I was talking movies with some colleagues. Inevitably, race comes up in the conversation. It happens. You can’t talk critically about film without addressing race. I’m aware of this. I’m OK with this–well, I’m ok with race coming up. I’m not ok as to why it has to come up. But more on that later.
Some how, the movie Precious came up.
I remember the say I saw it. It was a part of the AMC Best Picture show–the first year the Oscars had 10 nominees for best picture. The day was actually kind of weird. I don’t remember the exact order of the day, but two depressing things happened: the earthquake in Haiti happened, and I saw Precious. I saw the movie with my friend. He hadn’t ever been exposed to anything other than the lower middle class white experience (though, at the time, he was living below the poverty line). You see, there are big differences with being poor in a suburb and being white and being poor in the inner city and being black.
It’s easy to say poor is poor, but it simply isn’t. My friend was technically poor. Life was tough. He didn’t have access to health or dental insurance, and he had trouble making rent on a regular basis. He couldn’t afford healthy foods, though, at the time, he really didn’t know much about healthy eating. He had his high school diploma, and he had no means to further education. However, his state was temporary. Most of his friends did not live under the poverty line, though they were close at times. He had community. He worked hard to rise above. The system worked for him.
It’s easy to think his ability to improve his socioeconomic status was solely based on his hard work. Don’t get me wrong–he did work very hard, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, networking to get better jobs, doing all the things he needed to do to make his life better. However, would he have been able to do all these things if he hadn’t been white? Maybe, maybe not.
This is where Precious comes in. My friend’s life was tough. Then, he saw Precious, and he realized there were people in our own country who had it much worse than he did, and race plays some sort of role in this whole thing. He didn’t know how or why, but, for the first time, he knew something was different. I felt honored to witness this moment of enlightenment, this turning point in understanding the realities of the links between race and poverty. Because of this moment, I always had very fond memories of Precious, even though I haven’t rewatched it.
Fast forward six and a half years. I’m on a business trip talking to colleagues about movies. Precious and race come up. One of my coworkers starts talking about why he hates movies like Precious, 12 Years a Slave, Roots, etc. Suddenly, I find myself upset. How could he be so wrong? How could he not understand how powerful these movies are? It was in that moment that it happened. I became an accidental racist. You see, my coworker is black. He hates these movies for a very specific reason–movies which do well (in terms of awards) which have black characters are nearly always movies about slavery, or, in the case of Precious, black people being poor. They are for entertainment, true, but the writers/directors/etc take it to the extreme and rarely show black people as successful. They depict stereotypes and caricatures. Why do movies like Fruitvale Station get passed over for awards? Why do movies about the Haitian slave revolt nearly get buried? Why aren’t there successful black people on screen? These questions are all valid.
If you are having one of those “Now wait a minute” moments and thinking he is taking this way too seriously, stop for a moment and think. What if every white character in a movie was a hillbilly? You’d be pretty upset, right? (He did ask this of an acquaintance to help them understand his feelings)
Back to dinner and…me. Is it inherently racist of me to like Precious? No, I don’t think so. However, I had failed to recognize how Precious could/would/should be perceived by nonwhite viewers. I assumed my reaction was the only reaction, the right reaction. I hadn’t considered how Precious might support and further ingrain hurtful stereotypes. Lacking this level criticism is, well, critical. It’s easy to think I’m over reacting about feeling guilty. It’s true that this one moment isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t make me a bad person. However, when the collective white majority lacks the ability to think critically about what we create, buy, and sell, we do a disservice to our nonwhite peers and loved ones. How? We become silent supports of very real racism. When we fail to realize characters like Precious are more like a freak show than anything else, we allow others to believe she is real. We allow others to laugh at her. We allow others to laugh at our friends, who this freak show represents.
Most white people are not intentional racists. They are like me. They/we are accidental racists. It’s both OK and not OK. It’s OK in the sense that being an accidental racist does not make you a bad person. We an learn and recover and apologize because our intentions are good. However, it’s not OK because it’s still racists. It’s still hurtful to others, to our/my loved ones. I don’t like hurting my loved ones, which is why I write about this moment. My one small moment may seem insignificant, but adding up all of our small moments creates something big, ugly, and necessary to address. I’m a part of this as much as anyone else. The first step to recovery, to rebuilding, to healing is acknowledging the problem within myself. So, here it is. I am an accidental racist. I don’t like it, but I must see it for what it is so I can first change myself and then change my community.