White Liberal Guilt

Over in the comments on the Pirates post Wendy said something very prescient:

I didn’t think about the racism at the … but now, dammit, you’ve made me think about the racism. Grr! I hate racism! I hate finding myself colluding with it, mentally, even if I DID fall asleep later on! Grrr Disney!!!

I hate that, too. More to the point, I think Wendy is on to something in terms of how people are reacting to the later realization that parts of the movie are racist. Like Wendy, they hate racism, too. Also like her, they enjoyed the movie. Unlike her, they seem to think that if Pirates was racist and they enjoyed it, that must mean they are racist, too. And other people must think they’re racist! So they have to fight against the notion that POTC2 was racist so that they won’t be, either.

in Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s excellent book Writing the Other, the authors are of the opinion that White liberals’ greatest fear is discovering that they might be a little racist. (for the record, I agree with this assessment) This situation speaks to exactly that fear. “I didn’t notice the racism and enjoyed the movie. What does that say about me? What are others saying about me when they say that?”

The answer is: nothing. It doesn’t say or mean anything about you, generalized, anonymous white liberals. I didn’t fully grok the racism until after the movie myself. I did notice some of it, but I consciously put it aside because I was really trying my best to enjoy the movie. Right or wrong, that was my reaction. Does it make me racist? No. Does it make you racist? Not by itself.

So, calm the fuck down. Look at the discussion with non-guilt-ridden eyes and stop letting how you feel about yourself color how you talk about this movie with others. Savvy?

Tags: , , ,

ETA: an excellent related post on Alas, A Blog: How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism (A Guide For White People)

31 Responses

  1. I can’t watch the Indiana Jones series for the same reasons.

    Indy ‘rescues’ artifacts from the hands of nazis — so naturally, that makes removing said artifacts from the countries that produced them OK.

    To think these films were produced after Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

    As for the of racial conflict in the ‘Lord of the Rings” films — basically, ‘difference’ and the narrative of domination is encoded into any of these types of stories.

    I’m sick of how these films help maintain the current world order in the minds of the masses.

  2. Indy ‘rescues’ artifacts from the hands of nazis — so naturally, that makes removing said artifacts from the countries that produced them OK.

    I have mixed feelings about what archaeologists do. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we can know so much about past civilizations and that we can save some of the bits of those civilizations for further study and for the enjoyment of people who can visit public museums.

    However, it does bother me a lot that museums basically take these artifacts from their country of origin and the CoO doesn’t always benefit from that. often, it doesn’t. not to mention the whole thing where they buy stuff off the black market, thereby aiding criminals AND stealing someone else’s culture at the same time.

    Now I understand why the (normally annoying) Zahi Hawass is so protective of the ancient Egyptian stuff Egypt has. In reality, every damn musum on the globe should be paying the Egyptian government a rental fee on all of the stuff white men through history have stolen from that country.

    Also, media is the major propaganda vehicle used to tell the masses what to think. It’s no wonder we find these things in movies, it’s the same message we’re always given, just in an entertaining form.

  3. I agree with what you say here. Anymore news about your ‘dialog’ with Ann Coulter?

  4. Ha! No, not yet. I haven’t decided the best way to go about this. Should I do a send-up, or actually attempt to engage that scary bitch? So many possibilities….

  5. In partial defense of archaeology, there is now a strong movement within the archaeological community to recognize the rights of the communities whose histories are being dug up. Many digs are done as collaborations aimed to benefit both archaeologists and descendant communities (though of course there’s room for criticism of how well this is implemented in practice). The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (which ordered museums to give human remains and religious objects back to the tribes if the tribes wanted them) has staunch defenders as well as harsh critics among archaeologists.

  6. Re: Pirates 2: I didn’t especially single out the racism at the time, since it blended in with all the rest of the suckitude. A rip off at even matinee prices. I went because other people wanted to see it, or rather, him.

    THANKS THANKS THANKS for bringing Aqueduct Press series to my attention, through the Nisi Shawl item linked. I want every blasted book on that page!

    NancyP

  7. Hi, I just came here from the Comics Curmudgeon. I started reading entries in reverse order and stopped on this one because (1) I’m big on movies and (2) I’ve grown aware of the prevalence of Hollywood racism to this day. Have you covered Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” by any chance?

    One reason I loved “Crash” is that it made me feel bad about myself. I must acknowledge my own tendencies, a holdover from my mostly black junior high experience (but then, who wasn’t an ass in junior high?). Perhaps it’ll do me good to stay tuned to sources that cover modern racism pretty regularly.

  8. Stentor: I’ve heard about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and think it’s a good idea in principle, though I have no idea how it’s being carried out. I can imagine it’s started a lot of fights. I think the main problem is that archaeologists are pretty much taught to disregard any personal beliefs or feelings of past people (or even present people) except as they relate to the academic knowledge of how they conducted their lives. I don’t understand how any Egyptologists, knowing full well why Pharaohs and others put all of that stuff in their tombs and preserved themselves so carefully can haul them out for display and scanning and whatever else. That’s desecration. That’s ruining someone’s afterlife. They think it’s okay because it’s not their belief system. I’m really starting to feel that it’s exactly the opposite of okay.

    NancyP: You’re quite welcome. It’s a wonderful series! Timmi did a good job with those. I also want every last one :)

    Deckard: Yay, a CC fan! Welcome. I never went to see King Kong. I didn’t have much interest to begin with, and the whole aura surrounding the story is pretty offputting. Crash is another I haven’t seen yet, but I plan to. It’s generated some very interesting reactions, including yours. Hope you stick around!

  9. Actually, *archaeologists* have a big problem with Indiana Jones too.

    Archaeology is all about carefully studying and examining sites in order to understand the past. It is *crucial* that the sites not be damaged or destroyed in the process.

    Frankly, we wouldn’t know what the Pharoahs’ beliefs about their afterlife *were* if archaelogists hadn’t done the careful, painstaking research to find out. That would certainly make it hard to respect their beliefs.

    The removal of artifacts to museums is generally justified by archaeologists only because archaeological sites are routinely vandalized and robbed by tomb robbers, and museums aren’t. In general archaeologists would rather study the artifacts and then return them.

    Indiana Jones was just a treasure-hunting tomb robber, and he gives a bad name to archaeologists. Look at the beginning of the first movie, where he sets off a trap which smashes the ancient temple to bits, and all he cares about is the gold artifact.

    As for Pirates of the Caribbean — yes, there are racist parts. But the English imperialists don’t come off looking exactly like good guys, do they (even though they’re winning)? So it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

  10. Another anon? They seem to be coming out of the woodwork.

    Frankly, we wouldn’t know what the Pharoahs’ beliefs about their afterlife *were* if archaelogists hadn’t done the careful, painstaking research to find out. That would certainly make it hard to respect their beliefs.

    I don’t know if I buy that. Certainly, there is much to be learned from studying funerary objects, but it seems that most of what they know about the Ka and Ba and the passage to the underworld and etc. comes from the “Pyramid Texts” and stuff written on the walls. They don’t need to remove all the stuff from the tombs to read those.

    It makes me very sad to see things like Rameses’ corpse dragged around the world for show and tell. When I was in the British Museum, they had a mummified body on display in a glass case. A real person’s dead body, his naked ass on display for all the world to see. I don’t see the value in that. Curiosity shouldn’t come before respect.

    I think that there’s a strong argument to be made that important sites like the Valley of the Kings and other necropoles (necropolis’s?) could be made into field museums of a sort, thereby keeping the tomb robbers out and still preserving a dead person’s wishes. But, of course, that’s a very daunting task and I do understand that it’s not always practical.

    As for Pirates of the Caribbean — yes, there are racist parts. But the English imperialists don’t come off looking exactly like good guys, do they (even though they’re winning)? So it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

    I’m going to have to disagree. English Imperialism gets a slap on the wrist (bad old timey corporation represented by one man who will bear ALL of the blame. Shaaaame.) while whole groups of brown-skinned people are shown to be cannibals, ignorant, bloodthirsty, treacherous, untrustworthy, hypersexual, backwards. ALL of the heroes of the film (even the anti-hero) are white. Just because there is one bad white guy (and one sort of bad white guy driven to badness) does not absolve the film of its racism.

    You’ve obviously been reading the How to Suppress Discussions of Racism guide, haven’t you?

    4. Deflect attention away from the specific criticism.
    Remember, your goal is to avoid having to focus on what your opponent has actually said. We’ve compiled a list of helpful phrases that deflect attention away from specific discussion of racism. You can use them to respond to almost any discussion of racism, regardless of the content.

    d. “Why aren’t you talking about the white people in the book/film/comic book/TV show?”

  11. [...] It is a given that, whenever I engage in debate with a white person and mention privilege, the white person in question gets all upset. “I do NOT have privilege!” they say, and then begin to tell the story of their poor, rural upbringing or something. I think this reaction stems from two sources. Firstly, White Liberal Guilt, which I have written about before. Secondly, a misunderstanding of the word ‘Privilege’. [...]

  12. Hey, this is such a great commentary.

    Great example of the ME ME ME IT’S ALL ABOUT ME dynamic that comes with white privilege.

    This white liberal perspective changes the subject. Instead of talking about racism, all of a sudden it is all about the inner state and concerns of the white person/people. This happens all the time and it is a diversionary tactic (conscious or not) that obstructs the goal of challenging the actual system of racism/white supremacy. Us white people can and often do spend so much of our own and others’ time and energy focusing on our inner selves and our images.

    Sorry to be anon, I don’t have a wordpress account.

    Michelle

  13. u guys think way too much into this stuff.

  14. White liberal guilt has to do with the guilty parties’ preservation of their image in their own eyes. But what if image wasn’t so important? How many white liberals have black friends or acquantances in real life?

  15. Just had to laugh (while tipping my hat to your insight)–I *did* have a poor, rural upbringing…but there was definitely White privilege in my mac n’ cheese!

  16. This page has been invaluable for clearly illustrating how convenient it is for affluent liberal-leaning Americans, living in what is essentially a leisured, pseudo-intellectual upper-middle-class to nitpick mass culture – (in this case essentially a comic-book movie) and thereby use it as a kind of moral-whipping boy to make themselve feel better about themselves.

    The other archetype is the “if it weren’t for…[fill in the blank]…the world would be wonderful” argument used by certain ethnic groups who pick out some grievance that they claim is an omnipresent, relentless injustice maliciously doled out by the majority. They see that injustice connecting to another injustice in a vast mosaic of injustice while not really entertaining the idea that the lack of utopian perfection is not abject failure of society at large and that they should – in fact – get the fuck over it.

  17. To the last anon – I don’t understand how you can deny that media has a powerful influence on how people view the world, and therefore how they act accordingly/treat other people. And I don’t know what supposedly monolith ethnic groups you are referring to when you say ““if it weren’t for…[fill in the blank]…the world would be wonderful” argument used by certain ethnic groups who pick out some grievance that they claim is an omnipresent, relentless injustice maliciously doled out by the majority.

    Uh…you don’t really grasp the nuances of analyses of power dynamics at play in issues of -isms . And actually, people don’t ascribe every injustice to individual malicious; many of them are structural.

    Do yourself a favor and read a thing or two about white supremacy, history, and economics. You might want to start with ABW’s Required Reading.

  18. * whoops, I forgot the closing quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph. And I should have typed “malice”, not “malicious”.

  19. Additionally, people should “get the fuck over” hate crimes, unequal sentencing in the courts, and the glass ceiling? Keep dreaming.

  20. Anon,

    “if it weren’t for…[fill in the blank]…the world would be wonderful” argument used by certain ethnic groups who pick out some grievance that they claim is an omnipresent, relentless injustice maliciously doled out by the majority.

    Yawn. Straw man argument. Nobody claims that the world would be wonderful if white liberals just got over their guilt. Nobody believes liberal guilt is omnipresent or malicious. You pretty much gutted your whole argument with this silliness.

  21. I’m sorry, I’m new to this blog… and this is an old post… but I’ve got to know:

    Was your one responder serious when he/she said that they cant watch Indiana Jones because Indy removes these artifacts from their native lands? Like, really?

    My friend… I mean this with all my heart: calm down, and get a real problem.

    Are your sensibilities really that fragile, that a fictional pulp character who rescues fictitious Christian icons (hate to break it to you, but there’s no REAL grail that can return a gut-shot Sean Connery to life) from legions of Nazis bothers you?

    I’m sure that there are scores of people who have pillaged the empires of antiquity… pocketing rings and jewels and so forth. I get that some level of respect should be upheld. That Mexicans should swell with pride when they look at El Castillio (which I’ve seen, it’s magnificent). Maybe there are lots of bad, evil archaeologists wandering around out there…

    but here’s the thing:

    Indy wasn’t one of them.

    Why do people insist on attaching vestigial meanings to innocent things. The storyline was thought up by George Lucas… and you honestly mean to suggest that the movie has enough depth to mean something beyond what it’s saying?

    Just stop your caterwauling, smoke a cigarette and calm the hell down.

  22. calm down, and get a real problem.

    OR! You can stop being dismissive and condescending. Really. This is the 5th such comment I’ve read from you today and so now I’m giving you your first warning. Quit it.

    You may not find media matters particularly troubling, but others do. Others understand how media portrayals affect the real world. Others pay attention to the stuff being beamed at them from the screen and use their critical thinking skills to analyze it. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. But that means you don’t get to criticize others for doing so, since you are obviously content to just let media moguls beam thoughts into your head without a barrier.

  23. Why do people insist on attaching vestigial meanings to innocent things.

    Are you kidding? First, look up “vestigial” and then think of a better word.

    Second, Hollywood and the entertainment industry at large being the primary modern purveyor of the mythology underlying both white privilege and, in particular, US exceptionalism, surely you don’t mean to say that “Indy” and George Lucas have not themselves had rather a solid impact even upon you–to the extent that you feel moved to come here and defend them!

    You know what? Get a life. Defending Indy from his detractors is not the sort of career one should be proud of. What do you think makes movies like this so popular? Is it really that unimaginable to you that the sort of self-congratulatory white hero worship that the American entertainment industry evokes in us again and again and again would be offensive to someone who wasn’t white? Or even for someone who was white but who found mythologized racism and cultural imperialism as nauseating as the real thing, precisely because the stories we tell ourselves are what enable us to act towards the world in the ways that we do?

    Educate yourself.

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  26. Whhoooo! *applauds and throws confetti*

    Congratulations Failure in Orlando! =)

    As a reward for your failure in the subjects of geography, science, social studies, history and being an actual human you are hereby deported from Orlando–since you do not belong there quite obviously–back to whatever European country wortheless trolls like yourself originated. This can be best accomplished by Proceeding to locate the nearest and shortest pier then begin taking a long walk off of it.

    Thank you for failing in your attempts at human intellect and decency as well as showing the extent of own white guilt and racism to prove how much of a failure you are Failure in Orlando. =)

  27. Wow, it’s amazing how much people can make of nothing. This post is like the mount Everest of molehill mountains. I’m sure there is a huge conspiracy in Hollywood of all places, that is intent on oppressing people of color. I almost laughed so hard that tears were going down my face when I read the Lord of the Rings thing. I guess it would have been better if they had changed the script to show that orcs have feelings too damn it, and that gandalf was a sick racist bastard with his pointy hat and overfondness for little people. Pirates was another bad one. I mean, can you seriously believe that they showed black people living in a marsh and practicing voodoo? I’m sure despite what white conservatives would have us believe, most black people that lived in the Carribean during the 18th century were self educated scientists and philosophers. I know that both of these movies were probably produced as a form racist propaganda, but isn’t it possible that maybe they were just movies with no message more subtle than pirates and big orc battles with a bunch of special effects are cool.

  28. I’m sure racism is nothing to you.

    Racism is so ingrained in this society that yeah, it is used in every aspect of American life, including entertainment. For you to dismiss it as if it were something completely ridiculous.

    Being dismissive contributes to the problem of racism. Additionally, this site is not a place where you can try to use your white privilege to tell us PoCs to “Calm Down” just so you don’t have to feel like crap because you’re in a privileged status in this country.

    Get over yourself and take your whining where it will be appreciated.

  29. I’m glad that people like david exist in the world to prove the great need for missiles targeted at the incurably stupid. C’mon science, get cracking!

  30. Yeah, David! How ridiculous can you be??? You obviously don’t understand the complexity and depth of the issues at work here. Racism is everywhere and if you can’t see that then you MUST be like “a.” a few posts up who (and I couldn’t say it any better than ABW) “are obviously content to just let media moguls beam thoughts into your head without a barrier”. If you haven’t noticed by reading these posts, this blog is for those who see the racism in everything, or are here to LEARN to see it in everything. And if you don’t see it or are not open to seeing it then you are not welcome here, as also stated in a prior post.

    Your attitude is evidence of everything this blog is about: you are racist not because you are prejudice against blacks, but because you don’t even realize that you are and are not willing to learn to recognize that you are and that everyone and everything else is as well, whether they realize it or not. You are like white people who are nice to blacks and think it is simply because you are a nice person, when really, you are only being nice to them so you can congratulate yourself by telling yourself that were nice to them just because you are nice and that you are not racist when you really are racist and were only nice to them so you could keep believing that you aren’t.

    Or like someone who, in a previous post, kept putting the word “black” in quotes and didn’t even realize how patronizing this was! I realize I put “blacks” in quotes too, but I only did it for grammatical purposes, not for the purpose of being condescending towards actual black people. But then again , even that…why is even grammatically correct to put that in quotes, and why would someone even feel the need to do it, even if their intention was proper grammar? Is it because it is the word “black” as used in the structure of the sentence, or is it because they are so racist that they feel (on a deeply subconscious level) that even the word “black” should be should be segregated from the rest of the words? Even I am doing it and claiming that it is for grammatic purposes, but even if that is so, I may be subconsciously using the rules of grammar to not only hide behind my own racism, but also as a way of invoking my white privilege by propagating the rules of the language of my own racial/cultural/ethnic/nationalistic heritage which consequently, if I am aware of it, further PROVES it’s existence. My unwillingness to acknowledge such privilege is therefore now CONSCIOUSLY RACIST, which now deceives my claim of being “subconsciously racist” as a manner of defending myself (as if that makes it any better). But I digress. The fact that I would subject those around me to the conventions of my white heritage (i.e. grammatical rules) only serves as evidence which further proves the case.

    Because of this blog, I now know I am a racist. I once thought I was colorblind, but I learned here that I only thought that because I was racist. I have had black friends who I thought were my friends just because I liked them and had a good time with them, but I now know that I only had them as friends to try to prove to myself that I wasn’t a racist, which by doing this, shows I am a racist. I’ve always tried to be kind and fair to people regardless of what the particulars of their skin pigmentation because I thought this is how a civilized person is supposed to act. Now, I realize that I only did this because I am a racist and didn’t want to admit to myself that I really wanted to be nicer to some than others. I don’t even really believe this statement is true, but that is because I am a racist and don’t want to admit it even when I know it’s true. A textbook case of cognitive dissonance.

    One time I had really terrible service from a waitress; I thought I was angry because of the service, but it turns out that I was angry because she was black. Actually, I’ve had bad service from any number of waiters and waitresses of all pigmentation; each time it has happened I became angry. But I have learned that when the wait staff happened to be black, my anger was because they were black. I only got angry because of the poor service when the wait staff wasn’t black.

    See? Even my use of the word “pigmentation” (there are those quotes again!) shows my refusal to acknowledge the black culture/race/ethnicity. And my calling it the black culture/race/ethnicity is evidence of my ignorance because I don’t even know what these people like or want it to be called. And now I called them “these people”, as if they are different from anyone else. And I used quotes again. And I claimed they are not different than anyone else, which they are. But not in a bad way. Wait…why would anyone assume I meant that in a bad way, because we are talking about blacks? Would I have said that if we were talking about whites? See? Racist.

    So, David, you have a lot to learn here about racism, it’s many permutations, and your own racist attitudes. Once you have learned all I have learned THEN you will realize what horrible racial propaganda that Indiana Jones REALLY is.

  31. Pirates of the Caribbean 2? Just wait until you see Pirates of the Caribbean 3!

    Often people try to talk to each other about issues of racism, only to find themselves in complete disagreement. I have seen evidence in the above comments. Sparring back and forth is usually unproductive and always frustrating, as one side tries to argue that Indianna Jones is racist and the other argues that it is not. To both sides, their own idea seems obvious and their opponents’ seem alien. Both sides feel their ability to recognize obvious truths is being insulted, and their world view is belittled.

    There is not easy answer to bitter arguments and web trolls, but I believe that there is a better way to discuss racism. Simply put, we have to start at the basics. We need more frequent presentation of objective facts, and less postulation on unconscious ambiguities. How can we talk about the unconscious motives of movie producers when there is so little being said about the actual state of racism in the country?

    I want to be told how many more minorities are incarcerated than whites. I don’t want to be told why I have the friends that I have. I want to see scientific reports on whom are turned down for mortgages so the established ruling class benefits. I don’t want to see people blaming me for things that happened before I was born. I am interested in how many people of color are turned down from jobs they deserve. I and not interested in how even my upright actions are evidence against me. I want to know how many whites get let off with warnings from the police while blacks get ticketed.

    I really and truly want to know facts about the world I live in and what I can do to make it better.

    By delving deep in to judgment on how people think we alienate them. White or black. No one wants to be told by a stranger why they really do what they do. That is maddening. The facts need to be first and foremost presented to stand on their own. People need to first accept or reject what observation tells us is true. Then we can separate those who are willing to face reality from those that are suffering from closed minded ignorance.

    Every one is created equal, and has the right to be treated equally. However, we do not have the right to be thought of equally; we are free to think of each other as we please. We are free to dislike and resent and unconsciously “other” anyone we like in this country, but we damn we better keep it in our own heads. If someone makes a movie that furthers the narrative of domination or adds to the discourse of imperialism, its their right to do that.

    But if they act in a way that disparages their fellow man they they need to be held accountable. Lets look at the actions we can see, the tangible things that have a concrete effect. Lets do something about the injustice that occurs, that exists in our own cities and in the jurisdiction of our own courts. Lets take physical burdens away from those who are actually victimized, and need our help now. They we can psychoanalyze each other. Then we can stamp out the lingering bits of racism that may or may not be rearing their heads here or there.

    But lets at least start with the big problems, the ones that we can all agree on.

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