Between the World and Whitesplaining:
As I watched the MTV “Whitesplaining” video, a similar question arose as when I watched the second of the Lars von Trier pair of films focused on America, MANDERLAY (2008, DK). Which character am I?
In the DOGVILLE (2003, DK) and MANDERLAY scripts, it seemed that Von Trier engaged the US conversation about its suppressed history of the “Peculiar Institution.” Where the conversation had always seemed to stop, in my experience, Von Trier continued it. (Von Trier is said to have never visited the United States.)
Von Trier’s lead character in MANDERLAY is the daughter of a gangster and she wants an honest life. She is given a car, driver and guards to go do good in the world, despite her father’s doubt in her work’s efficacy. It’s sixty years post-Emancipation when her party comes across a Southern plantation in semi-ruin. Lauren Bacall plays the plantation mistress with Danny Glover beside her as the “house Negro.” Glover responds to the do-gooder’s strident announcements about their freedom, “Miss, the gates and fences have been down for years. Where would they go?” Through the rest of the film, Von Trier lays out the characters in the American conversation: the pitier, the scholar, the bigot, the empathetic, the religiously driven, the avoider.
Which was I? It was Christmas Day, Berlin, 2008. I was alone with a handful of people in a cinema. No Q&A followed and I had no further discussion that day. I didn’t write much about it but spoke about it often and recommended the film to many US citizens. I hadn’t discussed it further until now, when I was faced again with those characters in “Whitesplaining.”
The characters in “Whitesplaining” — the white friend to the black woman; a couple one-degree-of-separation roommates; and “experts” popping out of the woodwork — from the white Black History professor to the grown-up white, blue-collar kid from a diverse neighborhood. Whitesplaining is defined as the act of a caucasian person explaining to audiences of color the true nature of racism. I tried to laugh at the video but felt a queasiness that I was a part of the target audience.
I’ve been gathering my father’s work done in the early 70s that promoted the need for Black History taught in US schools, especially the one where he taught with a five percent African American population. I grew up a minority, in part by parental design, in the Haight-Ashbury. A place without diversity feels unreal to me. I have been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, Harper Lee, Jennifer Eberhardt. I don’t believe my thoughts and actions are intended to assuage guilt or claim immunity, but come from a deep concern about this country and how the forward-focused run from its past continually manifests in its present, as it is now.
I get what the MTV journalist Franchesca Ramsey and the team of Decoded are saying — that these acts of heroism aren’t warranted; they’re not a dialogue but a one-sided conversation. These awkward characters have built their ideas (and lives) on a thick guilt scar in U.S. History. It’s a good lesson about how kindness can be arrogant if we’re not really listening. I continue to ask, “Which character am I,” as I reflect on the current strained state of race relations in the United States. Why and what do I do?
Germans, as Michael Moore pointed out in WHERE DO WE INVADE NEXT have in large part been straightforward about their guilt and their growth within it. It was the Marshall Plan with its heavy American hand that mandated Germany to again become the cultural entity that it once was, producing cultural landmarks like the Berlin Film Festival that insures Germans are reflective on their dark history. How the authors of the Marshall Plan slept, though, knowing the United States couldn’t claim the same reflection and penance on the US’s own guilt of humanitarian abuse, I’m curious about. This reckoning of guilt was encouraged not only by the Marshall Plan, but the Nuremberg Trials, of course, and more restitution processes that continue today. Any American who has lived in or visited Berlin for longer than a week would experience how the country’s citizens are aware of how the world regards them. If there had been broader world press during the expansion of the United States through entrapped slave labor, the people of the United States might have been so humbled, as was most of German society in post-WW2. To America’s detriment, I don’t recall learning that humility happened during Reconstruction. It didn’t get better for freed slaves with violence, intimidation and discrimination rampant through Jim Crow years. I’m thinking that ill-treated wound is still present — buried and festering — to erupt on occasion of extreme exacerbation. Because it wasn’t dressed and healed, this is a wound felt by the entire body of American society, not just one part of its population.
Senator Mitch McConnell’s “one-term President” pledge set the tone for a disdainful Congress who reacted as individuals enjoying their God-given right to dislike whomever they wanted — with little ground and without listening. As I watched from Germany 2010 to 2014, I saw Congress putting up block after block to stymie inclusive innovation and emotional growth for this country. European friends said to me, “They’re just not letting Obama do anything.” I winced and wondered how those on the other side of the aisle could be so obvious. The scent wafting over the Atlantic reeked not-so-subtly of Jim Crow.
When I repatriated in the early summer of 2014, I steeled myself for the debate. I had already gotten a taste of startling zero-to-sixty bile from an anti-Obama New Englander encountered in a bar in former East Germany. When hoping to engage a fellow American traveler’s wisdom, it was as if I had personally insulted him in bringing up politics. I couldn’t understand his disdain without a trace of empathy. Thinking back, perhaps that’s why I found him in a small former-East German city. Germany has its extreme supremist groups, too in the Pegida and Neo-Nazis. I don’t think he was there for the children’s film festival I was attending.
Nestled in my job search in the Bay Area and in Portland, I didn’t experience more evidence of racial tension until the simultaneous publications of two books. My host, a devout reader (the verb READ is tattooed boldly on her forearm) and literary events producer, presented with prescient excitement: the controversial successor to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird would come out on the same day as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. “No accident,” she said. She gifted me Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” on my birthday and I immediately purchased its debut partner. I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, then Go Set a Watchman, and wove in Between the World and Me while still reading Lee’s book.
All the while, the Black Lives Matters movement was growing and spotlighting the too many men of color wrongfully killed by police. It all caused immediate and deep reflection. I hadn’t seen or felt this tension since I was a child in San Francisco in the 1970s and The Black Panthers were on television news.
It had seemed “quiet” since then, hadn’t it? It might have been for some, but, this time, the prodding had become too great to not protest. I asked myself, “If those who object to Black Lives Matter had known what the dialogue had been in the 1970s, would they feel so exasperated now?” My hope is that in knowing that the dialogue hasn’t changed much - thereby spotlighting un-evolved behavior, there might be some standing down.
My father had been an educator in the 1970s and was a proponent of the necessity to teach Black History in the national curriculum. For him, educator meant activist. He taught Literature in a private all-male college preparatory in San Francisco. It was not a national platform (though once captured in The Atlantic Monthly) but he did have the freedom to design and make an impact on those who would become leaders. There was a small population of Black students in the school who wanted to organize a club with the purpose to support each other (what would become the Black Student Union). He agreed to help and composed a list of twenty-five books they might consider using. He also wrote a curriculum to include these books. In the list are texts on Pre-Colonial African History up to “The Peculiar Institution” by Kenneth Stamp and texts by Frank Tannenbaum, Eugene Genovese, Frederick Law Olmstead, Louis Filler, Herbert Aptheker, Wayford W. Logan, Arnold Rose, W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Gunnar Myrdal, Stoakley Carmichael, Frantz Fanon, and Michael Harrington. If my father was teaching today, he would have included Cornell West, Audre Lorde, W.Kamal Bell, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books as well as his Atlantic articles “Reparations,” and “Incarceration and the Black Family.” Alice Walker and Jeffrey Canada are in his library now.
Earlier on in the Presidential race, I watched for the candidate who sees this issue as vitally as I do. Had any of the candidates read any of this book list? Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were confronted by Black Lives Matter activists and each reacted in ways that revealed their experience. I saw little innovation; each responded like one of the characters Von Trier expanded on. By his initial dismissal (“All lives matter”), Bernie’s depth of experience seemed inadequate. He learned quickly that he had to immerse himself to understand. In a recent interview in The Nation, Sanders stated, “What I learned is that the relationship of police departments around the country with the Black community is far, far more severe and awful than I had originally known.”
Hillary had more experience and defended her work to the BLM activists addressing her backstage after a rally. It was clear to me that she needed to stop defending and listen more. The presentation of the mothers who lost their children due to police misconduct at the Democratic National Convention was a response that showed me she is listening and had collaborated on an innovative solution. I don’t believe that this country’s society can go forward healthily until we find an innovative reckoning with the behaviors around this issue.
Last summer brought deep reflection on the crescendo of many dissonant occurrences that erupted in America. Recent repatriation gave my vision clarity and my nerves a freshness to detect what I may have been more numb to before leaving. Why this Congress reacted as it did to a highly intelligent, credentialed and capable, visionary man of color in the White House stood in the front of my thoughts. How was such bilious contention connected to the arrival of Black Lives Matter? Two books came onto the public stage at the same time and shook the Literary world. One showed us the woman who grew out of our beloved Scout tutored through the ills of the Jim Crow South and the foibles of human conscience in situ with the wise counsel of her father, Atticus Finch. The other, a letter to the author Ta-Nehisi Coates’s fifteen year-old son about how some things haven’t changed from that time with an attempt to assuage his son’s fears with his insights and a stress on maintaining sense of self and love in spite of it. Coates sits beside you and gently tells the reader how it is and, if you don’t resist, empathy gives the reader the closest opportunity to wear a fifteen year-old Black youth’s shoes that I’ve read. For this he deservedly received the National Book Award. Last summer, I recognized the conversation in American society hadn’t changed much since my father was working to advance it through high school curricula in the early 1970s. There have been great efforts since: inclusion of faculty diversity officers; fine reflections in national entertainment in comedy and drama from the 70s Archie Bunker to “Black-ish” now; to the Chicago teacher who teaches empathy through classifying her students according to eye color; to the good ol’ Southern white male who speaks out against racism through Youtube videos made while sitting in his pick-up truck. A mainstream appreciation for Dr. Cornell West is measurable. Despite all that, something still festers in our seemingly innovative U.S. My reflection produced that the something could be as simple as a resistance to apology.
If I had hurt my sibling or spouse, would I be able to live with the knowledge of that? If apology didn’t come immediately with your spouse or sibling, distance grows until a sincere apology arrives. If it doesn’t, a hardening in communication ensues. If it does, communication most often becomes more fluid and richer. I wondered if an official apology had ever been issued in the U.S. Google Scholar cites over 9,000 publications addressing the subject including an excerpt from Understanding Social Problems (L.Mooney, D.Knox, C.Schacht) noting the lead that Brown University took in 2003 to recognize and make amends for its historical ties to the slave trade. In 2008, finally, the House of Representatives did issue an official apology and in 2009, the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for slavery but stipulated that the apology could not be used toward restitution. The history of official U.S. governmental apologies and reparations to other groups might offer deeper understanding to underlying rage.
This country can’t go forward in good conscience, pushing this skeleton back in the closet. That skeleton is again the elephant in the room and it is too big to sweep under the rug, again…or to wait for its memory to fade, again. Is the elephant in the room really that we don’t want to embrace reparations?
In one of my conversations, a gentleman from Ghana suggested that the U.S. take example from South Africa (and El Salvador, Congo, Kenya, and more) with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of the purposes of such a commission is to correct history. With a little research, I learned truth commissions tend to lean towards restorative rather than retributive justice models. This means they often favor efforts to reconcile divided societies in the wake of conflict, or to reconcile societies with their own troubled pasts, over attempts to hold those accused of human rights violations accountable.
What would satisfactory be and what would visionary be? Signing into action Rep. John Conyers’ twenty-five year-old initiative, House Resolution 40, to investigate reparations, is part of a satisfactory step, seems to me. If you think it’s “something we have to live with,” that is sweeping it under the rug. Challenge yourself to move past that block, as uncomfortable as it may feel, and keep the question on the table. Identify what that block might be. Your ideas on the subject do matter, even if they are only exchanged in a personal journal or between friends. An idea born contributes to the zeitgeist of our national thought. Here’s an idea: What if that $3 you gave to the Presidential Campaign Fund on your tax return was shared with a reparations fund?
If apology and reparations seem out of reach in your mind, focus on gratitude — gratitude for the people whose predecessors built the foundation of this nation on their backs. Consider what your white privilege affords you. Organizations like The Privilege Institute based in Colorado can guide groups through a life-changing workshop. Read about Stanford Law Professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s work on implicit bias. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Case for Reparations” is necessary reading as is his “Incarceration and the Black Family,” both are online at The Atlantic Monthly.com. Regardless of MTV’s lampooning, read Coates and bring it to your conversation. The conversation is national, systemic, familial and personal. Exercise the conversation and push it way past 1970s levels, simply through contributing to the zeitgeist. Our national thought needs to move beyond our national guilt through intimate reckoning and behavioral change. That’s when the visionary will come.
In the aftermath of the Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas shootings this summer, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein wrote that we have come a long way since the tensions of 1968 to the early 1970s. Klein contends it is the gun conversation that “hasn’t progressed nearly as far as our racial discussion.” While Klein’s list of positive changes is true, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the resonance of Ta-Nehisi Coates is for a deep reason which Klein cannot ever fully get inside. Instead of racing to assign priority of importance as we do, stop and seriously listen. Yes, and push the gun conversation further, too.
I encourage readers to challenge yourselves to make sense of the times for yourself through reflection, research, conversation, and writing. If you find yourself nervous about whitesplaining, open your ears, ask for assistance. That’s what I hope I’m doing here as a native born U.S. citizen, trying to do a fraction more than just exist between the world and whitesplaining.
This reflection began in the summer of 2015. The skeleton came further out of the closet this last summer, 2016. Instead of asking what next summer will bring, have the conversations that will make for a different summer, 2017.
Many thanks to those who read and gave your feedback — Ishuab Njoube, Tamera Walter, William Kirkpatrick, Frank and Mary Kavanaugh — and another one with a keen ear to the pulse.
Catherine Kavanaugh holds a Master degree from Stanford Graduate School of Education, she delivers Design Thinking to innovators in Industry, Learning, Design and Cinema while scheming cinematic investigations into the phenomena of childhood.