While chitchatting with an acquaintance about movies, we began discussing Jordan Peele’s history-making horror/social-commentary film, Get Out (see trailer above).
My friend (who is a white male) summarized the film as “a little out there,” but the overall themes were all too real for me and many other black people I know.
Without spoiling the film, I can assure you that a particularly chilling party scene is burned in the mind of many who saw it.
The black main character, Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kalyuua), makes his way around a fancy garden party thrown by his affluent white girlfriend Rose’s parents. As he navigates the maze of white guests, each partygoer greets him with seemingly complimentary yet racially tinged comments, ranging from confessions of Obama fever to high praise of Tiger Woods’ athleticism to unbridled (and super creepy) sexually charged admiration from one particularly unhinged older woman.
When seen in rapid succession the comments reveal an insidious if not downright ominous phenomenon: the positioning of the black body/identity as novel/new/fresh/cool/sexy/entertaining. It made me nauseous, angry and palpably anxious. For many black viewers, each comment becomes increasingly more uncomfortable than the next because they illustrate an all-too-common unnerving social reality.
These motifs of benevolent racism and racial fetishizing are particularly psychologically horrifying for black people. These were not the fictionalized, nightmarish depictions of a creative filmmaker but rather stark, socially relevant, everyday experiences personified and amplified through the silver screen.
A less ‘othered’ version of blackness
My grandparents, George and Barbara Henderson, were the first black family to purchase a home in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1967, when the city was still unintegrated. Their presence in the community was controversial. As a result, they received the obvious overt racist threats and vitriol one would expect in 1960s Middle America, but those kinds of blatant incidences would eventually give way to the kind of benevolent racism exemplified in Get Out.
A large black family with an educated and prominent patriarch and an elegant and socially minded matriarch were quickly fetishized and venerated by many members of the community who wanted to be friends with the “good” black professor and his wife. In the 1960s, they were a challenge to the stereotype of the ignorant or violent negro.
On the surface, the Hendersons seemed to have “made it” precisely because they projected an anesthetized and less “othered” version of blackness (despite my grandfather’s radical-for-the-time efforts to diversify and support minority communities at the University of Oklahoma). They lived in a large and beautiful home, spoke proper English (code for “sounding white”), and they had polite, well-behaved children playing on basketball teams and cheering on pep squads, making honor rolls and playing in orchestras.
Growing up as ‘one of the good ones’
As a second-generation Henderson growing up in the 1990s, however, I have endured my fair share of benevolent racism at the hands of well-meaning white people who just want to let me know that I’m OK in their eyes. Notably, people in the community would immediately treat me differently only after they knew who I was (as it was not immediately obvious because I don’t share the Henderson surname).
Grade school teachers would gush about the articulate and well-formed nature of my book reports. A middle school football coach begged me to play football because I was “tall and strong” and could be an “animal” on the field.
I specifically remember a particularly questionable fourth-grade teacher who thought I “talked too much” and was “undisciplined” until she found out who my grandparents were and wanted me to invite them to a classroom luncheon to discuss the civil rights movement.
By high school, I frequently experimented to see how disparately people would treat me prior to being revealed as a good black person. I began to resent that, in order to be treated without the suspicion or dismissal of being simply black, I had to reveal my positioning as “one of the good ones.”
What I learned is that benevolent racism is predicated on the other person’s assumptions that you are a harmless and thus appropriately integrated member of your racial group. That is to say, properly assimilated. In fact, a friend of mine in college would “jokingly” refer to me as “one of the good ones,” admitting that until they had met me they had never met a black person who wasn’t a “rapper type” because “that’s how all the black kids at [their] public school acted.”
Thanks … I guess
At the gym last week, a friendly older woman I see quite frequently stopped me on my way to the elliptical machine, gesturing for me to pull out my earbuds. She beamed and flashed a smile before speaking:
“Excuse me, do you have a brother that works at the Wal-Mart on the other side of town?” (I knew what was coming; this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked.)
“No, I don’t”, I responded, smiling politely, waiting for the inevitable white shoe to drop.
“Oh, well I could have sworn you two were related … there is a colored … I mean black boy that works over there who looks just like you. He’s just beautiful. You should go over there and look at him.”
I nodded and put my earbuds back in, filling with that nauseous feeling. I felt a lot like Chris in Get Out.
The creepy glory of benevolent racism
Now, aside from the obvious 1960s language slip (“colored” …really?), the implications of that woman’s statement illustrate benevolent racism in all of its creepy glory. I recognized that she was attempting to compliment me by stating she found this other black kid and me both “beautiful,” but she positioned the “compliment” inside a deeply fetishizing framework, one that positioned us both as objects to behold; rare animals to observe.
This kind of romanticized fetishizing is one of the most frequent and problematic forms of benevolent racism:
“Oh I just love black men. There is something so masculine and sexual about their energy,” or, “I bet you are an amazing athlete because, (and I’m not at all racist this is just a fact): black men are just naturally stronger and more athletic” are all par for the benevolent course. And if you get angry or push back at the comments, you’re being too sensitive, touchy or ungrateful.
More recently in professional settings, I have noticed some white people going out of their way to tell me how much they disapprove of President Donald Trump or how much they miss Barack Obama, as if sending some kind of racial Morse code that they are an ally. While I appreciate the attempts at camaraderie, it often highlights my difference in white spaces as a black man — and, trust me, we don’t need to be reminded.
Don’t miss the point
I can hear the proverbial sound of eyes rolling around in heads. “Oh gosh, now black people are complaining about people complimenting them. We can’t do anything right!”
If that’s your takeaway from this piece, then you’ve missed the point.
Trying too hard to highlight one’s black-friendliness is actually more alarming in some cases than overt racism. At least with the latter we know where we stand, but when someone is incredibly careful to highlight our specialness (not for some kind of individual personality characteristic but because of our racial identity) it’s easy to feel like an exotic big cat in a cage.
We become suspicious of whether we’re liked or befriended or dated not because of who we are as a person but rather simply because we’re black. (Oh, and feel free to replace black with any marginalized identity because it happens for all of us.) We begin to wonder if we’re serving as some sort of trophy to bolster an idealized socially conscious and “politically correct” self-image or to satisfy an almost anthropological curiosity.
We start to feel like Chris walking around a party of white people fielding “compliments” and praise simply because of our skin color. But to avoid being “that black person,” AKA not one of the “good ones,” we often smile, nod, say thank you and keep moving. All the while, that nauseous feeling builds, bubbles and churns, subsiding after we’ve brushed it off only until the next one comes along: “Hey there, brother, that Moonlight movie was awesome. Does that reflect your experience as a black gay person?”
(Sigh … )