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Asked & Answered: Django Unchained

Below in bold are a series of questions I received late last night via email regarding the post I wrote on Django Unchained. Answers will follow.

Where does a writer’s license to imagine things other than their life begin? Must all works be non-fiction in first person? In that case can we ever talk about slavery at all?

This discussion is not so broad as to include all works of writing in their various forms, it is intentionally limited to the direct subject matter: a specific piece of fiction concerning a specific narrative. I question the assumption of total freedom and license in storytelling when its forms are very specialized, regulated, and inscribed with the power dynamics of race. I’m not exactly sure who “we” are in this scenario, but it would stand to reason that you are referring to white people. Saying it is disrespectful and unjustified for a white director to make a movie from the perspective of a slave and his path of imagined vengeance is not the same as saying “white people can never talk about slavery at all.” There is a big difference, and these statements should not be used interchangeably. However, the institution of slavery was not fiction, and a “first person narrative” of the slave experience does not exist if it is written by a white person. A writer’s “license to imagine things other than their life” began hundreds of years ago, and it should end any time this license grants those who have not experienced racial oppression to use it as a point of entertainment and campy gore. To suggest racial oppression is neutral content easily accessible and comprehensible to white writers, is to suggest the historical wounds and material consequences of racial oppression can be severed from this content under the pretext of “art.” I would call this violence, not art.

There’s not a single PoC that has the experience of being a slave. It surely is a huge leap to even pretend to remember what that was like, no matter what ancestral memory has been passed down or culturally exists. It’s been well over a hundred years. Surely, someone should be able to represent or remember it. Where do you draw the line?

I would ask you to take notice of these assumptions: “it surely is a huge leap to even pretend to know what that was like,” and “surely someone should be able to represent it.” So the assumption is that Black folks have no oral traditions and histories that keep this legacy alive, and the implied argument is that Black people in the contemporary moment have no legitimate connection to their own history because it happened hundreds of years ago. Please see Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon for a much more involved perspective on the endurance of slavery that I will not be addressing here. Black folks (from the era of slavery to the present moment) have already been writing their own stories and producing their own knowledge. If you dare to suggest POC have no contemporary experiences of slavery “no matter what ancestral memory” exists, then I question why Tarantino isn’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny—someone who has absolutely zero frame of reference or memory regarding that side of history. I draw the line at the argument that POC can’t logically associate with their histories, but white artists can. If you think it is a “huge leap” for Black people to relate to their own ancestors, then what kind of biblical leap is a white male taking when he thinks he can represent, remember, and/or relate to their ancestors? This is when a vague and mysterious “someone” who “should be able to represent and remember” inevitably translates to “a white person who should be able to write stories about POC.”

It’s because of racism and white supremacy that narratives told by white folks are privileged over narratives POC have been telling for centuries. And I wonder…  who can draw the line between an appropriate and inappropriate amount of time to pass before communities’ tragedies become subject to an imaginary public domain?

Is it solely based on race? Does research or knowledge play a part? Who gets enfranchised into the cultural memory conversation? Are perspectives from non-slaves totally useless and worthless? Should we ignore abolitionists (however problematic they were) or what went on personally and historically for conflicted people like Jefferson? Does that have no use?

So what if I draw the line at race? Why is this so controversial and questionable? Is it only “legitimate” if I draw the line at “research and knowledge”? Drawing the line at race equally involves research and knowledge. I am skeptical whenever anyone suggests that living legacies of gruesome atrocities can easily be understood (then written about) just by going to the library and opening a book. Learning is one thing, appropriating an experience to invent a prolonged and hideously violent fantasy in the service of a director’s career is another. This collection of inquiries also relies on the assumption that the consequences of slavery (segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, white supremacy) no longer exist in this country and everyone has fully recovered. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has documented and explained how there are more Black men imprisoned today than there were enslaved in the Antebellum South. No one is entitled to make the decision for all Black people that their mourning period is over, their history is beyond them, and white people get to tell their stories because of points A and B. Discussions about abolitionists have no use in this particular context because Quentin Tarantino is not an abolitionist and we are not talking about a narrative written by or about one.

Should television shows not feature bankers, or mobsters, or civil rights leaders because the experience of being one is ineffable and non-transmittable? The logical conclusion of your argument potentially blows up and destroys the value of every artistic representation based on the ideas that 1) writers can’t know anything they haven’t directly lived 2) the chief value of art (or a chief value of art) is how it is mimetic. Especially when it comes to a historical film.

First of all, it is intellectually dishonest to carelessly compare chattel slaves to the characters of “bankers” and “mobsters” (then throw in “civil rights leaders” for the sake of political correctness—which television shows have ever featured civil rights leaders?). That their experiences might be “ineffable and non-transmittable” was never my point or my argument: bankers and mobsters, even though their theatrical depictions may have been based on actual figures, are not oppressed identities. It is not the same to imagine a wealthy mobster who desires guns and prostitutes, as it is to imagine an oppressed slave who desires liberation and vengeance; in that context, one has power and the other does not, one is a character and the other is not. With the over-representation of white literature and the demonstrated ability of white authors to write endless narratives about white experiences, I don’t see how it is unthinkable to resolve that white authors have enough content to explore. Ultimately, the “chief value” of art is a highly subjective and debatable topic, and if rightfully observing how whiteness and racism have dominated storytelling (in all popular forms in the US) destroys the “chief value of art,” then so be it and so much the better. If this “chief value” dictates that white writers have the right (as Tarantino said) to writer whatever they want, then this means the “chief value” of art is disenfranchising the voices of POC.

Who owns history? Is it just the persecuted groups or the groups viewed as persecuted? Or is it based on blood? Do Chinese nationals have no right to talk about or set a drama in 18th century London? There has to be some level on which all history is owned by everyone, if people understand the bounds. It gets really silly when that’s brought to an extreme as well.

The victors own history. That’s kind of the point. If I look at this situation critically, I see a white writer who is re-enforcing the legacy of ownership by treating slaves, slavery, and this history as his creative property. Do his “rights” and “demands” as a writer take precedence over the rights POC have to storytelling and self-determination? I would say no, and I would also say the “creative freedom” of white writers has been taking precedence over the creative/cultural productions of POC for many hundreds of years. When I consider the fact that the whole of mainstream textbook and knowledge production in the US (including, but not limited to, our entire system of education) has been a franchise of white authors and white history, I am amazed when someone takes offense at the suggestion that even a sliver of the space whiteness occupies should be relinquished so POC can tell their own histories. History is based on a number of things, and I can’t claim to know all of them, but I do know that the histories of oppressed groups and the histories of groups in power are not interchangeable, nor are they identical.

Here are some resources that informed/educated the responses above (in addition to those already mentioned):

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James
Beloved
by Toni Morrison
Roots
by Alex Haley
The Souls of Black Folk
by W.E.B. DuBois
Our Nig
by Harriet E. Wilson
Finding Sojourner’s Truth: Race, Gender, and the Institution of Property
by Cheryl Harris
Whiteness as Property
also by Cheryl Harris

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Tumblr Q&A: The Myth of the Aryan Race

Q: I know you’re trying to do something good here, but do you really think white people are the only ones who are capable of being racist? Even in ancient times, Aryans from central asia created what became the Indian caste system to separate themselves from the darker dravidians. There are several examples of this throughout all of history. Please, before you tell people to check their privilege, check your facts.

A: Here’s the interesting thing about the facts I’ve checked: The word “Aryan” was used to describe folks with white skin in the eighteenth century by Europeans (one in particular, a French Orientalist thinker, by the name of Abrham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron) and was created through European translation of the Sanskrit word arya (a word that has its own specific history in India). Nothing ancient about that. It was a term Europeans appropriated and changed to describe their own white racial identity around the myth of a “pure Aryan race,” and it became popular within racial anthropology as a racist term to favorably refer to a dominant white ethnic group that supposedly “emerged” in India—also known as “Indo-Europeans.” There is a whole historical perspective of linguistic, religious, and racial classification behind the European division of Aryans and Dravidians, one that can be further understood in Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science by Stefan Arvidsson.

There are many scholarly studies that show the imposition of romantic European ideas and colonial thinking that created the mythology of an “Aryan race,” which was taken to violent extremes by Nazi Germany’s Third Reich. Orientalist histories and colonial racial “science”—conceived by British and fellow European colonizers—have also contributed to the idea that there were racial divisions in caste systems in India. There are also studies, both genetic and scholarly, that show archaeologists having an incredibly difficult time proving the racial difference and/or dominance of ancient Aryans. It was 17th, 18th, and 19th century European ideas of race that inscribed ancient caste systems in India (which had more to do with language, religion, and region) with racial meaning. Ideas of race, white supremacy, and racism started in these eras—not in ancient times.

Here’s what needs to be checked: colonial whitewashed ideas about cultural histories, ignored complexities and specifics of historical events, and, once again, white privilege.

—DD

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Tumblr Q&A: Manifest Destiny and The Holocaust

Q: i’d appreciate it if you could keep this ask private, as i don’t want to derail any discussion, but i’m somewhat uncomfortable with the holocaust mentions in your post about the gaps “manifest destiny” shirts. jews weren’t considered white at the time of the holocaust (as the many anti-semitic references to “the jewish race” will attest) and even today jewish racial identity is very complex, especially with anti-semitism on the rise in europe again. that said, the rest of that post is excellent.

A: I hope you won’t mind too much that I published this ask. Although I could be wrong since I say this from a position of white privilege, I think it adds to the larger discussion of race, genocide, and remembrance around this issue (as opposed to derailing it) and I think it provides an important opportunity to engage this discussion by clarifying some of the points that were made in the post.

First, I’m grateful you brought this critical feedback to the blog and I appreciate all the points you have made. I agree with you completely about the complexity of past and present Jewish racial identity and, to be honest, I was concerned that someone might see this comparison being drawn. No, the Nazis were not exterminating the white race during the Holocaust, they were exterminating the “Jewish race” as you said—a flawed, problematic, and inaccurate concept to say the least. It’s crucial to see this specific difference in these historical perspectives, especially when folks argue the Holocaust was proof of the intentional mass genocide of white people, which was not the case. I personally think this distinction needs to be made, and this is a big reason why I chose to publish your ask.

In the Gap post I wanted to make a point about the hypocritical moral outrage that would ensue if holocaust terms and ideas were on t-shirts in megastores, while most consumers see this Manifest Destiny shirt and they’re like “uhhh…what’s the big deal I don’t even know what that means.” I wanted to communicate two different ideas: one about white folks not knowing what the experience of fun with violent words/events at our expense is like, and one that involves making one act of genocide more important and better known than another. However, these ideas were only separated by some punctuation and the word “also,” which is definitely my mistake and my error in judgment. Although I will say the post was not about the Holocaust, it was about the popular celebration of the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the US, and I think these issues need different spaces.

Hopefully this clarifies and thanks again.

—DD

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Tumblr Q&A: Costumes and Cultural Appropriation

Q: Hi there! Would dressing up as Frida Kahlo for Halloween be considered cultural appropriation? I’m not sure as she’s a PoC, but I wanted to do it because she is an artist and I am an artist. Thanks!

A: Great question, and one that hasn’t yet been explored in this specific way on the blog. A white opinion on this issue only goes so far, so here is what I can say: what I’ve learned from friends, organizers, and great anti-whitewashing blogs is that the cardinal rule for white folks dressing up as famous POC for Halloween is to change everything about the way we look except our skin color. Whether it’s Frida Kahlo or Kanye West, as long as you don’t use brownface or blackface you aren’t in offensive/racist territory. I personally wouldn’t dress up as POC because I don’t want to go there, but, if you must, just stay white. Change your clothes, not your skin color.

Here’s what I can’t say: I can’t tell you that all Latin@ folks who could see your costume will find it acceptable—some might be completely opposed to a white person dressing up as Frida, some might not mind at all, and some might at least appreciate that you didn’t darken your skin if they object to the costume. I can’t speak for any of these positions, nor would I want to. I just think you should keep this in mind, and consider the meaning your costume might have to fellow human beings beyond the personal meaning it has to you—especially since Frida Kahlo has become so excessively commodified, appropriated, and mass produced as a consumer image. It’s never just a costume.

As for cultural appropriation with this issue, that’s an interesting point. My white opinion here is certainly not the only one, or the most valid, but I would honestly say cultural appropriation happens any time a person turns everyday clothing or something culturally significant into a costume. Even though you both might be artists, this is a shared talent but not a shared experience. Just as a side note: it would also be more original, interesting, and completely unoffensive if you dressed up like Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Annie Sprinkle, Barbara Kruger, or any number of white women artists. To me, the funny thing is there are so many famous white folks, then there are so many non-famous white folks who want to dress up like the few famous POC there are in the US (or those few who have become famous in the US). Not so funny at all is when Halloween turns into an Imperialist free-for-all shit show of white folks thinking we finally have a day to dress up like POC and get away with it.

So my advice is to re-think this costume choice and go with something different. And my vote is for Cindy Sherman—have you seen her work? It’s perfect costume material, and it wouldn’t be appropriating cultural experiences or clothing from an oppressed and/or stereotyped identity you do not share. But if you must, never forget the cardinal rule. Thanks again for the question.

—DD

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Tumblr Q&A: Prejudice and “Model Minorities”

Q: I have a question about your opinion that POC can’t be racist by definition. Would you say that, since it appears in history that white people categorized POC in their own hierarchy, hypothetically a POC could in fact reinforce racism if they were seen as better than another race by whites in history, such as a Hispanic person towards a black person? I also know of racism between cultures that involve no white people whatsoever, such as Japan/Korea hate. How do you view that?

A: I would say no, because even in instances where there are “model minorities” (usually broadly and incorrectly assumed to refer to all “Asian” peoples, when it actually refers to light skinned Japanese and Chinese folks) that make certain groups seem “closer” to whiteness because of their coloring, “shared values,” and “work ethic,” these “minorities” do not achieve whiteness. The meaning is hidden in the phrase itself: Whose model is it? And if these folks are so close to “being white” then why are they still referred to as “minorities”? The language still positions these folks beneath the constructed non-minority status of whiteness. Whether you’re talking about Latin@s over Blacks or “Asians” over both, none of them are considered to be at the same social level as whites.

If you got to this page of the blog and scroll down, you can see three Anon asks that relate specifically to Japan and Korea, and my answers. Folks with white skin, although we seem to love to do this, can’t remove Japan and Korea from a larger context of global white supremacy, capitalism, and neocolonialism. Meaning, these two countries are already implicated in global hierarchies of race. When racism and white supremacy have already existed for hundreds of years, I can’t act as if Japan and Korea are completely unrelated to these phenomena and pretend they are isolated from the rest of the planet. Japan might have issues with Korea, and their government might even claim their people are better or racially superior to Korean people, but are the Japanese claiming they are superior to every other race on the planet? The Japanese government may have practiced, ordered, and supported colonization of Korea, but did this government also then attempt and succeed in colonizing the rest of the human beings on the planet to enforce Japanese customs? There is prejudice, there is hatred, there are conflicts, there are atrocities, everywhere—that doesn’t mean all of them qualify equally as racism.

—DD

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Tumblr Q&A: Prejudice

Q: So I’m not a really big fan of the whole “reverse racism” deal either. But I wouldn’t be so confident that only white people can be racist. For example, I’ve heard my Latin@ relatives say some pretty messed up shit about African-Americans. Wouldn’t you say that they’re contributing to institutional racism?

A: I would say no, because institutional racism implies power. What your relatives are expressing is prejudice, but there is no prejudice+power—which is racism. A social and structural hierarchy of white supremacy positions whites as superior and POC as inferior, so even if there are negative racial attitudes between or among POC, this doesn’t then elevate one group to the power of whiteness over another. This kind of prejudice also doesn’t limit, diminish, or change white privilege in any way. Racism isn’t something that disappears for any POC simply because some have prejudiced views. Regardless of these views, racism will still exist. So I would disagree that someone is contributing to something that has already been targeting and working against them for centuries.

—DD

Tumblr Q & A: white Guilt

Q: You should call your blog “White Guilt”

A: I personally think you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, and you’re a white person hiding on Anon who thinks they have a good anti-social justice insult simply because it includes the modifier “white.”

But for the followers who might read this and wonder if this Anon has a point: This blog is about critical thought, education, and taking full responsibility for having white privilege and benefiting from white supremacy. Taking responsibility for past and present violence is exactly what white guilt doesn’t accomplish. I genuinely don’t give a fuck about protecting white people’s feelings or protecting my own feelings as a white person. I don’t talk about how “hard” it is to be white when you finally know the truth about it, I don’t cry white tears about how racism is so awful for me or whites in general in any post, and I don’t encourage other white folks to do either of these things. It’s actually a privilege to “feel bad” about something horrible that happened/happens to someone else because you’re not dealing directly with how horrible it was/is. White guilt is making every systemic oppression POC experience about the hurt feelings of a white individual, white guilt is that individual not wanting to have a discussion about racism because the topic is too painful “for them,” white guilt is a distraction that causes an emotional scene for white folks who never want to admit they did/do participate in injustice, white guilt prevents white people from owning our power and privilege because we are too busy pitying ourselves. I’m sure there are blogs where all of that happens, but this isn’t one of them.

For elaboration on these points, you can read this and this.

—DD

Tumblr Q & A: Defending Racism as “Art”

Q: Hello, I was going to write a long, drawn out response to your lady gaga burqa post, but it came down to fundamental perspectives, which we probably don’t share. Lady Gaga’s religion is arguably aesthetics, and she has always referenced “”‘disrespectfully'”” Christianity. I view her wearing a burqa not as rude, but as a way of portraying the beauty of such a garment. NO religion or culture should ever be immune to the hand of an artist.

A: Well I think you are using the words “religion” and “artist” way more liberally than I would ever use them. I agree that Lady GaGa’s “religion” is “arguable” to say the least: she does not worship at a church of aesthetics, there is no history of aesthetics as an institutionalized or organized religion, and there is not a bible of aesthetics outside a cute fashion quip of “this issue of Vogue is my bible.” Furthermore, Lady GaGa is not socially oppressed, institutionally disadvantaged, or racially stigmatized because of her aesthetics “religion.” White feminists don’t try to save Lady GaGa because she is “oppressed” by aesthetics. Even if she has spoken “disrespectfully” of Christianity, this does not then give her the right to appropriate something from Islam. This also does not give her the right to disrespect Islam.

The idea of Lady GaGa as an “artist” making an artistic statement of ‘appreciation’ is giving a pop star in a racist costume an awful lot of credit that I personally think she doesn’t deserve. It takes a shit load of white privilege to see this as something profound and to defend it as something artistic, rather than see it as the racist fashion gimmick it is. Followers: this is a perfect example of where a white opinion doesn’t matter. Even if you don’t think it’s “rude,” or if you think it’s acceptable for an “artist,” Muslim folks are telling us not to do this shit, they don’t appreciate it, and they don’t care what our intentions are. The opinions of the people who are directly affected by cultural appropriation are the only ones that matter.

The argument that religion or culture should not be “immune” to the interpretations and bastardizations of artists is a very old, very European one. This is the attitude Surrealists used when they stole shit from African cultures to inspire their “creativity,” or when Van Gogh painted exact replicas of traditional Japanese prints, or when Gaugin obsessively painted “primitive” Tahitian “natives.” Rousseau spent who knows how many hours imagining what POC in the “jungle” looked like… then painted them. When white folks claim culture and religion are fair game for “artists,” we are essentially saying everything is ours for the taking. The individual “freedom” of a white “artist” does not and should not take precedence over the  objections of POC; when it does, this is white supremacy at work.

—DD

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Tumblr Q & A: white Advice

Q: Do you have any sources which can help answer my questions? I looked for posts through my lists but none addressed this question. A black friend of mine said she hated her “black afro hair” and wishes it was straight and smooth. I told her I like her hair the way it is and she shouldn’t change it. Is that racist? Because when I think about it, I was still basically telling her what she should think, which seems racist.

A: I personally think that’s a good way to start thinking about our impulses as white folks when we talk to POC. From my interpretation of your question, it seems like the post you’re looking for as a resource would be about white folks giving advice to POC. It’s not a bad idea for a post at all, but I think I can sum it up pretty easily: just don’t do it.

When I started thinking critically about my own whiteness, I gave purposeful consideration to the assumptions and impulses that seemed small while interacting with friends of color. I realized that when I was in a position to give an opinion or give advice, I focused mainly on my good intentions and forgot about my race. After years of ongoing work, I consciously stop myself when I start formulating any opinions along the lines of “I think you should [fill in the blank]” when I talk to or spend time with people of color. I think this is one part of checking our privilege as white folks: understanding that our natural reaction to what POC say, even if we want to give a well-intentioned response, has been conditioned by years of living white white privilege and existing in a racist society. Even though we are tempted to share our thoughts and opinions, we need to remember we are speaking with white power and privilege.

I will say that I don’t find anything wrong with paying friends a compliment, or, more specifically, you telling your friend you like her hair the way it is. Offering a positive where most white folks would offer a negative isn’t a bad thing. But the fundamental problem I see in your situation/question is that your friend did not ask for your advice about what to do with her hair, making your advice unsolicited. So I also think you are right to see this impulse as racist—the desire of many white folks to have answers, opinions, and thoughts on pretty much everything that isn’t about them, is all about racism and white supremacy. There is nothing wrong with asking POC “Do you want my opinion?” before you even think of it, and there is also nothing wrong with saying “I’m white so I have no comment” if you are explicitly asked for your opinion.

As white folks, we are not likely to become unproblematic or arrive at socially conscious perfection any time soon. I’ve learned there are good reasons why POC do not want/need white opinions/advice. One major reason is that I have no business and no right counseling a person of color about their decisions (or their bodies) when the social consequences and social experience will never be the same for me. Our opinions as white folks don’t matter when we never have to worry about things like skin color, hair, or racism.

You’re on the right track and I hope this helps.

—DD

Tumblr Q & A: Same Racist Shit, Different Racist

Q: “racial privilege is still whites only”, and “white folks do NOT experience racism”, oh really? tell that to the one white kid living in the projects getting chased home from school everyday by kids with razor blades just for being white in the wrong neighborhood. privilege is relative, and systemic (aka institutional) racism is not the only form of racism.

A: Which one white kid am I telling this to? The one in your imagination?

The fact that there is only one white kid in your supposed example says everything. True or false, a single individual experience of harassment does not prove whites are equal victims of racism; what you’re talking about is prejudice. Even if whites get shit from POC, this doesn’t take away the power and privilege of having white skin in a racist society. This doesn’t mean POC suddenly have racial privilege. A person of color calling a white person a “cracker” or “chasing” them with razor blades (razor blades? really?) does not determine what their opportunities in life will be, it does not dehumanize them, and it does not make white supremacy disappear. Racism is prejudice and power, meaning POC do not gain any social, institutional, political, or individual power by calling out white folks.

If someone is harassed for “being white” in the “wrong” neighborhood, then the logical track of that argument means there are “right” neighborhoods for being white. That would be a result of the institutional racism you mentioned. If you understand that racism is not only systemic, then you should understand that racism is not only interpersonal either. When white folks have the systemic power of white privilege and the social power of being white, they could be chased down the street by POC with lions and assault rifles and this still wouldn’t be racism.

Give me something difficult to refute. These same old racist arguments are boring.

—DD