Archive for the ‘white gaze’ Category

Chimamanda Adichie

The single story is where the same story gets told over and over again about a people or a place we do not know first-hand. The danger is that it leads to stereotypes, to half-truths not the full truth. So, for example, many Americans think of Africa as being full of wild animals and hungry, unwashed children, not a place where there are libraries, bus drivers and true love. Or they think of Australia as the land of kangaroos, the outback and Crocodile Dundee, not a place of boring suburbs and proper English.

The single story is the opposite of what Chinua Achebe calls “the balance of stories”, where all people tell their own stories in their own words. Something that has only begun with the rise of postcolonial literature – “the Empire writes back”, as Salman Rushdie puts it.

But for the most part our stories are still stuck in colonial times where mainly just white men tell their own stories – or their stories about others – over and over again. Not just in books written, but in news stories told and films directed. The only difference is that now a few tokens, like Achebe himself, are thrown in for good measure.

But tokenism is not enough. Imagine if everything you knew about America and white people came only from the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Quentin Tarantino. There is no way that any token – any single story, author or film director – can present the human fullness of his own people, his own time and place. It will necessarily be limited, making his own people seem limited, strange and exotic to those who know nothing else about them.

Even within America white people think of black men as drug dealers with 13 children by six different baby mamas. I know someone like that, so it is not made up, but most black men I know are hard-working, middle-class family men. And it is not just me: half of blacks in America are middle-class. But you would never know that from watching American television – because there is no balance of stories.

Chimamanda Adichie (pictured above) gave a beautiful, beautiful speech about the danger of the single story (see below for the link). You might remember her as the author of “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006). She grew up in middle-class Nigeria, the daughter of a professor. When she came to America to study her American roommate was shocked that her English was so good and that her tape of “tribal music” was, in fact, Mariah Carey.

But then came Adichie’s turn to be shocked: from the American press she thought of Mexico as this place where poor, helpless people came from. But when she got to Mexico she saw people laughing and smoking and going to work. It should not have shocked her, but it did.

It was not that the American press had lied to her. Instead it was the power of the single story to paint a false picture of the world.

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The Bechdel Test (1985) says that a film is not worth watching unless it fulfils three conditions:

  1. It has to have at least two women who
  2. talk to each other about
  3. something besides a man

It comes from Allison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”. She in turn got it from Liz Wallace at her karate class.

It can apply to any story but Hollywood fails the test at a surprising rate, even now more than 20 years later.

NPR did a piece on the Bechdel Test a year ago. In it Eric Deggans, who writes about television for the St Petersburg Times, gave his own form of the Bechdel Test for race:

  1. At least two non-white characters in the main cast …
  2. in a show that’s not about race.

I did not know about the Bechdel Test till I read about it in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s post yesterday at the Angry Black Woman, but even I had something like it in my head:

  1. At least two black characters
  2. who are not stereotypes
  3. whose love lives we know about and
  4. who have their own storyline

“The Secret Life of Bees” would pass (the storylines of Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo), while the “Imitation of Life” would not (black characters are stereotypes).

Johnson gives the strict form of the Bechdel Test for race:

  1. It has to have two people of colour in it.
  2. Who talk to each other.
  3. About something other than a white person.

Like Deggans, I would add that talking about race would be, in effect, talking about white people.

deniseJohnson says most shows fail, though “Battlestar Galactica”, “True Blood”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Veronica Mars” pass.

A show can pass the Bechdel Test and still be racist – and, likewise, it can fail and yet not be particularly racist at all. But it is a quick way of separating those that probably are racist from those that probably are not. And, more importantly, it gives you a way of thinking about stories and how white male they are in their point of view.

Deggans says that most shows fail the Bechdel Test because most successful television writers are white men. They just do not know what women or blacks talk about when they are not there.

Jennifer Kesler at The Hathor Legacy says it is worse than that: when she was learning to write for Hollywood they told her, in so many words, to fail the Bechdel Test: main characters should be white men and no one cares what women (or presumably blacks or anyone else) talk about unless it is about the main characters – who are white men!

But why? Because the white men who run Hollywood say it is what the “target audience” wants. But just what is this target audience? Kesler says in their minds it turns out to be “a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires”.

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Byron York, who used to write for the  National Review, a right-wing opinion magazine, wrote a post the other day called “The Black-White Divide in Obama’s Popularity”. It starts like this:

On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

To which Matthew Yglesias said:

Dave Weigel observes that all Democratic politicians are always much more popular among blacks than among whites, so it’s not clear why York would spin this as a unique attribute of Obama’s. But more to the point, what is York talking about here? How does the fact that much of Obama’s support come from African-Americans mean that he’s not “actually” popular?

Steve Benen puts it more plainly:

For crying out loud, what the hell does that mean, exactly? … The problem, of course, is that damn phrase “than they actually are.” York argues that we can see polls gauging public opinion, but if we want to really understand the popularity of the president’s positions, and not be fooled by “appearances,” then we have to exclude black people.

And Andrew Sullivan adds:

I’m with Benen. What can that last phrase possibly mean, except that African-American opinion does not count as much as everyone else’s? Yglesias and Weigel pile one.

Now it gets even worse:  York replies. First, he does not take the charge of racism seriously:

I suppose if you haven’t been called a racist by the usual suspects on the left, you haven’t been writing for very long.

Next he misses their point while turning the charge of racism against Sullivan:

… Maybe “across-the-board” would have been better than “overall,” but I doubt that would have kept a left-wing activist like Matthew Yglesias, or Andrew Sullivan, who has himself been accused of racism and, quite recently, anti-Semitism, from branding me a racist.

It was not the word “overall” that made him seem racist, it was “actually” – you know, as if blacks are not “actually” Americans but white people are, as if blacks do not count.

This is an example of white gaze, a white way of looking at the world, which sees:

  • People of colour as being at the edges of things.
  • White people as important, as having lives that matter.

And the way he replied to Sullivan and Yglesias is also a common ad-hominem way whites have of answering charges of racism:

  • The “you always cry racism” argument
  • The “you are the racist one” argument

As is completely missing the point. To write for the National Review you have to be good with words and with argument, so I have to assume that York knowingly missed their point.

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