Tag Archives: race

Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal

This is not simply a film about a well-publicized political prisoner (or cop-killer, depending on your perspective). It’s actually a comprehensive exploration in an array of issues surrounding race, imprisonment, and activism in modern America. Unlike many other documentaries on Mumia Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary focuses the least on the famous murder case (he was accused and convicted of shooting a Philadelphia police officer). Instead, the film introduces a rich background to that violent encounter, by describing the racialized history of Philly. Even W.E.B. DuBois warned in his famous ethnography—the first sociological study in the US—that Philadelphia was hostile, to say the least, about its Black residents (despite being the supposed “City of Brotherly Love”).

The modern city of Philly can be best understood by the segregation experienced post-World War II and the dominating presence of police chief Frank Rizzo (who personally singled out Mumia). Mumia arrives early in the founding of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, contributing in his young teens (!) to the Panther newspaper, thus beginning his career as a “revolutionary journalist”. And, no story of racism in Philadelphia is complete without including the story of the MOVE organization, which Mumia begins to cover as a reporter. MOVE is a radical Black freedom organization that attracts the ire of Philly’s city fathers and police department. All of this context helps to explain not only Mumia’s influences, but why Philly’s ruling elites were so interested in shutting him down, at all costs.

Other elements intertwine with Mumia’s personal story, particularly the rise of the prison industrial complex (which he will spend much time writing about and fighting as a jailhouse lawyer). The subservience of the press corp to powerful people and institutions is displayed in contrast to Mumia’s willingness to ask challenging, inquisitive questions of all (including President Jimmy Carter, of whom Mumia tells a funny anecdote, saying Carter once personally saved his job). After Mumia’s incarceration, he continues to work as a journalist. Most famously, he partners with NPR (although his program is canceled in the eleventh-hour before airing, thanks to a Republican offensive in the 1990s); other non-incarcerated journalists express amazement at how prolific he is, and with limited resources at his disposal. Mumia has taken the “opportunity” of the sterile, solitary environment offered by prison and works around the clock, reading and writing. Amazingly, he has never used the Internet and can only checkout a small handful of books at any time.

The extraordinary character of his life is testified to not only by the words of numerous interviewees in Long Distance Revolutionary, but also by the caliber of these interviewees. The film interviews a “who’s who” of the radical American Left, including Cornel West, Alice Walker, Michael Parenti, Dick Gregory, M-1 (from dead prez), Peter Coyote, Angela Davis, and Amy Goodman. Even figures that may surprise some appear, like Ruby Dee. These voices humanize Mumia (and consequently, all who have been locked-up in America), showing how he came to his beliefs and made his decisions. Humorously, Mumia states he wants to thank the Philadelphia police officer who (literally) kicked him into the Black Panther Party by beating him and his friends for protesting outside of a George Wallace political rally. He discusses the people he loves and the separation from his family (whom he has not physically touched for three and a half decades). Through it all, he is lively, entertaining, and funny. He sings, tells jokes, and relates funny stories (e.g., when he changed his name to “Mumia”, his mom refused to comply, calling him his given name, Wesley).

One of Long Distance Revolutionary‘s pleasures is its production value; the effects, sound, and color are all compelling. Many people (including some of the prominent people listed above), read Mumia’s words (and a few others), in artistic fashion, dramatically emphasizing the power of his words. Even though the film is clearly partisan and laudatory of Mumia, it starts with clips of anti-Mumia people, often spitting venom, disparaging him. These police and small business owners in Philadelphia (unsurprisingly, all white) seem unable to see Mumia as human and often view any support for him as heresy committed by cruel idiots.

Perhaps the most telling line from the film comes towards the end, from journalist Juan Gonzalez (who Mumia once invited to join a Black journalists organization, even though he is Puerto Rican). The moral commitment, intensity, and breadth of Mumia’s work (decade after decade) is impressive. Gonzalez notes that even though the movements that initially inspired Mumia have quieted and lost much of their steam and few public “revolutionaries” are visible in America, Mumia still refers to himself as a revolutionary journalist. According to Gonzalez, because Mumia has been in prison for so long, the system has “not had the opportunity to calm him down”.

Race: The Power of an Illusion (Part III: The House I Live In)

Even though it’s the third film in a three-part series, The House I Live In may be the most helpful for understanding the current state of racial affairs in the US (it’s the one I’ve shown the most in my classes). It covers both the social construction of race, how European ethnic immigrants became racially white, and how affirmative action benefited white people.

There’s a bit of an introduction at the beginning that helps to connect to the first two parts in the series, to make the case that race is not biological, but how that does not make it any less real. Race has social meaning and significance because there has been public policy and private action in support of it. The best way to see this happen is by following the history of immigrants who enter the United States, and whether they get classified as white or as something else. For the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant “race science” of the time focused on the struggles of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Of key concern to these supposed scientists was how these immigrants would be fit into the existing racial hierarchy. The impoverishment experienced by these European ethnic immigrants caused their neighborhoods to be dirty, unhealthy, and dangerous, thus leading to the conclusion that there was something “biological” about these groups that was inferior—their diseases, pathologies, crime, and intelligences were all allegedly linked to inheritable traits.

Of course, these new immigrants looked a little bit like the white Americans already in the US, definitely more so than Blacks from Africa or American Indians. It was unclear as to whether these south-east European immigrants were from separate races or “in-between peoples” who would eventually change race. This drives home the documentary’s point about social construction very clearly: these immigrants were not racially white then, although their descendants are considered white today. Or, as an interview rhetorically asks, what does race mean in conditions where individual US states could dictate the racial boundaries? For example, southern US states had different rules for who was Black—one-eighth, one-sixteenth, or any African ancestry—thus meaning that people could “literally, legally change race” simply by going over a state line.

For European ethnics, whiteness was the clear path to citizenship—one had to be considered white under law to be a citizen. Every other immigrant group knew this, too, and many petitioned courts to be considered legally white. This will surprise many viewers to hear: that someone’s racial status was not immediately known and that it could be legally changed. Various groups had successfully petitioned to be classified as white, particularly people from the Middle East and North Africa (the film doesn’t mention it, but the same thing was true for mestizo from Mexico). In other words, courts were in the business of ascribing race and, thus, citizenship to entire groups of people—often for the most spurious of reasons. Two cases studies are presented in The House In Live In: the first of a Japanese immigrant named Takawa Ozawa. He petitions in 1915 to naturalize and he argues that his skin was as white as most white people and that his beliefs were solidly American. He acted American, dressed American, his children only had white friends, and they attended a Christian church. The US Supreme Court, however, ruled that he was not biologically white (given the faulty racial science of the day), but rather Asiatic. Only months later, the Supreme Court decided another race case, this time pertaining to Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind. This time, Thind makes the scientific “argument” that he is Caucasian, because Indians are classified as Aryan. Unsurprisingly, the Court reverses its earlier logic, denying that this scientific reality means anything of substance and that “the common [white] man” knows perfectly well how to discern whiteness. And, to the all-white male Court, Thind and other Indians were not white. Due to these decisions pertaining to Asian immigrants, many Japanese farmers in on the West coast had their land taken from them and other Indian immigrants had their naturalized citizenship stripped from them. The film argues that still today, people of Asian descent are not considered American, even when they’ve lived in the United States for many generations; FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is just the most extreme proof of this.

After World War II, most of the meaning behind European ethnic differences melts away (a few religious incongruities aside). The key racial questions had always centered on Black-white, and this again becomes the dominant concern in the post-war era. Whiteness is of central significance as it grants exclusive rights and the now-legitimate “hard-work” of whites will enable social mobility. Middle-class status is achieved for many of these newly-assimilated whites by government-funded and -enabled affirmative action programs. The House I Live In does not make this explicit (although it is essentially arguing it), that European immigrants entered the middle-class due to affirmative action that raised their standards of living, gave them access and resources, and specifically gave them land and housing. The film focuses here on the Federal Housing Administration’s efforts to broaden homeownership in the US and Levittown, New York serves as the example to show this. Like most new suburbs, incoming residents to Levittown were overwhelmingly white. Blacks had trouble gaining access to racially-exclusive neighborhoods, but also to getting any government-subsidized loans because the minority neighborhoods they lived in were given high-risk security ratings. Financial underwriters warn against investment in minority communities (labeled as bad investments) and thus classified neighborhoods, in part, based on racial composition, assigning them the color red: thus, “red-lining” is born. These minority neighborhoods stay minority-dominated, because people of color couldn’t get loans there. Economic resources go elsewhere—mainly to whites and to suburbs—thus exaggerating the poverty of minority neighborhoods. Non-whites constitute only two percent of all the government loan recipients!

Being white is thus associated with being a homeowner. Even working class whites get this opportunity and they can even live in suburbs. Racially homogeneous suburban communities are created, while Blacks are particularly left out of new housing markets. Then, the federal government engages in “urban renewal”, deciding to get rid of old housing stock. This overwhelmingly affects people of color. The government does not replace the majority of this housing and new public housing is cited in poor, minority neighborhoods and built as “vertical ghettos” (tall apartment buildings). When the Fair Housing Act enables minorities to have access to all-white neighborhoods, some middle-class Blacks are able to move. When they do, they take their [modest] wealth with them (and out of the poor minority neighborhood). And their new white neighbors’ racial fears are preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders who offer them cheap prices for their houses, so they can leave before the threatened “racial invasion” happens (this process is called blockbusting). People claim that the influx of minorities lowers the housing values of a neighborhood, but it is clearly the quick abandonment by whites who undersell the value on their houses that does this. In other words, minorities do not cause problems for housing values and neighborhood stability—white racism does. The resulting white flight leads to ever more suburbanization.

The film ends by considering how it could be possible for the US to be a “colorblind” society. Even though The House I Live In was made in the pre-Obama era, the analysis remains the same: stark racial inequalities, including an incredible racial wealth gap (as most American’s wealth is held in housing equity), gives lie to the claim that we live in a post-racial society. Even though MLK spoke famously about such a colorblind future, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva observes that many white Americans believe that such a future has already arrived, and thus the concept of race is unimportant, maybe even meaningless. But he and others make the strong case there race must be part of any analysis in a society unequal by race. They quote Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun who said that the only way to deal with racism is to talk about it openly and not pretend it doesn’t exist. In other words, the path to colorblindness, can only result from a very colored national discourse and reconciliation.

Topics: race, social construction, inequality, whiteness

The Canary Effect

It’s probably uncommon for a documentary about genocide against American Indians to be directed by members of an indie rock band, but The Canary Effect is just such a film. It is a compelling overview of the history of European relations with American Indians in the Western Hemisphere, beginning (of course) with Columbus. Unlike most of the fairy-tale tellings of the period, the film emphasizes the words of Bartolomeo de las Casas, a priest who traveled with Columbus, who advocated on behalf of the indigenous people that Columbus met, enslaved, and slaughtered. Thus, a film on Native Americans begins on the correct footing: discussing how Europeans’ first impulse in the “new world” was to exterminate those they considered “lessers”. This helps to put the documentary on course to destroy the Columbus mythology.

Through interviews with a few academics and many more American Indians, including Ward Churchill, The Canary Effect steps viewers through all five of the criteria of the international convention on genocide, demonstrating very clearly that what has happened to American Indians has been unequivocally genocidal. (Thus, the fairy-tale of Western and American exceptionalism begins to disappear…) The US army engaged in targeted killing of Indians, including the massacres at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, conveyed smallpox-infested blanked to tribes, forceably relocated Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes from the US southeast to Oklahoma (which included the devastating Trail of Tears), and scalp bounties. The latter will likely stick in viewers minds longer than the others, which are moderately well-known; fewer people know that every state, colony, and territory in the US (except for Alaska and Hawaii) had at some point a “bounty” that the state would pay to white citizens who rendered an Indian “scalp” (the bloody red pulp of their head), including for children.

Another characteristic of genocide is the creation of conditions that lead to the death of a group; in the case of American Indians, reservations today are the poorest places in the US, with the poorest farming land and few jobs. The result is that Indians have the shortest life expectancy and some of the worse health outcomes of any race in the US. The prevention of births also qualifies as genocidal, as doctors through the Indian Health Service sterilized Indian women over a period of many decades. Many of these sterilizations were done without informed consent. Estimates are as high as 40 percent of Indian women of child-bearing age may have been sterilized—this is likely a cause to the noticeable drop in fertility rates for Indians during the late-middle part of the twentieth century. Finally, genocide can also result from the “transfer” of children. By taking multiple generations-worth of children from their families on reservations, and placing them in religious “boarding schools”, the US government aimed to “kill the Indian, save the man”. The schools’ goals were to teach Indians English, have them worship Christianity, dress as Westerners, and so forth. Children were prevented from seeing their families, speaking their native languages, practicing traditional customs and religion, or wearing Indian-style clothing. Shockingly, approximately half of all American Indians went through the boarding school system over a multi-decade period; of those who did, half did not emerge from the experience alive. Deaths resulted from starvation, neglect, abuse and violence, exposure (many tried to escape and go back home), and—as one interviewee puts it—from sadness.

In other words, it’s impossible to deny the post-“contact” experience of Native Americans in the United States as anything other than genocide. The interviewees label it very clearly as a process of colonialism: everything about Indian life is turned upside down. The boarding schools were simply the last step in colonization. Today, half the Indian population lives in urban settings and are nominally-Christian—these are the children of the boarding school system. And the resultant effect of this colonialization is detailed in the second half of The Canary Effect.

The sources of the shortened life-span for American Indians are many, but they include alcoholism, suicide, and violence. Alcoholism is always a side-effect of life circumstances, especially depression. It is a way of coping with a hopeless and joyless existence. Thus, many Indian people drown their sorrow in temporary fixes, neglecting family and their bodies in the process. The link between alcoholism and depression is most pronounced in the epidemic of suicide amongst Indian people, especially youth. Nearly every child at Indian schools either knows someone who has attempted suicide or they have tried it themselves. Some of these children are so young that it breaks your heart (I have shown The Canary Effect three times in classes, and each time sizable portions of the class cry when the film discusses the suicide of a very young girl who hangs herself).

Other violence stalks Native communities, in the form of predators—including sexual predators (Indian women face a very high rate of sexual assault and rape, many of which are hard to prosecute since perpetrators are non-reservation residents). One woman describes a male doctor reaching out to help her with her depression, only to discover that he has plans to have sex with her instead. Then, one of the most deadly school shootings in US history occurs on the Red Lake reservation in Northern Minnesota. Not only did the shooter have a predictable history of depression and suicide in his family, but the national news media looked away. In fact, it takes then-President George W. Bush a week to even comment on the tragedy. (Perversely, the film includes what first appears to be a very poor-taste cartoon of a person going on a shooting rampage, while describing the shooter… only to then tell the audience that the cartoon was made by the killer himself and posted on the Internet before the tragedy.)

Not only do politicians like Bush seem indifferent to Indian issues, they also don’t seem to understand them. For example, Jesse Jackson mocks Bush’s inability to describe the basic concept of Indian sovereignty. They also seem unable to understand what trust responsibility means; for example, the California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tirades against the “theft” of Indian gaming. The “Governator” articulates the common American misconceptions when he assumes that such gaming is a huge profit-making enterprise; the majority of reservation-based gaming has very low returns and the most profitable enterprises are run by some the US’s smallest tribes. In other words, Indians in general are barely benefiting from gaming.

The long-term trauma of genocide (of which the boarding schools is an illustrative example) continues to affect subsequent generations, just as addiction and psychological disorders are passed down from parents to children. Churchill argues that in order to reverse the multi-generational effects of colonialism, North American decolonization is necessary. The interviewees also make an analogy with Iraq, wherein the US attacked and decimated the country, leading to what will surely be decades-long problems. This is akin to the colonization of American Indians by the US, and until that process is stopped and the wrongs are righted, the negative consequences will continue. Of course, the United States does not seem eager to address this issue, let alone to return all the land that is appropriated through the violation of hundreds of treaties. Notably, The Canary Effect ends by observing that the US government mismanaged the funds generated by leases of Indian resources on reservations, and did its job so poorly that it could not determine who was owed proceeds. Then, the government refused to pay anything and spent the money on other things. In other words, people may occasionally mention the wrong done to Native Americans, speak favorably about Indian culture today, or even speak superficially when visiting Indian Country (as Clinton did just once). But few are willing to come to terms with how the US economy’s prominence is directly due to the incredible resource base the US controls through its conquest of American Indians (and stolen African labor from slavery). The Canary Effect describes the impoverishment and misery of American Indians as the “canary in the coal-mine”, to indicate to any who will listen that something dangerous and deadly is happening with the American Project.

Topics: race, colonialism, genocide, Native Americans, political sociology

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

The Media Education Foundation movies that analyze popular culture, like Reel Bad Arabs, introduce people to the important work of deconstructing the hegemonic assumptions that American culture presents about other peoples. This documentary specifically considers the meta-narratives about Arab peoples (as well as Muslims and those living in the Middle East generally), to determine how Hollywood has chosen for decades to depict such people. Unsurprisingly, offensive and racist themes have appeared since the earliest silent films. Reel Bad Arabs focuses on Jack Sheenan’s research (including a book of the same name) that considered over 1,000 Hollywood films and discovered repeated stereotypical representations that reflect what Edward Said described as “Orientalism”: the West’s inaccurate depiction of the Middle East, which helps to justify European domination and colonialism. Once these depictions are placed back-to-back in a focused documentary like this one, the patterns are hard to ignore, deny, or excuse.

Sheenan identifies one of the first themes as “Arab Land”. Movies regularly include gross generalizations of this region, including flying carpets, snake charmers, wealthy and ignorant sheiks, harems full of women (including white women held hostage), desolate desert, violent culture, castles with torture dungeons, and belly-dancers. The part here that surprise audiences the most (I have shown this in Race classes before) is how subliminal the lyrics are in the opening song of the Disney cartoon Aladdin. The lyrics are crude and offensive, but many people never think about how problematic they are until they are highlighted in Reel Bad Arabs. Also, Sheenan points out how Arabs are often inserted into films that have little to nothing to do with the Middle East, often for a cheap laugh or to provide random script direction (e.g. Back to the Future, Father of the Bride 2, Network).

Other themes center around the perceived violence and irrationality of Arab peoples, especially Palestinians. Thus, the shtick of PLO freedom fighter, airline hijacker, suicide bomber, barbaric mercenary, and murderer of innocent people appears regularly. Sheenan notes that the “packaging” of these characters has evolved beyond the typical stereotypes to include Western-looking Arabs and even Arab women, who are both are presented as violent and deadly as those older stereotypes. While the “threat” faced by Americans coming from Arab peoples is no more than anywhere else in the world, there is an over-representation of such imagery, and it seems intended to frighten audiences and to generalize these expectations to all Arab peoples. Films like Trues Lies, Delta Force, and Rules of Engagement all present these images.

Sheenan states that three key things seemed to exaggerate these depictions: the foundation of the state of Israel (and the subsequent Palestine-Israel conflict), the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, and the 1979 Iranian Revolution (and American hostage crisis). These events seemed to have further soured American culture to people from this region and has led to a proliferation of these stereotypes. It’s important to note that these hegemonic stereotypes about Arab peoples reinforce American political, economic, and military domination of the Middle East. It is not surprising that many “war movies” now get approval and cooperation from the US State Department.

A more modern extension of these themes has included Islamophobia (or the hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims). The prejudicial association of Islam with terrorism is key here. Even TV shows like Sleeper Cell or 24 involve stereotypes that center in on the incredibly narrow demographic of Islamic fundamentalists. Of course, skeptical viewers could claim that Muslims in general support the actions of such fundamentalists, but this is a red herring, since they do not support violence any more than the average American Christian supports violence—such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (although most such Americans do not fall into the category of politicized, Christian fundamentalists). In all of these depictions of violent Arabs and Muslims, film audiences are regularly treated to dead Arabs and Muslims who are killed, or as Sheenan puts it, “slaughtered”, but via “a righteous slaughter”.

A further contribution of Reel Bad Arabs is to contextualize what the real Middle East is like, asking film audiences to “get real”. Sheenan does a great job debunking stereotypical representations, by showing that much of the Middle East is educated, secular, family-oriented, and includes empowered women (who often constitute the majority of college students)—just like in the United States! Sheenan also points to new(ish) films that break the mold and provide better, more accurate, and complete representations of Arab peoples. He highlights A Perfect Murder and Hideous Kinky, in which Arabs and non-Arabs relate to each other peacefully and respectfully. Or Kingdom of Heaven, whose ending shows the Muslim ruler Saladin respect Christianity by placing a Cross back on a church alter. Finally, Syriana, Three Kings, and Paradise Now include very real, nuanced depictions of Arab peoples, who are not sugar-coated, but are shown to be real, three-dimensional people. These final films help audiences to understand that even when Arab peoples may do things that others dislike or disapprove of, that there are reasons for it and that the application of broad generalizations and stereotypes is a mistake.

It would be hard to not recommend Reel Bad Arabs to American audiences, since it targets some of the deeply-rooted prejudices that American culture has taught for generations. In deconstructing these stereotypes, the objectives of Hollywood (and its closely-tied interests with American state-power) are revealed. Additionally, the documentary points a way forward; as Sheenan states, stereotypes will change because young filmmakers and image-makers will make it change. Reel Bad Arabs provides those people and others with the analytical ammunition to understand how it can change and why it must change.

Topics: race, Orientalism, racism, mass media

Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North

There’s something alarming about the fact that Traces of the Trade wasn’t made sooner—decades sooner. But, now that it’s available, audiences should watch it. Especially Americans. People living in the US have a largely amnesiac view of their own society; even while people “know” that African slavery and Indian genocide occurred, most do not know details, understand why they happened, or realize what the continued significance of them are today.

Traces of the Trade is directed by a descendant of the DeWolf family (Katrina Browne), who were the largest slave traders in United States history. While many white people are fond of saying: “My family didn’t own slaves” (although most of those people have never actually looked, to find out!), few have asked if their family benefited in any way from slavery. And few have likely benefited as much of the institution of slavery—outside of owning slaves—than wealthy slave-traders and their financiers. Thus, the director gathered together as many sympathetic family members as she could find, to travel their family’s history along the infamous slave-trade triangle: from their base in Rhode Island, to the source of African slaves in Ghana, to where the family’s economic interests in Cuba were. She invites many of her relatives, but the majority never bother contacting her, while some caution her not to take this journey, as it would bring attention and shame to the family name.

Her trip ends up being transformative for her family, but it will also be illuminating for audiences, too. The documentary helps to adjust the common assumption that slavery was exclusively a Southern thing. Of course, slaves had lived in Northern colonies for a very long time, too. But, more pertinent, was that Northern slave-traders and their financial backers were often based in the North (thus the strong economic centers of capital, banks, and the like in the Northeast). In order for the Southern institution of slavery to exist and persist, someone had to help support it economically—and many Northerners did. The message is clear: don’t be so smug, white Northerners, about the South’s history of slavery. The blood and violence the institution wrought has tainted all of America.

In order to reconcile what white DeWolf family members knew of their own family history and what the institution of slavery was really about, their travels provided them with numerous opportunities for reflection. One DeWolf cousin experiences a transformative moment when the family is visiting a slave fortress in Ghana. They spend time in a slave holding cell, then later in the day he reflects with his cousins upon how all sorts of “experts” had been telling them along their journey that they had to understand slavery in the context of its time. Allegedly, slavery must be understood on the terms of those historical figures, not via a modern, reflexive lens. But, he remarks that this is “bullshit”, since “they knew what they were doing was wrong”. Due to these experiences, a small slice of the director’s DeWolf family becomes active to pressure for changes. The director herself pursues efforts to influence the Episcopal Church’s (her religious faith) official statements about slavery. As white parishioners, they work alongside Black parishioners to influence stronger language against slavery, including for reparations.

Unfortunately, the voice features no real prominent Black voices in support reparations, except for the Black woman the director uses to engineer her family’s travels and interviews. This woman sometimes travels in front of the camera to forcefully explain some of the historical realities of slavery and what it means for present-day race relations. The irony of the DeWolf family members’ connection to slavery is that while they can profess to be non-racist today, the benefits of white supremacy have been accumulated within the family already, thus providing a class privilege. Nearly all of the cousins have Ivy League backgrounds, yet often cannot see how their family’s slave-trader history contributed to that upward mobility. One claims that the DeWolfs lost their money at one point, as if to explain away any possibility of them gaining advantage in America.

Traces of the Trade raises an important, but likely scary question—one that needs answering, but that most whites will wish to fervently avoid. How many other white Americans can trace their family genealogy to slavery? How could the process of searching for this history—and possibly finding something that most whites assume their families have no connection to—transform their perceptions of white privilege? Would they think differently about the regular claims of white Americans that to be “color-blind” is the best approach to dealing with racial inequality? Given how incredible the institution of slavery has been—to say nothing of genocide against Native peoples—how can we not afford to come to clearer terms with the legacy of these phenomenon and try to rectify their devastating consequences in a way that transcends simplistic and cop-outs (like declaring discrimination to be illegal and thus irrelevant today)?

Topics: race, inequality, historical sociology, social change, economic sociology

Whitewashed: Unmasking the World of Whiteness

A provocative film, that is also the perfect length to show in a class, Whitewashed flips the typical narratives about race upside-down. Instead of whites bemoaning “political correctness” or even asking people of color to articulate their experiences of inequality, this documentary approaches white Americans about their experiences as whites. Some interviewees are of the “people on the street” variety, often expressing the former sentiment above, of “what’s the big deal?”. But, most of the interviewees are reflexive whites, who have thought a good deal about their racial privileges—and many are even avowed anti-racist activists. The only “famous” interviewee is Tim Wise—whose inclusion seems to have provoked neo-Nazi rage in the comments section on the YouTube copy of the film, who seem to suspect am anti-white, “Zionist conspiracy” (an articulate person—even a white person—talking about racial inequality seems to be enough to piss-off Nazis). But, interestingly, the film is an all-white space in which whites dialogue about that which they rarely talk about: whiteness. The film includes a wide variety of perspectives, but is far more illuminating than the average conversation about race amongst whites.

Whitewashed addresses a variety of questions regarding whiteness. The first question—where’d white people come from?—seems unanswerable to the average person. The anti-racist interviewees, however, note the appearance of “whites” occurring alongside European immigrant assimilation to the US. Giving-up their ethnic heritage allowed these immigrants to acquire the benefits of “whiteness” in America. The most provocative questions—and the ones that garner the most interesting answers—pertain to what it means to be white, and white people’s experiences with racism and privilege. As it turns out, while most whites never reflect upon their race, while anti-racist whites acknowledge that their whiteness offers them an incredible array of privileges, especially vis-a-vis minorities.

There’s a lengthy series of interviewees reflecting upon their privileges; being able to avoid racial profiling (especially by the police) seems to be a key one. A viewer might attribute a certain level of bravery to the interviewees who reflect upon their experiences of privilege, the shabby treatment of people of color (sometime inadvertently at their own hands), and what that means for their lives today. Admitting to be a racist—as one older male does early on—is a powerful admittance. But, as a younger woman reflects later, understanding the consequences of being raised in a racist society and holding racist views, was something that was largely out of her hands—therefore, she focused on dealing with her latent racism and carrying on with her life trying to be a better anti-racist.

The film’s aesthetic is appealing: old photos of European immigrants entering the US is juxtaposed with all black-n-white interview footage (the political message to this “colorless” choice is clear). The transitional music is light and playful, which is unexpected given the heavy-handed, sinister music that often accompanies documentaries of this variety. The film’s director is a sociologist and organizer, as well as the director of the Mary Turner Project, which was established to commemorate the life of the lynched Black woman named Mary Turner, as well as the event and institution that facilitated her death in southern Georgia in 1918. As a racial education and reconciliation project, Whitewashed fits well within the mission of generating a deeper dialogue about the meaning and significance of race and racism, especially amongst whites, who seem oblivious to it and who are arguing even more avidly about its supposed irrelevance.

For the sake of transparency, I must admit to knowing the director. I even appear in the film and am shown as a relatively competent, reflective white person. That said, one of my favorite parts of watching Whitewashed was the venue I was able to first see it in. The premiere public showing included numerous other interviewees in the audience as well as many dozens of college students, roughly evenly split between white and Black. The discussion afterward was amazing and just what I assume the director desired. White students seemed impressed to hear other whites speak so candidly about race and their own privileges—something whites rarely do amongst each other. Black students were shocked by both how much privilege whites has in relation to them and that some whites were actually very aware of it (on both counts, the Black students didn’t know whites “got away with” so much, nor did they think any whites understood how much discrimination and inequality people of color experience). After the film, both white and Black students told personal stories that reflected upon things that interviewees had said (especially in respect to differential treatment by police), which helped to create a fascinating discussion around whiteness.

There’s a challenge or two, to viewing Whitewashed. Audiences will have to watch closely in order to distinguish between the “a-racial” person on the street and the anti-racist interviewees. Sometimes there’s overlap, but usually the consequences of what they say is starkly 180-degrees in difference. Generally, the a-racial people are actually outside, while most of the anti-racist are interviewed indoors (but this is not 100 percent the case). The ambiguity between these two poles of opinion might help people be as critical as possible about what is said.

The only other thing that a studious observer might note about the people included is that, while diverse in terms of gender (and maybe sexuality), the anti-racist whites seem much more middle-class, at least judging by how articulate they are (indicating their higher socio-economic status). The a-racial people on the street sound more working class and have much stronger Southern accents. While this may perpetuate stereotypes about racist “rednecks” and more “enlightened” middle-class whites, this is not universally the case, and Whitewashed avoids making easy caricatures for audiences to fall for.

The best contribution of Whitewashed—beyond getting people to talk about race and whiteness—is that is shows the part of the “race conversation” that seems to always be overlooked. The people with race privilege, often staffing the bureaucracies involved in institutionalized racist discrimination, and who decry raising issues of race (let alone admitting to its importance), are usually white. To ignore these patterns is tragic. Hearing whites—in some respects, modern-day John Brown, white-privilege-defectors—talk about these privileges and the resultant problems is an important experience for everyone. The film informs people of color that they do have some white allies and it puts other whites on-notice that not everyone sharing their skin color is of the same mind about what it means to be white in America.

Topics: race, inequality, whiteness, privilege