Unlearning Racism Week 4 – The Danger of a Single (White Savior) Story

Week 4 – Week of June 22, 2020

Hi friends,

We are again SO grateful to those of you continuing to show up and put in the work to unlearn racism with us. As always, we would love feedback from those who were present last night to discuss white fragility and the rules of engagement; you can tell us about your experience through this form. And again, we realized that some questions might still be a little too uncomfortable to voice to the whole group or even to email us directly. We’ve made an anonymous question form for anyone to enter any questions they want to see answered in the newsletter or weekly dialogues. Finally, an amazing community of organizers attempting to better understand how allies view, define, and engage in ‘allyship’ has reached out to us with a cool opportunity. They are seeking feedback regarding what is needed to sustain allies in this ongoing fight for racial justice, and to sweeten the pot, if you complete their thoughtful survey, you will be entered into a raffle to win a $25 Amazon gift card!

Throughout this past month, we have centered our unlearning inwardly so that we can confront our own biases and acknowledge our complicity and our contributions to a society that perpetuates racism in its structures, policies, and language. And we aren’t alone in this unlearning! Efforts to discuss and dismantle racism are being reflected nationwide, as books about racism are currently dominating best-seller lists; including a “245% jump for books about discrimination” from May 17 to May 23. How incredible is that?! 

However, the surge of anti-racist non-fiction has been coupled with a surge in some “classic” movies about race, beloved by many because they make us feel better about racism and our role relative to it. We think it’s important this week to talk about the white savior narrative but ultimately have SO MUCH to say that we’ve broken this information into two weeks. So next week: we’re talking about the white savior industrial complex. This week, though, we’re talking about white saviors in stories and how historically, the most popular ones elevate white protagonists, while using the characters of color to supplement those protagonist’s stories, rather than being whole people on their own. 

Before we get to any more materials, just as a thought experiment, jot down your top five favorite characters who are Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color. They can be in books, in movies, in TV shows, whatever. We’ll come back to this.

The Danger of a Single Story

This week’s primary resource for our dialogue group is a TED Talk about the “Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (see more about the talk at the bottom of this email). In summary, Adichie emphasizes the importance of engaging with the world in a way that acknowledges the existence of many perspectives. She expresses that many Americans learn about other cultures and places by reading one book, watching one documentary, hearing about one event that occurred there in the news, etc. and then assuming that that story encompasses the entirety of that place and its people. 

This week, we want to confront this singular lens in which we sometimes view the racist history of America, especially when we’ve viewed racism as a thing of the past that ended with the Civil Rights movement. If we solely consume media that seeks to expose racism in the form of white savior stories, then we are subconsciously internalizing this same white saviorism and perpetuating it in our own actions. The pop culture portrayals of white saviorism are problematic because they were/are profitable, but in the real world, white saviorism is way more subversive and subconscious.  

Movies like The Help, Crash, The Blind Side, and Green Book often appear to be innocent and well-intentioned. They give us a glimpse of a world where a white protagonist overcomes overt racism by meeting a Black sub-protagonist (often a character that is crucial to the story but ultimately not who the story is about) as the white protagonist goes against the grain to acknowledge some shared humanity and to somehow save this Black person from racism. They show us that racism is real, but only evident in overt ways, and that “good white people” stand up against this overt racism while their Black friends are waiting semi-helplessly for them to stand up against the “bad white people.”

These stories apply a white-centric lens to racist issues. It may make us feel better to watch movies where the white character and the Black character have a pure, racism-free interaction and it feels like we live in a colorblind world, but these movies often glorify the white person while reducing the person of color to a person who needs to be “helped” rather than a whole person experiencing oppression. This belief so easily seeps into our everyday lives. In The Help and the Numbing Lies of White Saviorism Delia Harrison eloquently stated, “when more white people in this country than ever before are confronting anti-Black racism and police brutality, white people need to fight our inclination to use media as escapism and a numbing agent. Instead we need media that challenges us to sit in our discomfort, knowing it’s still a mere fraction of the daily discrimination and violence experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color every day in America.” 

This trope of white saviorism is not only reflected in movies, but in our literary canons–think: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He is revered as one of the most upstanding, morally righteous characters of all time as he fights a losing battle to exonerate Tom Robinson, a Black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Law professor Osamudia R. James summed a lot of this up when she said, “Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for tackling racial inequality, no surprise given how America likes its stories about race: centered on innocent white protagonists benevolently exercising power, with black characters relegated to the margins even in stories about their own oppression.”

Words of the Week:

Term we are learning: 

Dominant Narrative

What is a “dominant narrative”?

“Dominant narrative” is a term used to describe the way that history (and present day) is viewed through the lens of the “dominant” culture. It is the idea that only the loudest story gets heard. It is the collection of beliefs and behaviors that a culture deems “normal,” communicated through the social and cultural institutions that hold power. At its core, the dominant cultural narrative is a story arch that we’ve all bought into just by living in western culture, shaping the way that everyone within our culture thinks about everything from history to media to their own personal behaviors. 

Why does this matter?

Our dominant narrative gives us a perceived sense of normalcy and of what is “appropriate” and even “good.” This shapes the way we think about and assign value to everything in our lives – from fatness to war victors to what we eat. We are socialized to see views that conform with the dominant narrative (“it’s gross if women don’t shave their legs!” or “Black women’s natural hair is unprofessional!”) as acceptable, and views that diverge from the dominant narrative as radical, inconvenient, or even dangerous. The dominant narrative teaches us all along to over-value the stories of white people and their individualism while it often clumps people of color, Indigenous people, and Black people into monoliths

Word we are unlearning:

“Bad” or “Sketchy” Neighborhood

What do you mean by that? Some neighborhoods are just “sketchy”!

Okay, let’s unpack that a little. What do we mean by sketchy? Do we mean most of the residents are poor? Do we mean most of the residents are Black or Latinx? Do we mean that we, personally, don’t feel comfortable there? Do we think that our level of comfort could be related to some bias that we haven’t addressed? What stories have we been told about neighborhoods that look like this one? How have those stories affected our beliefs about this neighborhood and the people who live here? 

Maybe we see destruction that wouldn’t last a day in our own neighborhood and we’ve decided there is something “bad” about not fixing the place up, like we hypothetically would. Maybe we genuinely think that there is more danger in that neighborhood because of a belief about what “bad” people look like. Maybe we tell ourselves that there is danger in order to feel better about the conditions that other people might live in. Maybe we associate danger with poverty. Maybe we are interpreting our own discomfort with the fact that our own neighborhoods DO “feel” safer or “cleaner” as danger. 

Being in danger and being uncomfortable or afraid are not the same thing. Saying a neighborhood is sketchy points to your discomfort, not to your (or any) actual danger.

Why does this matter?

Whether we intend it to be stigmatizing to the people who live in them or not, when we call certain neighborhoods “bad” or “sketchy,” we are perpetuating a belief that where poor or BIPOC people live is inherently “worse” than our own neighborhoods. Saying a part of town is “sketchy” is just a coded way to say “there are no wealthy white people there.” 

Okay but what about crime rates in these neighborhoods?

We’ll talk about policing, what is “criminal” behavior, and gentrification in the weeks to come but for now we want to push ourselves to keep asking WHY: WHY crime rates might be higher in some neighborhoods than others. WHY we might assume crime rates are higher even if we have absolutely no evidence that they are. WHY some neighborhoods might have more trash on the streets than others. WHY some might have more pollution or foot traffic or people using substances in public. 

At the heart of all disparities is racism. The difference between the experiences of living in healthier, wealthier white neighborhoods and ones that we might have once described as “sketchy” is racism and classism, expressed through a slew of policies that allocated resources unevenly. The disparate experiences of the people who grow up in lower-wealth, less resourced  neighborhoods is NOT because of some moral shortcoming of the people who live in that place. 

But what if I don’t know better words for it?

Try “unfamiliar” neighborhood. Or be honest with yourself about it and say “predominantly Black neighborhood” or “lower income neighborhood.” And then learn more about the forces that might keep neighborhoods segregated by race or socioeconomic status

Put your money where your posts are:

  • Elijah McClain was a 23 year old massage therapist who taught himself to play violin and guitar. He would often play his guitar on his lunch breaks for the animals in the pet shop where he worked. He was anemic. He loved running. He wore a runners mask to stay warm. He was killed by the Aurora Police Department after being reported for “suspicious behavior” while wearing his running mask after running to buy iced tea for his cousins. He was injected with ketamine and suffered cardiac arrest after telling the three officers trying to restrain him, “let go of me. I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking… I can’t breathe.” Say his name and donate to his family’s relief fund here. You can also sign a petition for Adams County District Attorney Dave Young to investigate his death. 

A Way to Take (non-financial) Action:

  • Bookmark this master document of all your state reps’ contact info and plug YOUR reps into your phone this week. Then, actually USE it! Make it a personal goal to call your reps about at least one issue in your community this week. If you need help finding a specific issue to beef about, email us back with your zipcode and we will help you identify your beef to take up with your public official. Bonus points if you send a thank you note or email if they take the action you have been asking for! 

Primary Resource: 

We LOVE this TED Talk but do want to note that we LOVE Chimamanda, AND she made a comment a few years ago that trans* women experience privileges that cisgender women (women who identify as women and who happen to have been born with ovaries, etc.) do not. Many people in the trans* community felt that this was a broad overstatement and implied that trans* women are not women. We agree with and support the trans* individuals who explained this. While we don’t agree with Chimamanda’s comment, we still think that the heart of her work is so valuable and that this video is a crucial insight. We all fall short – however, if you need to process this “human person does something wrong and I don’t know if I can endorse anything she does from here on out” feeling, we’re here to chat this week!

Some resources we loved, that wrecked us, or we just feel like are important to share (and don’t have anywhere else to put them) this week:

“I call the young people who grew up in the past twenty-five years the Trayvon Generation. They always knew these stories. These stories formed their world view. These stories helped instruct young African-Americans about their embodiment and their vulnerability. The stories were primers in fear and futility. The stories were the ground soil of their rage. These stories instructed them that anti-black hatred and violence were never far.”

  • The Coronavirus Was An Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying – Adam Serwer talks about the racial contract that has allowed people in power (specifically, white people) to ignore what ails Black communities and communities of Color. (At the beginning of May, Emily listened to this episode of Social Distance, the Atlantic’s podcast about Coronavirus that interviews Adam Serwer. She has not stopped thinking about it/talking about it ever since. If you want to talk about it, she would love that)
  • And this AMAZING resource that aims to archive information about every person killed by police and serve as a SUPER comprehensive source of information with thousands of petitions, places to donate, email templates, and so, so much more. 

In the News: Something Else We Think Is Important This Week:

How DACA Changed the Lives of Dreamers – it would be a mistake to NOT talk about SCOTUS’s DACA decision this week and we look forward to the newsletters that we get to branch out (coming soon!!) to cover nuanced issues of race, policies that center around race/class, and racism such as immigration policy. Here are a few DACA facts just as a primer for when we eventually do get to have these conversations:

  • DACA stands for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.” DACA grants people who were brought to the US as children two-year permits allow them to work or study and defers deportation. 
  • People with DACA status only qualify if they meet very specific criteria (have come to the US before their 16th birthdays, have lived continuously in the US since July 2007, clean criminal records, and so much more. You can read more about how people qualified for DACA here
  • There are currently 643,000 DACA recipients in the United States.
  • Despite nearly lifetime residence in the US in order to receive DACA status, college students with DACA status are STILL charged as international students at many colleges and universities (just one small but HUGE barrier to college admission/way that people who are undocumented face systemic discrimination). You can learn more about your state’s policies for DACA recipients here
  • Deportation is hard and painful. This is the understatement of the year, probably. This article is an example of why programs like DACA are so important. 

Before we sign off, revisit that list of your top five favorite characters. Could you think of five people who had distinctly different personalities than each other? Are they leading roles? How much did you actually get to know them over the course of the book/movie/TV show? Was that movie/book/TV show more about a white person? How much press or publicity did that story get? Was violence or pain a central plot point? Was joy? 

We’re learning to have this exercise to analyze the stories we tell about race, but want to be mindful that race is one of many social identities that have prohibited us from seeing different kinds of people on the big screen. We’re trying to ask ourselves these questions about Black characters but also about disabled characters, LGBTQIA+ characters, characters with different religions, neurodivergent characters, and so, so much more

Feeling disappointed that you haven’t been exposed to more complex characters from backgrounds that look different than yours? We’re watching Laverne Cox’s new movie, Disclosure this week and learning about how on-screen personas manifest real life biases. If you watch it too, let us know what you thought! 

As always, we’ll see you this Sunday at 7PM on Zoom!

In solidarity,

Ellie and Emily

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