getting out: part I

I’ve never been strapped to a chair in preparation for lobotomy, but when I saw the horror in David Kaluuya’s eyes as his character’s desperate situation dawned on him, I discovered that the pounding of my heart in sync with his was not new…it was familiar.

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to watch Get Out with a group of my friends who are black. I had seen the teaser and assumed the movie would be about slavery ghosts or some drama like that. What I got instead hit uncomfortably closer to home. What director Jordan Peele accomplishes brilliantly (and disturbingly) through Get Out is that he creates a movie for black people in which we are allowed to be afraid.

Thanks to my family, I’ve seen my share of horror films, and a trend we mock constantly is that “the black guy’s gonna die first.” And he does–not always, but enough times in bloody, gratuitous ignominy that we can joke about it to shrug off the uncomfortable truths propping that reality. Get Out resists that narrative by presenting us with a black man who not only experiences terror and still makes it to the end of the movie blessedly alive, but who also gets to see his fear legitimized.

The latter part is especially compelling when you consider what his character is afraid of: white people. This movie has been criticized in some spaces for being “anti-white” and feeding into “reverse racism” because the circumstances in which Chris finds himself when he visits his white girlfriend’s family home are seen as exaggerated. The movie showcases him interacting with white people who squeeze his arm to admire his “genetic advantage,” who attempt to forge camaraderie with him by declaring they would’ve “voted for Obama a third time,” who ask him to speak to “black issues” and praise his existence because “black seems to be in fashion.” They definitely turn out to be on the extreme end of cultural appropriation by the movie’s third-act reveal, but what Peele ultimately points to is not a demonization of white people, but rather the very real fear and discomfort people of color carry into spaces where they are the minority. 

It’s vital that we center our analysis of the film on the experiences of the black characters rather than contesting the lack of “good” non-racist white characters that white audiences can feel safe relating to (even Hidden Figures surrenders to this trope). We enter the film through Chris’ black gaze, and that is subversive and rare both for the horror genre and for mainstream media.

We need to commit to this black lens because Chris is, in many ways, a stand-in for people of color who find themselves walking into a room of white people, preternaturally conscious of their Otherness. This doesn’t signify that those white people are malicious or intentionally hurtful; neither does it insinuate a space void of friendship or positive connection. That sensation of internalized difference is instead symptomatic of a society where color does hold differentiated weight and value, even if that truth lies unseen by those within the majority group. We have enough past and present histories to evidence that people of color have good reason to feel uncomfortable with white people when their embodied existence has been consistently devalued in so many ways–even by the most well-meaning people.

Devaluation and disenfranchisement take different forms, sometimes in the blatant examples of horrific mass incarceration rates, the headlines of a black teenage girl beaten by police for acting like a criminal, the mockery black celebrities like Leslie Jones endure for their atypical looks (when I say atypical, I mean she’s not white). But it’s worse when racism appears in casual, conversational, and normalized form because it’s overlooked and easy to dismiss by white people.

Racism outside the bounds of the hateful bigot who is easy to point to can seem innocuous, but it’s no less hurtful because of how it piles up. It looks like the absence of ethnically diverse church leaders, local authorities, and policy makers when congregations and neighborhoods are diverse. It emerges in the passive acceptance of injustices facing people of color and in victim-blaming. It’s wrapped up in compliments that exoticize a person of color and suggestions that they “be less angry” when sharing their experiences of racial pain. It shows up in the standardization of life practices, worship styles, dress, language, literature, theology, and media as normal only when they are based on a white Euro-American context. It can take form as stereotypes and the assumption that people of color are in the wrong, that they must factually prove their innocence and their pain to have a stage to speak.

We must extinguish the belief that racism equates to racial hate. Being confronted for acting or thinking in ways that maintain whiteness as the norm should not be perceived as an act of character assassination, yet there seems to be no greater crime than to be accused of racism (white and POC communities can do better in addressing this anxiety). Racism is a stronghold of sin that inflicts deep pain, but not on the basis that all white people hate black people; instead, it grounds itself in the lie that only bad people perpetuate it. The white people Chris meets at Rose’s home don’t necessarily hate him; they think they are doing the right thing in their approach to his blackness. However, their actions align with a racial narrative that outlines his blackness as something they can benefit from or downplay without personal cost. This narrative is real and pervasive in America, and it’s rooted, not in hate, but in blindness.

There is a collective unawareness among white people that our system of racial difference was created to reinforce the superiority of people classified as white (supplying the reason for why reverse-racism does not exist), and so it bleeds into both individual attitudes and institutional policies. It may have started with slavery, but the impact of that practice is felt in the here and now. And when racism is understood not solely as a posture of hate (since there are definitely still people bearing hatred towards people of color) but rather an assignment of meaning and value to physical differences, it becomes harder to address. Even if a person of color notices it and speaks to it, they risk being chastised as crazy or-the worst crime in Christian spaces-divisive.

To avoid this labeling, people of color may inure themselves to stand politely, speak diplomatically, and grip silence rather than point out when a white person has said or done anything offensive. Within the realm of race discourse, we classify this as “catering to white fragility.” White fragility is a term thrown around a lot whenever a white person gets upset about a person of color talking frankly about racism or confronting them about the ways in which they unconsciously hew to problematic racial ideas. In this case, I refer to white fragility as a dynamic that arises when a white person has a low threshold for experiencing the tension and discomfort that comes with conversations about race. This low tolerance of discomfort can result in the seeking of a quick exit from the conversation, a defensive posture as if responding to the subject as a personal attack (even if it’s not heated), or a rationalization of how they are not racist. The pot gets hot; they jump out.

This discomfort is understandable, and I empathize with my white brothers and sisters struggling with it. But there is a cost when a white person’s reflex is to avoid engaging with racial issues or critically reflecting upon both their experiences with race and those of their brothers and sisters of color. The burden is heaved upon people of color to navigate the racial systems they didn’t create and to heal the wounds dealt them. It’s the loneliness of that work, the weariness of that everyday resistance that engenders frustration towards white fragility.

I bring this up because fragility-like fear-is an experience that people of color are not usually afforded. Since our Otherness is stamped upon our features, and our society has imposed lenses through which to view us as alien, deviant, and threatening (the thuggification of Michael Brown highlights this), we can’t easily avoid conversations or experiences directly related to our race and ethnicities. Our communities suffer because of the historically-seeded narratives that frame our opportunities and identities, and so we enter the trenches to understand racism and struggle to dismantle it. We at least value our lives, and we know God does too.

For this reason, I think black people are familiar with walking in someone else’s shoes because you have to in order to navigate the minefield of feelings and reactions of white people in regards to race. It’s an anxiety that hinges on my words when I talk sometimes to my white friends, not only because I’m afraid of rejection, but because I’m afraid for them. Few people choose to make others feel uncomfortable or offended, and for a people-pleasing, way-too-apologetic woman like me, I lean into making myself a buffer to console white people rather than airing out the warring thoughts inside me. The lines between consideration and accommodation become blurred, and I get lost in the middle.

Tasha Robinson from The Verge speaks to how Chris mirrors this experience in Get Out:

It’s significant that Chris starts out as a passive, quiet, conflict-averse man who defers to white authority in every form. Peele has said that his target with Get Out was primarily the white liberal elite, the types who think President Obama’s election and their own open-mindedness have solved racism. And he’s unsparing in mocking them, in terms of making his antagonists not just ruthless, but laughable. Still, Peele spares a little side-eye for Chris, who’s willing to go along with anything to avoid causing trouble, and gets himself in trouble as a result. The entire film is about Chris coming to terms with his need to defend himself, to fight back, and to trust his instincts about who’s a threat, no matter how congenially they tell him that black skin is “in fashion” at the moment.

As Tasha points out, Chris appears as the “safe” black man at the beginning of the movie–someone white people can feel complacent around. He encounters white people who accentuate his difference and make him the anomaly of the room-even when they say color doesn’t matter- and with a hand-wave he responds: “It’s okay.” How many times have we said that to avoid bringing more attention to race or to our own anxiety about it?

In the beat before “It’s okay,” “It’s fine,” and “No big deal,” lies the reminder of who holds power in the room–and it’s not people of color. Peele explains that the inspiration for this movie came after Obama’s election and how the media touted this as a symbol of our post-racial age. We’re equal now. Race doesn’t matter. Yet in Get Out, Peele magnifies one of the consequences of this thinking: white Americans believe they don’t participate in racism. Even though the narratives surrounding black people and other people of color have been updated instead of altered (see: the Mamie, the submissive Asian woman, the Latino lover, the Thug), even though our system still disproportionately allocates resources to black people and disproportionately punishes them, even though our churches still struggle with segregation, this belief that people of color have nothing to complain about because we’re equal now is nationally circulated. This accomplishes much in rationalizing the patterns of collective inaction among white people, particularly white Christians, in respect to racial issues.

So when I tell my white friend in college that I feel self-conscious in class because I’m the only black girl in the room as we elaborate on the virtues of Western literature (which apparently don’t include black or Latino or indigenous stories except for spring electives) and she gently offers that I might be “paranoid,” I shut my mouth. I’m making a big deal out of nothing. When I attend formal events for work, I catch myself lapsing into the role of the conciliatory minority, smiling away microaggressions as they amass in my gut to be picked apart later. I don’t want to make a fuss. When I visit someone’s home and sit at their dinner table as the only darker-skinned person present, sometimes anxiety locks my spine straight because I just want to blend in as much I can, leaking only the parts of my cultures-the parts of my self-that will be safe here. I don’t want to stand out more than I already do.

I’ve been at that dinner table, that party lawn with Chris. I can still have a good time and enjoy the company of people I’m with, but there is this ever-present anxiety that accompanies me in predominantly white spaces that has rarely been acknowledged or validated. Instead, I’m pressured to blame myself for feeling this discomfort when in a group of white people. I’m reminded that I should be the one getting over it because clearly no one else but me has the problem. So my eyes widen when Chris is proved right. He is right in feeling tension. He is right in noticing something is wrong with the way he is treated. He is right to defend himself because he is someone worth defending. I keep rooting for him to get out of that house, that sunken place because I feel like I’m still clawing my way out of it.

the flesh to my bones

I’m tired of seeing the suffering black body.

The TV screen blinks off, taking with it the image of yet another poor African child staring at me with wide, hollowed eyes. The melancholic instrumental in the background fades, and I am left counting how many infomercials, news stories, and movie trailers I’d seen that week featuring black people in pain. I lose count and give up.

Growing up, I perked up whenever I saw a black or brown person on my screen. With hungry eyes, I tracked their presence, noting their gestures and shifts in expression like a good budding media critic (I used to read movie reviews for fun). I internally harvested each word from their lips and reaped a satisfied feeling of affirmation with each full line. My carefully maintained stores held the Lando Calrissians, the Storms, the Ravens and Tia and Tamera Mowrys on Disney Channel, the Keesha Franklins and Susie Carmichaels on Saturday morning cartoons, and every Will Smith character of the late 90s and early 2000s.

From a young age, I taught myself to find those who looked like me because, for some reason I didn’t understand, we were missing. I saw my Caribbean family, and the black and brown people at my church, and the residents of my abuela’s South Bronx neighborhood….and I saw that all these people were missing from my screen. The movies reigning at the box office and the TV shows garnering acclaim felt empty of their particular wit and wisdom. Later I would question why each major comedy or drama seemed to adhere to an invisible quota of one person of color per ensemble (two if they were especially progressive). When I was eight, I just saw the empty spaces and wondered.

The years have brought change, no doubt about that. When we have shows like black-ish and Empire and How to Get Away With Murder that have become must-see TV and rising stars like the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o and John Boyega and Michael B. Jordan, it’s easy to believe the leaps in representation and celebrate that. Independent producers such as Netflix and Hulu now produce their own content with increasingly diverse casts, extricated from the expectations of cable networks, and there is a new generation of social media-savvy youth keeping media producers accountable by pointing out problematic racial tropes and portrayals. The soil for equity is richer for these changes.

Outwardly, the conventional skin of our screens has darkened. However, beneath it perpetuate other disturbing trends and deeper gaps lying unacknowledged. While there have been increases in the number of characters of color in media, according to a 2015 UCLA diversity report:

73.1% of the actors in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 were white

Film studio heads were 94% white and 100% male in 2013

Television studio heads were 86% white and 55% male in 2013

Minority film writers were underrepresented by 3 to 1 in 2013

More than half (51%) of moviegoers were minorities in 2013

2016 has seen only incremental changes. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that brewed this year, highlighting the industry-wide racial disparities in media, and more articles pointing out the high volume of minority ticket-buyers as well as the predominantly white nature of film and TV agencies, “diversity” in media is once more a hot topic. When minorities comprise roughly 40% of the U.S. population, with numbers steadily increasingly, these statistics point to a stagnation at odds with the demographic trends of the country. Where you are seeing minorities, particularly black peoples: “ethnic-targeted” films produced by directors of color, independent films, and sitcoms. Where you see black people recognized in mainstream spaces: when they are suffering.

Out of the 88 years of its existence, the Academy Awards has awarded 14 black men and women for their film roles. That number rises to 32 when you include awards for producing, best picture, writing, music, and sound mixing (the latter two of which actually represent 37% of the awards). 95% of nominations up to this point have gone to white actors and actresses. Black individuals were nominated for roles spanning from historical figures such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, musicians (Dreamgirls and Ray), soldiers (Glory), and slaves or servants (Gone With the Wind, The Help, 12 Years a Slave). More disheartening was the overwhelming number of nominations given for roles that fit into what has become an all-too-familiar narrative of black people fighting against adversity or mired in destitute and violent situations (Hotel Rwanda, Monster’s Ball, Precious, The Color Purple, Captain Philips, Blood Diamond).

These performances deserve praise. The men and women populating them are exceptional. What bothers me is that stories with black people in them receive praise often within the particular bounds of a narrative of suffering. Our streets are presented as crumbling, our children as sullen and silent, our women as beleaguered and broken. We are framed amidst a context of waning, either necessitating a coded white savior or some other inspirational means of fighting the Villainous Ensemble of Slavery, Racism, Poverty, and Prejudice, often represented by white characters meant to be the blatantly immoral antagonists (only mean people are racist after all). We are the ones positioned as lower from the outset, requiring deliverance and the audience’s tears.

In many ways, this reflects a reality where black Americans are still underrepresented among professionals and over-represented among the incarcerated. Racism and the pervasive impact of past imperialism and current corporate exploitation continue to foment poverty and division on a global scale. We are still positioned as lower, and the media we watch reminds us of that everyday.

I hesitantly scroll past the slavery documentaries on Netflix and leave a powerful performance of the play Eclipsed with a heart anchored in grief and guilt. I know these stories matter, that people are suffering, and I must wake up daily to that reality…but I am also in a thwarted position as a black American. My American privilege may protect me from the unrestricted rape and grisly warfare of other places, but my black marginalization carves paths that signify fewer opportunities for me-despite my status as a college-educated woman-and it reminds me that I am susceptible to racial violence and discrimination. My body in the the land of the free awakens in confinement. 

I am weary of these realities being outlined as the crux of my story and the stories of black people. I read about them and write about them and learn more about them because there are lives at stake besides my own, but that is a hovering cognizance that will not leave me. I don’t need Academy Awards to remind me that racism is evil, and my veins contain more than just the assurance of marginalization. I thrift shop at Goodwill, spin poetry while bouncing to Motown tunes in Central Park, screw up a final paper in procrastinated glory, sway to bachata on crowded streets, binge on Netflix, memorize Star Wars facts and elven genealogies, rant for hours with friends about singleness, pinch my extending curves with sighs, practice curly hair conditioning after consulting YouTube, blubber when I watch The Sound of Music.

The vibrancy of these details, these nuances, collected in a life not solely defined by a trampled experience needs to be inhaled to refresh our visions of black people of all socioeconomic classes and countries and colors. These details transform a stereotype into a breathing person with a distinct story. They offer the complexity of being thoroughly seen rather than pitied. They give flesh to the bones of our tropesWhy doesn’t mainstream media allow black people to be organic beings rather than skeletal frames. Our scripts run with suffering or slapstick, sorrow or sass. 

As British blogger Nikesh Shukla puts it: “I realized that white people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences.” His declaration suggests that people of color are asked to resonate with white superhero gangs like the Avengers, with freedom-fighter Katniss, with the countless interchangeable leads in Nicholas Sparks love stories, but when stories of people of color emerge, they are relegated to the niche market. Our superheroes and freedom-fighters and romantics are apparently not relatable. Our stories are drenched in our otherness and therefore reserved only for people who inhabit our skins.

While there should always be a space for media oriented towards people of color, that is not mutually exclusive from white people taking the time to seek out, watch, and affirm black people in media. Just because it’s a story I can relate to better as a black woman doesn’t excuse a white media consumer to avoid films that feature predominantly black casts, dismissing them as “black films” and thus unnecessary to include in their personal canon. Though our specific experiences of race and color inevitably shape us, we are not built of archetypes like LEGO blocks. We are human and resonant yet unique and diverse in our laughter and weeping–and we should all be seen. I’m thankful for the good black films nourished in the niche market, for the black writers and producers fighting to bring our stories to the screen. But we shouldn’t settle for nesting in the niche; we should take wing to the heights.

The state of blackness in media represents a stringent tension because I need to know of black suffering, especially the types I have never experienced. I need media like Eclipsed to remind me of what goes on outside of my neighborhood, and my heart needs to be broken over what God already grieves for. I may be tired of the suffering black body, but I can never afford to avoid suffering black people, not because “they’re my age” or any resonating feature that brings them close to my experience, but simply because they are human beings that demand my acknowledgment and merit dignity in accordance to the ways their Creator formed them.

At the same time, we can acknowledge black suffering without romanticizing it or conferring it as the only definition of black life. Black stories transcend the impetus to white guilt and the assumption of progessivism. We can put my father on the screen. My friends. My church members. My co-workers. Not to be mocked, not to be side-kicks or servants, but to display the complicated, detailed brilliance of themselves. To afford the privilege of being realized as dimensional beings with mistakes, wounds, quirks, and little triumphs rather than quotas to fill or tokens to appease audiences of color.

I need to see what wanes, but when I wax like the moon and cradle shadows in my craters, I want you to see all of it.