In his exhaustive history of American racism, Stamped from the Beginning, the academic Ibram Kendi draws attention to three different attitudes towards racism that he says have existed in America almost since the country’s inception.
The first is the out and out racist, who justifies their hatred for black people by casting them as inferior. The second is the anti-racist, who sees no difference between blacks and whites and so regards any attempt to discriminate based on color not only as wrong-headed, but as just plain wrong.
But the third attitude that Kendi points out is perhaps the most pernicious. It’s the attitude that on the one hand condemns racism but at the same time can’t shake a nagging belief that black people aren’t quite the same as whites.
It’s the most pernicious attitude because it’s probably the most widespread, and the most widespread because it’s the most socially acceptable.
Because people who think this way are usually quite certain they’re not racist. They might be outspokenly anti-racist in fact. They might be Hollywood writers and producers actively trying to create more roles for people of color.
But inviting someone to your party only to hand them a serving tray isn’t really inviting them to your party now is it.
I don’t know if the writers of Big Little Lies are familiar with the trope of the ‘magical negro’ — I can’t believe they’re not — but there’s a character in Season 2 of the HBO show who on the surface seems quite close to this racist stock figure.
The magical negro is common in the history of movies. It’s a character who usually possesses some kind of ‘special gift’ which they selflessly put in the service of the white protagonists.
In Big Little Lies the character of Elizabeth Howard (played by Crystal Fox) seems to conform to the trope. She is possessed with clairvoyant powers that may or may not be help (the predominantly white) cast resolve the plot.
Often the gift is the character’s access to simple, homespun wisdoms. The tacit racism being the implication that black people have greater intuitive understanding because they are more earthy i.e. primitive. Morgan Freeman typically has been cast in these kinds of roles.
Another recent example of the trope is in the Oscar-winning Green Book, described by Roy Wood Jr. on the Daily Show as “a movie where a black man uses his magical piano powers to teach his Uber driver not to be racist.”
A precursor to the magical negro is the noble savage, a stock figure created to assuage the guilt of white people confronted by the horrors of colonialism. As with its African-American equivalent, the noble savage appears in literature usually as a prop for a more psychologically complex white protagonist (think of Queequeg in Moby Dick or Tonto in the Lone Ranger). The noble savage trope also shares this notion of primitivism as a source of goodness.
You can see how these things happen. There were a lot of abhorrent ideas about the so-called savagery of indigenous people circulating in Europe and America during the colonial era, ideas that served to dehumanise the other and therefore justify their oppression.
The noble savage trope was likely brought in to existence by apparently well-meaning people seeking in their own way to redress the balance. (One senses a similar instinct among those white people today who engage in performative allyship online).
But generalising a group as simple and benign is also dehumanising. The philosopher Slavoj Zisek frequently accuses westerners of doing this in relation to Native Americans.
In a recent lecture that you can watch on YouTube he tells a funny story about a Native American in Montana being reprimanded by a white person for insisting on referring to himself as an Indian.
In response the man told his accuser that he found the term Native American patronizing, again because of its implication of primitivism. “If I’m a Native American then who are you? Cultured Americans?” Zisek had the man saying. According to Zisek, the man said he preferred the term Indian because it at least reminded him of the stupidity of white people for naming an entire race after a land mass they weren’t even on.
The point is that when white people celebrate only the positive aspects of Native American culture they ignore the obvious reality that, however enticing these parts of the culture are, Native American tribes were peopled by men and women with the same drives (negative and positive) that seem to have animated human behavior since the dawn of history.
Yes, these tribes had a deeper connection to nature and the spiritual dimension but they were surely also places where bad stuff went down. Societies like any other, where the will to power existed in tension with the better angels of our nature.
None of this denies the possibility that native cultures have something to teach us. But if you act as if all they have to beget is timeless wisdoms then the truth is you’re not seeing them. What you’re seeing is a mirror of your own utopian vision.
And in so doing you’re missing out on a bigger picture which is more challenging and interesting than the damp, superficial view of the dewy-eyed romantic. A bigger picture that might help you really engage with who these people were and are.
If you read Black Elk Speaks, the account of a Lakota shaman who lived through the final death throes of life on the plains, two things emerge very strongly about the narrator. The first is that Black Elk was a man who lived a deeply spiritual life. The second is that he was a man intimately acquainted with violence.
And the co-existence of these two realities — at least in my mind — makes Black Elk a way more vital and compelling figure than if he were just some two-dimensional noble savage sitting benignly in front of his teepee while his people were massacred and his way of life destroyed.
The problem is that when you deny a group moral ambiguity you limit the possibilities of what they are capable of, both good and bad. And this helps sustain a double standard. Chris Rock has addressed this double standard in his comedy, noting that in America there is an unwritten rule: only the white man can profit from pain.
In other words, while American history is a rogue’s gallery of white people accruing vast wealth on the back of human suffering, it’s generally only deemed acceptable for blacks to make it big if the origins of the wealth are benign — Oprah being the prime example of this.
The most glaring example of the double standard right now of course is the political reality we’re living through. We went from an urbane, intelligent black man whose suitability for the job was always contingent on the unspoken rule that he be on his best behavior at all times (which meant never getting angry, always rising above the racially-charged attacks and never once making an issue out of his own blackness) to Donald Trump. A man who the comedian Frankie Boyle once described as being so obnoxious that if the laws of karma are real he’ll end up being reincarnated as himself.
Thankfully there is evidence that things are changing — at least in the realm of TV and movies. Actors like Michael B. Jordan are building careers playing black characters whose moral purity is not a foregone conclusion. And Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness is a thing of beauty in the unapologetic way it confronts the reality of race in contemporary America.
Meanwhile, if you want to see a film about indigenous culture that deftly avoids the trap of patronising its subject, check out Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent.
Full transparency. I too have been guilty of patronizing generalizations about black people. In my case the black people of Sub-Saharan Africa. I traveled there a number of years ago with the intention of writing about what I encountered.
Though in truth I had already decided what I would encounter: suffering. Growing up in the late 1980s my vision of Africa was informed by the Ethiopian famine and the western responses to it. With a mixture of naivety and hubris I cast myself in the role of the white savior whose reportage would be the catalyst for change that would help lift these poor unfortunates out of their misery.
Imagine my surprise when I got there and the pathetic victims of my fantasy turned out to be a complex web of individuals, impossible to define and certainly not victims. Human beings who were by turns charming and sly, witty and world-weary. Some, it must be said, even a pain in the ass.
I’d like to say that as a result of these encounters I learned my lesson and stopped trying to impose my own narrative on other peoples’ lives. But at the time I was young and ambitious and stories of suffering were about the only narrative out of Africa the newspapers’ foreign newsdesks were interested in telling.
So I gave them what they wanted and in the process contributed nothing except for inflating the already distorted perception of Africans as a people in need of saving. I regret that I did that. But most of all I regret the missed opportunity. Because if I’d gone there in a spirit of true openness, who knows what kinds of stories might have come my way.
The point is that if you can’t find a way to include an(other) in your story except as some two-dimensional, neutered parody of itself then you’re really better off not including them at all.
Instead, let them tell their own stories. You might learn something that way.