The world today is different in many ways from how it was during the Civil Rights era. Many people remember the day that Black students started attending their school after Brown v. Board of Education. People of different races live and work alongside each other so much more today than ever before. Green Book winning the Oscar for Best Picture is more evidence of how much things have changed, right?
Wrong! The film might look anti-racist. A White man (played by Viggo Mortensen) takes a job driving a Black man (played by Mahershala Ali) for his piano recital tour. At first, the White man is hesitant to work for a Black man, and they get into several arguments while they drive. However, over time, they develop a close relationship, and the white man seems to become less racist. It might sound like a story of overcoming racism… except that it is still racist.
How? It simplifies and obscures how racism really operates. The underlying message of the film is that racism is a result of a White person’s individual lack of exposure to people of color, not the larger system through which oppression is so deeply rooted and perpetuated. The power of real racism is in the systems through which racism operates. It lies in how and law enforcement disproportionately targets people of color. It lies in the relative absence of grocery stores with fresh produce in communities of color, as compared for White communities. Two people of different races having a cordial relationship does not and cannot singularly undo racism.
The film also talks about racism from a White perspective. Co-written by the real-life son of the White character featured in the film, Green Book puts forward a White narrative. The real-life family of the Black character featured in the film, were not consulted during the writing of the screenplay and have accused Mr. Vallelonga of falsifying information in the film. Telling a story that should promote anti-racism from a White perspective steals the platform from the people who are most affected by racism, people of color. For example, the Oscars played out this same story. Green Book beat the Black KKKlansman for the Best Picture Oscar. The Black KKKlansman was co-written by 2 Black men and 2 White men, and told the true story of a Black man who infiltrated the KKK with the intent to damage its effectiveness.
Hollywood loves stories of White saviors. Remember, “The Help,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Cool Runnings,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “The Blind Side”? These movies, as with Green Book, show how people of color are incapable of thriving or being successful without the assistance of White people. Every time we see a movie like this, or we see a White celebrity visit starving children in Africa, we are taught that White people are the wise and able rescuers, the owners of success. It keeps people of color oppressed.
How can you be better at being anti-racist?
- Speak up when you see racism. When you hear or see things that you know are oppressive, say or do something to stop it, especially if you are White. White people are the best people to challenge other White people’s racism. It might feel uncomfortable to call out racist language or racist systems, but nothing will change if you don’t use your privilege to highlight the problem.
- Give people of color a voice. Pay attention to who’s story is being told and demand to hear other people’s stories. Buy books, films, music, and art created by people of color, intentionally. If you are White help people of color to get their stories in front of larger audiences. Sometimes, it is better for you to use your power to stay quiet and quiet other people, so others from oppressed groups have the time and space to speak.
- Celebrate how diversity makes your life better. There is an underlying assumption of racism that life would be better if it were fully White, and that people of color just need to be managed so as not to ruin things. Most individual people don’t really believe that, but might unintentionally be perpetuating that assumption. Allowing people of color to be more equally treated does not take anything away from White people. Instead, you can live out your values by acknowledging and embracing how people of color make your immediate environment and the rest of the world a better place.
- Seek out more information. Search the internet for resources, and start your own journey of learning. Seek out information published online, in books, in art, and in media to learn how systems of oppression operate, how people experience those systems, and what can be done to make positive change.
Here’s a link to the guide book Blacks used to travel in the U.S. Green Book