Diversion and deflection

Sometimes it’s hard not to think of racism as this covert agency that operates with malign intent and awesome effectiveness, like the bad guys in “Homeland” (check out this corrective to that addictive but repellent show). I guess you could call that agency America. But the concept of intent is a troubling one for me. I’ve said repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere that I am racist. I usually come at it in quick asides, because I’m so afraid of being taken out of context, but it’s very clear to me from the amount of racist cross-talk in my head on a daily basis, as well as the actions I commit. A terrible story from college: A white friend of mine was mentoring a black boy who was about ten or eleven years old. I came upon the two of them at a table, and when I sat down and greeted my friend, I said to the child, “Don’t steal my purse.” Okay, this was twenty-odd years ago, but I believe that kind of deep-rooted, instinctive bigotry doesn’t go away—I can only work to counteract it.

Now I didn’t intend to hurt that child, though I almost certainly did. (Maybe he didn’t hear?) And sometimes racism in America is the intentional work of one person or a group of people: redlining and the history of housing is an example. But what about the racism of our movies, television, literature and other cultural productions? I’d venture to say most of these are created by people with good intentions and averagely high moral standards. A disinterest in addressing racism is often the worst you can accuse them of (though that disinterest is, of course, a big problem). So who’s at fault when, as our public discourse about inequality evolves, the racism in our culture evolves and develops as well, hiding more effectively in plain sight? Who’s running this agency that increases in sophistication as quickly as our efforts to unmask it?

Here’s an example of what I mean. This weekend Kyle and I rewatched some “Alias” episodes from 2001. “Alias” is not a show that improves on second viewing, but I noticed something I didn’t really get when I first saw it, about five years ago. Sydney Bristow has a black best friend, Francie, portrayed by Merrin Dungey. Of the concept “black best friend,” TV Tropes notes:

This is a black character whose role either A) revolves almost entirely around a white character or B) serves as a conscious effort for a white character/writer to appear inclusive. Simply being black as well as friends with a white character does not automatically make a character this trope. A black character who’s shown to be just as relevant as their white counterparts does not count. Black characters with their own story, their own distinguished identity and goals [or] characters who undergo personal growth shouldn’t be listed. . . . See also Magical Negro, Token Minority, Satellite Character, and Gay Best Friend.

And Sydney’s B.B.F. fits this to a T. The first season is larded with scenes of a dewy-eyed Francie gazing adoringly at Sydney, or sincerely thanking Sydney for being there for her, or reliably being there for Sydney. At the same time, there is a completely lack of verbal acknowledgement that Sydney and Francie are different colors. It’s like the subject of race is locked up behind a hermetically sealed narrative wall.

Watching this, I started to get a suspicion that a newer show would handle the issue differently. Maybe I’m just projecting my own increased awareness over the past decade, but it seems to me that if “Alias” were to be written now, the show would at least make a feint at the race issue, if only to dismiss it. So I looked up the first episode of “True Blood,” from 2008. This is another series whose kickass white heroine who has a black best friend, but Tara is presented in a highly raced way from the start. In her first scene, she calls herself “uppity,” plays with racial stereotypes by threatening to send her “babydaddy who just got out of prison” after her boss, and calls him and a customer racists. The script puts Tara’s blackness right in the viewer’s face.

Yet “True Blood” is not a less racist show. Tara and Lafayette, the main characters of color, are routinely used to prop up the goodness and whiteness of Sookie. In later seasons, the show puts them through physical agonies that would be unthinkable if inflicted on Sookie, and then there are the blatantly stereotyped characters like Tara’s mother and Jesus’s Mexican relatives. What the show does, I think, with Tara’s proud black anger and Lafayette’s campy wit (“What the fuck is it with white people and Jell-O?”) is to highlight race for the very purpose of deflecting the white viewer’s anxiety about race. It’s a way of saying to us, “Hey, we know you don’t want to watch something that’s racist, so here, we’re going to wave this racial dialogue at you, see? How can we be racist if we talk about it? And have recurring characters of color? No need to worry. Relax and enjoy.” I see this divert-and-deflect manoever everywhere in pop culture lately, from the solemnly virtuous brown characters in “World War Z” to the common idea that Obama and Powell made it, so any black person can. It’s a fancy brand of tokenism, a sleight-of-hand that substitutes the appearance of equity for real discussion.

So back to my original question: who’s doing this? Again, very few people involved in cultural production probably have consciously racist goals. But then who’s responsible for the pervasive racism in our culture? For me, the answer has to be white people, in general, all of us. We can’t say nobody owns this problem, because then it will never be solved. And although internalized racism exists in communities of color, it would be outrageous to suggest that POC are responsible for their own oppression. By a process of elimination, the problem belongs to me, and I am responsible.

I saw “12 Years a Slave” in the middle of writing this post. Although I bristled at the sudden appearance of Brad Pitt as the deus ex machina, I was moved by his character’s final statement: “I will write your letter, sir. If it brings you your freedom, it will be more than a pleasure; it will have been my duty.” Exactly because he is white, Bass has the power to save Northup, and he accepts this power as his responsibility despite personal risk. I’m not sure I would be brave enough to do the same.

One comment

  1. Mr. S says:

    I suspect this gets me placed on a Racist Bingo card, but Alias was an extremely superficial show, and it’s hard for me to imagine how it would have addressed the racial difference of Francie and Sydney without entering another genre altogether.* I think making one character black and then not doing anything politically positive with it maybe beats just having another all white show, and I think the dewy-eyed gazes were a problem of how relationships between women look on tv more than anything. That said, it is a show that (as you say) holds up pretty badly and I haven’t revisited it at any length other than to watch the last eight minutes of season 2, aka the best fight scene ever on tv. Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream.

    *I try to do a hypocrisy test when I say something like this and think of an example where I have more skin in the game, so I’ll do that here. Scandal, a comparably superficial show, has a token-y gay couple, and their treatment is, on its face, sympathetic, but if you get right down to it, it doesn’t address questions like what marriage and family and assimilation (issues that do show their faces) mean to a non-token gay person with actual experience and politics and life. And I think it’s mildly grating but basically fine, because it is genuinely not that kind of show.

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