By Black Scientist.
So it’s no secret that there is a default of whiteness in normative culture. That is: unless otherwise noted, people are white. I think this default can be challenged in communities that are predominantly of color on an everyday level (telling stories with an anonymous “she”), but when we engage with the popular sphere (movies, tv characters, in other words “visible people” in narratives created by others and passed down to the masses), people are – generally speaking – expected and assumed to be/imagined as white.
So, knowing this, why was I still disappointed in the white-middle-class-ness that tainted the narrative of Michael Moore’s capitalism: A Love Story? Is it because he’s touted as a progressive filmmaker, and to interrogate capitalism without also challenging the normativity of whiteness is to basically suck at understanding the intersections and complexity of oppressions? A shortcoming that results in merely symbolic and short-falling attempts at being subversive. because he knows about other stuff, is he supposed to also know how to make a film that doesn’t indulge in the usual habit of seeing things through a white historical lens?
The problem i had with Moore’s film was that the “we” he constructed often translated into white middle class people. and this wasn’t something I can pretend was glaringly obvious, because it was mostly subtle. noted in the use of “we” and the implication that follows of who “they” were.
For example, there’s a part where he’s talking about “the good old days.” He talks about how women didn’t have to work if they didn’t want to and we see a typical blonde 50s housewife walking around straightening things up (not to be mistook for actually cleaning). I thought to myself: really, Michael? Because last I checked this was only true for a bracket of white, suburban, middle-class, married women. Working class white women and black women were working outside of the home during these good old days and they had been for decades. Then he goes on to talk about how things were just better then (red flag), you know, when there were industrial jobs. We could deal with a little bit of this, he says, as we see a quick flash of black folks being hosed and/or attacked by police dogs (I can’t remember which), and a little bit of that. Again: really, though?
When I brought this part of the doc up to a friend, I was reminded that it was supposed to be “facetious.” and I mean, I’m sure Moore isn’t trying to say that the huge problems of racism, systematic violence, etc. are small worries. But even the fact that these issues, which were (and are) an inescapable everyday reality for a lot of people, could be compressed into a sarcastic flash on the screen, says something about who is telling the story, and for whom.
The fact is — all wasn’t peachy-keen for most of us. to create the impression that life was good when Dick worked while and Jane shopped for dresses is to basically reiterate a dominant, class-, race-, and location-based narrative that delusionally relegates a lot of people to the fringes. History didn’t look like that. Period.
I’ve noticed a similar issue in children’s books, especially with this whole organizing elementary school libraries thing I’ve been doing which I mentioned before. It’s easy to assume and even assign ignorant/privileged positionality within a paradigm that is obviously influenced by race (i.e. living in 19th century America). For example, author Ann McGovern has a whole series of books that depend on the default of whiteness in articulating a historical “we”. She has books like …If You Lived in Colonial Times, with questions on the back like “What kind of clothes would you wear?” “Would you go to school?” “What would you do on Sunday?” and “What would happen if you didn’t behave?”. A few of her other books are If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln, If You Lived 100 Years Ago, and If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620. The gist of all of them is like…you would’ve dressed funny and had to use your hands sometimes. By golly, the olden days.
I’m looking at these books like, actually, if I lived in colonial times, I wouldn’t be eating mutton and porridge at a table on a terrace with my white mother and father. More likely, I’d be the other person in this picture — that person of color whose narrative has no place in a book like this directed at the general public — placing the chicken on the table. Iffff i was even so lucky.
The default of whiteness is not only untrue to most people’s realities and obviously problematic on the basis that white (in)visibility necessitates erasing all other persons, but it’s also, frankly, not entertaining. if, as a creator of sorts, you claim to tell “our” history, then do us a favor and tell what really happened. or, make up something completely fantastical that doesn’t depend on an already played-out assumption about who the audience will automatically identify with, and ultimately, create a new narrative.