Bearing witness from privilege, as I have examined, walks very close to a line that must not be crossed—a line between honoring and listening versus man/whitesplaining.
This is intended as the former, admitting full well the dangers of good intentions.
Writing about the film Selma, Brittney Cooper confronts the “white gaze”:
New York Times critic Maureen Dowd saw “Selma” last week “in a theater of full of black teenagers.” Her ethnographic impressions of the “stunned” emotional responses that these D.C. teenagers had to seeing four little girls blown up in an Alabama church basement and watching civil rights leaders viciously clubbed during a march in Selma reek of the kind of voyeuristic and clueless white gaze often used to devalue and pathologize urban youth. They become fascinating objects of study to those who don’t get to spend a lot of time with them.
And it is precisely these kinds of impressions from white people, the inability to make sense of genuine black emotion, the inability to recognize what filmic representations that respect the interior lives of black people actually might look like, that have contributed to the disingenuous backlash against the Selma film.
Read Cooper’s piece, entirely, carefully, and more than once—until her concluding points resonate:
The recent tragic killings of unarmed youth have surely taught us that if we don’t work from a presumption of black humanity, facts don’t mean very much in our interpretation of events.
More than that, those in power choose the “facts” that matter.
And then, as Cooper mentions Toni Morrison, watch Morrison:
Dowd and Charlie Rose embody the “voyeuristic and clueless white gaze” driven by their privilege and the veneer of good intentions: Dowd and Rose assuming the pose of thoughtful, measured, and professional (mostly because of their status).
Finally, Sendhil Mullainathan places lingering, systemic racial discrimination within good intentions:
Arguments about race are often heated and anecdotal. As a social scientist, I naturally turn to empirical research for answers. As it turns out, an impressive body of research spanning decades addresses just these issues — and leads to some uncomfortable conclusions and makes us look at this debate from a different angle….
But this widespread discrimination is not necessarily a sign of widespread conscious prejudice….
This kind of discrimination — crisply articulated in a 1995 article by the psychologists Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington — has been studied by dozens of researchers who have documented implicit bias outside of our awareness….
Ugly pockets of conscious bigotry remain in this country, but most discrimination is more insidious. The urge to find and call out the bigot is powerful, and doing so is satisfying. But it is also a way to let ourselves off the hook. Rather than point fingers outward, we should look inward — and examine how, despite best intentions, we discriminate in ways big and small.
Our first obligation is to look inward, identify and admit our privilege, and then, listen.