Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Avatar Scenario and #BLM

This is The First Part of A True Story

A friend of The Omnivore told him a story a few months ago. It went like this: he went and saw this movie called Avatar where a (white) dude puts on an alien body and goes amongst a primitive native people (who are blue--and voice acted by people-of-color). When the natives are threatened by a massive army of technologically superior white people, the (white) hero:
  1. Wins the love of the native chieftain's daughter.
  2. Goes after the biggest, baddest flying dragon-thing (the planet's apex predator) and does what no native can do: masters it.
  3. In doing so, he comes to the natives (wearing their skin) as a legendary hero and unites the tribes.
  4. Leads them in their battle against the invaders. While not technically their new king, he is, at least for a while, effectively their warlord.
On examination, The Omnivore discovers it's even worse:
  • After an invader attack, with the native community damaged and grieving--their nominal leader dead--what do they do? They come together to try to save the life of a white scientist (Sigourney Weaver). That's who we all see them chanting for!
  • At the very end, the white guy permanently enters the native (POC) color-body: becoming one of them "for real."
  • Of course he could never really be one of the natives--he's been with them for like 2 months max. On the other hand, during this time he has (a) learned their secrets, (b) learned all their skills as well as them, and (c) been judged pure by the world-mind--which is shocking (and gains their trust!).
In other words, the outsider white guy is a kind of super-native: once he enters their group he does everything they do better than they can. He also retains his privileged ability to move among white people and understand their technology.

The friend said that, at the time, he was fairly convinced that the criticism of Avatar as a white-savior-film was fairly on point.

The White Savior Movie

Jim Cameron's Avatar falls into the category of the "White Savior Movie." This is, as described above, a trope where a white person (often male, often an outsider to their own culture), solves a problem and becomes messianic for some people of color--often learning something about themselves in the process. It tends to be "acceptable" as (a) the native people are presented as noble / kind -- even if not competent to solve their own problems by themselves and (b) the hero learns to respect the culture they save (usually)--or, if not respect (The Blind Side) at least build an emphatic relationship with people-of-color.

In other words, the white savior is kind of the ultimate "ally."

It should be noted that there are some reasons this works in Hollywood. The first, and most obvious, is that with a few very notable exceptions, white stars sell better and more reliably than people-of-color stars. While it is all well and good to say that there should be more diverse casts (and it is), if you are gambling your 150 million dollars, how edgy do you want to be?

The second reason is that the (majority white) audience likes to have a POV character to identify with as they are introduced to the story. A mild outsider is better for this than a total outsider. Netflix's Orange Is The New Black had the white main character be an outsider for the first season before it could deeply focus on the more diverse cast.

On the other hand, Avatar actually uses a kind of literal CGI "black-face" both in terms of special effects (the white character spends time as a CGI alien--appearing of the same hue (blue) as the POC actors do) and within the movie itself (in the movie the white character is, literally, putting on an alien body to appear as an alien). Black-face is bad ('problematic') because it co-opts a less powerful culture and is used, generally speaking, either to mock it, leverage it, or use it in a very reductionist method.

In Avatar, the white guy in black-face is a better alien than the aliens themselves. Once he puts on their outward skin, he becomes everything they aspire to. He becomes a leader. Maybe even a teacher.

The Second Part Of The Story

The Omnivore nodded along, reading the email about Avatar's White-Savior-Complex--until the friend came to the second half. It featured then-in-the-news Rachel Dolezal.

Rachel Dolezal

If you remember, she was the professor of African American art and a leader in the NAACP--a white woman posing as a black woman. She wasn't just an anonymous black person: she was the leader of a black organization, she taught classes on black culture, and she was respected in her circles.

The link between the white-savior-complex and Rachel Dolezal being a white person who became, kind of, a "superior" black-person was never spelled out--but when The Omnivore saw it, it was kind of startling: The Omnivore's friend was saying the White-Savior-Complex had kinda "played out in real life."

Shaun King

In short, if King really is white (which appears to be the case), he is a white guy who has 'put on a black skin (front)' and then risen to prominence over other black people. This is both in terms of merit (he is a successful activist) and consumption (he took a slot meant for a black person at the college). It is also done in terms of laying claim to an identity that involves victimization (which is what #BlackLivesMatter is literally about) and so victimization is co-opted as a part of it.

The Avatar Theory And Identity Politics

At a purely sociological level it may be interesting to look at the very few data points of Dolezal and King as reflections of how early-life privilege impacts everything. If you attribute both Dolezal's and King's successes in "being black" to their privileged early-life, you could construct a case for saying that even in terms of being an oppressed minority. the privilege gives them an edge over the actual oppressed minorities.

Of course you could also say it was their "white genetics"--and The Omnivore is very critical of that position. So let's be careful about stipulating that.

In Avatar the alien-body was created to allow a smaller, more fragile (white) human to move amongst the native people without alarming them (they knew the body was fake--but it was still less disruptive than if the pale-skins had been scurrying around their camps). In the case of Dolezal and King, one might say that the adoption of a half-lie (being a 'very light skinned bi-racial person') allowed the white interlopers to integrate into black society with a minimum of fuss. In other words, you could say that the actual dynamic was not really, substantially different than if the persons had simply appeared as potentially black and not actually claimed to be black.

The problem with that is (a) in the black community, skin tone has historically been very important and still is today (at least to an extent), (b) racial politics draw a VERY distinct line between white 'allies' who aren't welcome to criticize tactics and messaging and actual black people who are generally allowed to do so. In other words: the faux-blackness acts as a protection for would-be activists--something white people, however well intentioned they think themselves, do not enjoy.

Finally, we might look at this in terms of actually cheating. If a white person wants a scholarship and can acquire one by pretending to be black (see the movie Soul Man), perhaps that's the way to do it? This would coincide with any benefit of claiming victim-hood at the hands of white people whether or not it happened. If nothing else you would get sympathy, yes?

The Omnivore thinks this is a bad way to look at this as well: the amount of work and risk necessary to pull off faking being black--in order to, what? Travel around and yell at cops? To run dodgy fund-raisers? To, probably, draw police and government attention? It all seems a bad bet from a pragmatic standpoint. If you are a con-artist, there are far easier and more likely successful cons.

No, The Omnivore thinks that, again, the Avatar Scenario works well here.

In the real-life cases learning "to be black" took years at traditionally-black schools. It didn't take weeks. It also was done seeking a kind of "nobility" in The Omnivore's assessment. Both King and Dolezal were attempting to "do right." This is similar to how many, many white activists feel (leaving aside that King may have profited from his fundraising illicitly). 

The Omnivore expects there was a sense of self-righteousness involved as well as a nice "protection" from missteps due to not being "an ally" but rather "the real deal." This, if you run in activists circles, is a level of privilege itself--one that white people can't enjoy. The Omnivore thinks that the combination of an ally's zeal-of-the-converted and a native person's privilege in activists communities is probably a potent mix. When years of actual socialization as a black person is added, it probably does allow for an innate feeling of "superior blackness" where the person faking being black honestly does feel they are entitled to their feelings of blackness--and entitled to act as a standard bearer for minority rights--something many white activists feel they ought to be able to do--but without the drawback of being called out when they eventually overstep.

In other words, for a white ally, pretending to be black is the ultimate sweet-spot. Being in the sweet-spot / comfort zone is, in and of itself, a recipe for success.

NOTE: In case it isn't clear, both Dolezal and King's 'prominence' in black activism (and relative success) does not outshine the actual black activists. There are far more influential people in black organizations who did not have two parents who identified as white. What King and Dolezal's "Avatar-like superiority" is in relation to is the average black activist (or black person with some association to activism, let's say). Our survey sample is tiny--but it appears that people who questionably identify as black are highly motivated and, thus far, reasonably skilled in activism. This is probably not coincidental. The zeal of the converted is a real thing, after all--even if the conversion is surreptitious and unacknowledged.

Dolezal, King, and Jenner

This being a political blog, The Omnivore would be remiss to note that where people lined up on various "trans issues" pretty much fell directly into partisan political groups:
  • Jenner was loved by the left, decried by the right.
  • Dolezal was accepted by the right (as backlash against Jenner) and opposed by the left (for appropriating blackness by a person of privilege)
  • King, doing the same thing as Dolezal, is hated by the right--and kind of more accepted (at least for the time being) by the left--perhaps because of the 'important work' he was doing with #BLM.
It turns out not all identity politics are created equal!


While The Omnivore has sympathy for both Dolezal and King on a personal level--being humiliated is incredibly painful--there's little doubt that what they are doing is damaging to the movement. #BlackLivesMatter does not need to be associated with provable lies (of any sort). 

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