As we’ve all watched the media reports, read the blog posts, checked our twitter updates, and rolled through Facebook notices, Trayvon Martin’s death has become our nation’s new “blindside.” For some, the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman, wasn’t a surprise at all, but for others, it felt like serious historical regression. Honestly, I’m surprised that the defendant wasn’t charged with anything given the details of the case.
As a white, privileged male, my first reaction to hearing the verdict didn’t match what I was seeing in the media aftermath. I honestly didn’t feel much, and hoped that everyone involved would be able to slow down, think clearly, and well…blah blah blah. By the way – that’s a confession, because since the ruling came out, I have seen and heard from so many who have felt very different to my indifference.
I thought about waiting and letting everyone else talk about it, blog about it, complain and rage about it…and then when it all settled down, I would feel license to speak on it to friends and family, but really no one else. You see, most privileged white males are afraid to say anything at this point, because it seems that anything will be scrutinized or subject us to being blindsided – so it ends up being safer to just hold our tongue.
Then, I realized that holding my tongue is also holding back my influence and responsibility. Silence only feigns wisdom, patience…and whatever other virtue I could attach to my inaction. Mistake or not, I know it’s right to speak up and speak out.
The Blind Side
I immediately was brought back to the day I realized that the film, The Blind Side, was a racialized film. The film depicts a teenage black character, Michael Oher, and how he came up from nothing to be a real-life pro football player. Sandra Bullock plays his well-to-do Southern surrogate mother. She takes him in after he’s been driven from his home by some dangerous drug-dealing black men who just don’t like him. His mother is a drug addict who warns Bullock’s character to give up because Michael will just disappear. But as the story goes, he doesn’t give up and the feel-good finish brings Michael a new white family, good grades in a white school and a winning spot on the mostly white football team. Yet not without portraying the white heroine, Sandra Bullock, as the cause of all this goodness.
Many have disagreed on the whether this film ended up being racist or not. Most notably, Thaddeus Russell, at the Daily Beast, argued that it is. His reasons, outlined below, show that the only positive black figure in the film, Michael Oher, is stripped down and redressed to be what Josiah Daniels calls “the white ideal of a black man.” Thaddeus writes,
“Though raised in Memphis housing projects, he uses no slang and dislikes the taste of malt liquor. Instead of Ecko and Sean John, he wears Charlie Brown-style polo shirts. His table manners are impeccable. He exhibits virtually no sexual desire. He is never angry and shuns violence except when necessary to protect the white family that adopted him or the white quarterback he was taught to think of as his brother…Though he appears to be made of (large amounts) of flesh and blood, Michael Oher performs miracles for white people…In other words, Michael Oher is the perfect black man.”
Some might counter Thaddeus by claiming that he is suggesting an unhelpful image that reinforces racial profiling (and they do). Either way, the film does us no favors as it attempts to resurrect what Thaddeus calls, “the black saint.” During the 1950 & 60s, white film-makers attempted to bring black actors into mainstream Hollywood with positive hero roles. To do so, they had to effectively portray the black hero in the same way that Michael Oher is described above. The problem is that in the film, The Blind Side, there are no other positive black characters portrayed. His family is denounced, his community reviled and being from a black neighborhood is demonized. The directors allow this backdrop to pull at our heartstrings, making the white community the new point of salvific residency.
Revealing Role Reversal
The question that turned my feel-good approval to disgust upon my first viewing of this film, was, “What would happen to this film if the racial roles were reversed?”
Here’s what would have happened,
1. It wouldn’t have topped the box office.
2. It wouldn’t have received any awards.
3. It wouldn’t have been widely acclaimed or celebrated.
4. Most importantly to Hollywood, it wouldn’t have made any money and no one would have cried.
Clothing As Kevlar
At “The Molinist,” Matthew Simmermon-Gomes reflects on what it’s like to be a young black intellectual and how the right clothing can be your kevlar,
“Karen Grigsby Bates observed today that this case has confirmed for blacks and members of many other communities of colour, that we still need to wear protective clothing. We must still, in her words, appear church-ready whenever we walk out the door. I have long described to white friends the process of dressing (or otherwise self-presenting) to ‘white’ myself. The way I dress in an academic setting, the way I speak and write, the extra-curricular activities I put on my resume as a teenager, all carefully considered to avoid any shred of ‘blackness.’ Why? Because blacks with the gall to be black, to act and speak as you have deemed ‘black,’ are rarely deemed worthy of your respect. In this world you have created for me my blackness is a handicap I must not acknowledge, a loadstone around my neck that I dare not draw attention to because then I will be the ‘activist;’ the ‘angry black guy’ who doesn’t know that MLK fixed the system, reshuffled the deck so now that everyone gets the same hand but who still needs to be Snoop Dog; or worse yet I will simply be criminal and suspect, a potential gangbanger who might be carrying so we better stop him just in case. So I must perform if I am to get ahead or even to get by. And perform I will, because I want nice clothes and good jobs and to walk down the street unhindered by the authorities. I will do so to please you and you will think it right.”
The Binary Black Man
After reading the reports of Trayvon Martin’s death and the ensuing legal battles, I was scared of what would and what wouldn’t happen. Upon hearing the verdict and realizing that a man with a gun followed a teenager because he profiled him, then killed him, then got away scot free – I knew the sickness of racism and prejudice was still festering in our country’s DNA. However the legal world sees this, there is something wrong with what George Zimmerman did and he doesn’t have to face the legal implications of that.
Many have decried that because the shooter is not white, this isn’t a racist issue. There are still too many non-black parents that would be okay with their children marrying anyone from any ethnicity or color except for someone from a black community – just ask them. This isn’t as much about racism in general but the incessant bane of racialization towards the black community that America just can’t shake. Many people, who won’t have their children marry a black partner, don’t think they are racist. To them, everyone has equal rights, they have (a) black friends, our country is healing from its slave history, etc. But we’re not healed, we just have different rules.
I think questions will clarify what I’m getting at more than anything else.
1. If you are not black, and you are a parent, do you have any hesitations about your children marrying a black partner more so than any other ethnicity/race?
2. If Trayvon Martin looked and acted like Michael Oher is portrayed in The Blind Side, would he have faced his encounter with George Zimmerman?
3. If the race roles in The Blind Side were reversed, would we have enjoyed the film as much and would it have done as well in the box office?
Today, the reason that Trayvon Martin is dead may actually be because the dominant American culture still prefers the “black saint” of the 1950’s – the western world’s ideal of a black man who’s been immersed in the baptistry of the dominant culture for all to regale. There are two kinds of binary black men that we want in this country – a canonized, culturally-sanitized and assimilated black saint like Blind Side’s Michael Oher…or a demonized, criminalized and infantilized black youth to justify Zimmerman’s vigilante score.
The dominant western culture cannot handle how the Trayvon Martins of the world blindside our power, influence and waning dominance, so we box them into these binary categories, asking,
“Why can’t they just accept the invitation to be another ‘black saint?’”
“Why don’t they join our multi-cultural churches?”
“Why don’t they pull their pants up?”
“Why don’t, why don’t, why don’t…?”
Whatever our opinion on this case’s outcome, the reason most people enjoyed Sandra Bullock’s feel-good film is the same reason that led to the death of Trayvon Martin today – he wasn’t the white ideal of a good black man, or in dominant culture speak – he wasn’t “the perfect black man.”