pitt movie? My heart sank when he appeared. He ruined the last part of that movie. Kind of funny how your relatives thought it was a Brad Pitt movie since he's such a small part.

Did he get his accent coaching from an animatronic Lincoln? He looked like a quaker surfer-dude with sun bleached hair and his whole schtick was garbage. It's such and annoying character written in hindsight where he gets to say "uh, do you maybe think slavery sucks and black's are maybe people"? [slow clap]. They should have just cut that whole scene I just hated it.

I joked that it would be Brad Pitt who gets the oscar for this one. Hopefully this won't happen.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:04 AM on November 29, 2013


This was amazingly open piece of writing by someone who felt strongly enough about her experience to write it all out without attempting to censor her feelings. It's not a debate. This is how she felt. It's not a matter of right or wrong.
posted by h00py at 7:08 AM on November 29, 2013 [26 favorites]


Yeah Brad didn't do Canada any favors with that portrayal.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:09 AM on November 29, 2013


Yes, he literally made Canada look worse. That's hard.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:10 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think his portrait of Aslan ruined the movie, but it did kind of stuck out. I was unsurprised to find out he was a producer.
posted by Artw at 7:10 AM on November 29, 2013


They should have just cut that whole scene I just hated it.

I totally agree that it was far and away the weakest scene in the film but unfortunately, it is integral to the plot and couldn't be cut. It was pretty bad watching Pitt try to hang with Ejiofor and Fassbender.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:10 AM on November 29, 2013


It's not a matter of right or wrong.

Oh, yes, that's what I've been trying to say and clearly haven't been doing a good job of. She's not drawing a line in the sand. She's just relating an unfortunate fact of life for her and people like her and I guess is enough for people to get up in arms because she mentions white people and therefore the article must be talking about them and not her.
posted by griphus at 7:11 AM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


So, napier? Saying things like that is exactly why she went alone. Because if she went to the movie with you, she'd have to be careful to modulate her response to keep you from feeling attacked or unfairly lumped in with those bad whites or whatever. And right then, she had to put her own emotional needs first because she just doesn't have the juice in her batteries to take care of your ego and her own response to the movie at the same time.

You know, why worry about whether you think she said something "shitty" about white people? You'll be alright. And now you've got some insight about what your friendship might cost some of your friends sometimes.
posted by kavasa at 7:11 AM on November 29, 2013 [24 favorites]


So all white people can't empathize with black slavery?
Nah, just the white people made out of straw.
posted by fullerine at 7:12 AM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


I guess I also don't get why you'd be upset that she's not "being fair" to white people or whatever?

Because the-hypothetical-you are white, and the prospect of being treated in any way negatively based on your race is completely alien and viscerally disturbing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:13 AM on November 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


It was pretty bad watching Pitt try to hang with Ejiofor and Fassbender.

I don't think it was Pitt's best work, but acting like Brad Pitt is a bad actor is silly: he's consistently demonstrated that he's a fine character actor who just happens to have a leading man's looks.
posted by mightygodking at 7:13 AM on November 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


The movie was amazing, don't get me wrong. But that scene was much to annoying. He was way too much a white knight. I think his actual portrayal was lame, but his whole character felt shoddy. He seemed to have no inner life, he was just concentrating on his terrible affect the whole time. Not surprised, who's that terrible director actor who directed Choke and then cast himself in it? He ruins his own damn movies.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:14 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kavasa, I made it to the end of the article and I realize now that she is basically admitting that she was wrong to stuff all her feeling about race away. And I think that's basically the problem I had with the article (at the beginning). She is making a lot of assumptions about how other people feel and she decides by the end that she won't do that in the end. Because it bothered me that she wasn't allowing it to happen.

In her article she is TOTALLY lumping all whites together. I think you should also notice how much effort she put into mentioning how she wasn't African American. But it's a confessional about her feelings about race and how she wants to change so best of luck to her.

Also, you think I have an ego because I stated I can empathize with people in slavery? Good luck to you.

So I shouldn't comment on an opinion article posted on a sight that's about making commentary because I'll be alright? thanks I appreciate your condescension.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:21 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


he's consistently demonstrated that he's a fine character actor
posted by mightygodking


concentrating on his terrible affect the whole time
posted by Napierzaza


Really shouldn't turn this thread into the Brad Pitt thread, but Napierzaza has nailed what I dislike about Brad Pitt as an actor. He's capable, but retreats to physical affectations in every single role. In 12 Monkeys it was blinks and twitches and giving the finger. In Seven it's rubbing his hair. In Tree of Life it's grinding his jaw constantly. In this film, it's kind of gazing off into the distance and squinting. Stop trying so hard, you don't need to convince people you're more than a beefcake anymore.

The Pitt scenes are bad because they're a little shoddily written (white knight) and not performed up to the standards of the rest of the cast by a superstar actor (Pitt) whose casting sticks out and whose styling (surfer Quaker) is really odd. It's kind of a combination of all those things. They didn't ruin the movie, but they did stick out.

I also thought Paul Dano was a little weak.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:23 AM on November 29, 2013


So I shouldn't comment on an opinion article posted on a sight that's about making commentary because I'll be alright? thanks I appreciate your condescension.

You accuse her of having the wrong feelings/thinking about her feelings the wrong way, and now you're mad that people think the way you feel is maybe not so great and you should think about it. Do you hear yourself?
posted by rtha at 7:24 AM on November 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


rtha the actual author more or less admits to having the wrong feelings. If you don't feel that way it's too bad for you because you pretty much are buying into the racial divide. What's the way I feel that's so bad?
posted by Napierzaza at 7:27 AM on November 29, 2013


Every actor in this movie that I recognized pretty much disappointed (except Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor) felt like a mistake. Giamatti? Bryan Batt? Brad Pitt? Benedict Cumberbatch? It just takes me out of the movie, especially when it's just such small roles. I can't help but relate them to the other stuff they've been in. I just wonder if the actors tried hard to be in the production (for kudos) or if they felt they needed them to try and sell the movie because it has people that are recognizable.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:32 AM on November 29, 2013


Yeah you really didn't understand what I said.

I don't think she's "wrong" to feel the way she does, either. What she was saying is that it's lot of emotional work for her to make sure her white friends aren't uncomfortable around her. And your response was "her saying that made me uncomfortable". That's the "ego" I mentioned. You think of yourself as A Good Person, and therefore you must be treated with respect, and you demand that your ability to empathize be recognized, and sometimes a body just doesn't have it in them to make sure you're comfortable. See?
posted by kavasa at 7:33 AM on November 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


She doesn't say her feelings are wrong. She's saying she doesn't like them, but she needs to feel them right now. Different things.
posted by kavasa at 7:34 AM on November 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


OK I watched the trailer and Brad Pitt and everyone else on my list were heavily featured, including in the titled of the Youtube video Brad Pitt appears second. So I guess it is marketing thing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUQNjfhlREk

He also gets tertiary billing on the poster. I guess it's ultimately savvy for him to be featured highly and is the grim reality of movie marketing.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:37 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Pitt scenes are bad because they're a little shoddily written (white knight)

Yeah, fuck you Solomon Northup.
posted by Artw at 7:37 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


People contain multitudes. Wrong is incredibly subjective. Her experience will always be different to yours because she lives within her skin and this is what she's written about. This is her experience and her feelings, not yours. Is it possible to talk someone out of a feeling born of their own experience?

And, as far as the actor thing goes, you have to be prepared to give yourself over to a characterisation based on what is happening and not on your preconceptions of the actor.

Free your mind and the rest will follow.

(That of course isn't a condemnation of your own experience, it's just a request that you consider that people experience things differently to you.)
posted by h00py at 7:39 AM on November 29, 2013


I also didn't say that you "shouldn't comment" but that the content of the comment you made wasn't great. And I said so in a pretty chill, polite way.
posted by kavasa at 7:39 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


In her article she is TOTALLY lumping all whites together.

Yes, in the article where she talks about her experiences being a black person in the midst of white people there is a necessary component of acknowledging that white people aren't black people and have different experiences because that is what the article is about.
posted by griphus at 7:39 AM on November 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


MetaFilter: your feelings are wrong.
posted by spitbull at 7:41 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The interesting is "What's next" for the author. Would she go see the film a second time, but with a white person? Another black American? A mixed group? If not, would she be open to discussing the movie with the above?

No answer is right or wrong, but I am curious what her thoughts are now.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:42 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


> Does this happen to people who appear to be white in places like North America or Europe?

There are plenty of places where white dudes can have the experience of being stared at like they're a cross between an yeti and a rhinoceros. Japan. China.


> "Certain brand" is so, so weak. It's OK to say whatever horrible thing you're thinking

Not while the mods are watching, it isn't.
posted by jfuller at 7:43 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, you have to be able to justify it.
posted by h00py at 7:45 AM on November 29, 2013


Kavasa I understand that she might not have it. I didn't say that she should have been able to or that she should have gone to a movie with someone or anything like that. I don't think that I could have been that white person she could have seen it with.

If she says she doesn't like them and she wants to change her behaviour than maybe she's admitting it's not constructive and therefor wrong (for her or in her opinion)? I'm not implying it's a crime.

Ultimately if you squirrel away feelings like this you'll passively reinforce them and never grow. That's why when you have a bf/gf and you don't talk about things the relationship can just slowly fall apart.

Either way I think that the underlying problem is that racism is systemic. And it makes both sides believe and assume certain things about the other (and themselves). Which is a main part of the movie and how as a slave he is told to feel and act in a particular way. The racial problem in america is still there with the vestiges of what happened and dialogues such as movies and articles and comments need to be open about how people react to system or commentary on it.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:45 AM on November 29, 2013


Yeah, fuck you Solomon Northup.

I wasn't aware that Solomon Northup wrote the screenplay. That was really prescient of him.

Everything the Pitt scenes accomplished, plot wise, could have been accomplished without Pitt being the "voice of white reason" and, to some extent, confronting Fassbender's character about the injustices of slavery. In a film which I loved for being pretty much utterly without moments of redemption and respite (compare to a movie like Amistad), the Pitt scenes came closest to that.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:49 AM on November 29, 2013


Artw I can't comment on the book itself since I haven't read it. So I can't say how heavily adapted it was. It could very well be that it's all Brad Pitt's fault for his depiction. But the character seems pretty one sided and it's pretty deus-ex. Wasn't he shown in the last 20 minutes and then he saves that day? Meh. Maybe it even happened like that.

--spoiler--

I felt like the poor drunken guy who was working with them was an interesting person who might save him. Obviously it was still interesting that he betrayed Solomon but he had an interesting character and story. He had rough edges (alcoholism, poverty) but he was empathetic to the slaves he worked with. He obviously had too many bad edges because he wanted the promotion to overseer and also betrayed solomon, but the feeling that he might not be trustworthy was there.

But seeing Brad Pitt of all people, talk about being Canadian, and then say "maybe slavery is wrong" in front of the slave-owner and his slave (which seems really unlikely because there is always major fears of slave-uprising)? Was there any doubt that this Canadian Hollywood superstar who says to everyone that slavery is wrong (but still lives in an area of a country where people own slaves) would rescue him? It was so stupid. After 2 minutes you know he's going to rescue him so just fast forward to that scene please.
posted by Napierzaza at 7:52 AM on November 29, 2013


Sorry griphus you can't just take the points I'm making and say "duh obvious" I highlighted them for a reason, the reason is not that I think you missed them when you read it, but when you made your poor arguments.

Here's my response to everything you've written:

Duh, the original article mentions it's hard to be a black person in america. So shut up! (I'm being facetious with you)
posted by Napierzaza at 7:53 AM on November 29, 2013


Northup snuck the letter to Bass after hearing him talk about abolitionism. You'd have to deviate significantly from his account to make him not a "white knight".
posted by Artw at 7:55 AM on November 29, 2013


Surely, I think that maybe if they just made it so it wasn't a super handsome celebrity maybe we could have had some doubts about it. As you said Brad Pitt produced it, so it's so obvious he might pick the role that might make him look the best. Not sure if he was described in the book, but what if they cast someone with more ruddy features and character?
posted by Napierzaza at 7:58 AM on November 29, 2013


It all combines to make him Aslan-Jesus and its a bit much. Not really a scripting/plotting problem though.
posted by Artw at 8:01 AM on November 29, 2013


[Napierzaza, you're kind of doing the taking-on-all-comers thing in here and that needs to stop. Back off and let the thread breath.]
posted by cortex at 8:01 AM on November 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


Good interview with the writer here (audio, worth it)
posted by Artw at 8:03 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


With regard to the idea that the Northup scenes shouldn't be criticized as unrealistic or as "white knight"-ing:

Many true stories don't quite work as fiction. That's part of why fiction exists. Reality often lacks neat plotting and driven, relatable characters. Reality's "plotting" often relies on drudgery and coincidence. Reality is also often full of cliches that we would otherwise deride as risible.

Reality also often frustrates us when we're trying to make a broader point about life, whether that broader point is about a historical reality, or whether it's about some sort of political or moral message.

There's also a problem with casting and direction if Brad Pitt's presence is taking you out of the story, even if his scenes really are substantially based on historical fact.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:09 AM on November 29, 2013


Media depictions of mental health conditions are pretty much uniformly bullshit and lies, even when positive.

FWIW, I think Spider is a solid exception to this rule. The script is not terrific as far as realism is concerned, but I think that Fiennes and Cronenberg showed the "right" way to depict paranoid schizophrenia - with Spider as furtive, confused, and afraid - in stark contrast to what A Beautiful Mind inflicted upon the world, which mostly had Russell Crowe just doing a lot of externals.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:13 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


White people's mental issues are straying pretty far from the topic, don't you think?
posted by h00py at 8:16 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


This was a good article. I have little direct input other than that.

It's interesting to track the development of popular slavery-related movies. The general approach could be charitably described as hesitant. It's not just that it's a black issue - it's a complicated issue that necessarily involves white complicity and unfinished business.

Roots (technically a miniseries) was a massive success, presented as a mostly historical approach. Django Unchained had no desire to be historical, instead thrusting slavery into the iconography of the Western fairyland, giving the audience a chance to see a former slave kill the living hell out of slave-owners and their enablers.

Glory situated the escaped slave as being part of the white Union army. Amistad was a little-loved movie about a court case that didn't have wide-ranging effect - there was an immediate happy ending if you were on that ship, less so if you weren't. Beloved was basically-liked at the time but is now mostly-forgotten - it's hard to imagine how it would have looked (let alone gotten made) if the book hadn't already existed.

And then there's Manderlay, which was some sort of hallucinatory film experiment that was obviously made by a white guy who had never been to the US.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: your feelings are wrong.

You know, the idea that feelings can't ever be criticized or declared wrong really bugs me. It lets people with racist, misogynist, or otherwise bigoted feelings off the hook, too, and it ignores the possibility of completley misguided feelings based on misinformation. Of course feelings can be and often are flat out wrong. No less real for being wrong, but wrong all the same.

That said, the author's feelings here are not wrong.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


White people's mental issues are straying pretty far from the topic, don't you think?

No less tha Brad Pitt's casting, TBH, if you read the article and Biblios comment.
posted by Artw at 8:47 AM on November 29, 2013


> Of course feelings can be and often are flat out wrong.

You feel what you feel, and it's hard to be wrong about that. There's no factual claim in OUCH! that admits of being disproved. The wrongness slips in when you attribute what you felt to some cause, and your attribution can certainly be mistaken ("I see pink elephants, which proves there are pink elephants here to be seen. If you don't see them too, that's just your blindness.") If someone states that their feeling is X and that it was caused by circumstance Y, criticizing the part that comes after the and doesn't deny anyone's experience. (But it's very likely to get you accused of doing exactly that, by the none too ight-bray.)
posted by jfuller at 9:02 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I started out having a defensive negative reaction to the article, but then I realized I have a circumstance in my life that made her position click for me. I just wanted to throw up another perspective, not distract from the issue at hand.
posted by Biblio at 9:02 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Because the-hypothetical-you are white, and the prospect of being treated in any way negatively based on your race is completely alien and viscerally disturbing.

You aren't disturbed by the idea of a person being treated negatively based on their race? I thought the whole point was that people shouldn't be treated as less-than based on their race (or gender, or sexual identity). But if you're just saying you'd like different people to be treated negatively based on their race, well, that could be a problem.

I do understand where the author is coming from; there's something freeing about not having to explain a horror that you've always known about to people who haven't. I'll happily talk about the formal aspects of Holocaust movies– that seems much more interesting to me than another round of "Yep, that sure was bad"– but it's hard to do when you're with people asking "Wow, did that really happen?"

Yet I keep feeling like the author is blind to her own acts of appropriation. She's a wealthy Nigerian. She's not descended from slaves. In fact, she's likely descended from the people who sold the slaves; certainly she's the beneficiary of the wealth the slave-catchers acquired. Her eagerness to identify only with the victims of history and not the villains, even though the latter are very much part of her heritage, makes me think her self-reflection hasn't gone nearly far enough.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:14 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Eh. She can feel how she feels, and "OMG SHES NOT THE RIGHT KIND OF BLACK PERSON" is some bullshit right out of the 2008 election run-up. I'm increasingly feeling like people who object to that just scanned the article or these comments looking for things to be upset about.
posted by Artw at 9:20 AM on November 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


I opened this thread because I knew it'd be a clusterfuck of white people apologizing for their whiteness and scrambling to say the right thing.
posted by timsneezed at 9:20 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


You aren't disturbed by the idea of a person being treated negatively based on their race?

Enh. It's not ideal but we live in a very not-ideal world where race relations are concerned. I can handle doing a turn as somebody's Schroedinger's Racist.

Apart from everything else, this article convinced me that I don't want to see this movie with my mother. The author's experience of her emotional vulnerability and the descriptions of others about their feelings after seeing it tell me it's not the right kind of mother-daughter bonding experience.
posted by immlass at 9:24 AM on November 29, 2013


I watched a CAM rip of "12 Years a Slave" on my white iPad.
posted by planetesimal at 9:25 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's no factual claim in OUCH! 

There's a factual claim in "I feel certain people are subhuman" and a lot of other feelings. "Ouch" is a physical sensation in response to a stimulus; feelings (as in emotions) connect sensations to ideas, and are not purely automatic responses.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:27 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


That said, the author's feelings here are not wrong.

I don't think there's any contradiction in saying the author's feelings are not wrong, but as a generic white person I think it's also valid to feel sad that a black friend would lack confidence in being able to share an emotional experience with me because of my skin color.
posted by crayz at 9:40 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


You aren't disturbed by the idea of a person being treated negatively based on their race?

I'm disturbed by it. I'm more disturbed by the incredibly defensive NO WAI NOT ME reactions of people for whom this is apparently an entirely new experience, and who cannot take a moment to just think about what their reaction might mean or say about the larger context. Nope, gotta switch into high defensive gear immediately.

Seeing people react to a piece in which the author mulls over and tries to deconstruct her own feelings and reactions by not mulling over and trying to deconstruct their feelings and reactions is disappointing but not at all surprising to me.
posted by rtha at 9:42 AM on November 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


"OMG SHES NOT THE RIGHT KIND OF BLACK PERSON" is some bullshit right out of the 2008 election run-up.

I don't know what you mean by this. Could you perhaps clarify?

In case I was unclear, I'll try to clarify: The author feels that she cannot trust white people to identify with the experiences of the black people on screen. Fair enough. But she seems she ignores the way she is appropriating other people's suffering, and the ways that her position is less different from the hypothetical white's than she'd like to imagine.

She is a very wealthy African (check that list of international tourism and expensive private schools early on). She's likely the descendent of slave-catchers, and definitely the beneficiary of the wealth and power that the slave-catchers acquired.

Her self-reflection has her admitting to her own perhaps unfair feelings towards people of a different race (though as she says, she's not necessarily interested in changing those feelings). But it stops short of confronting how she is the beneficiary of the legacy of racism, and how much distance there is between her and the people whose struggles she is identfying with.

For all the anger people in this thread are directing at whites who fail to confront their culpability in and profit from racism, the author's pre-emptive strike is being used to ignore her own culpability and profit.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:43 AM on November 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I am a white person, and I have been in several different environments in which I was a minority. Where I was sort of treated as spokesperson for whiteys, asked questions about why white people do X or Y, had people asking to touch my hair or my skin, things like that. It's a weird feeling, feeling like everyone is watching you, like you represent something.

The reason that is a weird feeling for me, though, is that that is not my default. My experiences being a minority have all been pretty isolated, and have all come from a position of privilege.

There has never been a point in my life where I always had "I am a white person" in the front of my consciousness. There has never been a point in my life where I couldn't find other white people represented in mass media, or where I was considered a third party by default. I've always experienced those things as the generalized default, even the aspirational human.

There's also a completely different tone, because when I was a minority, I was a privileged one. The assumptions were based on totally different expectations than someone from a less privileged group encounters.

So I can't just extrapolate what it's like to be a black person in America based on amplifying my few isolated experiences. As strong as the impulse might be to relate to others, these things are not equivalent. I am not in any kind of position to rebut or question someone else's lived experience based on totally different things I've experienced, or on my armchair perspective.

Humans are problem solving, pattern recognizing machines. It can be really, really hard to absorb new information without trying to fit it into our existing view of the world, but it's really important--especially for those of us coming from a position of privilege where we're considered the default--to acknowledge that there are things around us that we've been conditioned to be oblivious to, and the only way we're ever going to learn anything new is to accept that and just listen to people whose experiences are different from ours.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:46 AM on November 29, 2013 [19 favorites]


One of the surprises in my adult life is dealing with racist attitudes of my very liberal, very educated friends. Ironically, I think they're more willing to say certain things in front of me because they feel so comfortable about my blackness--in a sense, it's fairly non-threatening. But I don't always let my guard down in the same way with them.
posted by girlmightlive at 9:50 AM on November 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


All the empathy and understanding in the world can only go so far in some situations. If I had a husband who was dealing with, say, impotence or testicular cancer, I'd like to think I wouldn't be offended if there was some level of comfort he could only achieve from discussing his experiences with other men.

I know there are details of my cancer I'm only comfortable discussing with other survivors, because I never know when I'm going to trigger that look of horror and pity on someone's face and I just don't want to risk opening that can of worms. Support groups for other medical conditions exist for the same reason. So, I'm not saying that I "get" what it's like to be Black in America, but I do get what it's like not wanting to share certain experiences with people outside of certain circles, no matter how empathetic or understanding they may be.

Sometimes you just need to experience some big, emotional, cathartic thing from your own perspective, without having to devote even one brain cell to wondering what's going on in the mind of someone who's experiencing it from a completely different oneperspective*, and how it might affect your post-experience interactions.

*And so, could be said to have been having a completely different experience, If I understand the story of "The Blind Men and the Elephant" correctly.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:51 AM on November 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


I recently went to a tech conference in an overwhelmingly male field where a panel of women talked about their experiences succeeding in that field. The discussion was overall excellent, but there was one guy during the Q and A who sought to equate their experiences with his because he too had had a hard time, not in support of them but to dismiss their claims that stuff that happens to women is tied to being a woman, and protect his experiences as real.

In reading this discussion, and thinking of that, I'm wondering whether this form of reaction is a sort of perversion of empathy or a need to protect the status of one's hurt as more universal by denying the hurt of others. Similar to a white programmer in San Francisco seeing a mass transit union's demands as unfair because the union members get better benefits than other middle and lower middle class people.

My take is that denying someone's experiences is a reflexive way to avoid thinking deeply about them, and there's a lot more chance for growth and understanding if you assume that someone who has lived their whole life with a visible and unerasable marker of low status has a lot of illuminating experiences with regard to that.
posted by zippy at 9:54 AM on November 29, 2013 [20 favorites]


You know, the idea that feelings can't ever be criticized or declared wrong really bugs me.

When people convey their experiences with the world, they often cross a subtle line from "this is what happened to me" to "this is why this happened to me". In other words, they cross over into the realm of interpretation and often these two things (the what and the why) are woven together into a narrative that can't be easily untangled. What makes this problematic or interesting depending on your point of view is that the interpretation sometimes includes presumptions about the experiences or motivations of other people (who presumably have a right to own their own feelings) or they include substantive claims and assumptions about how the world works. Then, people come into threads attempting to critique the interpretation part without intending to refute the experience part. But navigating that subtle line is very difficult. This happens, for example, in every thread about mansplaining.

But the author here is not offering any interpretation at all. There is nothing up for debate here. She is NOT saying "I don't trust my white friends because I know those well meaning assholes are just using me as a tool to assuage their white guilt". She is expressing how feelings like that do occur from time to time and how they make her unhappy (presumably because she doesn't believe them to be true). That is her reality. Somebody could post these same feelings as an Ask and then people could offer advice for how to build more trust with friends. And in doing so, we wouldn't question the feelings or how they make the person unhappy.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:59 AM on November 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


> There's a factual claim in "I feel certain people are subhuman" and a lot of other feelings. "Ouch" is a physical sensation
> in response to a stimulus; feelings (as in emotions) connect sensations to ideas, and are not purely automatic responses.

I picked ouch because it's a perfectly clear case, with no danger of conflating the feeling with the cause of the feeling (the hot pan I touched.)

If an "emotion" can be expressed in an intelligible sentence then sure, the words very likely imply both pure feelings and also factual claims about the cause of the feelings. Those claims are what may be disputed. "I feel certain people are subhuman" certainly doesn't express pure experience, and lots of what it implies about those certain people can be disputed without denying anyone's experience.
posted by jfuller at 10:05 AM on November 29, 2013


How bizarre is it when we simply reverse the language that is used in the article. We confront the obvious--- that such words, from a white person, would be considered inflammatory to the extreme. Are we supposed to support others in their use of this emotionally-damaging language, only to make them feel better about the simple fact that they live in a place where they have physical characteristics that are unusual? We are almost all unusual in some way.
posted by melatonic at 10:16 AM on November 29, 2013


I was too young to see Roots when it originally aired, but I remember reading a lot of the old reviews and articles about it when I was a little older and read the novel, and people were still writing about the broadcast a decade later.

A common theme that seemed to pop up in so many pieces not written by Black writers or for Black audiences was some variation on, “The only weak point was that they never showed any of the good white people.” Even as a kid, I was smacking my head and saying, “Dudes, maybe that’s because that’s not what this story is about.

The abundance of movies about good white people in slavery days, to the exclusion of anything that showed the institution in any kind of a negative light, is the reason Roots was so important and so desperately needed. If people only wanted to watch movies about kindly slaveholders, they were spoiled for choice, and why were they watching Roots in the first place?

That’s why (even though I haven’t seen the film yet and will give him a fair chance) I’m a bit disappointed to hear about the Brad Pitt character coming off as a white knight. I mean, OF COURSE I know that vocal abolitionists existed because I wasn’t raised by wolves, but I had the idea that that wasn’t what this story was about.

I was impressed that the white actors in Roots - familiar faces like iconic TV Dads Robert Reed and Lorne Greene - totally subverted their kindly, noble images to get that story told, but Pitt gets to play one of "the good white people."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:20 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


> We are almost all unusual in some way.

Yeah, sure. But we're talking about a group of people whose humanity has been brushed off with the soul-destroying word "nigger", not some special snowflake detail. I'm really surprised to see people make this inane equation here.
posted by planetesimal at 10:22 AM on November 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


How bizarre is it when we simply reverse the language that is used in the article.

Simply reversing the words while ignoring the giant pile of cultural context tied up in those words is indeed bizarre. Let us please not go down this tired old road.
posted by cortex at 10:24 AM on November 29, 2013 [45 favorites]


We confront the obvious...

I'd think that the obvious thing confronted when reversing the language is the same thing that always happens when you try out that pointless and ridiculous exercise. It is that the article now sounds like it was written by someone living in a parallel universe so different from our own that their opinion contributes nothing to this conversation about our real world:
Very often, white people work to make black people at ease by layering away any unease we ourselves may feel. It is hard work to translate yourself daily to someone else who most likely lives life without ever being fully aware of how their very existence has been the basis for determining what is “normal” in America and much of the world. And yet this painful and ongoing work of translation is second nature to those of us who have always had to figure out ways to be seen and understood in a world where the black experience is assumed to be the default.
posted by griphus at 10:24 AM on November 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


How bizarre is it when we simply reverse the language that is used in the article.

Hrrm...

But I never knew I was just white until I started spending my adult years living in America. Believe me, now I know.

Yeah, I think that shows the limits of that kind of exercise.
posted by Artw at 10:25 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let us please not go down this tired old road.

Seriously.
posted by jessamyn at 10:49 AM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


-"OMG SHES NOT THE RIGHT KIND OF BLACK PERSON" is some bullshit right out of the 2008 election run-up.

--I don't know what you mean by this. Could you perhaps clarify?

In case I was unclear, I'll try to clarify: The author feels that she cannot trust white people to identify with the experiences of the black people on screen. Fair enough. But she seems she ignores the way she is appropriating other people's suffering, and the ways that her position is less different from the hypothetical white's than she'd like to imagine.


I can't speak for the person who originally posted the quote about the election. But I live in a community which has, in microcosm, the same issue that affects the nation, and played a part in the election. So, maybe it might be illustrative.

We're a mid-sized college town. There are both Black and White townies. Although some are more recent immigrants, the core of the Black townie community is made up of the descendants of people brought to the U.S. in slavery. Many face the same socieconomic and educational gap that exists across the country. The core of the White townie community are the descendants of the European immigrant farming and industrial communities that were in the area.

There are a number of Black gownies at the colleges who come directly from Africa and the Caribbean. Occasionally we have a member of a royal family come to study. The members of the White townie community who hold prejudices against the Black townie community see a dark face, and they neither know nor care whether it's the kid who hangs around outside the convenience store or the cousin of the King of the Ashanti. They're still going to cross the street to avoid walking next to him. They're still going to clutch their purses a little tighter and talk in whispers with a lot of side-eye. If they're behind him in line at the store, after he leaves they're still going to remark to the cashier that he "smells funny."

A person who looks like the descendant of a slave has a good idea what it feels like to be the descendant of a slave, because he's used to being treated like one.

In the case of President Obama, he was in kind of a no-win situation. On the one hand, you had people using minstrel-show-era tropes to mock him, and on the other you had other people saying he wouldn't be able to understand the problems of Black Americans because he wasn't the descendant of slaves like most people who look like him.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:11 AM on November 29, 2013 [21 favorites]


My finer point from above is that we probably shouldn't confuse two very different senses of the word "feeling." Emotions are much more complex and informed by attitudes and beliefs than pure sense-impressions, and yeah, sometimes they are just wrong--undeniably real and to some degree hard to judge, but wrong. Feeling a shiver of disgust when drinking from the same water fountain as a member of a race you don't like is wrong, even if undeniably real and possibly not consciously informed by truth value containing statements or beliefs. Our attitudes and beliefs can give rise to feelings that seem automatic and natural in the moment.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:15 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


But I never knew I was just white until I started spending my adult years living in America. Believe me, now I know.

I think the idea that race (in the US anyway) has more than the most nominal connection to "heritage," ethnic or otherwise, is misguided. If things like the one-drop-rule don't convince you of that, personally, at least that seems to be what the writer is saying her viewpoint is:

I always knew I was Nigerian-American, living between cultures and nuanced identities. But I never knew I was just black until I started spending my adult years living in America. Believe me, now I know.

Personally, I don't think the de-emphasis on "heritage" is a wholly bad thing -- I have trouble with viewpoints like:

Either way, once you come to America, where you came from, how you got here no longer matter as long as you can be sorted into one of our fictional racial categories, and I think the effect is to cut people off from their own unique family histories, geographical origins and cultural backgrounds.

I don't think that the idea that "once you come to America, where you came from, how you got here no longer matter" is a net loss. That people of any ethnicity or religion can be American is something that I, at least, think of as a beautiful and progressive ideal. How that ideal plays out in real life does intersect with racism obviously and horrifically. But I think that the way that racism cripples our ability to actually fulfill the ideal that we're all Americans regardless of our religion/race/country-of-origin/etc is an argument for racism being essentially anti-American and something that we have to eradicate as a country for the good of the country. I don't think the crippling power of racism is an argument to hold harder to ideas of personal, ancestral heritage.

I think that, in this piece, the writer herself brings up the idea that her heritage/life experience makes her especially "unsuited" for the "black person" box and that she shouldn't be stuffed in there (which I don't think is her actual point, I think she's just making a nod to that stance, as part of her effort to justify her authority as someone who is going to talk about seeing this movie "as a black person"). But that's the point of a stereotype (and why it's not fact) -- *nobody* really fits in that box, it is simplistic and dehumanizing to collapse anybody's identity into a stereotype, which is *why* the box/stereotype was made in the first place (to make dehumanizing certain people easier). To make the point, "but I'm not that kind of black" I think actually cedes too much ground to the stereotype -- nobody is "that kind of black person" or "that kind of white person" or "that kind of [anything] person" in actuality, not because someone's ancestors were in the US or in Nigeria or wherever at some specific point in history, but because each person is *a person,* and human beings aren't stereotypes.

Would I, as a gay person, want to take groups of straight people to some hypothetical National Museum of the Gay American? No, I would not. Would I want to take groups of Americans to some hypothetical memorial to the Ukrainian genocide, or the siege of Leningrad, or the battle of Stalingrad? Again, no. You would start saying ignorant things, making noises of shallow appreciation, and putting on airs of being enlightened.

I think this statement is much too sweeping and actually contradicts the article, because I think the writer's point is that personal viewpoints/experiences are all over the map and need to be allowed that freedom to be all over the map, even if a given viewpoint or experience might make some people (who ordinarily feel heard and privileged) feel defensive or ignored. And those POVs need that freedom not just across people, but within individual people. Forcing people to form some consensus on what "their" POV is, is exactly the situation that the writer says she *doesn't* want when she talks about not wanting to have to explain/justify her feelings to a white friend.

Personally, it does mean something to me when people are affected by stories about people "like" me being tortured and killed, even/especially if people "like" themselves wouldn't have been. Personally, it does mean something to me when I'm on the other side of that coin, too. But sometimes I'm having a personal experience and I need to be in my own head and heart for that, and not trying to twist my experience and feelings so it matches some hegemonic model -- which might mean that I can't be around people who are going to constantly bring up that hegemonic model (ie, but what are the white people doing/thinking/feeling? but what are the men doing/thinking/feeling? but what are the [insert privileged class here] doing/thinking/feeling?) even if that's well-meaning.
posted by rue72 at 11:28 AM on November 29, 2013


But she seems she ignores the way she is appropriating other people's suffering, and the ways that her position is less different from the hypothetical white's than she'd like to imagine.

She is a very wealthy African (check that list of international tourism and expensive private schools early on). She's likely the descendent of slave-catchers, and definitely the beneficiary of the wealth and power that the slave-catchers acquired.


She's not "appropriating" anyone's suffering. She's describing the consequences of having black skin and living in America: "I never knew I was just black until I started spending my adult years living in America. Believe me, now I know." (Note the emphasis in the original.) That's her experience, and that's what she's writing about. She's not under any obligation to take up the ancillary issues that you might find intriguing.

As for the "slave-catcher" stuff... maybe so, maybe not. Beside the point, either way. In the U.S., she's black, full stop. That's what she's writing about, the fact of it and the barriers it creates.

So you think she ought to be talking about other stuff as well, or talking about the stuff she is discussing in a different way. That's a valid opinion. It's just not a particularly compelling critique.
posted by dogrose at 11:38 AM on November 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


I'm certainly not picking a fight with you over this, sg, because I agree completely with your initial point

> the idea that feelings can't ever be criticized or declared wrong really bugs me.

Seymour Zamboni did a better job of explaining than I did, though both mine and SZ's will be useful to have thought about in advance next time someone tells me "You're denying my experience, that's bad and wrong" and I'm doing no such thing.
posted by jfuller at 11:42 AM on November 29, 2013


To the best of my recollection, I've seen two movies by myself in the theater. One was Bridesmaids, because I wanted to be able not only to watch the movie but to watch the audience watching the movie, because it is rare for me to be implicitly invited into positive woman-dominated spaces where I know something about the subject matter myself (in this case, the structure of comedy and the thematic interests of the performers involved, not the topics of the movie per se). So I wanted to be able to enjoy the movie on those two levels without the third level of a personally-shared friend experience.

The second one was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, because I'd already seen it once with people, and I'd been so personally and profoundly moved by it that I needed to watch it again by myself and let myself process the thoughts and emotions provoked without justifying or modulating them for well-meaning others. In this way I think my motivation was somewhere close to the author's.

In neither of those scenarios did I mistrust any erstwhile companion option, precisely. But in both of those scenarios, I wanted to avoid the possibility of companions interfering with what I believed correctly would become a deeply personal experience. There are times when sharing the immediacy of that experience enhances the process. There are times when it feels like it would detract. I was happy to have seen The Namesake by myself on video the first time I saw it, although there was no conscious intent to avoid company and it's now a movie I would happily watch with non-Indian people. I don't think it's a movie that defies a basic empathy. But it meant something to me for me to be able to parse through my own first-generation experiences in the context of that movie without having to interpret them for others, so that I might be able to interpret them for others the second and subsequent times around.

I do not believe that this exposes a racist streak in me so much as it gives weight to a genuine feeling and experience which I do not share with virtually anyone else in my usual group of friends. I'm frequently Indian for others; sometimes I get to be Indian for me. I believe both of those experiences are magnified in frequency and scale for many black people, including the author by her own admission. I think it is hard to express how even the most private racial minority can be a public figure within their own circle of companions in ways that those companions never will be.
posted by Errant at 1:12 PM on November 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Obviously, the author is free to see or not see the movie with whoever she wants to. But it seems to me that the key sentence in her explanation is this:

I did not want to have to entertain any of the likely responses from anyone who could not see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen.

Now, I don't know the author's friends, but to me this makes a rather startling assumption about their lack of empathy. I think that a lot of people of non-black backgrounds have watched that movie - which has got to be the most powerful and upsetting movie I've seen since Schindler's List - and basically spent most of the movie precisely imagining themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen. The movie makes a very powerful statement about the historical roots of the social problems in black America, and in my view it demands of the viewer empathy with both slaves and their descendants, who have lived a reality shaped by a history of violence that sought to destroy individuals, families and cultures.

The movie is, as I said, incredibly powerful. I can understand wanting to see the movie and then just have time to sit there, in silence, just feeling and not be bothered by someone else trying to demonstrate their empathy or keen critical eye. And if her white friends aren't the type to allow her to do that, then, okay, whatever.

But I'm bothered by the blanket judgment she seems to be making - that only people whose skin colour is the same can see themselves in the skin of a slave. That, to me, is just wrong, and totally misunderstands human nature and the dramatic experience. I mentioned Schindler's List above, and I have to wonder, when she watches that movie, can she not put herself in the place of the Jews, just because she's not Jewish? What's the point of telling each other stories if not to invite one another to experience empathy for those whose stories we're telling? As I say, I don't know her white friends - maybe they're annoying, emotionally detached weirdos - but she seems to be making a more blanket statement about the ability to empathize that she sees as conditioned by racial identity, and I think that view is just completely wrongheaded, kind of narrow-minded, and very unfortunate.
posted by Dasein at 1:21 PM on November 29, 2013


But I'm bothered by the blanket judgment she seems to be making

And so is she! As she explains in the piece - it bothers her! She recognizes it as a problem, and she wishes she didn't have it.

After both my parents died within a few months, I felt much better hanging out with friends who were also members of that club. It's not that my parent-having friends were mean or stupid or unempathetic - they weren't, at all. But there was shit I did not want to have to explain or talk about in detail, and with my dead-parent friends, I didn't have to. Sorry if you think that makes me a bad person with wrong feelings.
posted by rtha at 1:42 PM on November 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


Dasein, I think you're conflating a unilateral prescription with a qualified precaution. It does not seem to me that the author is saying "white people couldn't possibly understand". It seems to me that she is saying, "if one of my well-meaning friends were nevertheless unable to empathize as fully or completely as I expect to, the responses I anticipate from that friend would be harmful and problematic for me, and so I am making a choice not to expose myself to that possibility." The rest of the article is her examination of that fear or doubt she finds in herself and what it reveals about a suspicion and a mistrust in her that she hadn't consciously recognized before. But she is, in my view, emphatically not saying that white people are not capable of empathy; she is instead saying that her experiences in this culture have provoked in her a lack of the faith that she finds necessary to advance the dialogue, and that that's troubling.
posted by Errant at 1:46 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"anyone who could not see themselves in the skin of the enslaved men and women on the screen."

Just my interpretation, but I think this statement means something different from what you're thinking, Dasein. It's not about empathy or imagining how it feels to be in the situation. To "see yourself" in what is depicted on screen is to say that what Steve McQueen is depicting up there strikes to the core of your identity, is a testament to your daily lived experience in a number of ways. She seems to have correctly intuited that this movie wasn't going to just be about the awfulness of slavery, it was going to be about her, her identity and pain and struggle, in a way that a white friend sitting beside her might empathize with but not "see himself in." Does that make sense?
posted by naju at 1:46 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


In addition to the other privileges life's heaped upon me, my brain acts as a sponge for useless information. As a result, people who've known me for a while tend to use me as a human Google search, asking me questions about subjects it might not occur to them to ask anyone else - I doubt my mother would ask any of my siblings about the embalming process (I'm not an undertaker) and expect an answer.

Sometimes - usually when the question is about Something Important, like a medical condition- I find I have to reply, "I don't have any experience with that, so I'm not qualified to say."

I enjoyed reading the article, and I appreciate on an abstract level what it's talking about. However, I'm white and male and I grew up in the United States. I have no experience with what she's talking about, and I'm not qualified to judge it.

But I think that's okay. Sometimes it's better to just nod and let it be - I can't fix it, but I can make it worse.
posted by Mooski at 1:47 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


A lot of people hold hate or broad resentment in their heart - being educated doesn't make it more noble.

It's also surprising the Atlantic published this. It seems better suited for "Women's Voices" on Huffpost.
posted by four panels at 2:07 PM on November 29, 2013


It seems to me that she is saying, "if one of my well-meaning friends were nevertheless unable to empathize as fully or completely as I expect to, the responses I anticipate from that friend would be harmful and problematic for me, and so I am making a choice not to expose myself to that possibility."

Maybe part of the problem here is that she doesn't really explain herself all that well. From what I can tell, she basically just wants to be able to watch the movie and then sit in silent reflection on her own. She says, "I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people." Okay, I can understand that, but is that really something that she would avoid if she saw it with a black friend? I'm not really seeing the connection she's trying to make. It seems to me that white friend = talking about the movie afterwards in ways I don't want; black friend = not having to do that, but I don't really see why that's the case, and I don't think she explains it. It seems to me that what she really wants to do - and does - is watch the movie alone.

Also, on a related note, I think that words like "safe" and "harm" are getting debased, and this column is another example of that. She talks about being "emotionally safe" when it seems to me that "emotionally comfortable" is what she really means. You've picked up on that in talking about an experience being "harmful" for her. This is maybe a bit of a derail, but there's a difference between an experience that is uncomfortable or unpleasant or undesirable and one that is unsafe or harmful. In this case, I think it unnecessarily dramatizes the decision that the author is trying to make.
posted by Dasein at 2:18 PM on November 29, 2013


Also, on a related note, I think that words like "safe" and "harm" are getting debased, and this column is another example of that. She talks about being "emotionally safe" when it seems to me that "emotionally comfortable" is what she really means. You've picked up on that in talking about an experience being "harmful" for her. This is maybe a bit of a derail, but there's a difference between an experience that is uncomfortable or unpleasant or undesirable and one that is unsafe or harmful. In this case, I think it unnecessarily dramatizes the decision that the author is trying to make.

I dunno. It sounded more to me like she was anticipating experiencing triggers in the film and thought that being alone would let her deal with them better than having a friend with the wrong sort of assumptions. It's not really comparable, but the only time I have experienced a really triggering situation I was really glad I was by myself because I don[t think any of my friends would have been able to help, and assuring them that I was really OK would have a) been a lie and b) taken more emotional energy than I had.

I think you really can't tell what a person means by "emotionally safe" unless you are that person. People have such different reactions to different problem situations that judging or ranking them is pretty hard to do from outside and not actually a useful exercise unless you have some requirement to be the Arbiter of Fairness for the situation. Which I don't think any of us are in this situation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:33 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think there are just clusters of experience that are impossible to fully experience, even if someone has good empathy and/or a similar experience along a different axis of discrimination. I have the experience of being judge because I'm fat and female, but that's fundamentally different for being judged if I were black.

One thing I've grown to realize about myself is that I was raised with the idea that I could be and understand everything - that nothing was beyond my grasp. This goes along with most of my characteristics being unmarked - I'm white, straight, cis-gendered, etc... When I began to move into social justice circles with people who would quite firmly, though often kindly, flatly inform me that I could not ever really understand, it was like getting punched in the gut, and I hurt a lot of people while I was refusing to recognize the unexamined power of these unmarked characteristics.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:36 PM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Dasein, in addition to what naju said, I'll add this.

I'm middle-class. I may not be as well-off as Ms. Okoro; I don't know. However, I am also very visibly of Northern European descent. Therefore, I have an advantage over her in small, everyday, corrosive ways, such as hailing a cab or getting buzzed into high-end stores. Not to mention the more blatant insults and assumptions some of my friends have encountered. I've heard them describe the experiences, even witnessed a few, but it's still not anything I've ever faced, nor will I. Ever, under any circumstances. Because I'm white and they're not, and that makes a difference in the U.S. in 2013.

In the U.S. in 1841, my time-traveling self would not have been kidnapped and sold into slavery down South. Ever, under any circumstances. Some of my friends can't say the same.

Nor can Ms. Okoro, and I really think that's all she meant to point out.
posted by dogrose at 2:38 PM on November 29, 2013


The context in which she processes the movie is a very different one than mine. I think the two of us could view one another as good people but, when you are processing something emotional, you want to be in your comfort zone and it doesn't always include inter-cultural/racial togetherness. Does it sound like a racist statement? Yes. But it isn't. We all have a need to dwell amongst our own from time to time. Sometimes it's people of the same race who understand dealing with the stigma of being *insert race here.* Sometimes it's people who are cosplayers who accept your need to dress as Sailor Moon. Everybody needs a safe zone or two.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:51 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


It sounded more to me like she was anticipating experiencing triggers in the film and thought that being alone would let her deal with them better than having a friend with the wrong sort of assumptions.

Maybe, but she doesn't say any of that.

I think you really can't tell what a person means by "emotionally safe" unless you are that person.

Well, I think if you're writing an article in the Atlantic and you want to claim that you would feel emotionally unsafe around someone because of their skin colour, you need to explain what you mean. As I say, I think "safe" and "harm" are being overused and therefore debased, and that's a problem, because they're both important words. I don't think that it's fair to just waive off that criticism by just saying, "you can't possibly understand what I mean."
posted by Dasein at 2:52 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not really seeing the connection she's trying to make. It seems to me that white friend = talking about the movie afterwards in ways I don't want; black friend = not having to do that, but I don't really see why that's the case

Ever talk about Mad Men with women who were in the workforce pre-1970's? There doesn't need to be any tiptoeing around, no explanation of context - they just know. They don't have to explain to each other why nobody was reporting anyone to HR or taking anyone to court. They don't have to tell each other, "Of course, we know not every single businessman was like that, but we never knew when one was going to turn out to be that way behind closed doors, or stick up for one of the bad ones, or not believe us when we told them about one of their colleagues, or give us a bad reference if we tried to get another job." They don't have to explain to each other how their female supervisors perpetuated the system like Joan until it stopped benefiting them personally. They don't have to convince anyone that yes, it was really that bad, no exaggeration, before they can move on to discussing how things have and haven't changed.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:56 PM on November 29, 2013 [17 favorites]


dogrose - I take your point about her meaning. I guess I'm still wondering whether the "likely responses" she's objecting to - those that would "dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people" - would be the result of seeing the movie with a non-black friend, or just with a friend who doesn't know when to shut up, or any friend at all.
posted by Dasein at 3:00 PM on November 29, 2013


Maybe, but she doesn't say any of that.

I dunno, I think she kind of did:
And for the duration of the ads and the movie previews I tried to brace myself for the experience. I kept whispering to myself, “It’s a movie. It doesn't happen anymore. It's a movie. It doesn't happen anymore.” I could not remember the last time I felt so physically tense and uncomfortable at the beginning of a film. Scene after scene, my body did not relax once. And when it was over, I was so grateful I had come on my own. Not because of any increased animosity toward white people, or any steaming anger toward a system of injustice; mainly because in the moments after the film I simply could not speak.
That is, safe to say, not normal movie going behavior.

Well, I think if you're writing an article in the Atlantic and you want to claim that you would feel emotionally unsafe around someone because of their skin colour, you need to explain what you mean.

Alternatively, you could ask yourself what it would be like to feel that way. You could leverage your own experience of being "out of privilege" (hardly anyone wins on all axes) and try and imagine what it would be like to live with that particular feeling in your heart. It's certainly a more useful exercise than repeatedly insisting that she must be wrong in how she feels about what she feels.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:02 PM on November 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think there are just clusters of experience that are impossible to fully experience, even if someone has good empathy and/or a similar experience along a different axis of discrimination. I have the experience of being judge because I'm fat and female, but that's fundamentally different for being judged if I were black.

If it's impossible for you to experience what it's like being judged for being black, how do you know that it's fundamentally different from your experience of being fat?

At some level, it's impossible to fully share anyone's experience, unless you have direct access to their consciousness. There are serious consequences that flow from black people and white people having radically different experiences of key aspects of existence, but the question of whether this renders them categorically incapable of "really" understanding one another doesn't seem to me to be a very significant one.
posted by layceepee at 3:08 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Okay, I can understand that, but is that really something that she would avoid if she saw it with a black friend?

Potentially? I can only comment from vague analogy, but there are some shared experiences for which the context is implicit for those who share that experience but which must be made explicit for those who don't. That's not a bad thing, per se -- that is, as you've already mentioned, how we eventually arrived at an expanded consciousness -- but it is a task requiring energy and emotional reserves. When she says, "I wanted to sit in the pain and horror and soul-breaking sadness of a movie like 12 Years A Slave with another person like me—someone who is reminded every single day that we are black in America", it's certainly more probable that a black friend would provide that implicit understanding more fully or even at all as compared to a white friend.

Also, on a related note, I think that words like "safe" and "harm" are getting debased, and this column is another example of that. She talks about being "emotionally safe" when it seems to me that "emotionally comfortable" is what she really means. You've picked up on that in talking about an experience being "harmful" for her. This is maybe a bit of a derail, but there's a difference between an experience that is uncomfortable or unpleasant or undesirable and one that is unsafe or harmful. In this case, I think it unnecessarily dramatizes the decision that the author is trying to make.

I don't think she or I are using the words "safe" or "harm" inadvisedly or inapppropriately at all, and I do not believe either of us are "debasing" or otherwise mitigating those terms. I think it is hard to convey how genuinely harmful and painful well-meaning but erroneous assumptions and practices can be when they play into extensive cultural marginalizations. That isn't me saying "you can't possibly understand what I mean", but if your argument is that these things can't be legitimately harmful, I'd be comfortable saying that you don't understand.

It sounded more to me like she was anticipating experiencing triggers in the film and thought that being alone would let her deal with them better than having a friend with the wrong sort of assumptions.

Maybe, but she doesn't say any of that.


I disagree.

"I have good, healthy friendships with a range of people, but I could not think of one white person where I live with whom I would feel emotionally safe enough to see this particular movie about slavery."

This is not a comment about whether or not her friends are emotionally safe but whether she would feel emotionally safe with them, which are not the same thing.

"There are things we learn to do almost subconsciously in order to keep some whites comfortable enough around our blackness. Things like gauging their actual level of interest or understanding of black culture in order to know how far to take a particular conversation before things get awkward. Things like letting them know you hear them trying to say they do in fact see black people. Things like anticipating their questions and responses when they see you with a new hairstyle or come across some element of black culture in your life. Things like using your voice intonation, your word usage, and your bodily gestures to signify that you can hang with them without it being “obvious” that you are a black person in their white world."

Here, she talks explicitly about having to anticipate triggers, well-meaning but ignorant questions, wrong or at least facile assumptions.

The article is framed in religious terms, explicitly, as a confession of her sins, in this case the sins of doubt, jadedness, distrust, skepticism. I don't think she is arguing that she would be safer with a black friend. I think she is saying that she thinks she would be, and that that says something about her "race problem", and that she's not comfortable with having that problem but she's also not necessarily ready to apologize for it or relieve herself of it either. It is the article of a person in process, not a person prescribing conclusions or solutions.
posted by Errant at 3:08 PM on November 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


I don't think that the idea that "once you come to America, where you came from, how you got here no longer matter" is a net loss.

We'll just have to disagree politely on that point then. I see the US racial system as deliberately depersonalizing and grouping people with diverse backgrounds and personal family histories together and pitting them against each other on the basis of easily recognizable, superficial signs as part of a proccess of creating cultural animosity and mistrust that can be cynically exploited for political and economic reasons. Prison wardens have long deliberately exploited racial tensions and encouraged racial groupings to make prison populations more manageable and less likely to unify around common interests. It's the same effect, only with a slightly softer touch and on a larger scale.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:25 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dasein, I think the comment just above yours pretty clearly explains the difference I was trying to get at.

You seem to be intent on analyzing the author's statements as if this post were a policy paper from the Bureau of Proper Movie-Watching, Anti-Multi-Culti Division. It's not.

It is the article of a person in process, not a person prescribing conclusions or solutions.

Thanks, Errant.
posted by dogrose at 3:27 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


At some level, it's impossible to fully share anyone's experience, unless you have direct access to their consciousness. There are serious consequences that flow from black people and white people having radically different experiences of key aspects of existence, but the question of whether this renders them categorically incapable of "really" understanding one another doesn't seem to me to be a very significant one.

This is why it's so important to read this sort of narrative with an open mind and take the person at their word (absent, I suppose, repeated evidence of bad faith) -- if she feels that it would be unsafe to attend this movie with a white friend, well, what harm is their in accepting that she has a reason to think so? The upside is that there is the possibility of learning about someone else's experience, although in a limited and imperfect way, and the only downside is that you might have to deal with unpleasant feelings of your own. If a reader is unwilling to grant the writer that latitude or would rather spend time picking apart the author's arguments and motivations, it doesn't seem like a really productive way to spend one's time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:33 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I totally get her decision. There are indeed times when something in particular hits your emotions in a way that it probably won't hit those around you. And in those situations, sometimes you'd rather be alone than negotiate that difference. Movies in theaters are especially good at creating this situation, because you endure a very intense sensory experience in which you aren't interacting with those who accompanied you. Immediately after the movie ends you're thrown into the lobby with that same group of companions, and you suddenly have to negotiate what can be an great disparity in emotional states.

Because you weren't interacting with your friends during the movie, and catching up with their emotional cues, you have a situation where you may have been turned off and irritated by the director's style, and therefore had little emotional connection with the movie, while your friend is in tears because one of the characters reminded him of his mother who passed away when he was young. If you'd spend the last two hours having dinner with him, as opposed to both sitting silently in the loud theater, you'd have caught his increasingly vulnerable emotional state, but as it stands, you just put your foot in your mouth by announcing just after the movie ended that you thought it was hackneyed. Or you didn't make such an announcement (I wouldn't, personally, because of the above situation), but then, as concerned and comforting as you might be to your friend, it might be particularly painful to them because they don't want to feel vulnerable around you, and they don't want to be comforted.

In this situation, differences in experience are magnified and many cues get lost. To that end, there are certain movies that I just want to see alone, and this is especially true for movies that I know will leave me vulnerable in ways that those around me might not understand.
posted by lemmsjid at 5:35 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


But I'm bothered by the blanket judgment she seems to be making - that only people whose skin colour is the same can see themselves in the skin of a slave. I mentioned Schindler's List above, and I have to wonder, when she watches that movie, can she not put herself in the place of the Jews, just because she's not Jewish?

Child of a concentration camp survivor here. Of course she can put herself in the place of Holocaust victims, just as most white people can put themselves in the place of slaves. What she can't do is understand the psychic toll the Holocaust has taken on the generations affected by it, just as I, a white person, cannot understand the psychic toll that slavery and all of its related racial issues has taken on generations of African-American's in this country. This isn't a literal empathy exercise about being enslaved.

As I say, I don't know her white friends - maybe they're annoying, emotionally detached weirdos - but she seems to be making a more blanket statement about the ability to empathize

My Polish father and his uncle were the only members of his family to survive the Holocaust. My Belgian mother was hidden from the Nazis in a convent. I have been hearing about the Holocaust my whole life. It's a really heavy trip to lay on a child, so my coping mechanism has basically been to have a "No Holocaust" rule. Nazis are fine, Hogan's Heros is fine, but no serious stuff. So no, I haven't seen Schindler's List. Although I've never thought about it before now, if I ever saw it I would absolutely want to see it alone.

This isn't about empathy. As a matter of fact, due to my complete state of denial (Hey, I'm Holocaust denier!) there are probably many, many non-Jews (or more specifically, people not directly affected by the Holocaust) who can literally empathize with concentration camp victims better than I can. But are they also thinking about what it's like being the only kid without relatives, and how that felt growing up? Or the burden of being the 2nd Generation "Golden Child" who was never supposed to exist? Those are two quick examples off the top of my head, and my issues are private -- I don't have to deal with the daily racism and all the other crap that I get a pass on because I'm white.

This is maybe a bit of a derail, but there's a difference between an experience that is uncomfortable or unpleasant or undesirable and one that is unsafe or harmful. In this case, I think it unnecessarily dramatizes the decision that the author is trying to make.

Empathy. It's not always so easy.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:51 PM on November 29, 2013 [30 favorites]


There’s a famous movie I have only ever seen alone, and can only imagine seeing alone or with my sister. It has millions of fans, but there are only a few people I'm really comfortable with discussing my relationship with it in any detail. One is my therapist, some I know have some things in common with myself, and others I just know well enough.

There are countless elements that transport me to my childhood. It's not in the character-drama genre, but it's basically a detailed character study of my family: an emotionally and physically abusive father who resents his submissive working-class wife and withdrawn child. The actor who plays the father even bears an absolutely uncanny resemblance to mine at that age - physically, vocally, and in mannerisms. When I see him on the screen I can smell my father’s Pall Malls. Even the teeth. The parents have the same wardrobes mine did at that age. The setting bears a freakishly strong resemblance to the house we lived in when the bad times were at their worst. It’s like having a flashback and a punch in the gut at the same time, and I’m not sure how I would handle seeing it with someone for whom it was just a movie.

I started describing this... thing to a really close friend once, during one of those long, gutspilling conversations you have late at night after a really great show, and she started to say, “Well, actually, in the book, he wasn’t really like that, he was just a good…” I could feel my fight-or-flight response start to rise, (just like it did when Mom would make excuses for Dad) and before I even knew what was happening, I could hear myself saying, “I’m not talking. About. The book. I didn’t read. THE BOOK.”

And I was just horrified, and I changed the subject, because I didn’t want to fight with one of my best friends - someone who's been through a lot with me - about something so outside of her own experience. I know she didn't mean to discount my experience, but it felt awful, and it would have been better if I had somehow thought to not bring it up. She has fond memories of her late father, and if she needs to experience movies about awesome dead paternal figures without me unintentionally crapping on them in a similar manner, I totally get why she’d do so.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:01 PM on November 29, 2013 [21 favorites]


Wise words, Room 641-A. Here we're talking about trauma, and if sympathetic feelings healed trauma, then a lot of people would be in much better shape. Unfortunately psychic trauma is often more like an amputation than a wound, and a special kind of amputation that is passed on to the next generation. It's the very fact that sympathy doesn't heal trauma that often results in increased anger.

I do feel empathy for some of the upset-ness in this thread. I think a lot of it stems from a deep cultural trauma that's happening right now alongside racism, and that's the trauma of the stigma against mental illness. If someone is, without obvious external stimuli, psychically wounded enough to contemplate suicide, that is often considered something they need to get over. And it's often people with culturally sanctioned forms of trauma that are the first people to tell them they need to get over it (e.g. "I worked hard and pulled myself out of familial poverty, how dare you sit in the midst of your privilege and contemplate suicide?"). Well, the answer is that the person didn't ask for their brain to work in a certain way.

This creates a sort of economy of sympathy, in which in the eyes of the public some people deserve sympathy and some don't, usually due to circumstances outside of their control. Because psychic trauma is often the most hidden but hurtful part of a person, it's often jealous-making to see someone with external markers of trauma get sympathy. Psychically traumatized people often fantasize about getting a terminal illness, or getting into a terrible accident--something that creates a readily recognizable signifier that points to the internal suffering. This is not confined to mental illness, of course--people who are traumatized today by racism have to confront the inevitable and specious "slavery ended a century ago" response. Gay people have to confront the inevitable and specious "I think gays are ok, even though they're going to hell..." response.

In the end, it comes down to what you said--the difficulty of empathy. Some readily receive it, and some don't. Everyone should ask themselves what the markers are that cause empathy to be withdrawn. And think about the often indirect routes that multigenerational pain can take.
posted by lemmsjid at 8:14 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


(e.g. "I worked hard and pulled myself out of familial poverty, how dare you sit in the midst of your privilege and contemplate suicide?")

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:28 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Jesus, how so much of this thread is proving the author's point. Honest to god, my fellow white people, stop making every conversation about race focused on your hurt feefees. Black people know shit and experience shit you fucking don't. This is not a hard concept.

Comments like this are exactly why I don't want to engage in a "dialogue" on this issue either.
posted by nowhere man at 2:35 PM on November 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


You know your argument is strong when you need to preface it with "I'm not a racist."
posted by BobbyVan at 4:00 PM on November 30, 2013


>Jesus, how so much of this thread is proving the author's point. Honest to god, my fellow white people, stop making every conversation about race focused on your hurt feefees. Black people know shit and experience shit you fucking don't. This is not a hard concept.

Comments like this are exactly why I don't want to engage in a "dialogue" on this issue either.


Really? Because there is a central idea there, and it's quite germane to the discussion. If you read through racism (and classism and sexism and...) threads, you will see how often the very first response of a lot of posters to the description of oppression is to challenge it, deny the validity of the description, the right of the the person to make their case, the depth of their understanding, anything to make them unreliable and therefore ignorable. This is not some of the time; it's pretty much every thread that deals with oppression will have people making these arguments. Other than "whites/men/straight people/cis people/me has it just as bad," it's the go-to for denying oppression. So, it seems to me, if you are really interested in a dialogue, you'd have no problem with the statement, because it's kind of self-evidently true. If you do not come to the conversation with the assumption that the speaker is describing their experience as truthfully as they can, there is, indeed, no room for dialogue, because you haven't even started to listen.

Unless your complaint was that the tone was bad, which is it's own sort of special problem.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:24 PM on November 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


BobbyVan, have you met melatonic?
posted by dogrose at 4:30 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


She says, "I had no desire to dissect the film politically and theologically, engage in well-meaning social commentary, marvel at the history conveyed through the movie, or grieve over what was done to black people." Okay, I can understand that, but is that really something that she would avoid if she saw it with a black friend?

She might have thought she'd have a better opportunity to share the movie on a more personal and current level with someone else who is black in America. because one of the things this movie is about is one aspect of being black in America: your position as a human being is insecure, sometimes the most basic treatments may be denied you because you are black, and the reminder of your blackness if and when it comes may be harsh and drastic.

When I learned what this movie was about my initial reaction was dread. I have both fears and memories of experiencing the transition from free and human to trapped and other, and this story awakens a lot of that trauma. One of my biggest race-related fears is that I or especially someone I love will be killed or jailed while in the course of normal business, and this killing or jailing exacerbated tremendously by the societal response of either indifference or assumed blame. How does a black man in the 1840s South convince anyone he shouldn't be a slave? To whom does his freedom matter? How does a black man in America today convince anyone that he doesn't belong in jail? I draw many personal parallels with stories like this and none of it is historical, political, "well-meaning social commentary," or grief for those who came before. There are some other things too maybe too personal to discuss now (regarding the female slave) but there are other things.
posted by Danila at 6:37 PM on November 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


This is a pretty odd conversation again, with some folks really seeming like they don't get it and don't want to get it (because that would mean saying that black people do have some experiences that simply can't be understood without living as black).

It's a good reminder to people like me (white, cis/het dude, abled, etc.) that mere empathy is not the same as understanding, and that a simplistic focus on equality, what I might call a mathematic conception of "equality," can be really limited and feel pretty obnoxious to people who actually live this experience.

There can be a weird blindspot (a privilege, an invisible knapsack if you will) around remembering how normative experiences are exclusive. Something that might be helpful in thinking about this is to think about nationalities. American-ness is the dominant, normative mode of media production. People from the outside, e.g. the UK, have a decent enough idea about how American-ness is constructed, especially if they live in America. Americans will have more trouble thinking about how British identity is constructed, especially if they only meet folks from the UK in America.

(And obviously compounding this is that we haven't denied people jobs for being British in, oh, about 200 years.)

Sorry, that might not be a perfect explanation, but I'm trying to meet my fellow whites where they live.

(Oh, and one final note: White people all do share one common thing, which is important to the article but misunderstood by some folks here. That thing is not being black. A lot of the grousing about being all lumped together ignores that it's a pretty fair and definitional lumping.)
posted by klangklangston at 7:36 PM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


So no, I haven't seen Schindler's List. Although I've never thought about it before now, if I ever saw it I would absolutely want to see it alone.

Just to repeat what I said above, I totally get the author wanting to see the movie alone, or with a friend who is good at giving her some space to experience her emotions. What I didn't get from her piece was a clear explanation of why seeing it with a white friend is specifically a problem. I guess that if you feel a white friend is going to have a significantly different emotional reaction and want to talk rather than just shut up and leave you alone, while a black friend will know what you're feeling and give you some space, then I would understand that decision. But I frankly think that people in this thread have done a better job of explaining the author's potential thought patterns than the author herself did.
posted by Dasein at 7:42 PM on November 30, 2013


Christ. It's not about her friend. It's about her own feelings about *her* reactions and feelings, and not wanting to even think about possibly having to manage that, let alone anyone else's.

None of my parent-having friends were going to be dicks about how they still had parents and I didn't. I did not want to think about how *I* would feel about their care, their awkwardness, their sympathy, or their emotions at all when it came to anything parent- or family-related. With my dead-parent friends, that was something I never had to be conscious of, never had to spend energy on. Energy which I really needed just for my goddamn self.
posted by rtha at 8:01 PM on November 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


What I didn't get from her piece was a clear explanation of why seeing it with a white friend is specifically a problem.

1. Keep in mind that the author realizes she has several messed up preconceptions with the thought she could didn't want to see the movie with any of her white friends.

2. Those messed up preconceptions are based on years of experiences dealing with white people in America.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:20 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


nowhere man: Comments like this are exactly why I don't want to engage in a "dialogue" on this issue either.

What issue are you referring to? Maybe narrowing that down would help get past "dialogue" and on to dialogue, if that's what you're interested in.
posted by dogrose at 8:23 PM on November 30, 2013


But I frankly think that people in this thread have done a better job of explaining the author's potential thought patterns than the author herself did.

Since I haven't really ever consciously performed this emotional equity calculation, but upon reading the article and the author's thoughts recognized that calculation's frequent influence on my everyday life, I must, again, disagree. But whether you got it from the article or from people talking about the article, as long as you got it, that's probably the most salient thing.
posted by Errant at 9:04 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


That thing is not being black. A lot of the grousing about being all lumped together ignores that it's a pretty fair and definitional lumping.

But it's also undeniable that definition actually isn't as obvious and simple as this makes it sound. Sure, currently, it seems pretty straightforward to categorize ourselves and others in practice. But for example, my grandfather (adoptive) in childhood was conventionally called "nigger" or more charitably "mulatto" in white society and was considered black by the cultural norms of his place and time (40's--50's in Alabama; his mother was full-blooded Cherokee; his father a poor white sharecropper). Later in life, he identified as white and no one disputed that, because the norms had changed in his lifetime. I don't say this to deny my own privilege because, even though he raised me as a son, I can't claim to have even understood all this growing up, although I knew his mother's family were Native American because I met them and even played "cowboys and indians" with my cousins as a kid, not grasping the significance of his background at the time beyond thinking it was cool I had "Indian" cousins), only to illustrate the point that race in America is not really as simple or one-dimensional as it sometimes seems.

If it's not geographic origins or a family history in slavery that defines how we get categorized as "black" or "white" in the US, and it isn't strictly skin color either (Indians and other ethnic nationalities not necessarily being conventionally viewed as black, regardless of skin tone) then it's a more complex picture than we might be tempted to think. The criteria for our racial categorizations can and do change over time. It's already been well-established they have no clear, meaningful biological basis. So what's left? History, personal identity and culture.

The author is describing personal experiences and impressions that are real and valid, that much is clear. And we all know how to put others and ourselves in the right categories implicitly today, but what about tomorrow? We definitely did not always understand the categories in the same way in the past.

As much as I appreciate the advantages I've accrued through no effort of my own due to being categorized as white in the American system (despite having been somewhat alienated from the white Southern culture I grew up in due to particularities of my personal history, like having entered the school system as an ESL kid), I do sometimes wish I didn't have to be white because (for example) it gets me lumped in with the kind of people who find articles like this offensive.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:45 PM on November 30, 2013


("Wish I didn't have to be white" meaning: "wish I didn't have to identify/be identified as white." It's nothing compared to what can go with being identified as nonwhite, I'm sure, but just to say, the status quo sucks from a lot of different angles.)
posted by saulgoodman at 12:02 AM on December 1, 2013


>>Jesus, how so much of this thread is proving the author's point. Honest to god, my fellow white people, stop making every conversation about race focused on your hurt feefees. Black people know shit and experience shit you fucking don't. This is not a hard concept.

>Comments like this are exactly why I don't want to engage in a "dialogue" on this issue either.

Really? Because there is a central idea there, and it's quite germane to the discussion. If you read through racism (and classism and sexism and...) threads, you will see how often the very first response of a lot of posters to the description of oppression is to challenge it, deny the validity of the description, the right of the the person to make their case, the depth of their understanding, anything to make them unreliable and therefore ignorable. This is not some of the time; it's pretty much every thread that deals with oppression will have people making these arguments. Other than "whites/men/straight people/cis people/me has it just as bad," it's the go-to for denying oppression. So, it seems to me, if you are really interested in a dialogue, you'd have no problem with the statement, because it's kind of self-evidently true. If you do not come to the conversation with the assumption that the speaker is describing their experience as truthfully as they can, there is, indeed, no room for dialogue, because you haven't even started to listen.

Unless your complaint was that the tone was bad, which is it's own sort of special problem.


This thread is aging and I don't plan on monitoring it. But what I meant to say is that comments like the first one seem to imply that my perspective prevents me from having any meaningful contribution to the conversation. If my thoughts aren't relevant then I feel it's probably better that I not join the dialogue in the first place. Perhaps this is a similar feeling to what the author herself had, but from the other side of the coin.

And yes, the tone of the comment also sounded sharp to my ears.

I do believe it is important for people to approach these topics in good faith and with open minds, to respect others' views, and to try to not privilege their own perspective, background or experience.
posted by nowhere man at 9:29 AM on December 1, 2013


This thread is aging and I don't plan on monitoring it. But what I meant to say is that comments like the first one seem to imply that my perspective prevents me from having any meaningful contribution to the conversation.

That's not how I took emjaybee's comment. It seemed more like frustration that so many people weren't willing to contribute to the conversation as framed by Ms. Okoro. Instead, there was venting of hurt feelings, use of the "but what if a white person said it" misdirection, and a derail about Brad Pitt's acting -- all things the author predicted, all things that prompted the article in the first place. All things that are extremely familiar in threads that deal with race and gender, as GenjiandProust points out. So, no, that contribution isn't very meaningful.

Are you really saying you have nothing to contribute beyond that? I can't believe that's true.
posted by dogrose at 10:40 AM on December 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


If it's impossible for you to experience what it's like being judged for being black, how do you know that it's fundamentally different from your experience of being fat?

Because I look at how some black people talk about their experiences and it's different from me. And some black women are also fat, and their experience is very different from me. And I've listened to black people say, "You just don't understand," and I believe them.

Once you get in practice, it's actually very easy to start noticing deficits in experience and knowledge even without knowing the quality of those deficits. I've noticed knowledge voids and not been able to fill them for years after when I was lucky enough to hear people talk about their experiences to other people with similar experiences, where it feels safer for them.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:03 AM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The completely different film where everyone was a films star instead of an actor and Brad Pitt actually fit in... God that would be awful. They probably would have some kind of action escape at the end though, like the bullshit carchase at the end of Argo.
posted by Artw at 1:50 PM on December 1, 2013


I do believe it is important for people to approach these topics in good faith and with open minds, to respect others' views, and to try to not privilege their own perspective, background or experience.

Well, to a point. the danger in this seemingly positive statement is that there is a very real chance of letting the privileged viewpoint "off the hook." In this case, pretty every black person I have ever had this dialogue with is very clear on what it means to be white -- they get told it by society every day. I, on the other hand, have only a dim idea of what it means to be black, and I try very hard to pay attention and educate myself. So, in issues of race, I think the black (or latino or asian or...) perspective has to be privileged, because that is the only way it can be heard over the shouting of the cultural "background noise," which in matters of race in America is the white PoV.

It's kind of like the idea that racism is not just prejudice based on race/ethnicity, but that prejudice plus the power to normalize it. So the black waitress might hate a white customer for being white as much as he hates her for being black, but, chances are, he has a lot more ways to show that hate than she does. The two feelings can't be directly equated, because their practical real-world effects are so different. So saying "anyone hating someone for their race/ethnicity is racist" is true only in a place where the effects of that hatred are equal. And the effect of that "neutral" description of racism de facto privileges white people, because it delegitimizes the feelings of people who have really good reasons for being angry.

And I get that it's frustrating to have to accept that your opinions as a white person do not carry as much weight as similar opinions from a black person, but, in matters of race, that's where we find ourselves. And the pain from this is just one way that racism hurts everyone and is so very hard to challenge and change.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:34 PM on December 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


But what I meant to say is that comments like the first one seem to imply that my perspective prevents me from having any meaningful contribution to the conversation.
You could always listen, maybe ask questions.
posted by fullerine at 11:45 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era
posted by homunculus at 3:24 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the nymag story:
It is bizarre to ascribe haughtiness and a lack of a capacity for embarrassment to a president whose most recent notable public appearance was a profusely and even flamboyantly contrite press conference spent repeatedly confessing to “fumbles” and “mistakes.” Why would Hillyer believe such a factually bizarre thing?

It's bizarre to me that anyone in the party of the never-apologize-how-dare-you-insinuate-anything-we-do-might-not-be-perfect-you-Commie-traitors hubris of Bush and Cheney has the massive stones to accuse anyone else at all of haugtiness, ever, no matter the color of their skin. Where does a man like that even get his trousers made?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:25 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Where does a man like that even get his trousers made?
posted by The Underpants Monster


I assumed you would know.
posted by homunculus at 6:00 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


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