Movie Friday: A Girl Like Me – unpacking societal racism

On Wednesday I talked a bit about the subconscious realm in which racist ideologies often lie. If we’re careful, we can measure and observe exactly how these thoughts and ideations affect our decision-making. The question then arises as to where these ideas come from in the first place. Do secret cabals of white supremacists slip into our rooms as children and whisper hate-speech in our ears as we sleep (well, maybe that’s the case for some of us, I have no idea). More likely, we notice patterns of behaviour and external stimuli, and our minds forms patterns and ideas about them long before we are able to put them into words.

We have these ideas sitting in our brains, doing work on our minds without our even noticing them. This may be particularly true for black women, as the above video may suggest, simply because we simultaneously have such a negative view of black features and place such a premium on appearance in women. This kind of implicit attitude formation happens to us as children, as we are surrounded by imagines that imply the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of colour. It is only natural that not only would white children think negatively of children of colour, but that children of colour would similarly internalize these attitudes and think poorly of themselves.

Of course these kinds of things are hard to unpack, and as we get older our conscious minds can be taught to recognize these attitudes and reverse them. However, if we are so hell-bent on denying our own racist thoughts in some fit of arch-liberal self-righteousness, we will never learn to check our own assumptions. When the chips are down and we’re under pressure, we will continue to make decisions based on these gut instincts that we learn as children.

It’s not a black/white issue either:

Society gives us narratives about the people around us, and we internalize them without thinking. Evolutionarily, this is a useful trait for ensuring group cohesion – we will tend to reach consensus and can do so instinctively. However, when it comes to trying to break out of the evolutionary mould and design a society that is equitable to all people, we run into serious problems if we rely on these instincts rather than consistent introspection and vigilance. That kind of constant self-monitoring isn’t easy (trust me, I have a propensity to say stupid misogynistic stuff in the service of getting a laugh – deprogramming yourself is hard work), but it’s the only way to overcome biases that might otherwise go completely unnoticed.

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  1. Jesse says

    Holy shit dude, that first video is heart breaking! Especially the scene with the dolls. Have you seen “Good Hair,” the documentary by Chris Rock about black women and their hair? I was rather amazed by how much I didn’t know I didn’t know.

    Not long ago I re-watched the Dave Chappelle show, because it’s hilarious. It was a little uncomfortable this time though, as I was thinking about the subconscious stereotyping that you talked about here. Seems like it’s something Chappelle was conflicted about himself – is it good to make fun of the racial stereotypes in the way his show did in order to raise consciousness? Or does it risk just reinforcing the stereotypes subconsciously? I would be interested in your thoughts.

  2. says

    I did see “Good Hair” – a really revealing look at both the role of beauty in women’s lives and how anti-blackness affects black women doubly so.

    There is a problem with African-American comedy, and I had this discussion with Brian. Black comedy is intended for black audiences, and comes from a black perspective. It doesn’t mean that white people can’t enjoy it, but it does mean that they’re less likely to understand the full community context it springs from. With something as community-contextual as comedy, it’s easy for some of the double-meanings to become glossed over by the cheap laughs. I think “The Niggar Family” is probably the best example of that – when you understand how important the role of the milkman is in that sketch, it becomes something far more meaningful than simply “oh these people have a taboo-sounding name.”

  3. Jesse says

    Well I think that can be a good and enlightening side of it – I feel that I get a lot of insight into a community and a culture that I certainly would not have understood without comedy like Chappelle’s. Not to say that “I totally get what it’s like to be black in America now” or anything like that, but certainly there’s something there that wasn’t there before. I’m just afraid that the good stuff comes with the bad, specifically a subconscious reinforcement of the stereotypes being made fun of. As in the videos you posted, that’s a danger for everyone watching, not just the white people.

  4. says

    Absolutely, and I think the show was intended to give a general audience that kind of insight. However, in-group jokes have a habit of being misinterpreted and taken out of context when exposed to the out-group. It’s a very tricky line to navigate, and there’s always someone that will completely miss the point.

  5. Katalina says

    I wonder if the “spectrum” arrangement of the colors had any impact on the children’s responses. I wish they had mixed them up instead of just putting them in a light to dark order. When the choices of attributes are opposites (nice/mean, good/bad), it is natural to go to opposite ends of the spectrum.

  6. says

    That’s a really interesting question, and it would certainly skew the results if the spectrum question was an issue. I’m not sure if that was it, since the kids were asked why they picked as they did, and the reasons were ‘she looks like me’.

    I don’t think this experiment is sufficient to truly and scientifically answer the question of racial biases, but it does certainly demonstrate that the ideas are there, and that kids notice race. It also shows that patterns of responses are different across racial lines, and that those kids whose parents discuss race are less likely to have prejudicial attitudes.

  7. grassrute says

    The first video was a heart breaking eye opener to my own ignorance. Thanks for opening my eyes Crommunist!

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