In the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, filmmaker Raoul Peck excerpts large sections of an interview that James Baldwin, the film’s subject, gave in 1968:
I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel by the state of their institutions … I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their unions. I don’t know if the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know that the real estate lobby keeps me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read, and the schools that we have to go to. This is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself … my children … on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.
Even in a downtown Manhattan theater, deep within the womblike comfort of the coastal-elite-NPR-tote-bag-carrying bubble, white people shifted in their seats during this scene, myself included. The discomfort was heightened, because the filmmaker juxtaposes Baldwin’s incisive words with glittery dancehall scenes from Hollywood’s golden age. In his New Yorker review of the film, Hilton Als describes the La La Land-imagery as an indication of “how whiteness views itself.”
While white America revels in the triumphant version of itself feted in splashy musicals, Baldwin and Peck offer a counter-narrative. So do Jordan Peele, the director of the film Get Out, and Justin Simien, whose 2014 movie Dear White People is in the process of being revived as a series on Netflix. These auteurs are interested in engaging whiteness, but not on whiteness’s terms. Peele, Peck, and Simien cast whiteness through a different lens, which has been honed over four centuries of being on the receiving end of white culture’s most oppressive tendencies.
This is not a lens through which white America enjoys peering for very long. When Netflix released a trailer for new episodes of Dear White People, a former BuzzFeed reporter called for a boycott, arguing that Simien’s satire advocated “white genocide,” a favorite bête noir of the alt-right. Armond White (seriously) of the National Review called Get Out an entry in the “Get-Whitey” genre, arguing that the movie plays on the “Trayvon Martin myth” to arouse sympathy for a black character.
It is a damning feature of white culture that makes myth creation the necessary antecedent to feeling empathy for a dead black child. That same feature – which we sometimes shorthand as “privilege” – led Camilla Long, in her review of Moonlight, to suggest that the Oscar-winning best picture is not “relevant,” because it does not revolve around whiteness. White privilege cannot tolerate the relevance of other cultures, as its sustenance depends on the perpetuation of a fiction about its own primacy.
In a critique of Long’s review, Josh Manasa posits that, “Whiteness maintains its dominance, in part, by presuming that we are incapable of doing or being anything outside of what it thinks of us.”
Another way that whiteness clings to power is by avoiding hearing or seeing what anyone else thinks of it.
All of these films challenge that avoidance strategy. Peck and Simien even construct their titles in the second person, addressing white audiences directly, leaving little confusion as to whose culture is being examined.
White faces have been behind the literal and metaphorical cameras of American culture since the country’s inception. What’s so important about the films of Peele, Peck, and Simien is that they all eschew a critique of cartoonish bigotry, in favor of shifting the frame to shed light on the passive acquiescence of white liberals to their own privilege. If the contrapuntal weight-shifting of my peers in the Manhattan theater was any indication, liberal white folks are aware that something is rotten in their state, but they have no idea how to stanch the decay.
Plenty of white audiences enjoy these films, because fortunately artistic appreciation does not require us to “like” the versions of ourselves we see in these metaphorical mirrors. Whether we like the reflections, however, has no bearing on their accuracy. White culture was built on a racial caste system that never went away, and it will never go away without outside pressure. Or to paraphrase someone who is being recognized more and more these days, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
The amplification of these nonwhite cultural voices has coincided with quixotic changes in the national political culture. Those mutations have unleashed a flurry of activity among the white liberals of America. We are protesting, marching, writing letters, promising to dismantle racism, and acknowledging the existence of white supremacy. What we continue to not do, however, is take adequate responsibility for the problems of whiteness.
In the rush to explain and understand the chimerical “white working class,” the white liberals of America have once again cast ourselves as innocent bystanders in a cultural war, looking for other people at whose feet we might lay the blame for America’s persistent injustices.
Peele, Peck, Simien, and Baldwin have a different, and more important, demand for liberal white America: be quiet, listen, and try not to freak out at what you see in the mirror.