The Oscar nominated film 12 Years a Slave, which seems destined to win a number of awards, is still being discussed and processed by cultural critics and film reviewers. For example, on Friday of this week, Slate Magazine posted an essay by Dana Stevens about the film.
Unfortunately, her comments are a spot-on example of white privilege and how the white racial frame empowers many otherwise decent and well-meaning white folks to reproduce white racism in a quotidian manner.
She actually wrote the following:
I guess, simply put, I’m just not sure I’m down with body horror as a directorial approach for a movie on this subject. After a certain point it seems to serve more to shut out (and gross out) the audience than to make them think, feel, and engage...It is easy to talk about white racism as a system that operates to maintain a sense of group position and power in a given society. Moral claims are easy to make relative to racism and white supremacy as well--the language of "good" and "bad" people, the racists being the latter, the rest of us the former, is compelling and safe.
But when the white overseers and masters—particularly Fassbender’s red-bearded supervillain, but to a lesser degree the figures played by Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Benedict Cumberbatch—show up, there’s sometimes the hint of a prurient horror-movie vibe that can feel exploitive. I felt this when Dano’s rather theatrically vile character sang that hideous “Run, nigger, run” song in close-up. Or in the many scenes when Fassbender (who, on a second viewing, I find to be laying it on a little thick) wanders his plantation with a bottle in hand, circling like a predator, looking for someone to humiliate and abuse.
I would suggest that the more challenging framework for understanding white supremacy as a cultural, political, and social force, is how it works through Whiteness's and White folks' capacity for narcissism, ego, myopia, and a willful and cultivated cluelessness and ignorance about matters related to the power and history of the color line in the United States and elsewhere.
Stevens' comments about how the violence in 12 Years a Slave made her, a white woman, uncomfortable, and that the depictions of white slave owners and their cruelty seemed exaggerated and over the top is a version of the "universal I" in practice. Moreover, her framing of the "audience" as an unmarked and undifferentiated mass, one that she assumes shares her sensibilities and identity, signals to that fallacy in reasoning. For Stevens, "the audience" is implicitly coded as "white".
One of the ways that white privilege hurts both white people's cognition and capacity for human empathy is that it makes white folks--and their experiences, egos, and perspectives--the center of all things. White privilege is a learned behavior. As such, it embodies a set of cultural and behavioral norms. Among these rules is that white folks' feelings and sensibilities must always be respected and catered to.
White privilege also encourages ignorance and stupidity. A tiny bit of basic research--listening to or reading interviews with former slaves, surveying accounts of plantation life as compiled by historians, or even having a reflective moment and thinking about how slavery in the Americans was a system of terrorism and tyranny which encouraged human barbarism, would have hopefully convinced Stevens to delete said paragraphs for fear of personal embarrassment.
Whiteness has no room for a full understanding of black suffering and pain. One of the comments in response to Dana Stevens' essay on 12 Years a Slave highlighted how a mainstream white film critic would never suggest that the suffering of Jewish people, and the wickedness of the Nazis as depicted in a movie about the Holocaust was exaggerated, or that the film should be toned down for the benefit of the audience's comfort level.
However, the representation of the innumerable cruelties visited upon black people during slavery across the Black Atlantic is to be modulated for the comfort of the White Gaze. Apparently, everyone is an expert on the history of black people and the American slaveocracy. And because all of us are experts on the subject, writers and commentators such as Stevens are not obligated to do the most basic of research or due diligence before making factual claims about that most "peculiar" of social institutions.
Ultimately, Dana Stevens' essay on 12 Years a Slave is a reminder of how the history and lived present of African Americans and other people of color is, once more, deemed a plaything for Whiteness and those empowered by white privilege.