Last year’s smash hit Get Out was championed on many levels, most of all for its ability to place a black protagonist in a predatory white suburban nightmare. It’s The Stepford Wives of race and has rightly become sort of a pop cultural touchstone with its so-called social horror.
There is a lot to be said and written about the dual-consciousness of the African-American by way of W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin and Franz Fanon. That is to say, one is black, but always aware of blackness in its proximity to whiteness. Race theory and race studies have a lot to say about black consciousness, but less – conspicuously less – to say about white consciousness. One is tempted say the obvious, that because whiteness is mainstream, is in fact the dominant culture, to study anything is to study whiteness. But this is precisely the blind spot. Call it colorblind or snow blind, whatever you will – a condition where whiteness is not self-aware in a way that a fish isn’t aware of water.
The fact that a term like white privilege has become vernacular suggests a shift in this awareness, and may point a consciousness-raising way forward for whites. This growing awareness of whites understanding themselves in racial context is new. Their experience is not longer “normal” or “neutral,” but understood in its context of whiteness. Of white-as-white. As in white people saying to themselves, “oh, that’s so white of me,” and so forth, the term itself no longer a blind synonym for neutral. It’s the growth of a racial dual consciousness that has long been familiar among the colonized and persons of color who have been historically deferential but whom have developed a far more sophisticated understanding of race than white people.
The emergence of white dual consciousness is perhaps one step among many of racial awareness for white people. Specifically, I mean good white people, white people who are ostensibly open, liberal-minded white folk. At question is not only the kind of hidden irony of a duplicitous phrase “good white people” standing between the paralyzing pillars of guilt and pride or ignorance and privilege, but how indeed can white people in fact become actually good white people within their own discomfiting racial identity.
Most dramatic fiction these days takes places in a world of the color blind, unconscious to the racial contours of society, as if race were incidental, and certainly showing no thought on the character’s behalves of their own whiteness. Here I to look at three films to show a kind of time lapse of a similar racial story tropes, separated by about twenty-five years and all having Sidney Poitier as a symbolic touchstone. These three films all touch a kind of inflection point in white racial awareness in their respective eras – Get Out, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (the boilerplate for these type of movies) and Six Degrees of Separation. These dramas don’t present one-stop answers, nor are they meant to, but they do demonstrate and dramatize the contours of the problems of whiteness with different levels of fledgling racial self-awareness.
— Spoilers for all —
Jordon Peele’s Get Out is the most recent of these films caused a sensation in how it depicted the hidden racist markers of liberal whites, good white people. When Chris and his girlfriend Rose have their Guess Who’s Coming weekend in the suburbs, the Armitage family residence, the hosts try hard to sell him on their racial progressivism. Dean’s “I know it’s cliché to have black servants,” to “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could,” try awkwardly to sell Chris on his liberal racial credentials. It’s sort of the irony found in the old Seinfeld joke, “If I like their race, how is it racist?” They further stress how they, the good white people, are not them – the poor, ignorant, Southern hillbilly racist white people – the bad white people, the “white trash” alibi sold as a scapegoat from the privileged racial tactics of the white middle and upper crust. Chris isn’t sold on this pitch at all, sleeps with one eye open as his girlfriend coos assuaging his suspicions. He’s the kind of guy who knows that liberal Boston is one of the most segregated cities in America. He’s not a dumb protagonist who falls into a trap – his talent is his racial awareness, a talent and suspicion that works to his benefit.
The Armitages, these good whites and their white friends have instead festishized blackness for various perceived characteristics. And in some sense, they all want to be, in some way, black, by literally being able to appropriate their bodies. The minds of their victims in this lurid tale are relegated to “the sunken place,” a kind of murky impotent hind brain preconscious state. To evoke Fanon, their skin may be black, but they’ll have the mannerisms of their white body snatchers looking for a darker upgrade.
There is a lot here for black audiences that has been much discussed. But I have to do the more banal thing and discuss Get Out from the white perspective, because it’s interesting what the film says about white desire. That in some way, appropriation of blackness represents a kind of salvation for troubled white people. By becoming, in fact, black folks, they are able to completely camouflage negative affects of racial guilt and responsibility. This acquisition fills in their own sense of loss and meaninglessness.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Race is handled in a different way in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is sort of like Get Out, but with the horror element taken out and replaced by white people giving reassuring self-important speeches about how progressive they are, but that it’s the world that is petty and cruel and ignorant. That 1967 film by Stanley Kramer was something of a sensation at the time. Like all Zeitgeist movies, this one hasn’t aged well. The most memorable scenes in it involve Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn washing away their racial knee-jerking, reassuring themselves that if their daughter and the good doctor are really in love, then they’ll support their biracial marriage.
If there were any question as to who this movie was made for by the end Spencer Tracy answers clearly. No other character has a single line of dialog in the last five minutes where he gives a gassy, sentimental, overstuffed speech about love and universal human dignity. By then, the white characters have turned progressive and they paint the African-American parents as the fearful reactionaries. It’s an ending that is a wish fulfillment for whites – which they are no longer hated and harmony is restored – if only under Spencer Tracy’s pulpit.
James Baldwin’s observation in I’m Not Your Negro (released in near synchrony with Get Out) about this and another movie Stanley Kramer made with Poitier, 1958’s The Defiant Ones, brings the point home. For Baldwin, that film contrasts how white and black audiences saw two different things in the movie. In the famous scene where Sidney jumps off the train to be with his fellow white fugitive played by Tony Curtis, white audiences are reassured, as Baldwin writes, “The black man jumps off the train to make sure white people don’t feel hated. For although they’ve made errors, they’ve done nothing for which to be hated.” It’s in this way that Poitier was used as a fulfillment of white fantasies of forgiveness, subtle racial redemption. Likewise, Baldwin comments that “Black people didn’t like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because they felt he was being used against them.” And this is true, if nothing but being a boilerplate for the other films considered here to invert in a kind of fugue state the Guess Who’s expectations.
Six Degrees of Separation
The middle film here, 1993’s tragicomedy of manners Six Degrees of Separation, is the most complex and layered of the bunch. It’s a movie that has cast a spell on me over the last twenty-five years and inspired a number of different kinds of essays, as it has the quality of a dream and can be interpreted many ways. One way of looking at John Guares’s masterpiece is as an exposition of whiteness.
An interesting thing about Six Degrees is its interesting structure. The narrative is told entirely through a collage of stories, the exposition itself a matter of contention, relying on the memories and fantasies of the tellers. Unlike Guess Who or Get Out, Six Degrees doesn’t claim that the events in the film are truth, but rather something closer to dreams, closer to the imagination. Some critics may have had issue with the portrayal of blackness in the film, but I counter that that is precisely the point. There is no scene in Six Degrees that asserts truth. Rather any recollection of Paul Poitier is through white bourgeois gossip among a chorus of unreliable narrators. This is how the film is about white desire.
Six Degrees begins in a late 80s Manhattan apartment where Flan and Ouisa are hosting South African investor Geoffrey. Before Paul’s eruption onto the scene they converse about racial justice in South Africa and America. The three of them wax romantic about educating black workers, partnering with strikers and plotting revolution in Africa in murky cafes with Pépé le Moko. They mock themselves in how ridiculous it is to sit in sentimental command of racial and economic justice from their luxury apartment. All they know of the material is its appearance in art and literature and film, fodder for Broadway musicals and Van Gogh’s paintings of peasants’ shoes. And then, as if conjured, as if generated by a science fiction id machine, the foil, the alleged son of Sidney Poitier, barrier-breaker of the fifties and sixties, appears at their doorstep bleeding. He’s Paul Poitier (played by a young Will Smith), antagonist of the film who has pulled a wounded gazelle routine. But he’s also much, much more – a charming gadfly of a confidence man who is something of a pied piper among New York elites of the Upper East Side.
He tells his story, he’s a friend of their children, the son of a famous movie star, and regales them with his cooking and an impromptu defense of his thesis, which turns out incidentally to be a very white existential probing of Cather in the Rye. He tells them that although black, he grew up in a Switzerland boarding school and “doesn’t feel black in that racist way” until he came to America. Paul skillfully turns his white hosts against themselves, making them aware of their whiteness and its attendant guilt, that they in some way owe him something, while at the same time reassuring them of their goodness. It’s the same duality allows the rest of the movie, for Paul is the embodiment of the film’s main symbol – the double-sided Kandinsky. One side “wild and vivid, the other somber and geometric.” One side a familiar comfort, the other full of sudden enigmatic bursts of unintelligibility. Known knowns vis-a-vie unknown unknowns.
It’s the flipping between consciousness and unconsciousness, the duplicity of Paul’s identity that works on these white elites. He has mastered a skill of being among them while being black-but-not-black. Black, but not in that racist way, not even feeling American really, far away from the racial wounds of American – or South African – history. A kind of … unblack … if you will, suspended in a liminal dimension of white imagination. He becomes their black dreamboat of a son that works like a balm on their racial anxiety and guilt – a man whom you might imagine would really be the son of Sidney Poitier from those Saturday matinees. When Flan gives him his son’s pink shirt, it’s a gesture of a father’s tenderness, the way he longs for the pale color to carry a Cezanne. Although taken in by the ruse, the evening reassures Flan about his own goodness – as a father, an aesthete, and a do-gooder white.
Geoffrey departs with dreams of having a film festival with “new blacks” – Spike Lee, Cosby, Dianna Ross – blackness become synonymous with style, taste, the reassuring salve of conscientious good white people. This is a preview of the kind of liberal appropriation of blackness demonstrated in Get Out.
This ruse works in a racially half-conscious state until the illusion inevitably bursts and the canvas is inevitably turned round to its other wilder side. Ouisa goes to wake up Paul the next morning and finds he’s having sex with a white man. Flan and Ouisa are in full panic and quickly kick out Paul and his hookup. The dreamboat suddenly and abruptly abject.
One may wonder to what extent the Presidency of Barack Obama owes to not just Sidney Poitier but Will Smith in the white imagination. As Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on Obama in The Atlantic suggested, Obama mastered the form of being black among whites, of being the super articulate, educated black leader, but transcendent of duality, not “black in that racist way.” Coates calls this the Al Roker phenomenon. And in Six Degrees of Separation, Paul plays the others with their own fantasy. Dr. Fine in particular, the Jewish doctor, probably had in mind The Defiant Ones – himself the Tony Curtis part – when he gave Paul the keys to his brownstone. Once his illusion was dispelled, he assumed Paul to be a crack addict – suddenly racially abject again.
The excitement with which the rumors about Paul’s boondoggling the Upper East Side spread fills the upper crust community with a strange mix of feelings – both terror and enchantment. The second quarter of the film is a detective search to find out who Paul really is, a search that explores … ahem … darker dimensions of racial projection as they enlist their children at Harvard in the search.
Ouisa continues to try to find out where Paul is to help him, to rescue him from the streets, from drugs, AIDs, poverty, and whatever else running in her imagination. Paul for her is Balto, the husky braving the Alaskan blizzard, trailblazing the route to cure the Typhoid-stricken children of Nome a century ago. Or she thinks of herself as Balto in return, the phase of the picture where she dreams of being a Mr. Drummond on “Differen’t Strokes,” the freedom rider, the ally to uplift the underprivileged youth. It is part of what W.E.B. Dubois chided as the guilt-rattled whites moralizing patchwork of white elites becoming do-gooders with their grand philanthropic plans. But none of it comes to pass. This planning and dreaming slips through Ouisa’s fingers like a fog, devastating her.
It’s remarkable that none of the white characters ask why they keep talking about Paul and why they keep searching for this human mirage. The first character who even asks is an Ambassador from India in the final act, “why does it matter so much?” It’s here, at the climax of the film, Ouisa breaks down and confesses in her final speech. Now speeches like this typically come at the end of a drama, its part of the dramatic form where the unsaid tensions and obsessions finally find themselves in the voice. As David Mamet says, drama is the stepchild of religion, and this part of a play is the atonement, the tearful confession right before the resolution of the central conflict.
Here Ouisa essentially deconstructs high society and class … about how their lives have no structure, that the structure has faded, the Kandinsky has flipped to its vivid color. She’s aware of how paltry and vapid her life is and in a remarkable instant throws it all away. Paul was the psychopomp for our heroine, the pied piper of salvation. How is this possible? What was important here is how Paul, once exposed as a fraud, Ouisa continues to want to reach out to him. She’s made what she believes to be an authentic connection and wants Paul in her life despite her disillusionment. He’s no longer a fraud to her, he is a voyager of the imagination. And if he can cross lanes, cross six degrees of class, race, and social hierarchy to become a high society raconteur, what other miracles of the soul might be possible?
But like a dream, like a rainbow, he disappears. She doesn’t know his name, can’t find the right precinct, can’t even find the right detective. Like a ghost, he vanishes as quickly as he came in to their lives. Paul is more a dream symbol that real person, a fairy tale character, a kind of angel-amongst-us type of character. And it overlaps not a little with the trope of, as Spike Lee coined, the so-called Magical Negro in white film (used in the extreme in Stephen King yarns). And in not being able to find Paul, this allows Ouisa to struggle with the mystery of the complex. The answer to that mystery is this – as Thurgood Marshall and James Baldwin pointed out long ago, however helpful their dialectic may be, it is not the job of black folks to heal the souls of white folks. Sidney Poitier must get back on that train. Reassuring whites, absolving them of guilt, enabling sentimental righteousness and charitability and color blindness were a transitional phase. But this has to go, like a symbol, like a dream, it has to be dispelled. To fail to do so robs white folks of a process they must own. Six Degrees ends early in this transformation for Ouisa –who or what she becomes from there is another mystery.
To paraphrase Baldwin, what is truly sinister about white folks is their lack of joy, their inability face history, to face themselves. And that this inability “hideously menaces the country, indeed the world.” Philosopher Shannon Sullivan in her book Good White People proposes that the task for white people is much harder than what has so far been attempted. The brass tax version of her thesis – it all boils down to self-awareness, it’s transcending white emotional paralysis. What needs to be overcome is the negative racial affects associated with white fragility – envy, guilt, shame, ignorance, fear – and embrace the positive affects of love, joy and pride. This internal process involves overcoming the reactive weak position of whiteness and that white folks need to be proud and strong and discover self-love; to love their whiteness. Sullivan is first to admit that even saying such a thing as pride and racial joy automatically brings up reactive alerts associated with white supremacism, which is precisely what an introspective – rather than reactive and externalizing – race would dispel. Guilt and shame, she claims, here are counterproductive, hallmarks of social fragmentation and resentment, and cannot sustain people through long-term work of racial justice. Rather the quest for white moral salvation is an inner quest for realization and self-acceptance that are manifested in tandem with genuine racial atonement. The way for white people to help the so-called race problem is to relinquish their somber and cherished and harried Spencer Tracyesque notions of morality and externalized virtue signaling.
Sullivan proposes a third way from the white problem rooted in the act of self-love. This introspective, dialectical self love is aided in no small measure by the imagination. The imagination is not a servant of the rational ego. On the contrary, it is the destination of life. The ending of Six Degrees suggests to this third way, beyond the double Kandinksy, beyond chaos and control, as if the curse of the compartmentalization caused socially and psychologically by race and class are dissolved by self-love and the promise of possibilities. As Paul Poitier says, “To face ourselves, that is the hard thing. The imagination – that is God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”