In my over ten years of teaching literature, I’ve come to expect that stories about racism elicit a certain response from certain students. If it’s a piece like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or even Octavia Butler’s Kindred, then white students will respond with sympathy. Their discussions will signal that racism is bad and they feel bad for the bad things that happened because of bad racism, and that’s all very good. If it’s something a little more confrontational, like Amiri Baraka’s play The Dutchman or Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, then white students get defensive and offended. After teaching the former piece, I even had a student come up to me and ask, “Why do you hate white people?” (To which I whispered, in conspiratorial tones, “I am white people.”)
None of these response are terribly useful, and none seem to be what the authors after (well, maybe Baraka), but those seem to be the only terms in which white people think about racism: affect or feeling. And many, myself too often included, consider the ultimate goal of racial justice not to be systematic change, but right-feeling: “If I feel right about racism — that is, if I think it’s bad, and have sympathy for those who suffer — then I’ve done enough. No need to worry about affecting actual change.”
This philosophy is nothing new, especially in the literary world. No less than Harriet Beecher Stowe prescribed right-feeling to her readers as the proper response to the horrors she described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
But such thinking is not only self-indulgent and impotent, it’s anti-Christian. It lets white Americans to feel like we’ve done enough, and perpetuates systems that destroy and defame God’s creation.
For Fathom Magazine, I wrote about how two excellent movies from 2017 Mudbound and Get Out, disrupt right-feeling and open the way for true repentance:
[Stowe’s right-feeling] sounds like good news for a white American like me, especially one so easily moved by art. American cinema has given me plenty of opportunities to feel right, as Hollywood has followed Stowe’s lead. From the classic To Kill a Mockingbird to the magical realism of The Green Mile, cinematic plots use black suffering as a way to develop its white characters’ dignity or self-realization. Even those involving real-world events, such as The Help, Amistad, or Mississippi Burning, feature white protagonists more than black people fighting for their own rights. None of these movies shy away from racial injustices, but they relegate them to narratives about white people becoming better people—and we love them for it.
But two of the most important movies of 2017 counter this trend by making villains out of white people like me, making right-feeling complicit in systematic racism. In both Jordan Peele’s horror Get Out and Dee Rees’s historical drama Mudbound, white sympathy leads directly to black destruction.
You can read the whole thing here, but do so only after watching Mudbound and Get Out.