Some White People Will Never ‘Get It’

The limit on how deeply we "feel" each other is why so many conversations about race fail. But so what?

Scenes from Imitation of Life, 1959; The Help, 2011
Scenes from Imitation of Life, 1959; The Help, 2011

I found one response to a piece on The Help that I wrote last week quite interesting. It was from a white man, a film-critic sort, somewhere past 50, who was annoyed at my asking why people are dismissing The Help as if it were a remake of Imitation of Life. Get this: What bothers him is that he thinks I’m dissing the film. And this puts me in mind of the eternity of racism, of all things — and how it applies to the president.

My point was intended to apply to either of the 1934 and 1959 Imitation of Life films. In both, a black woman raises a very light-skinned daughter while living in a white businesswoman’s house. Her daughter, rejecting that her being black will bar her from the glamorous life that the white woman’s daughter is enjoying, decides to “pass” for white, abandoning her mother to heartbreak and death.

Mr. Film Critic actually thinks that the 1959 one, in particular, is racially enlightened! He genuinely doesn’t perceive that if the film were remade today, the black daughter’s rejection of her race and black culture — i.e. contemptuously rejecting the idea of marrying the black men available to her because of their working-class occupations — would play as nauseating to modern black viewers.

Instead, my critic thinks that the film’s depiction of racism as unfair gives it, alone, the stamp of approval as a black-positive movie. That is, despite having grown up in post-civil rights America and not remotely being a bigot, he cannot be said to “get it.”

That there has been a seismic shift since 1959 in how black Americans feel about integration, black pride, classism and more has gone past him. He is not black and doesn’t happen to be one of the nonblack people with a personal interest in black matters.

Here’s the kicker: This guy is typical. As many of us know, quite a few white people do not “get it.” Maybe most of them don’t. It’s why we think of race as a “complex” topic, of the sort where blacks are to speak and whites are largely to listen. This is what people really mean by America’s needing to have a conversation about race, for example.

And I, for one, see no reason to think that many nonblack people ever will get it. For example, who can truly imagine a national conversation on race that would be considered a success? The sad fact is that beyond a certain point, there is a limit to how deeply we can “feel” each other, and that includes nonblack people and “the black thing.”

So I assume there will be whites who think that Imitation of Life is tellin’ it like it is. I am unsurprised when a white man suggests that Condoleezza Rice, speaking at an event I attend, might be a good match for me, as if any educated black man and woman constitute a potential couple. He didn’t “get it,” OK — but the evening remained memorable for me in that I enjoyed my lamb and I did get to shake Rice’s hand.

And in the same way, I assume that there is a lot of “not getting it” in how Barack Obama is talked and joked about. Or talked at: Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst was, for example, likely colored to an extent by racial bias. But Wilson himself is probably unaware of it and would likely never be able to admit it.