Romeo, Juliet, and America’s Misconceptions About Racism

Photo Credits: “Romeo and Juliet” Movie Poster (1996)

If you’ve been on social media, you’ve probably seen posts or comments such as the following:

Everyone should just get along!”

“Why do you keep saying ‘white people’? Isn’t generalization the very thing that the Civil Rights movement fought against? You’re being just as racist!”

“I don’t see race. We’re all one race. The ~human~ race.”

Of course at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything malevolent about them. Most of the time, people who say these things don’t consciously wish harm upon people of color, nor do they desire a return to 1950s-styled segregation. But these misinformed views stem from a widespread ignorance to the meaning of the term “racism”.

If you google the definition for “racism”, this is the definition that pops up. This is the definition of racism that is taught in history classes and what comes to our minds when it is mentioned on the news or by politicians.

It’s the wrong definition. Wrong in the sense that it’s overly simplistic, shallow, and barely scrapes the surface. More appropriate would be to use the sociological definition of racism.

In the 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton say that racism “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation that [individual racism].”

Which brings us to Romeo & Juliet.

Written over 500 years ago by the famous William Shakespeare, this tale of forbidden love set in a fictional Italian town has imprinted itself into American pop culture. Interestingly enough, it also perfectly describes the perceptions of racism held by many Americans.

The story focuses on two protagonists: Romeo of House Montague and Juliet of the Capulet family. The families of these two young teenagers are sworn enemies. Violent brawls often break out between members of the two families, as well as their servants. When both protagonists tragically commit suicide, the families are grief-stricken and vow to put their differences aside to honor their children.

This story has found its way to the heart of American pop culture. Westside Story, High School Musical, Step Up, Lion King 2; countless films have used similar tropes of forbidden love among warring factions to sell tickets. Viewers walk away seeing the idea of conflict in overly simplistic terms, and apply it to real-life problems with deep and complex circumstances. They believe that everything from the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the 1996 LA Riots could be resolved if everyone came together, joined hands, and sang a John Lennon song.

Missing from the American psyche (or perhaps conveniently ignored) is the role that power plays in these situations. In Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets both stand on relatively equal grounds in terms of socioeconomic standing. Both are relatively wealthy families in Verona, Italy, with sizable properties and holdings.

But let’s edit the story. In the original plot, Prince Escalus is a neutral government figure and is revealed to be the cousin of Mercutio, who is fiercely loyal to the Montague house. In our alternate plotline, let’s assume that Mercutio wields more influence over Escalus than in the canon, to the point where Prince Escalus also shows heavy bias in favor of the Montague house, and in effect, against the Capulets.

With this political power, the Capulets are stripped of their lands and property. Whenever a Capulet is even under suspicion of perpetrating any sort of crime, they are swiftly and mercilessly punished. A fair trial may or may not be carried out. All the townspeople are taught to mistrust any member of the accursed family, making it extremely difficult for Capulets to find meaningful employment or housing. Whenever a Capulet is murdered or attacked, it is assumed that they did something to deserve it, that the Capulet bloodline is one of deceit and immoral behavior.

Now imagine if this persecution continued on for generations.

Let’s set a new scene. Imagine those of the Capulet clan live on the fringes of Verona in destitute poverty. Every morning, they wake up in their little huts and look up onto the hills and see the lands and wineries and fields that their ancestors once owned now under the possession of the Montagues, who also control the local government, law enforcement, and tax collection agency. Many Capulets are imprisoned for inability to pay high taxes; others are dying from hunger and disease.

Scene from Hunger Games (2012)

Let’s pretend a Montague rides through the Capulet slum dressed in the finest silks, on top of a beautifully sleek, well-nourished stallion. He looks upon these dirty masses of Capulets with disdain and spits on an elderly woman, calling her “an old Capulet hag”.

Perhaps, nearby, there is a young teenager that’s just not in a good mood. Perhaps she has seen enough family members abused in the hands of the local sheriff or tax collector. 
Perhaps she’s sick of going to bed hungry.
Perhaps she’s sick of seeing these Montagues prance their wealth in front of them while her cousin just lost her child last month due to malnourishment.
Perhaps she’s sick of being teased by Montague children for her dirty, itchy, raggedy appearance. She can’t help it. Her parents can’t afford anything better.

Perhaps she doesn’t like assholes spitting on her grandmother.

Whatever her reasoning, she grinds her teeth as if they were preparing to crush Montague bodies and picks up a stone. With a strong lob, the stone hits the horse-riding Montague in the jaw, knocking him off his stallion and landing him into a pool of mud.

If you were watching this movie, would you tell her to “turn the other cheek”? Would you tell her that the answer to her family’s poverty, to her niece’s death, to her brother’s imprisonment, to her siblings’ hunger, is to hug it out and show love to the Montague?

Fuck no. You would be cheering her on like you did with Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, or Will Smith in Independence Day, or the Prawn in District 9. You were cheering in Hunger Games showings when riots broke out in District 11 after Rue was killed, because something unjust and horrible happened and the people were rightfully angry. So at the same time, how are you able to disassociate yourself so much when real life uprisings happen in the aftermath of unjust killing of innocent and oftentimes unarmed Black and Brown people in the hands of law enforcement?

Race relations in the US are not Romeo & Juliet. They more resemble Hunger Games. Those in power have the resources and the backing of powerful organizations and institutions such as the police, military, banks, schools, and legislative body to protect their interests while those same institutions repress other groups.

Does this mean that every Montague is by nature evil? No. Just like in many of those films mentioned, those in positions of power can be a positive force in change. They can be an ally, but that starts by acknowledging where they stand on the power spectrum. Nobody is asking you insult yourself and kiss the feet of the oppressed. They are asking you, however, is to use your position to help break chains.