Dear White People: Getting Across the Racial Empathy Gap

My Dear Readers,

All of y’all, go see this film!!!

I recently had the pleasure of viewing the recently released satire Dear White People, a film that challenges conventional notions of what it means to be black, to be white, and to be both by centering its story around a culture war brewing on a fictional, predominately white Ivy League college campus.

Andre Seewood of Indiewire writes that historically, “traditional black films” have failed to maintain the attention of white audiences due to those audiences lacking the necessary empathy to identify with black characters, “which in turn, affects their ability to ‘suspend disbelief’ and surrender to the narrative of a black film.”

So, are white folks incapable of surrendering to the narrative of a black film?    Seewood cited a study on the Racial Empathy Scale conducted by researchers from the University of Milano (Italy) and the University of Toronto (Canada) in which they found that:

“The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race.”

Furthermore,

“the study found that the degree of mental activity when White participants watched non-White men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task.”

So how does one cross this divide?  I would say that watching Dear White People is a great way to start that conversation.

The critically acclaimed satire grabs you immediately as it dives directly into the thoughts that lie deep within the consciousness of diverse audiences and provide experiences that many races can relate to—experiences like the often avoided discussion of race, themes about intelligence, the craving for acceptance, identity, honesty within relationships and tasteful and tactful displays of black and white sexuality across all genders.

The film, quite honestly, is a psychotherapist’s Disney World.  It allows the individual to sit alone within the “psychological self,” tapping into and exploring the many visual themes that lie either in the subconscious or unconscious realms of one’s internal self.  It’s a lot like just sitting with a friend, feeling completely understood by them, and yet, having the choice and freedom to outwardly share those feelings—or not.

Dear White People is as powerful as it is empowering for many reasons, but this is why is makes me say: All of y’all, go see this film!!

One: Dear White Folks!

You will be engaged in the observance of scenes depicting white people engaged in the following behaviors:

  • Fulfillment of desires of blackness– the film shows a campus Halloween party in which whites are encouraged to dress up and “unleash your inner Negro”. The participants arrived dressed in blackface, eating watermelons and waving guns gangster style
  • The “intense want” to say the “N” word– white students lamenting for permission and “finally” being able to join in with blacks to repeatedly use this most challenging word.
  • Relaxed white students admonishing their black peers that due to having a black president, racism in the United States is officially ended.
  • White students being able to state that as a result of affirmative action, the most vulnerable person is the white middle class
  • The freedom without ridicule to for whites to “touch and play” with the Afro hair
  • Love scenes between a white man and black woman that are not about rape and are instead intimate and loving.

Two: Dear Black Folks!

You will be engaged in the observance of scenes depicting black people being engaged in the following behaviors:

  • Instead of what is typically shown in the media today, black students being actively involved in campus political activism
  • The portrayal of black cultural pride, knowledge and awareness
  • Black students protecting their turf (the Anderson-Parker dining hall) and expelling those who seek to violate their unity i.e. privileged whites and their campus token
  • Black students struggling with the internal conflict of having “light” skin tone, hair style and racial self hatred as well as the devastation which can result from such tormented feelings
  • The impact of rejection by one’s racial group due to being “different” i.e. homosexual or acting “white”
  • The pressure of following your father’s footsteps of achieving his unfilled ambitions as a black man or responding to your own dreams and desires
  • A black man’s fulfillment of having a intimate, meaningful kiss with the man of his dreams, who happens to be white

Three: Dear Women!

The introduction of black female sexual pleasure without its usual stereotyping and slut shaming

  • Two of the leading female characters have scenes that focus on the fulfillment of their sexual urges and NOT on that of the male characters
  • The tactful, however short, introduction of female oral gratification where the female (and not the male) is on the receiving end.
  • There is the clear rejection of having to play the role of “middle class good girl”. There is a fresh air of freedom in the sexuality being displayed by the two female characters towards their male lovers.  There is the clear message of female desire for the fulfillment of sexual wants with an attitude of “taking care of my business,” an attitude historically reserved for men.

Four: Dear everybody!

The affirmation that there truly are predators, users, and abusers living and thriving within the African-American middle class

  • The film breaks through the shadiness of supposed brotherly love and concern for young and upcoming adults by older members of the elite and well established
  • These scenes are excellently well acted by actors Malcolm Barrett & Dennis Haysbert who, in the their respective roles as reality show casting director and dean of students, play scheming and conniving characters
  • The negative aspects of both characters are successfully carried out without the stereotypical roles of gangsters, pimps, or criminals using drugs or crude profane language, themes usually reserved for black male actors

Five: Finally! 

Finally!  A film that reinforces the view of the importance of education within the African-American community!

  • The film, in its entirety, takes place within an academic setting of a prestigious university
  • The scenes are focused exclusively within the classroom, residence halls or the physical environment of the campus community
  • There is no character focus on sports, athletes, or entertainment.

So, are white folks incapable of surrendering to the narrative of a black film? The real question is: are white people capable of having empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings—for others of a different cultural or racial background?

The answer is a resounding yes! However with a caveat—the “want to be exposed.”  To be exposed is“the revelation of an identity or fact that is concealed or likely to arouse disapproval.”

Members of the African-American community and other communities of color understand the term “exposure” quite well.  Unlike our Caucasian peers, in order to be successful in what is perceived either a “white world” or a economy based on the procurement of wealth, we must be want to be exposed, specifically learning the ways of moving comfortably in a bicultural or diverse society.

One method of exposure and gaining comfort in understanding others is through film and mass media.  As the inner workings of the film industry continue to be made available to ethnic minorities, the exposure of their work to white audiences are denied due to the lack of non-stereotypical filmmaking—they are not following the mold that producers and studio execs expect.

Research conducted by Nicole Pasulka has found that of the more than 600 major Hollywood films released since 2007, less than 7% had black directors.  Further research found that in films that had white directors, 10% of speaking roles went to non-white actors, but for films with a black director, 40% of characters with speaking roles were minorities.

So what does this mean?  Basically, without films being made by black or other ethnic minority directors, white audiences will continue being limited to the stereotypes being espoused by white directors as well being denied “exposure” to the depictions of real life from the perspective of the ethnic minority individual.  As a result, all of us as Americans lose out in our ignorance of lacking knowledge of the contributions made by diverse communities.

In comparison: the recently released film Fury, directed by David Ayer, a white male. The movie takes place in WWII, focusing on a wearied tank commander played by Brad Pitt and his crew making the final push into Germany towards the closure of the war.

The film provides an excellent portrayal of the heroic “fighting man” during this period.   However in its use of hundreds of individuals key and minor actors used in the film, there is only one key role for an ethnic minority actor; Latino actor Michael Pena in the role of tank driver.

There was one minor role of a black soldier acting as a “runner” or “go fetch” for his white commanding officer.  Otherwise there was no clear depiction of black solders, specifically tankers or tank crewmen.

However, the film clearly showed the contributions of Jewish Americans fighting Nazi Germany by featuring four Jewish actors.  There is a psychological impact on the viewing audience as they are left with the clear understanding and unconscious internalization that blacks did not act in valor or contribute to the war effort in the tank battles concluding the war with Nazi Germany.

Nothing is further from the truth.  During WWII, African-Americans served in segregated combat units, one among them being the 761st Tank Battalion.  This unit served with valor and distinction, suffering a 50% casualty rate, while helping to liberate 30 towns and several concentration camps.

During the war, the 761st Tank Battalion advancee two thousand combat miles and spent 183 straight days on the front lines in the front lines of France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Holland, Germany, and Austria.  During the closing days of the war, they captured 80,000 prisoners.

This courageous group of fighting men, despite suffering psychologically from the traumas of racism, oppression and discrimination at home and in combat, fought as Americans. Without black film directors, it is highly unlikely that a film will be created so their story can be told.

Concluding Words

Rather than to leave my dear readers with the misperception on what the film does or does not do, I want to firmly state that the movie does not presume to portray the entirety of what it means to be black in an environment dominated by whites.  However, it does provide very entertaining and honest depictions of black life in a white world.

Needless to say, this film, although a satire, is not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to take a peek at the feelings that lay deep within the psychological self.   There are many points of laughter and yet it may make many an individual feel uncomfortable.

Who probably won’t go to see this film?  Those stuck in a mindset fastened to the past.

Those who are unwilling to look within the psychological self and answer the questions that lie there.  Those who would continue to hide in the dark and consequently need to “survive” living in fear.

Who probably will go to see this film?  Those who have the willingness to seek a future among diverse populations.  Those who want to move beyond the current denial of female sexuality and can, accept the diverse sexual orientation of our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and love them as who they truly are.

Finally, it will be those among us who will want to move past survival into driving, (empowerment) striving, (living one’s life) and thriving, (attainment of one’s goals).  In doing so, this individual will have the want to live with their fear instead of living in their fear.

As I stated earlier, the film Dear White People is entertaining, challenging, and enjoyable. I would rate it as a must have in your video library.  It is truly a classic of all times.

If you are white and the film makes you feel uncomfortable, then count your blessings—this means that you are beginning to experience the great divide known as the “Racial Empathy Gap” It’s a human thing. So deal with it!

And if you are Black or of another ethnic minority group and the film makes you feel uncomfortable, there is more of the same awaiting, as you seek to navigate a world that does not understand you.  So deal with it!

All of y’all, go see this film!

Until the next crossroad…. The journey continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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