Monthly Archives: December 2012

Whiteness Unchained: When a National Shame Becomes Camp

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Only recently did I learn of the longstanding feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. This was a result of internet research I did after seeing a preview for Tarantino’s new movie Django Unchained, and after a dear friend sent me a link to Lee’s refusal to see the movie because it was “disrespectful” to his ancestors. As much as I agree with him intellectually, I can’t agree on the basis of having ancestors in common. In the social legacy of whiteness, there exists a privileged position of detachment from the pain of chattel slavery that renders this a historical event, rather than a historical experience with generational meaning. In the US, there is no understanding in white consciousness of being dehumanized as chattel. Slavery is not my history, heroic Blackness is not my identity, and any form of fictionalized vengeance that combines the two is not my story to tell. Quentin Tarantino has a different opinion:

“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white … that is racist.”

He made these remarks in 1997 in response to criticisms from Spike Lee at the time, but they read as if they were said yesterday. I finally went to see the movie (which was as exciting as going to the doctor), but I’ll address one piece of whiteness at a time.

This is what I wondered at 3 AM with Tarantino’s defense still as fresh as a pile of shit in my mind: so anyone can speak on… anything they want? How many conferences on obstetrics and gynecology would doctors attend if they were conducted by plumbers? Who asks their barber or hairdresser to explain organic chemistry? Who gets their legal advice from a veterinarian? These qualifications seem to warrant higher levels of respect in their differentiation, and in the demand that only the experienced and knowledgeable represent themselves. Credibility and poetic license are reserved, however, and given without question to the white tradition of producing anthropological studies or creative fantasies about the non-white “other.” This would be the lesser-known genre Tarantino has been exploiting for most of his career.

Samuel L. Jackson in a Blues Brothers suit carrying a wallet branded with “Badass Motherfucker” is a character. That is recycled and revised Blaxploitation fiction. However, a Black couple separated by slavery and beaten by members of the KKK are not the creative property of Quentin Tarantino. These “characters” are based on historical facts and lived experiences of racist violence. When I think of famous Black filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to think beyond Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; when I think of famous white filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to keep track. This structural inequity and white supremacy in US show business makes Tarantino’s accusation of (reverse) racism highly untenable. The fact that one of these precious few Black filmmakers dared to challenge the racism of a white director’s movies, one of the few in Hollywood who could tell a story like Django Unchained without racism and be entitled to tell it, makes Tarantino’s accusation deplorable and ridiculous.

Even a movie supposedly centered around a slave turned bounty hunter in pursuit of revenge is a movie that stars white people with Black people in supporting roles. And to be accurate, slavery is reduced to nothing more than a geographical backdrop, social scenery, and circumstantial setting for a signature Tarantino parody—this time using a Spaghetti Western formula. But there was something about selling this as a Western that confused me. I had no trouble comprehending the references in the throwback “Wild West” font of the opening credits, the desert-like landscape, and John Wayne outlaw music. However for the rest of the movie, audiences were apparently meant to believe a Western was taking place in the… Antebellum South?

I got a sickening feeling after the movie spent its ten minutes in Texas and shifted to southern plantations, that the era of chattel slavery was chosen because it provided new opportunities for Tarantino to explore/exploit gratuitous violence. And I’m not talking about the many white people whose heads were blown through and whose dicks were shot off, or the projectile blood from any number of body parts exploding like a can of red paint on the receiving end of a shotgun. This is all typical for a Tarantino flick. I’m talking about the two mandingo slaves who fight to the death in Calvin Candie’s parlor, ending with both men covered in blood and the victor not only clawing his victim’s eyes out by hand, but also smashing his face with a hammer. I’m talking about the slave who is attacked and torn to death by a pack of vicious dogs, a punishment ordered by Calvin Candie. I’m talking about Jamie Foxx as Django hanging naked from his ankles almost visibly castrated by a white slaver with an orange-hot blade, and Kerry Washington as his wife Broomhilda whipped and nearly bashed in the head with a hammer by Calvin Candie. As it turns out, the institution of slavery was not violent and/or awful enough, but must be saturated with a series of humiliations and atrocities in its storytelling.

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All I can say about Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie is that it made him less of a convincing actor and more of a convincing racist. He was a little bit too believable for me, and by that I mean the slave master stole the show from the slave.

The comic camp created around this national shame is expressed and made sympathetic through many exchanges of witty banter and Tarantino’s tendency to make heinous villains handsome, charming, and/or funny. A hooded white militia spends at least five minutes having a *hilarious* argument about one of their wives insufficiently cutting the eye-holes in the white “bags” on their heads. Although no one in the movie explicitly called them the KKK, they wore symbolic hoods and made a brief allusion to attacks in their “full regalia.” An opportunity to make the most excessive, outrageous, and overdone scene involving the KKK in their “full regalia,” and Tarantino didn’t take it. He made a subtle hint at these things that younger or less informed people in the audience might not notice. He made these characters look like simple vigilantes on horseback with cheap pillowcases on their heads. Yet when Django is given the “freedom” to purchase his own “valet” uniform, he emerges from the store with a white bow at his chin, a blue satin coat to match his blue satin trousers, silk stockings, and buckled shoes—an entirely unexplained transformation. Multiple comic spectacles are made of Black characters and the brutality of the violence they suffer, but the KKK only give a quick mention of their “regalia.”

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That is not Tarantino’s style; he doesn’t deal with any subject matter delicately, discreetly, sensitively, conscientiously, or with subtlety. Yet the KKK were somewhat disguised and miraculously escaped his confrontational and sensationalist plagiarism.

I could never imagine the diverse experiences Black folks might have when/if they see this movie, nor can I, as a white person, legitimately or personally take offense to the use of the N word. I can only comment on the extent to which I became more convinced the instances of the N word outnumbered the lines of dialogue Black characters had in the movie. After hearing the word fifty times, I stopped counting. Kerry Washington spoke less than ten times in two hours and forty five minutes. She is seen being ruthlessly whipped and branded as an object of abuse, or as a figment of Django’s imagination, until her physical form is finally produced when she is dragged naked and screaming from Calvin Candie’s “hot box”—a box in direct sunlight, mostly buried underground, and locked from the outside. Any other Black women who appear on screen are speechless, disoriented, or helpless. Django, whose name is the title of the movie and his vengeance the focus, spends 90% of the story saying next to nothing. Ultimately, this was an exploration of the white villain versus the white hero. And, oh yeah, a slave gets his wife and his freedom in the end.

There are two white heroes in Django Unchained. Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is the compassionate white bounty hunter who heroically dictates the terms of Django’s service and his freedom—an emphasis on white kindness and generosity, which I would say is the least important narrative to privilege in a movie about slavery. Schultz is, after all, the star and the one who avenges the slaves by killing Calvin Candie in the end. He was so overcome by his disgust for Candie’s racism that he just couldn’t help himself. After this climactic assassination, the last few moments where Django kills the rest of the white people in the movie and Calvin Candie’s “House Negro” (Samuel L. Jackson) seem like an afterthought. Django is given his moment only after Schultz has had his. The second white hero, Tarantino himself, delivers his version of victory, justice, and power to slaves by giving a happy ending to Django and Broomhilda.

This is the question I always have whenever filmmakers practice racism by appropriating stories from/inventing stories about POC: if this is a fantasy, if this is creative fiction, then why is racial oppression an inevitable and nonnegotiable reality? It seems the facts of white supremacy must remain true to life when any number of ridiculous things—a German bounty hunter disguising himself as a dentist, or a white woman writing the memoirs of Black maids—are unlimited in their fabrication. These fantasies are about good white people who grant some form of freedom to unusually talented characters of color, lending more attention to the Great Emancipator Complex than to well-developed and substantive roles for POC. As long as audiences are somewhat comforted by this, and equally entertained, one of the most gruesome tragedies in human history can be easily converted into a disgraceful and campy bloodbath. It is a filmmaker’s “right” to do so.

—DD

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Reflections on Sandy Hook: Violent Masculinity and the Mental Illness of white Privilege

Whenever major stories hit the news, there are seismic waves of instant coverage and facebook opinions that collide in a perfect internet storm that keeps me distracted and somewhat furious for hours. Countless people compete for the most profound commentary, the most controversial analyses, and the most hard-hitting opinions as quickly as possible whether they are directly connected to the story or not. After watching this go down for several days, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. This is not a post about gun control, the breakdown of social services, or “bad parenting.” This post will not contribute to the very valid discourses that interrogate the excessive media attention given to violence in privileged white spaces where events like this “just don’t happen.” This is a not post that is specifically limited to the exact details of what happened in Connecticut. This post is about two of the ugliest social diseases ever created in the history of humankind: male and white supremacy.

What I find to be suspect about so many of the reports I’ve read is the tendency to bury, or otherwise ignore altogether, the highly significant fact that the Sandy Hook shooter also murdered his own mother during the killings. In fact, most of the victims were women and, yes, most of the victims where white. I don’t personally think this warrants a scathing critique of President Obama’s tearful hypocrisy, nor do I think this warrants the argument that mental illness should be the real focus of Sandy Hook discussions–even if racism can be dismissed as the killer’s motivation in this case. I think because the victims of this shooting were mostly white and mostly women, evaluating and complicating the identity of white male killers becomes all the more important despite how counter-intuitive this may seem. Men with white skin have been killing POC for centuries, true, but when their victims share their skin color it doesn’t make the killers any less privileged as male or any less privileged as white.

I am not a parent and that much should be made clear, but this does not prevent me from sympathizing with the parents who brutally lost their children and the father who lost a son and a wife in the same day. I read a blog entry on the Huffington Post a friend of mine had shared on facebook, making a plea for understanding and forgiveness when it comes to the often repeated desire to holistically blame parents for the violence of their children. Written by a mother as a contribution to mental illness discussions that inevitably saturate the nation after mass killings committed by white men, she speaks extensively about the fear of her own son, then offers this bit of information:

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

What I find most interesting about this admittedly heartfelt and complicated entry is the mother’s admission that no doctors have officially diagnosed her son, but he is on heavy duty anti-psychotics to control his “rage.” Once again, I am not a parent, nor am I a medical professional. The only “scientist” I can somewhat claim to be is a “social” one. But this is where I get skeptical: when atrocities and/or crimes perpetrated largely by white men become subject to a consequential rush to create a crisis around mental illness and isolate the solution as an exclusively medical one. If it is legitimate to suggest that rage and mother-hating from white male teenagers is a basis for the widespread prescribing of serious narcotics, then why is it illegitimate to suggest this same rage and mother-hating is a basis for honest and critical examinations of white and male supremacy? The former will make pharmaceutical companies a fortune, the latter will not.

When whites have been conditioned to equate violence with communities and people of color, we are quick to respond with disbelief when this same violence not only occurs in our communities, but is perpetrated by one of our own. The white male (TM) is a constructed model of power, success, and–most of all–rational thought. As a result, it is not a stretch to imagine that an exception to this rule must be diagnosed as defective, pathological, and most certainly abnormal. Forget about the individual that is President Obama, and wonder more at the broader social hypocrisy that sympathizes with white killers and immediately demonizes killers and/or victims of color. But this is especially painful because it involves children, right? Remember when an 11 year-old Black girl (name still under protection of anonymity) was gang-raped by several men in Texas in 2010? Was the media trend one of overwhelming sympathy and understanding? Or did a major news publication get itself embroiled in a shit storm for indicting the character of the young girl based on her tendency to “dress beyond her age”? It is acceptable to question the racial and gender identities of people and women of color in the US, but it is wholly unacceptable to subject white male killers to the same critical lens.

In a recent essay on the Sandy Hook shootings, Tim Wise denied that there was something about whiteness that causes homicide. No, I don’t think there is some kind of whiteness gene that makes certain white men lose their shit and kill people, but is it really that ridiculous to make a connection between whiteness and violence? How high on white supremacy were the Nazis, the KKK, and any other white male vigilante militias who intentionally carried out lynchings, bombings, and, yes, mass murders? Maybe whiteness is the illness here–not the genetic pigmentation that decides skin tone, but the social and structural environments that dictate how sympathetic and privileged white folks will be. Maybe white privilege and patriarchy (cultural & structural, domestic & private) is what teaches white men insane levels of entitlement and inconsolable rage as a logical reaction whenever they are denied what they think they deserve or are treated in a way they think they don’t deserve to be treated?

There is always something more reasonable to blame than whiteness.

Although I don’t deny the legitimacy of mental health issues, I’m not buying that as the only explanation in multiple cases of distinct and premeditated patterns (some might say histories) of behavior. I wonder whose definition of mental illness is being used when these mass killers are revealed to be white men with little or no anger management who are otherwise coherent, calculating, and aware of what they are doing. As fucked up and far-fetched as they are, manifestos and detailed plans are often left behind after these killers take their own lives. A repeated mental illness defense, in my opinion, makes it easier to dismiss violence as the work of “crazy” individuals instead of understanding it as something that has always pervaded cultures of whiteness in the US. Why is mental illness a national crisis that desperately needs to be remedied only when white men murder? After colonization, after Indigenous genocide, after chattel slavery, after lynching, after Oklahoma City, after Columbine, after Oak Creek… why is anyone still surprised when white men murder?

When something like this happens, I think of all the privilege not only white folks maintain, but also the massive amounts of privilege US citizens (and Westerners in general) continue to enjoy. I remember the times I have been cussed out by wealthy white women while working as a cashier after making some small error with their purchase. I think of the screaming matches I have witnessed over material goods and political opinions in retail stores, the irate tantrums white folks have thrown over long lines, missed orders at coffee shops, and the wrong burritos on their plates.  I think of how ego-driven and hyper-masculine mainstream US culture is, where violent white males are routinely celebrated as heroic outlaws and gun-toting badasses. Sure, I appreciate the humor from folks like David Sirota who wonders why it isn’t time to racially profile white men in this country, but I wonder what might happen if white society decided it was time to try something like this instead…

What if we stopped teaching each other how special and superior whiteness is–children and adults alike. What if we dismantled and discontinued the idea that we are the best people who deserve nothing but the best while living in the best country on Earth. What if we stopped giving lenient or abbreviated punishments to white collar criminals and white criminals in general. What if we abolished policies and practices in employment, education, and housing that perpetuate social inequities and oppression. What if we used a humane sense of limits to re-frame the “rights” and “freedom” that entitle us to do whatever we want and express our rage however we want. What if we educated our men to have unconditional respect for women and people of all gender identities whether they are relatives, strangers, next door, down the street, or in another country. What if we refused to see violence as something that exists only in communities of color, and made it completely unglamorous and unsympathetic at the hands of white men.

What if.

–DD

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